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Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life W.W. Norton, New York, 2013. 512pp., £25 hb Reviewed by David McLellan   David ...

Archive for August, 2015

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

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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.

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Review
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).
http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2015/1979

The Actuality of Communism-Bruno Bosteels

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

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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.

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Review
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.
http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2015/1997

Maoist ‘Revolutionary Violence’ in India-Bernard D’Mello

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on Maoist ‘Revolutionary Violence’ in India-Bernard D’Mello

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Red and Green: Five Decades of the Indian Maoist Movement by Manoranjan Mohanty, Kolkata: Setu Prakashani, 2015; pp xviii + 512, Rs 950.
May 2017 will mark 50 years of the Maoist movement in India. The Naxalbari rebellion, in full bloom in May 1967, collapsed in the face of full-scale, armed police action that began on 12 July of that year. The setback notwithstanding, Charu Mazumdar (CM), the leader of the young activists who spearheaded the movement—Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal, Khokan Majumdar, and two others—and who subsequently became the General Secretary of the new party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)—CPI(ML), that was formed on 22 April 1969, said in the autumn of 1967: “…hundreds of Naxalbaris are smouldering in India…Naxalbari has not died and will never die” (Banerjee 2008: 112).

As we approach the 50th year of the Maoist movement in India, CM’s statement seems almost prescient; certainly, he was not daydreaming. In late 1967–early 1968, an ongoing struggle in Srikakulam led by two schoolteachers, Vempatapu Satyanarayana, popularly known as “Gappa Guru” and Adibhatla Kailasham, and organised by the Ryotanga Sangrama Samiti with guerrilla squads in self-defence, mobilised “almost the entire tribal population in the Srikakulam Agency Area” (p 80). And Warangal, Khammam, Mushahari, Bhojpur, Debra–Gopiballavpur, Kanksa–Budbud, Ganjam–Koraput, Lakhimpur–Kheri and other “prairie fires” soon followed. The origins of the CPI (Maoist), now reckoned by the political establishment as India’s “biggest internal security threat,” must be traced to some of the above-mentioned struggles.

The title of the book under review, Red and Green, according to its author, Manoranjan Mohanty, a well-known China studies scholar and democratic-rights activist, is meant to symbolise the “nature of the contemporary agrarian revolution”—the “theory of people’s democratic revolution has assumed many creative dimensions” bringing issues of equality and justice together with those of ecological sustainability (p xviii). Be that as it may, the book deals with the following questions: (i) How may one assess the track record of Maoist “revolutionary violence” in India since 1967? (ii) Despite the failure (in Maoist practice) to abide by the norms of revolutionary violence, why does “the appeal of revolutionary violence persist in contemporary India” (p ii)? A clue to (ii) is in the Prologue itself: Many struggles over land in India, like the recent one in Narayanpatna in Odisha, “started as peaceful campaigns to secure restoration of tribal land under law, but…after they were suppressed by (the) paramilitary operations (of) the state, the activists joined the Maoist movement” (p vi).

The first title of the book, Red and Green, is a bit misleading, for it expresses merely a wish—despite articulating the question of jal, jungal, zameen, the Maoists have not, as yet, reformulated the theory of “people’s democratic revolution” or “new democracy” in keeping with the norms of 21st century socialism. If there is an appropriate title, it should be that of the author’s 1977 book, Revolutionary Violence: A Study of the Maoist Movement in India, which has been reproduced to constitute Part I of Red and Green. Mohanty’s 1977 book was an analytical advance of sorts, for it explored the interconnections among and between strategy and tactics, “environment,” “ideology” and organisation in its study of the Maoist movement during its first decade. As Mohanty puts it (p 47):

According to our proposition, the interaction between ideology and strategy is constrained by the environment. The interaction between environment and strategy is constrained by ideology. The organisation tries to balance the conflicting considerations while formulating strategy.
He goes on to say that reliance on ideology alone would result in a strategy that is informed by dogma, whereas shaping strategy merely in accordance with environmental pressures would no doubt infuse it with pragmatism, but it would then inevitably be pervaded by opportunism. I, of course, do not know the exact sense in which Mohanty refers to “ideology;” for me, in the Maoist sense, ideology is a mindset which shapes the way one formulates issues and weighs alternatives. And so, if this mindset is sound, informed by a non-dogmatic Maoism, and one correctly assesses the environmental pressures, one can identify the most appropriate strategic option and then shape one’s organisation to suit that choice.

The First Decade

In Mohanty’s 1977 assessment, the Naxalite (alternatively, Maoist; the terms have been used interchangeably) movement had a “pre-organisational character”—being dispersed in different parts of the country, the movement was without an “organised structure with a chain of authority from the Polit Bureau to the Central Committee to the units” (p 397). Mass struggles in the movement areas were not connected to one another or to the central organisational core of the party—in other words, the “network of organisation” was either tenuous or missing (p 277). And, the difficulty of maintaining even a tenuous chain of authority got compounded by severe state repression, which forced the party to remain underground, and the internal factional disputes made matters worse. Moreover, the leadership mechanically applied the “formulations of the Chinese Revolution to the contemporary Indian conditions” (p 401), which the author calls “ideological parallelism.” Revolutionary strategy was largely derived from Maoist ideology (and the strategic formulations of the Chinese Revolution) and only weakly from actual environmental pressures. The leadership thought that what had worked well in China would work best in India.

In my view, with the benefit of hindsight, besides “ideological parallelism,” the dynamic fit between strategy and organisation, and between strategy and the “environment” were not carefully considered. How much and what kind of appropriate combination of decentralisation and centralised coordination would definitely have been an important consideration for the underground party facing fierce state repression. And, notwithstanding what the Maoists claimed, India, even then, was semi-feudal and capitalist, with the latter forging ahead.

Merely reproducing the 1977 book as Part I of Red and Green without even relooking at it in the light of some of the other important books that also covered the first decade of the movement leaves me a bit disappointed. For instance, how does the author relate to Sumanta Banerjee’s In the Wake of Naxalbari (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1980), in my view, one of the most moving and authentic accounts of Naxalbari and what happened in its aftermath? Banerjee’s (then) controversial “defence” of CM’s political line, including CM’s “annihilation of class enemies” tactic that was practised in Srikakulam, as well as his critique of CM’s political behaviour, as also of CM’s detractors, the party’s utter disregard of the dire need to bring the worker–peasant alliance into being, its neglect of military requirements, these are matters that still merit radical scholarly treatment.

Another interesting book, perhaps more relevant today than when it appeared in 1987, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement by Edward Duyker, dealt specifically with the role of tribals in the Naxalite movement, showing that even earlier on, the Naxalites were quite adept at linking the question of Santal liberation with their movement, incorporating Santal legend and symbolic language to make the point, as well as learning and adopting Santal guerrilla tactics in the course of the insurgency.

There is also Mohan Ram’s Maoism in India (1971) that is particularly critical of the annihilation-of-class-enemies tactic, which, according to him, was not Maoist in origin, and was responsible for the major reverses in the armed struggles in Srikakulam and elsewhere. And, of course, there is Biplab Dasgupta’s The Naxalite Movement (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1974), which gives the CPI (Marxist)’s view of the Naxalites, thinking that armed struggle would not survive after the death of CM in July 1972 and thus treating, in his words, “the Naxalite movement as a thing of the past”! I am also reminded of the Samar Sen, Debabrata Panda and Ashish Lahiri edited Naxalbari and After: A ‘Frontier’ Anthology, Volumes I and II (Calcutta: Kathashilpa 1979). But, most important is the collective critical review of Srikakulam conducted by Kondapalli Seetharamaiah—one of the main followers of CM in Telangana and later the founder general secretary of the CPI(ML) (People’s War), hereinafter, CPI(ML) (PW), the main precursor of the CPI(Maoist)—and his close comrades in Andhra Pradesh, which culminated in the formulation of a fresh tactical line, whose first seeds began to sprout in the peasant movement in Karimnagar and Adilabad Districts of Andhra Pradesh (now a part of Telangana) after the Emergency was lifted.

The Next Two Decades

Young men and women of the 1968 generation joining the movement were invariably given three short pieces to read: Mao’s “Serve the People,” “In Memory of Norman Bethume” and “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains.” From the latter, “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory” conveys the notion that courage and determination in the face of adverse circumstances are the most essential attributes of a revolutionary. From “Serve the People,” there is this guidance: “If, in the interests of the people, we persist in doing what is right and correct what is wrong, our ranks will surely thrive.” And, from “In Memory of Norman Bethume,” there is this ideal:

A man’s [woman’s] ability may be great or small, but if he [she] has this spirit (Bethume’s ‘selflessness’), he [she] is already noble-minded and pure, a man [women] of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man [woman] who is of value to the people.
For a significant number of those guided by Mao’s thought among the 40,000 in jail or in police custody in 1973, despite the adversity, those feelings of optimism and resolve, the stuff of “revolutionary romanticism,” had not been snuffed out. With a new lease of life following the release of political prisoners in the brief interregnum after the Emergency, the revolutionaries in the making were back to the countryside. And, of course, there were those who came on board in 1973 and 1974, and during the Emergency that followed—Sircilla and Jagtial taluks in Karimnagar District of Andhra Pradesh (now in Telangana) were among the new flash points soon after the Emergency, if one is thinking of Mupalla Laxman Rao or Mallojula Koteswara Rao.

The Naxalite movement in the post-Emergency period is covered in Part II, but not in the structured, methodical and organised manner in which the author treated the subject in the first decade of its existence. Here, in Part II, one is presented with a set of articles and speeches that the author penned or delivered at various points in time. Unfortunately, the publisher mostly does not even follow the etiquette of informing the reader of the dates of publication, for instance, “Challenges of Revolutionary Violence: The Naxalite Movement in Perspective” first appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly in its issue of 22 July 2006. Also, one fails to understand the logic of the order in which the articles are placed as chapters in Part II of the book.

Anyway, to structure the subject matter, over the post-Emergency period up to 1997, the movement evolved into three separate currents. The first current was represented by the CPI(ML) (Liberation), led by Vinod Mishra, and the CPI(ML) (Janashakti), following in the footsteps of C P Reddy after his death, both of which sought to combine an “underground party organisation with electoral politics” (p 399). The second current, represented by the CPI(ML) (PW), “stood by Charu Mazumdar’s line of annihilation of class enemies and organised tribals and peasants in (the) Telangana Districts” (p 399). The third current was composed of those who still “regarded the AICCR (All-India Committee of Communist Revolutionaries) of 1968 as the framework for bringing about unity of revolutionaries” (p 399), and in this the author includes some small ML groups. He writes that CPI(ML) (Liberation) and CPI(ML) (PW) “have overcome their pre-organisational character” (p 400) and even notices “glimpses of creative formulations” (p 401), but concludes that “on the whole revolutionary creativity in India has not touched the day-to-day existence of common people” (p 414).

I am afraid I cannot agree with some of these propositions. That the CPI(ML) (PW) stood by CM’s annihilation line is a half-truth—the truth is that the CPI(ML) (PW) considered “annihilation of class enemies” as only one form of struggle, one tactic among many others. Indeed, the Central Organising Committee (formed after the breakup of the original CPI(ML)), of which Kondapalli Sitharamaiah was a part, also sought to learn from CM’s “People’s Interest Is the Party’s Interest” (May 1972)—reflective of a significant rethinking by CM—as well as the late-1970 critiques of Sushital Roy Chowdhary, who was editor of the CPI (ML)’s English-language monthly, Liberation. And, the document “Road to Liberation,” which was the guiding light of the CPI(ML) (PW), put the practice of the “mass line” at the centre of the party’s politics.

Also, I cannot agree with the author’s 1997 conclusion that “revolutionary creativity” has not touched the lives of common people. Is then evidence to the contrary in the Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar that the CPI(ML) (Liberation) brought out in August 1986 to be discounted? One might say I am being partisan; then, is the relevant evidence that the social anthropologist Bela Bhatia (2005) presented on “people’s perceptions” of the movement in Central Bihar, their reasons for joining the movement, the various struggles for economic, social and political rights, all based on extensive fieldwork in the latter half of the 1990s, also to be taken with a pinch of salt?

The above relates to Bihar; did the movement touch the lives of the common people in north Telangana, one might also ask? One has only to point to the occupation of forestland, the increase in wages of the tendu leaf pickers, diminution in the incidence of atrocities perpetrated by the landlords, and so on. When the Naxalites organised the rural poor to grab and occupy the surplus and benami lands of the landlords and in many cases got lawyers and revenue officials to register the occupied lands, did this not touch the lives of the rural poor? And, what about the “people’s courts” and their handing out of “plebeian justice,” despite the mistakes and the excesses? Listen to the civil-rights activist K Balagopal (1990: 1885) who, while acknowledging the excesses, has this to say about the people’s courts: “(T)here have been a large number of cases where disputes have been resolved and justice rendered in a fair and humane way.”

The Fourth and Fifth Decades

In fact, when the author comes to the fourth and fifth decades of the movement, he reverses his earlier opinion and acknowledges that

[T]he Maoists have been far more involved in the big mass movement issues of land, forest rights and basic civil liberties of tribal people and peasants rather than the traditional programmes of armed struggle against class enemies such as landlords in specific areas. …(T)he onslaught of capitalist globalisation which was materially felt by people in the course of the massive initiatives of the corporate and the state to exploit mining and forest resources created a new situation. This caused extensive displacement and loss of livelihood accompanied by intensive militaristic measures by the security forces to facilitate this process (p 284).
During the late 1990s and subsequently the CPI(ML) (Peoples War) made significant advances in organisation …In 2004, when the formation of CPI (Maoist) was announced…, they had evolved into an organised movement (pp 287–88).
(Besides, through the civil liberties organisations) the Constitution of India, especially, the Preamble, the chapters on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy and some important laws and judicial decisions became the ‘weapon of the oppressed’ (p 289).
In Mohanty’s view, the challenges before the Maoists as they “complete five decades of revolutionary experience” are “rearticulating the theory of people’s democratic revolution” and in pursuing their strategy in the midst of “India’s parliamentary democracy” (p ix). The “pressure of the people’s movements”—Maoist and non-Maoist—“has seriously influenced the political system that has enacted …(much positive legislation) to provide social and economic rights.” The challenge before the Maoists is then to prove that their commitment to democracy is superior in form and content to the institutions of “bourgeois” democracy.

‘Revolutionary Violence?’

The author rightly critiques the Maoists for not abiding by the norms of revolutionary violence. “No instance of inhuman torture, such as cutting human limbs, summary trials and executions, shooting of persons alleging them (sic) of being informers can pass as permissible action” under the rubric of revolutionary violence. “It certainly does not justify causing civilian casualties that create human suffering in the name of excesses or collateral damages or mistaken steps by local cadres” (p viii).

In my view, any deep comprehension of the political violence of the oppressed must take account of their intense emotional need to avenge deeply felt wrongs and humiliations in a society like ours, which is saturated with exploitation, oppression, domination and inequality. I am not at all surprised that in such a society there are a lot of oppressed persons ready to sacrifice their lives to avenge themselves and/or their fellow victims—seek plebeian justice. In fact, if you ask me, I think the Maoists have done a lot in trying to change the conditions that make such outrages inevitable. But I think that assassinations and the taking of hostages or even so-called revolutionary terrorist acts in isolation from the people, as a means of political struggle, are harmful to the cause of the Maoist movement. Revolutionary violence, in the Marxist lexicon, is violence which aims to destroy the established violence. The cause of “human emancipation”—creating the conditions conducive to bringing about a socialist sensitivity, a socialist consciousness—has to be advanced in the course of making the revolution, and so forms of violence, cruelty and brutality, in particular, which negate the very end of revolution must never be allowed to be a part of the means.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book because, one, the author is certainly not one of those scholars claiming that he sat on the fence and observed both sides dispassionately; two, warts and all, Mohanty does combine partisanship and scrupulously temperate observation; and three, the book is enlightened by a civil liberties and democratic rights perspective.

References

Balagopal, K (1990): “The End of Spring?,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 25, No 34, pp 1883–88.

Banerjee, Sumanta (2008): In the Wake of Naxalbari, Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, first published, 1980, Calcutta: Subarnarekha.

Bhatia, Bela (2005): “The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar,” Economic & Political Weekly, 9 April, pp 1536–49.
http://www.epw.in/book-reviews/maoist-revolutionary-violence-india.html

Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages-Graham Mustin

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages-Graham Mustin

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In International Socialism 141 Roland Boer gives a fascinating account of how Luther Blissett’s novel Q is “a stunning reclamation of the revolutionary Christian tradition for a whole generation of anti-capitalist activists”.1 The novel concerns the period of the radical Reformation and Boer situates this within the Marxist tradition before discussing the book itself. In this article I would like to look at the revolutionary Christian tradition before the Reformation, during the Middle Ages. I believe that this period has, with the exception of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, been under-represented in discussions among Marxists about the history of revolution and rebellion. My aim in this article is to extend the discussion of the role of religion in pre-capitalist revolutionary movements to the medieval period by briefly examining some of the more significant revolts. I will attempt to address the role that religion played within the economic and social context that created the conditions for rebellion against the established authorities.

The Marxist tradition: Engels and Kautsky

Marxist attempts to analyse revolutionary Christian movements begin with Frederick Engels. In his very influential The Peasant War in Germany he covers many of the same events that are central to Q.2 Another work that demonstrates Engels’s interest in the history of religion is On the History of Early Christianity, described by Boer as “much sharper” than The Peasant War, in which he discusses in detail the biblical book known as the Revelation of St John or the Book of Revelation. He argues that Christianity was a movement of the oppressed and makes direct comparisons with the socialist movement of his time. Referring to the risings of “oppressed peasants and town plebians” in the Middle Ages, he claims that they were “bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration”.3

As Roland Boer points out Engels does not argue that theology itself could be revolutionary or that religious ideas can provide a genuine expression of revolutionary social and economic aspirations. Instead he states that “in the popular risings of the Christian West…the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated”.4 This approach is one that other Marxists have adopted but is, I believe, an over-simplification of the complex inter-relationship between religious beliefs and social and economic revolt. While it is vital for Marxists to focus on the economic context in which religious movements occur, this approach underestimates the extent to which those who revolted against the social and economic order justified their revolt, and expressed their hopes for a more egalitarian society, through genuinely held, often millenarian, religious convictions. At a point in history in which religious belief was ubiquitous it would be surprising if those involved in popular movements of revolt did not justify their rebellion, to themselves and others, in religious terms. Their understanding of religion provided an ideological framework through which they perceived the social and economic situation in which they found themselves. Religion, in particular the apocalyptic prophesies in the Book of Revelation, also gave them hope in their conflict with the superior military forces they faced. Only a genuine belief in the intervention of God on their side could have encouraged such large numbers of the poor to risk revolt.

A more developed understanding of the role of religion in medieval communist movements can be found in the work of Karl Kautsky. Despite the justified criticisms that have been made of his role in the Second International and after, his work on religion is still useful. His Foundations of Christianity is a well-known and important work. However, for those studying pre-capitalist revolutionary movements Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation is of particular interest. In this work Kautsky analyses the antagonism between rich and poor in the Middle Ages. He identifies how the doctrine of voluntary poverty could be attractive to those who lived in poverty through no choice of their own. “Thus the primitive Christian doctrine…now fell on fertile soil; the doctrine that poverty is no crime, but rather a providential, God-given condition… Unveiled misery met the observer everywhere, in glaring contrast with wanton and excessive luxury”.5

Kautsky goes on to analyse communism in the Taborite movement, emphasising how religious radicalism justified social revolution: “All princes, nobles and knights were to be uprooted as weeds and utterly exterminated. Imposts, taxes and payments were to cease and all laws of princes, nations, towns, and peasants be abrogated as inventions of men and not of God”.6 Kautsky takes these religious revolutionaries much more seriously on their own terms than Engels does, as he does Thomas Müntzer, the German radical theologian and leader of the peasant revolt, and the Anabaptists. This acceptance that theological beliefs could motivate revolutionary movements is an important advance that Marxists studying medieval religious revolts can build on when studying popular movements of rebellion and revolt. In the process Kautsky points out some of the differences in the potential for revolution in the medieval period and under capitalism. In the medieval period religious belief was not only shared among all members of society but could inspire revolt against the powerful forces of the kings, emperors and bishops. In many cases it was only the hope of divine intervention, prophesied in the bible and preached by their leaders, that gave those who rose in rebellion a belief in the possibility of final victory.

Millenarianism and medieval revolt

Engels’s interest in the Book of Revelation is justified by the influence of this prophetic work on revolutionary movements including those in the Middle Ages. Norman Cohn’s book The Pursuit of the Millennium was the most influential historical work to draw attention to the importance of millennarian movements. He argued that it was vital to study what he described as “that subterranean revolutionary eschatology” that threatened the order of medieval society.7 Cohn focuses on the way that belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, who the Book of Revelation prophesied would defeat the Antichrist and rule on earth for 1,000 years in the period known as the Millennium, animated groups who were prepared to confront the existing spiritual and political powers. Cohn’s work is ­valuable in examining the range of such movements and the extent to which they threatened the established order. However, he did so from an explicitly anti-Marxist position that questioned the extent to which these revolts could be explained in terms of class struggle. Marxists need to build on the work of scholars such as Cohn who have taken these religious revolts seriously, and attempted to understand how genuinely held religious ideas motivated their participants, while situating them in the context of the economic crisis of feudalism and the class conflict that resulted.

What millenarian ideas did was to hold out the possibility of success to groups composed of the poor and disadvantaged who were taking on the powerful and well-armed forces of the medieval ruling class. Apocalyptic religious ideas gave rebels a belief that God would intervene to help them and punish their enemies who could be identified as the enemies of God by their wealth, luxury and oppression. Poor peasants needed to believe in divine intervention to be prepared to take on these forces. And again and again we see the rise of religious leaders who gave them this belief through radical preaching, often predicting the coming apocalypse. As Norah Carlin argues in her article “Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution” in this journal, in the Middle Ages “the material conditions for a socialist society were altogether absent and there was no revolutionary theory save the millenarian fantasies of some popular heretics”.8

Joachim of Fiore and the medieval prophetic tradition

The most influential figure in medieval apocalyptic prophecy was Joachim of Fiore. His influence spread very widely in the medieval period and can be seen as an important factor in popularising the analysis of the Book of Revelation and making it directly relevant to the present age. Joachim was born in Calabria in the 1130s and was working as an official in the court of the King of Sicily when he had a spiritual conversion. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he returned to Calabria and lived as a hermit before becoming a Cistercian monk. He writes that he was attempting to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation and was about to give up when on Easter morning he woke with a “spiritual understanding” of the meaning of the book. This was his idea of the three ages of history that he identified with the Christian idea of the trinity. The first age was the time of God the Father and the Old Testament, and the second age that of the Son, the New Testament. Joachim prophesied the imminent coming of a third age, that of the Holy Spirit. After the apocalypse, which he expected to happen in his own time, there would be a utopian age in which there would be an end to all class divisions.9 Joachim developed a far reaching reputation during his lifetime and was known as an adviser to popes and kings. His ideas spread widely and in the process popularised the idea of an imminent apocalypse that would overturn all existing authorities.

Joachim did not preach that believers should take action to bring about the coming millennium of perfect peace in a utopian, classless society. He did not tell his followers to take arms against the Antichrist and the forces of evil. Instead he believed that the good should suffer patiently and that God would defeat the Antichrist and usher in the new age. However, in the context of the Middle Ages, and in particular of the crisis of feudalism in the later period, the message of the persecuted suffering in silence and waiting for God to intervene could easily get lost. Those who wanted a more active form of millenarianism in which they took arms against their oppressors used the ideas popularised by Joachim but gave them a ­revolutionary interpretation.

One example of where these ideas could lead was the group known as the Fraticelli. They were Franciscans who broke with the Catholic Church over the doctrine of poverty, criticising the wealth of the church and the papacy in particular. Their letters clearly show how they used Joachite ideas to reach radical conclusions. If the church rejected their preaching and refused to accept them as the leaders of the new age then it could not be the true church. The pope, John XXII, who denied the poverty of Christ, was a heretic and to obey him was wrong. Some even identified him with the Antichrist. Among those who found these ideas attractive were the Ciompi, Florence cloth workers who were wage earners and excluded from the guild system and who referred to themselves as the “Popolo di Dio” (People of God).10 In 1378 they played a prominent part in a revolutionary uprising that burned down the palaces of some of the ruling elite and set up an alternative government.11 Thus, ideas of the coming of a classless utopia could lead to rejection of the existing religious and political authorities and, in a situation of social unrest, support for revolt against those authorities.

The shepherds’ crusade 1251

Popular involvement in crusading was one example of mass enthusiasm for a religious movement leading to a challenge to existing ideas of hierarchy and order. The crusading movement that had started with the ­extraordinary success of the First Crusade (1096-99) in winning territory in Syria and Palestine, was by the 13th century in a process of decline. The failure of crusades led by kings and nobles led to the rise of popular preachers who challenged the right of the rich and powerful to lead holy war against the infidel. The claim that God was now turning to the poor and dispossessed and that they would be given victory against his enemies because of their poverty became common. Although the aim of these preachers was to reclaim the Holy Land the movements that sprung up could lead their followers to confront the established authorities, particularly if these were seen to be opposed to them. In the context of the economic pressure caused by the rise in population and increasing rural discontent they could easily turn on the lords and the clerical authorities.

One of the best examples of this is the so called shepherds’ crusade of 1251. This started as a popular movement led by a charismatic leader, known as the “Master of Hungary”, who claimed to have been instructed by the Virgin Mary to lead the shepherds of France to rescue the French king Louis IX who had been captured while on crusade. According to the English chronicler Matthew Paris he preached that the Holy Land would not be delivered by the proud knights but by humble herdsmen. A large group of the peasantry and rural lower classes formed, reported as numbering 60,000 and including thieves, exiles, fugitives and other outcasts. It quickly became an anti-clerical movement with the orders of the church being denounced for their greed and wealth.

Matthew Paris, himself a Benedictine monk from the abbey of St Albans, reported them attacking the Cistercians as greedy amassers of flocks and land, the Benedictines for their pride and the bishops and their officials for their pursuit of money. He then reports, to his horror, that they were welcomed by the inhabitants of Paris who clearly shared these sentiments. They expelled the archbishop from Rouen, threw priests into the Seine and attacked monasteries in Tours, as well as attacking the Jews before the authorities managed to get together a large enough armed force to suppress them successfully.

The extent to which they were a socially radical movement is far from clear but they were a mass movement, mainly of the peasantry, who attacked the clergy as a pillar of the existing social order. It demonstrates that a popular movement inspired by religion could come to articulate and express in action the discontent felt by the mainly rural lower classes with the unfairness of the world they lived in and the hypocrisy of the church.12

The Peasants’ Revolt

The rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 is an example of a peasant social movement that received its ideological leadership from the lower clergy. At least 20 clerics played a prominent enough role in the leadership of the rising to be mentioned in chronicles and official records. The participation of so many members of the clergy can be partly put down to the numbers of exploited, unbeneficed clergy who scraped by substituting for wealthy absentee rectors and saying masses for the dead as chantry priests. Juliet Barker points out that stipendiary priests and chaplains who had no benefice of their own were only paid a small wage but had ­suffered years of high taxation.13

One of the most significant leaders was John Wrawe, a chaplain who played a major part in bringing the county of Suffolk into the rebellion. According to his own confession he attended a meeting of rebels from Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk at the village of Liston before assembling supporters and leading the attack on the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in England.14 He was clearly a leader whose authority was respected by the rebels. Letters sent by Martin Mannyng instructing the return of a freehold to him were sent “ex parte Johannis Wraw” suggesting that his authority was sufficient to ensure compliance. When John Ikesworth broke into the rectory at Wickmere, Norfolk, taking goods valued at ten pounds, he did so “by the command and warrant of John Wrawe”.15

It is significant that in both of these cases the leaders and their victims were members of the church. The wealthy abbeys were often the most oppressive landowners and the revolt gave peasants and townspeople a chance to settle old scores. The higher clergy also played a prominent role in government. The two most famous victims of the revolt were both clergymen as well as privy councillors, Simon Sudbury the chancellor and Robert Hales the treasurer. It is relevant, however, that the literate lower clergy often provided the leadership and would have given the revolt its ideological justification.

The best known clerical leader is, of course, John Ball. Ironically there is much less evidence to link him to the major events of the revolt than others such as Wrawe. The text of the sermon he is alleged to have preached to the rebels at Blackheath, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”, is a common statement of the lack of divine support for inequality on Earth that could be found in various forms throughout Europe at this time and the speech itself was very likely invented by the monastic chronicler.16 Although there are differences among the sources as to how important he was as an organiser, Ball is particularly significant because we have, as well as reports of his preaching from hostile chroniclers, a collection of letters containing political verses attributed to him which give us a unique opportunity to hear the unmediated voice of the rebels. In one, allegedly found in the tunic of a man about to be hanged, he bids “Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere”:

…Iohan the Mullere hath yground smal, smal, small
The Kynges sone of heavan schal pay for al.
Be war or be wo,
Knoweth your freend from your foo.

Thomas Walsingham, who quotes this in his chronicle, states that John Ball confessed that he had written this letter, and many others, and sent them to the commons.17 The letters give a sense of the way that religious ideas were integrated with anger at social injustice. Personifications of the common people such as “Jakke Carter” and “Jakke Trewmann” exhort the rebels to rise immediately and assure them of support from God “lokke that Hobbe Robbyoure be wel chastised for leyng of youre grace for ye have gret need to take God with yowe in alle youre dedes. For now is tyme to be war”.18 The phrase “now is the time” occurs again and again. There is an ambiguity about the letters, however, and they contain many popular aphorisms familiar from medieval preaching.19

It was the context in which they were sent that gives them a revolutionary meaning. John Ball was writing to communicate the urgency of the situation and using his religious authority to encourage his readers to join the rising. The fact that belief in divine support was such a common feature of these communications emphasises how important this was in encouraging the rebels to contemplate taking the action that they did. His letters and preaching may have encouraged them to go further than demanding the end of the poll tax, or even of serfdom, to question the whole basis of medieval class society. To do this required a belief system that used the common religious ideas of the age but reinterpreted them to condemn the powerful and wealthy and justify the rebellion of the oppressed.

The Hussite Revolution

Of all the heretical movements that challenged the Catholic church it was the Hussites of Bohemia who came closest to breaking the church’s monopoly of religion. Jan Hus was a priest who attacked the corruption of the church and called for the laity to be allowed to drink wine from the chalice at communion—traditionally restricted to the priest. This was known as “communion in both kinds” and became a major demand of the Hussite movement. Hus was condemned for heresy and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415, after having been promised a safe conduct. His followers reacted by rising up and driving the Catholic clergy from much of Bohemia. The Catholic authorities launched five crusades against the Hussites, each of which was driven back, before a peace agreement was reached in 1436.

The Hussite movement quickly divided with the moderate Utraquists, who were prepared to settle for communion in both kinds, ranged against a substantial radical movement. The radicals set up permanent settlements on hilltops in southern Bohemia where they attempted to imitate the communism of the original Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The largest and most important settlement was named Mount Tabor and the radicals came to be known as Taborites.

The vast majority of the radicals came from the lower classes. Some were journeymen, indentured servants, unskilled workers and other marginal groups from Prague but many came from the peasantry. The 15th century in Bohemia saw a concerted attempt by landowners to deprive peasants of traditional rights, which gave them some level of independence, and to reduce them to the level of serfs bound to the soil and subject to increased feudal dues and services. There were also landless labourers and others with little to lose who were ready to support a movement that offered them hope and challenged a social order that promised them only oppression and poverty.20

In this environment there developed a group of former priests, led by Martin Huska, who began to preach an openly millenarian ideology. They announced that the wrath of God would be unleashed on those who did not join the Taborite strongholds. Taxes, rents and feudal dues would then be abolished and private property would cease to exist, ushering in a communist society with no earthly authority where “all shall live together as brothers, none shall be subject to another…the Lord shall reign and the Kingdom shall be handed over to the people of the earth”.21 This classless society would be achieved by massacres of lords, nobles and knights.

The use of religious ideology to justify class war was a response to the potentially revolutionary situation in Bohemia. The Taborite communities were mass movements of those who were increasingly radicalised by the successful armed resistance against the reactionary forces of the Catholic church. In this atmosphere of total war the millenarian preaching of Huska and his allies received a ready audience and helped inspire the extraordinary success of the Taborite armies. They were both social and religious radicals who could only envisage a successful revolution in millenarian terms. Only the intervention of God would allow the poor and dispossessed to sweep away the existing social order. The anarcho-communist utopia that they envisaged was the perfect society of peace and happiness that they saw prophesied in the Bible.22 In the end it was Jan Žižka, the son of a small squire, who led his troops to massacre the radicals in order to assert his military leadership of the Taborite movement.

The drummer of Niklashausen

The events of 1476 in the small German village of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley give another example of a religious movement that articulated ideas of social revolution. Hans Böhm was a shepherd who played the drum and pipes in the market place and inns, hence his nickname of the drummer of Niklashausen. In Lent of that year he burnt his drum in front of the parish church of Niklashausen. He then preached to the people that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him commanding all to repent, discard their unnecessary vanities such as golden necklaces and pointed shoes, and go on pilgrimage to Niklashausen. If enough people did this the virgin would be successful in her intercession with God who otherwise intended to punish mankind for their sins. Large numbers of common people, apparently from all over central and southern Germany, now began to head towards Niklashausen to join Böhm, hear the preaching of the holy youth and participate in the pilgrimage he had announced. The fact that so many peasants were prepared to go to Niklashausen without seeking permission was seen as threatening to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

The social situation in which Hans was preaching was one of increasing class conflict in the German countryside. In the period following the Black Death the decline in the population had strengthened the position of the peasantry against their lords. By the 1460s and 1470s the population had recovered and the lords were once again imposing their authority and implementing new income generating strategies that disadvantaged the peasants. The bitterness that this created led to a series of rebellions culminating in the great rising of 1525. In this context it is not surprising that Böhm’s preaching began to raise social and economic grievances and that his religious revelations gave the oppressed the hope that they could overcome their oppressors with divine aid. He began by criticising the clergy, stating that God was not prepared to tolerate their behaviour any more. The day of reckoning was coming when the clergy would attempt to cover their tonsures to escape retribution. Killing a cleric would be seen as an act that would acquire merit in the eyes of God and there would soon be no priests or monks left. Böhm called on his audience to refuse to pay all taxes and tithes and demanded that priests should give up their benefices and live only on what food people were prepared to donate to them.23

Eventually Hans shared a new revelation that threatened the existing social and economic order. The Virgin Mary had appeared to him and told him to “say to all the people that my son wishes and orders that all tolls, levies, forced labour, exactions, payments and aids required of the prelates, princes and nobles be abolished completely and at once. They shall oppress the poor no more”. He then received a further revelation that the woods and waters of the Earth should be held in common for the use and pleasure of all the faithful in Christ and not just for the rich.24 Everyone should live together as brothers enjoying the same freedom and doing the same work. He also attacked the Emperor and the Pope for their support for the lords. It was this combination of religious revelation of a perfect world on Earth with demands that directly addressed issues of dispute between the peasantry and the landlords that accounts for his success. As Cohn argues:

It was the prestige of the preacher himself, as a miraculous being sent by God, which drew the tens of thousands into the Tauber valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader…a saviour who could bestow on them individually the fullness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.25

The extent of the popular response to Böhm’s preaching clearly frightened the authorities. The fact that the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg sent soldiers to seize the prophet, after he had called on his followers to assemble with arms, shows how seriously he was seen as a threat to the social order. Even then thousands marched to Würzburg to release their leader, only being scattered by canon fire and mounted troops. After he was burnt at the stake every attempt was made to obliterate all trace of him, even demolishing the church at Niklashausen that was the site of pilgrimage.

Conclusion

The brief examples referred to above hopefully give a flavour of some of the ways in which religious enthusiasm could combine with social and economic grievances to create the potential for rebellion and revolt. Even commonly held ideas sanctioned by the Catholic church, such as the religious argument for crusading, could be used to justify attacks on clerical and secular authorities. This became even more powerful when economic crisis and class conflict created the conditions in which apocalyptic preachers could mobilise large numbers of followers. Belief in divine intervention, particularly when linked with millenarian expectations of the imminent apocalypse, could give peasants and the poor the hope that they could overturn the existing social and economic order. This allowed them to move beyond particular economic demands, often based on shared memories of customary practice, to challenge the very existence of classes and ranks within medieval society.

Again and again religious visionaries preached an agrarian communist utopia, often to be achieved by the massacre of the nobility and their clerical supporters. Of course not all rebels went as far as this and not all popular religious movements motivated their followers to confront the powers that be. However, the number of cases in which this did happen is significant. We cannot understand the way that groups of peasants, artisans and the marginalised within medieval society were prepared to confront the heavily armed and well trained troops of the ruling class without taking seriously their religious beliefs. The economic and social context determined what they were fighting for, and who they were fighting against, but it was the interpretation of religious ideas common in medieval Europe that gave them the vision of a classless society and the hope that they could achieve it.

Notes

1: Boer, 2014, p139.

2: Engels, 1927.

3: Engels, 1894, p2.

4: Boer, 2014, pp142-143, Engels, 1894, p2.

5: Kautsky, 1897, p1.

6: Kautsky, 1897, p3.

7: Cohn, 2004, pxv.

8: Carlin, 1978, p43.

9: Reeves, 1999, pp2-6.

10: Reeves, 1999, pp39-41.

11: Carlin, 1978, pp48-49.

12: Hilton, 1990, pp100-102.

13: Barker, 2014, p294.

14: Barker, 2014, pp295-304.

15: Barker, 2014, p306.

16: O’Brien, 2004, p27.

17: Dobson, 1988, p381. Thomas Walsingham was a Benedictine monk from St Albans Abbey who wrote chronicles including the Historia Anglicana< and Chronicon Angliae which give details about the rising. He was a witness to the rebels attack on St Albans Abbey and to the trial of John Ball.

18: Dobson, 1988, p382.

19: Barker, 2014, p433.

20: Cohn, 2004, p215.

21: Cohn, 2004, p215.

22: Kaminsky, 1967, p359.

23: Cohn, 2004, p228.

24: Wunderli, 1992, pp70-71.

25: Cohn, 2004, p229.

References

Barker, Juliet, 2014, England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (Little, Brown).

Boer, Roland, 2014, “‘All Things are in Common’: Theology and Politics in Luther Blissett’s Q”, International Socialism 141 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/all-things-are-in-common-theology-and-politics-in-luther-blissetts-q

Carlin, Norah, 1978, “Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution”, International Socialism 1 (summer), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1978/no2-001/carlin.html

Cohn, Norman, 2004 [1957], The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Pimlico).

Dobson, Richard Barrie, 1988 [1970], The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (Macmillan Press).

Engels, Frederick, 1927 [1850], The Peasant War in Germany (Allen and Unwin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/peasant-war-germany/

Engels, Frederick, 1894, “On the History of Early Christianity”, Die Neue Zeit, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/early-christianity

Hilton, Rodney, 1990, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Verso).

Kaminsky, Howard, 1967, A History of the Hussite Revolution (University of California Press).

Kautsky, Karl, 1897, Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1897/europe

O’Brien, Mark, 2004, When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (New Clarion Press).

Reeves, Marjorie, 1999, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future: A Medieval Study in Historical Thinking (Sutton Publishing).

Wunderli, Richard, 1992, Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen (Indiana University Press).
http://isj.org.uk/religion-and-revolution-in-the-middle-ages/

The “Islamic State” and the counter-revolution-Ghayath Naisse

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on The “Islamic State” and the counter-revolution-Ghayath Naisse

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According to the world’s media outlets and major heads of state, a new threat has been looming over “world peace” since June 2014—the threat of ISIS. ISIS was presented as an imminent danger and, far from being constrained to the Arab world, it threatened the “national security” of Western and Eastern imperialist states, leading the UN Security Council to adopt resolution 2170 on August 15 2014, authorising the use of force against ISIS and the Al Qaeda aligned Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra)—described as terrorist organisations—and sanctions against whoever supports them or assists them in any way. In July 2014 ISIS declared an Islamic Caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria that it controlled. In the following, I will address the structure of ISIS and the conditions that allowed for its sudden expansion in the region particularly in a context of socioeconomic devastation and retreat of the revolution in Syria. I will argue that ISIS displays fascist characteristics of a particular type, and conclude on the implications for Syrian revolutionaries.1

Iraq, a devastated country

Iraq was ruled by the Ba’ath Party from 1968 until 2003, first under Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr before Saddam Hussein took power in a coup in 1979. This regime, at the helm of a country with abundant natural resources—oil in particular—crushed the workers’ and Communist movements inside Iraq, which were some of the largest and most active in the region. It did everything possible brutally to suppress the Kurdish national liberation movement, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Halabja.

Despite clear similarities in savagery and brutality, the Iraqi Ba’ath regime distinguished itself from its rival and sister organisation in Syria by the chauvinistic Arab nationalist rhetoric it used against the Shiite ethnic majority and the Kurdish population. The two ethnic groups formed the main body of the impoverished masses and thus formed the backbone of the workers’ and Communist movements. The Shiites were regularly accused of being Persians—an accusation typical of Arab chauvinism—while the Kurds were accused of being Israeli “agents”.

Iraq has effectively been in a state of war since 1980, more than three decades that have had disastrous effects on its society at every level. The bourgeois dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein waged its first war against Iran in 1980, a conflict that lasted eight years and caused massive destruction inside Iraq. The estimated damage to the country’s infrastructure amounts to between $200 and 350 million.

Two years after the end of the war with Iran, in the context of a Saudi political shift against Hussein’s regime and territorial conflicts with Kuwait, the regime invaded its small neighbour in August 1990. The United States used this aggression as a pretext to reaffirm its hegemony over the region and the world as the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union were in the process of disintegrating. It launched a devastating war against Iraq and destroyed its armies in Kuwait in what became known as the Second Gulf War. This bombing campaign is estimated to have caused a further $232 billion in damage to Iraqi infrastructure. Imperialism then enforced a murderous blockade of the country that lasted until the 2003 invasion—the Third Gulf War—which decimated what was left of Iraq and its society. One and a half million Iraqi soldiers’ and civilians’ lives had been claimed by the First and Second Gulf Wars alone.

The total losses sustained by Iraq as a result of wars since 1980 amount to an estimated $1,193 billion. In other terms, Iraqi oil resources have been pre-sold for the next 85 years. However, US imperialism was defeated and forced to retreat in 2011, after a zealous resistance by Iraqi masses from all political backgrounds. Before its retreat it established a weak and corrupt political regime, divided along sectarian lines. Its policies only exacerbated the catastrophic socioeconomic conditions for most Iraqi people. Large sectors of the population have been politically and socially marginalised for sectarian reasons; what is more, the policies of “de-Ba’athification” of the state have led to hundreds of thousands of state workers as well as the army officers being dismissed from their posts, turning them into enemies of the new US-imposed regime. However, the officers’ hostility to the sectarian regime expressed itself not as a political opposition but as a sectarian reaction, fuelling in turn Nouri al-Maliki’s own sectarian and corrupt policies.2

The founding of ISIS

It is notorious and repeated in most publications that the initial group of what was to become ISIS was the “Unification and Jihad” group founded in 2004 by the Jordanian Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi (real name Ahmad Fadel al-Khalaila) in the aftermath of the US invasion which saw the influx of many jihadis. After it had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the group was renamed “Al Qaeda for Jihad in Mesopotamia”. However, after the assassination of Zarqawi on 7 June 2006 the formation of the “Islamic State of Iraq” was announced on 15 October of the same year. On 19 April 2010 Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Mujaher were appointed as leaders of the organisation before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was nominated as leader, and later proclaimed Caliph.

The “Islamic State of Iraq” was one of the leading organisations on the Iraqi scene, as it had attracted dozens of Ba’athist officers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, particularly after the dissolution of smaller groups in which they were active such as the 1920 Revolution Battalions, the Islamic Army, the Army of Muhammad and the Army of the Naqshabandi Brotherhood; the latter had Ba’athist origins but adhered to Islamist principles to market itself to a Sunni community that found no political expression under the regime created by the American occupation.

These groups distinguished themselves with a religious or sectarian rhetoric that favoured their emergence. But the country’s socioeconomic disarray and the political and sectarian discrimination directed against Sunnis by the sectarian regime have also led to protests against growing inequality. One of the Ba’athist officers credited for his role in the improvement of the organisational, military and intelligence capacities of the Islamic State of Iraq is Colonel Haji Bakr (real name Samir al-Khalifawi). Others include Brigadier Abu Mohannad al-Sweidani, Colonels Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abdurrahim al-Turkmani and Ali Aswad al-Jabouri, Lieutenant-Colonels Abu Omar al-Naimi, Abu Ahmad al-Alwani, Abu Abdurrahman al-Bilawi, Abu Aquil Mosul and Abu Ali al-Anbari. All are part of the ISIS leadership.3

This fusion between Ba’athist officers—bred at the hands of a despotic and dogmatic regime with chauvinistic and nationalist ­credentials—and a Takfiri current4 adopting Al Qaeda’s jihadi stance, against the chaotic backdrop of post-invasion Iraq, has given the Islamic State of Iraq (which became ISIS) a distinctive character setting it apart from traditional jihadi organisations. ISIS aims to establish a state—the Caliphate—in its most ferocious and reactionary form, following a clear military, political and communication strategy, while crushing everything that is democratic and progressive in society.

The structure of ISIS

Early on in the revolution the Syrian regime understood the threat posed to its survival by the peaceful mass protests; it therefore set out to undermine them by painting them as terrorist and Takfirist. During the first year of the revolution the regime’s intelligence services used social media to diffuse video footage of the regime’s own brutal torture and murder of demonstrators, while putting forward the sectarian character of their acts in order to portray the revolution as a Sunni sectarian uprising; this deliberate policy was carried out with cunning cynicism. Towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 the regime also freed hundreds of jihadis that it had detained in previous years after their return from Iraq.

The original nucleus of what became the Nusra Front was already active in the “Islamic State of Iraq” organisation who subsequently sent them to Syria to establish a branch of Al Qaeda. What became known as the Nusra Front quickly gained notoriety and influence in Syria, due to the zeal and discipline of its fighters, as well as the quality and quantity of its military equipment which far surpassed that of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For those reasons, it appealed to many young Syrians who were eager to fight back against the regime. Back then there was no public talk of any project to establish an Islamic State.

In April 2013, after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—then head of the Islamic State in Iraq—ordered the fusion of the Nusra Front with his organisation there was a split in the Nusra Front between those who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and joined what became known as ISIS, and those who aspired to remain as a separate organisation. This split soon turned into an open armed confrontation between the two groups who, in spite of similarities in their reactionary and terrorist ideologies, had nevertheless conflicting material strategies and interests. To paraphrase the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola: “Ideas don’t fall from the sky and nothing comes from dreams.”

Further to understand the divergences between the two parties, it is useful to emphasise the influence of the fusion between Ba’athist nationalists and jihadi Salafists in what became ISIS. When Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri called for the dissolution of ISIS in June 2013 to restore the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq’s distinctive organisations and respective margins of manoeuvre, Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani replied: “If we accepted the decision to dissolve the State (ie ISIS), it would be a recognition of the borders of Sykes-Picot”.5 Indeed, in one of its propaganda campaigns, ISIS widely distributed footage depicting the symbolic destruction of part of the border fence between Iraq and Syria, in early June 2014.

The ISIS blend of “nationalism” and extremist Islamism goes beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, to invoke the far-gone past of a Muslim Empire. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi said on 30 July 2013: “We will renew the era of the Umma [Muslim nation], we shall not rest before freeing the Muslim captives anywhere they may be, we shall retake Jerusalem and Andalusia and we shall conquer Rome”, aiming to flatter nationalist and religious feelings, and present himself as an enemy of the Zionist state and the West, albeit in a very reactionary fashion. In his message he emphasised ISIS’s fondness of combat and violence, even when it came to religious preaching: “Combat is part of preaching too, and we shall drag people to heaven in chains”.6

Adnani, in his August 2013 speech, insisted on the importance of the edification of the Islamic State; he did not oppose other jihadi organisations who have “embraced real Islam in faith and practice”, but demanded their allegiance to the Islamic State before it was even proclaimed. However, he fiercely condemned Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—who Zawahiri had called “my brothers”—describing them as “nothing but a secular party with an Islamic cloak, they are the worst and most repugnant of secularists”.7

We can therefore note that the ideology and the politics of ISIS ­constitute a rupture with a whole series of other Islamist reactionary forces, including jihadi groups like Al Qaeda and its Syrian branch. We have already discussed the material origins of this rupture, which cannot be reduced to contrasting interpretations of religious texts or “sectarianism”, as the analyses of the conflict by liberal opponents would have us believe. Karl Marx wrote in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “We cannot judge a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life”.8 Most of ISIS’s combatants and leaders are not Syrian, distinguishing them from the largely Syrian ranks of the Nusra Front; this can partly explain the latter’s acknowledgement of the specificity of the Syrian situation. What is more, the two organisations compete and fight for material influence and resources such as oil fields and border crossings.

The rapid conquest and occupation of Mosul in Iraq on 10 June 2014, along with neighbouring Yazidi and Kurdish regions, and the hideous ­massacres committed against civilians and soldiers, were the forerunners to the proclamation of the Islamic State and the allegiance to Al-Baghdadi—on 29 June 2014—that the organisation had been openly calling for. This has given ISIS effective control over a large territory in Iraq and Syria, amounting to a third of the surface of both countries.

Extremist Islamist groups have progressively come to dominate armed struggle in the “liberated” areas in Syria, because of the FSA’s weakness of organisation and lack of armaments, after the “Friends of Syria” had broken its promise to arm it.9 Actually, they never intended properly to arm the FSA, but had sent it some light weapons that could only prevent it from being exterminated. At the same time, regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as nebulous pro-jihadi networks in the Gulf region provided the extremist jihadi groups with a quasi-unlimited supply of weapons and finance; this allowed those groups to impose their hegemony over the vast majority of the areas that had fallen out of the regime’s hands, as became evident in 2014.

The growth of ISIS in Syria

It is necessary to put the increasing domination of the ­counter-revolutionary forces—ISIS, the Nusra Front, Ahrar Al-Sham and other reactionary jihadist groups—in the “liberated” areas in the temporal context of spring 2013. It must also be related to the social conditions of the Syrian masses in liberated areas: they had suffered a bloody war waged by the regime’s forces that destroyed the social infrastructure, neighbourhoods, city councils and all the components of civilian and agricultural life. This war was fought against the poorly-armed and under-organised popular forces called the “Free Syrian Army”.

We can consider the suffering of the masses in the liberated areas at the beginning of 2013 as the objective conditions that have partly allowed the growth and progress of extremist jihadist reactionary forces, with ISIS at the helm. A report published in October 2013 by the Syrian Center of Research and Studies entitled “Socioeconomic realities in the light of the Syrian ­revolution” sums up the situation in the liberated areas in March 2013:

In the case of Syria, military operations, bombings, arrests and mass displacements have affected the humanitarian and economic conditions of the Syrian people. In spite of the growing role of civil society, the crisis has led to a deterioration of social relations and a propagation of extremism and fanaticism; it has affected negatively social norms and values, and stirred up vengeful ideas and demeanours. All this has caused tremendous loss of social harmony and solidarity, as well as human resources in the socio-cultural sense, on an irredeemable scale. It has contributed to the growth of violent illicit gains, reinforcing factors of inversed development.10

Naturally, the socioeconomic situation has worsened since then, and it is estimated that 6.7 million Syrians have fallen below the poverty line since the onset of the revolution, meaning that today more than half of Syrians are poor. By spring 2013 more than 2.3 million state and private sector workers had lost their jobs, with national unemployment levels estimated at around 50 percent today.

Workers took part in the demonstrations since the onset of the revolution, but not as part of a workers’ movement, because of the absence of independent trade union or revolutionary political structures; indeed, the ruling clique only tolerates the Ba’ath party or its satellites, like the Bakdash Communist Party11 and its various spin-offs, all characterised by the same opportunistic policies and treachery towards the working class. The Syrian Centre of Research and Studies report indicates that:

More than 85,000 workers were sacked in the first year of the revolution. Half the layoffs concern Damascus and its suburbs. This number does not include the regions of Homs, Hama and Idlib where, according to official figures, 187 private sector companies had closed between 1 January 2011 and 28 February 2012. It is worthy to note that these figures lack credibility, as the number of workshops and factories that were closed is closer to 5,000, excluding markets and trade establishments that were looted and destroyed in Homs, Aleppo or other regions.12

At the beginning of 2013 half a million homes were completely destroyed and as many were damaged, constraining a third of the Syrian population to seek refuge in neighbouring countries or safer regions inside Syria. By 2014, half the Syrian people were considered displaced or refugees. In these conditions of socioeconomic devastation, of social disintegration and human desertification, ISIS and other reactionary jihadi groups were free to grow and impose their hegemony. The other condition for their development was the crushing and marginalisation of the Free Syrian Army as the essential form of popular resistance to the violence and savagery of the Ba’athist regime.

The crushing of the popular democratic movement

The city of Raqqa, which was the first to be liberated from the regime’s forces in March 2013, can be considered a central model to study ISIS’s dealings with the popular movement. Raqqa’s cultural, political and popular movements were flourishing after its liberation before it fell under ISIS’s yoke. Sunday Telegraph reporter Richard Spencer reported from Raqqa on 30 March 2013:

The city of Raqqa is dominated by liberal opposition groups. This city in northern Syria has seen the emergence of numerous philosophical and political discussion circles, and one of the groups was taking part in the planting of trees and green plants to protect the environment, in a greenhouse in the city centre. The intensity and vitality of those activities are nothing short of impressive. Activists have launched various campaigns (“Our streets breathe freedom”, “Our flag”, “Our bread”), an exhibition of handicraft and artistic work whose proceedings went to the families of martyrs, as well as a weekly cleaning campaign of one of the city’s main roads called “Our Raqqa is a paradise”.13

The situation in Raqqa mirrored that of most liberated cities and areas before they were taken over by ISIS. Armed groups, Islamist and otherwise, have of course committed acts of violence, including arbitrary arrests and summary executions, against militants but ISIS has distinguished itself by its brutal and systematic suppression of any form of independent or democratic activism, and its imposition of totalitarian and reactionary social practices on the populations that have fallen under its control.

The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published a report entitled “Reign of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria” on 14 November 2014, stating that ISIS “has spread fear in Syria by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity”.14 It has demanded that ISIS leaders be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. The report, building on the testimonies of 300 victims and direct witnesses, says that “the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or states that challenge its ideology”; it “has undertaken a policy of imposing discriminatory sanctions such as taxes or forced conversion—on the basis of ethnic or religious identity—destroying religious sites and systematically expelling minority communities”.15 The report adds that “ISIS has beheaded, shot and stoned men, women and children in public spaces in towns and villages across northeastern Syria” and “the corpses are placed on public display, often on crosses, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents. Witnesses saw scenes of still-bleeding bodies hanging from crosses and of heads placed on spikes along park railings”.16 The report reveals rapes committed against women, leading families to marry their underage girls for fear that they would be forcibly married to ISIS fighters. It also mentions the public application of “legal punishments”, like severing the hands of “thieves” or stoning to death and crucifixions to spread fear among the local population.

This commission’s findings reveal that this barbaric organisation, whose ranks are mostly constituted of foreigners, “prioritises children as a vehicle for ensuring long-term loyalty, adherence to their ideology and a cadre of devoted fighters that will see violence as a way of life”.17

The ISIS state… “We shall drag people to heaven in chains!”

Unlike other Salafist jihadi groups, ISIS has the immediate project of building a state and a society of a certain type, by force of arms and violence. After fighting the FSA and competing jihadi groups, ISIS consolidated its sources of finance, namely oil fields and border crossings. It has forced thousands of members of the Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzor to flee, after brutally murdering hundreds of them in the process of taking control of two oil fields in July 2014, one of them the al-Amor oil and gas field, the largest in the Deir Ezzor province. The Middle East Onlinewebsite reveals in a report published on 13 August 2014 that ISIS had 50 oil fields in Syria under its control and 20 more in Iraq; the Iraqi army has taken back some of those oil fields since, but ISIS can nevertheless count on an estimated $3 million a day in oil revenue. It also raises an estimated $60 million in taxation every month—mainly from traders—not counting other sources of revenue such as hostage ransoms, proceeds from selling stolen archaeological artifacts on the black market, or funding from sympathisers in the Gulf countries and Europe.

Violence and terror are not the only means ISIS uses to secure popular consent in the regions under its control. After committing massacres against the Shaitat tribes, the organisation distributed electricity, fuel and food to the impoverished inhabitants. After it put an end to looting and theft, and punished “thieves”, ISIS gained some relative popular support among the most impoverished and marginalised. It has also started paying meagre salaries to the unemployed and $300 a month to its fighters for whom it secures accommodation and other basic needs, whereas the local population lives in dire conditions. ISIS has therefore become something of an attraction to those socially marginalised groups who have not found any adequate political expression of their class interests.

ISIS manages and intervenes in every aspect of the people’s daily lives in its capital of Raqqa as well as in any region it controls. Its members patrol the streets of Raqqa with AK-47s and handguns—they are the only ones allowed to bear arms. ISIS has established two distinct police forces (Islamic police) tasked with the surveillance of men and women. The “Al-Khansa” brigade is made up of armed female members of the organisation, who have the right to stop and search any woman on the street, and “Al-Hasba” does the same for men; the two police brigades are also responsible for the ­imposition of ISIS’s version of Sharia (Islamic law).

But ISIS went further in the establishment of state institutions, and formed a government in Raqqa with ministries of education, public health, water and electricity, religious affairs and defence. These ministries operate from old Syrian governmental buildings.

Back in 2013 most Syrians in the aforementioned regions considered ISIS to be a “foreign” and “occupying” organisation as described by a Deir Ezzor based activist: “a settler movement, like Israel has occupied Palestine with settlers”.18 This remains the dominant view among the population of these regions. However, ISIS has succeeded in finding a minimum of social support. In a revealing statement on the “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered” website, a local activist notes that ISIS had not proposed a nationalisation project or indeed any law limiting the cupidity and rapacity of the large monopolistic traders with whom the organisation enjoys good relations.

What is “Daeshism”?

A quick study of the evolution of ISIS as an organisation issued from the milieu of jihadi and ultra-reactionary Islamist currents would not be enough to explain its ideological and practical specificity when compared to the vast majority of jihadi organisations such as the dominant Al Qaeda. This shows that the very emergence of ISIS constitutes a rupture with those Salafist jihadi groups, to the point where ISIS was seeking to liquidate those other groups. On the other hand, one can notice a tendency towards the “ISISisation” of entire sections of jihadi organisations, the most important being the Nusra Front; indeed, it seems to be divided into two distinct groups, one emulating ISIS’s practice and stances, and the other remaining “true to itself”. The Ahrar al-Sham movement appears to be maintaining its Salafist Jihadist identity, even if some of its brigades are eager to adopt “Daeshism”.19 But the worst aspect of these tendencies is the fact that many reactionary jihadist groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS and its Caliphate throughout North Africa and other regions.

Some will argue that there is no political or practical interest in trying to research and reveal other characteristics of ISIS, insofar as it constitutes one of the aspects of the reactionary counter-revolution. But this “novel” phenomenon cannot be understood, as we have seen above, outside of the material and socioeconomic context in which it thrives. It is not possible to oppose ISIS politically without firstly understanding the material conditions that have led to its emergence and expansion, before elaborating appropriate policies to confront it from the point of view of the oppressed and exploited classes, ie from a Marxist point of view.

We have presented here the genesis of ISIS in a specific context, as a reactionary and counter-revolutionary force, and the expansion of its ­influence in Iraq and Syria. It is necessary to recall that we have focused on the established regimes and their brutal reactionary politics of marginalisation as one of the essential causes, along with imperialist intervention, that allowed for the emergence of ISIS. The US occupation of Iraq destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure and social fabric, and created conditions for the development of such movements. What is more, the “War on ISIS”, with the US at the helm of an imperialist coalition, will not defeat ISIS but will give it anti-imperialist credentials that it will use to attract popular sympathies.

The emergence of ISIS, taking into account its specific character when compared to traditional jihadist groups, its sudden and surprising appearance in the context of a revolutionary process in Syria and the fact that it has crushed all manifestations of the revolution within its territories, imposing an ideological and social way of life on their inhabitants, and the construction of its “own” state, invites us to examine ISIS as a phenomenon through the experience of fascism. This approach does not refer to the details of fascism within Europe, but in relation to the new fascist movements, within a specific and limited context.

This dangerous turn in the course of the Syrian Revolution and the country’s history has surprised many, and so “historical and individual fate suddenly became identical for thousands of human beings, and later for millions. Not only were social classes defeated and not only did political parties succumb, but the existence, the physical survival, of broad human groups suddenly became problematical.” That is how Marxist revolutionary intellectual Ernest Mandel described the rise of fascism.20 The definition given by the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern) in the 1930s and the common acceptance that fascism is “nothing but the power of finance capital” does not apply to ISIS, and in any case it was not enough to interpret either the emergence of fascism in Europe at the time or the new fascist movements that are progressing in Europe or elsewhere.

Leon Trotsky was the most eminent Marxist intellectual to have explained and analysed the emergence of fascism in Europe. Not only did he say that fascism “is carried to power on the shoulders of the petty bourgeoisie”, but he provided a deep and thorough analysis of that ­phenomenon. The social layers upon which fascism draws support are what he calls “human dust”, which he defines as town artisans and traders, civil servants, clerks, technical personnel and the intelligentsia, bankrupt peasants, to which we may add the unemployed.21

Trotsky analysed fascism from the point of view of a class analysis of society, and used his deep understanding of uneven and combined ­development—where structures of production inherited from previous centuries, along with their relations and ideologies, can coexist with more modern structures, relations and ideologies. In his book Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought Mandel sums up Trotsky’s profound grasp of the fascist phenomenon:

Trotsky understood—along with other Marxist writers like Ernst Bloch and Kurt Tucholsky—the desynchronisation between socioeconomic forms and ideological forms; in other terms, that very strong ideas, sentiments and depictions inherited from the pre-capitalist period continue to exist in important sections of the bourgeoisie (particularly in the middle classes under threat of impoverishment, but also in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, the declassed intellectuals and even in various fringes of the working class).22

Better than anyone else, Trotsky drew the socio-political conclusions: in conditions of increasing and unbearable socioeconomic class contradictions, significant sections of the aforementioned classes and layers—whom Trotsky sagaciously called “human dust”—can fuse and form a powerful mass movement. Fascinated by a charismatic leader and armed by sections of the capitalist class and their state apparatus, such a movement can be used as a tool to destroy the workers’ movement by means of bloody terror and intimidation.”

Trotsky also insisted on the distinction between fascism and Bonapartism and other forms of dictatorship. Fascism is a “specific form” of a “powerful executive apparatus” and an “open dictatorship” characterised by the total destruction of all working class organisations—including the most moderate like the social democratic organisations. “Fascism attempts to materially suppress any form of self-defence of the organised working class, by completely pulverising the working class. To argue that social democracy is laying the ground for fascism in order to declare social democracy and fascism to be allies, and banning any alliance with the former against the latter is therefore a mistake”.23

The depiction of the fascist phenomenon as a movement that rests on the masses of “human dust” applies entirely to the process of ISIS’s formation. Fascism usually forms as a party-militia to fight the current state and establish a fascist state. And the fascists, according to Italian historian Emilio Gentile “consider themselves an elite (aristocracy) of new men, born at war and destined to seize power to renew a corrupt nation”.24 Fascism aims to organise people “as masses and not as classes” and Gentile argues that historical studies have underlined that fascism does not really aim “to change the world or society, but to change human nature itself” by disciplining people and using brute violence.

In that sense and only in that sense can we argue that ISIS has the traits of a new form of fascist movement, and that the Caliphate state is a fascist state of a particular nature in specific circumstances.

Conclusions

To say that ISIS has fascist characteristics, in circumstances of social devastation and disintegration, immediately invokes the question of the intervention of the revolutionary forces and its modalities, all the more if we consider that ISIS constitutes a mortal danger for the popular and revolutionary movement. What are the practical forms of the confrontation? Secondly, it puts the issue of the constitution of a united front of the democratic and left wing revolutionary forces on the agenda. Finally, it raises the question of the modalities of acting against the regime that crushes and destroys our people and our country.

The revolutionary process in Syria is in a very bad place indeed. The retreat of the popular movement is due to the Assad regime’s devastating attacks, the massacres and forced displacement of millions of Syrians, with half of the country’s population being displaced. What is more, the growth of reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces like ISIS, the Nusra Front and others at the expense of the Free Syrian Army has meant the decline of the popular movement even in “liberated” regions.

Any call for the withdrawal, silence and resignation of the popular revolutionary forces, meaning their capitulation before the ferocious attacks of the various counter-revolutionary forces—who are fighting one another—would be disastrous and would only further aggravate the already degraded situation of the revolution, contrary to what many may think. We believe that we must push with all our strength for the mobilisation of groups, coordinations and revolutionary organisations everywhere, to pursue protests and other forms of popular mobilisation, however weak and dispersed the movement may be—especially since the popular movement is still drawing breath and has started to recover some of its vitality, even in regions controlled by jihadist extremist forces like the Nusra Front. However, we need a united front of the democratic and left wing ­revolutionary forces capable of establishing a strategy of centralised and combative action, adopting the basic claims of the popular revolution. In the regions controlled by the Free Syrian Army or an armed popular resistance movement, armed—albeit uneven—confrontations with the reactionary forces are not a luxury but a matter of life or death for the revolution and the popular movement. The meagre armament will prove enough if those forces are under a centralised military and political national command. This proposed united front cannot limit itself to the political sphere; it must englobe the military sphere as well, particularly since the principal adversary of the revolutionary forces is not only the reactionary forces of the ­counter-revolution, but also the clique that holds power in Damascus.

One must always bear in mind that bringing down the regime is the prerequisite to crushing the fascist and reactionary forces. The survival of this regime, even in a superficially revamped form, would constitute a crushing defeat for the popular revolution and an evident victory for the counter-revolution. We must work together to shift the balance of power in favour of the revolutionary forces and the popular classes who were and remain the driving social forces of the revolution.

The imperialist war against ISIS has given the imperialists and their regional allies a pretext to reproduce the Assad regime. There has been increasing talk in the past few months about a political solution for Syria, hailed by the imperialist powers who claim to be friends of the Syrian people; their real aim was never to overthrow the regime, it was rather to push it towards an internal reform from the top, a political realignment as well as the destruction of Syria’s economic and military capacities. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries, powerhouses of the counter-revolution in the region, have, together with the ­counter-revolutionary government in Egypt, pushed for a political solution that would keep the Assad regime afloat. Indeed, their offspring, the National Coalition, has publicly complained about the suspension of financing from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, in an attempt from the latter to pressure it towards accepting a political solution. Given the opportunistic and corrupt nature of the National Coalition, it is likely to consent to such a political solution in the future. We note, however, that it did not take part in the January 2015 Moscow meeting, unlike groups from the so-called inside opposition, essentially the Coordination Committee25—which has had an ambiguous position since the onset of the revolution—as well as some ­foreign-based groups with no real weight on the ground. Moscow, Tehran and Cairo seem tasked with sponsoring these talks in order to promote a “political solution” whose real aim is nothing but to reproduce the regime.

We cannot be opposed to any measure that aims to alleviate the suffering of the popular masses, without forgetting the demands expressed by the popular revolution. The “political solution” requires the vigilance and caution of the revolutionary forces, and demands that they reveal and condemn any concessions to the dictatorial regime granted by those who are or will be taking part in the talks. It will be necessary to defend the claim to establish a radical democratic regime on the ruins of the dictatorship and struggle against all concessions in the field of democratic liberties and against all attempts at bargaining with the sacrifices made by the popular masses in their quest to bring down the regime and build freedom, democracy, equality and social justice in Syria.

In this struggle on multiple fronts, the revolutionary Marxists of the Revolutionary Left Current are also tirelessly working to fulfil a fundamental task—that is the building of the mass revolutionary workers’ party.

Notes

1: This article was first published in Arabic in the fifth issue of the Thawra Da’ima (Permanent Revolution) journal in March 2015.

2: Nouri al-Maliki is secretary-general of the Islamic Dawa Party and was prime minister of Iraq from 2006 until 2014. Ruling over a notoriously corrupt regime, his authoritarian and pro-Shia sectarian policies have fuelled socioeconomic disarray and sectarian tensions. He resigned his post on 14 August 2014, in the wake of ISIS’s devastating June 2014 offensive in Northern Iraq.

3: Abu Haniyeh, 2014.

4: Takfiri Islamist movements are those who declare that their Muslim opponents are apostates.

5: The Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 laid out Britain’s and France’s plan to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them.

6: Saif, 2014.

7: Saif, 2014.

8: Marx, 1859.

9: The Friends of Syria Group is a diplomatic collective of countries and bodies initiated in 2012. It includes the US and its European and Middle Eastern allies, as well as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and other organisations.

10: Syrian Center of Research and Studies, 2013.

11: The Syrian Communist Party (Bakdash) is a member of the National Progressive Front, dominated by the ruling Ba’ath Party. The coalition is formed of parties that are obedient to the government and accept the Ba’ath Party’s “leading role in society”.

12: Syrian Centre of Research and Studies, 2013.

13: Al-Joumhouria, 2014.

14: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014.

15: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p5.

16: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p7.

17: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, p10.

18: Agence France Presse, 2014.

19: “Daesh” is the Arabic acronym of ISIS.

20: Mandel, 1971, p9.

21: Trotsky, 1931.

22: Mandel, 1979.

23: Trotsky, 1931.

24: Gentile, 2008.

25: The National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change is a coalition of left wing political parties formed in 2011 in Syria.

References

Abu Haniyeh, Hassan, 2014, “ISIS: From Zarqawi’s Network to Baghdadi’s State” Alaan (13 September), www.alaan.tv/news/columnist/113679/isis-zarqawi-network-state-baghdadi
Agence France Presse, 2014, “al-Riyad” (22 September).
Al-Joumhouriya, 2014, “Syria and ISIS’s rough justice” (30 March), www.aljoumhouria.com/news/index/129421
Gentile, Emilio, 2008, “Le silence d’Hannah Arendt: L’interprétation du fascisme dans Les origines du totalitarisme”, Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine(July-September), www.cairn.info/revue-d-histoire-moderne-et-contemporaine-2008-3-page-11.htm
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014, “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria” (report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 14 November), http://tinyurl.com/d49pevn
Mandel, Ernest, 1971, Introduction, to Leon Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder).
Mandel, Ernest, 1979, Trotsky: a Study in the Dynamic of His Thought (NLB).
Marx, Karl, 1859, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm
Saif, Abdallah, 2014, “Al-Qaeda in Syria: From the State to the Caliphate” (8 August),
http://aljumhuriya.net/30108
Syrian Center of Research and Studies, 2013, “Socioeconomic Realities in the Light of the Syrian Revolution” (22 October), http://tinyurl.com/qx9w26j
Trotsky, Leon, 1931, Germany: The Key to the International Situation, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/311126.htm
http://isj.org.uk/the-islamic-state-and-the-counter-revolution/

The Real Threat of Chinese Nationalism-John Richard Cookson

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on The Real Threat of Chinese Nationalism-John Richard Cookson

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On Monday, China’s Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5 percent, the largest percentage fall since the financial crisis hit in 2007. Hours earlier it was reported that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would not attend a ceremony in China on September 3 marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two. So far, China’s economic slowdown has been seen as separate from the country’s antagonisms with Japan. Both domestic and antiforeign discontent might concern China watchers, and both might be simmering at the moment, but each registers as its own threat, requiring its own policy response. This is wrong. What connects these issues is the worrying role popular nationalism has taken on in China in the era after Mao Zedong and, more recently, after Deng Xiaoping.

All of this comes on the eve of a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the United States in September. Xi lands in Washington as the leader who has, according to President Obama, “consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping.” No force has been more important in Xi’s power grab than nationalism. He has presided over a country that has stoked patriotic fervor as well as antagonized its neighbors and the United States. The most immediate result of stirring up national sentiment has been to strengthen Xi’s power within the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. With this backstop of popular support, Xi has steadfastly pursued a set of programs, even amid some opposition. For example, his anticorruption purge has continued even after an authority as prominent as former president Jiang Zemin warned against it becoming too ambitious.

Nationalism has worked for Xi. So far, patriotic, mass support has protected him from a strong, public challenge by the military or the party. But nationalism in China has an uncertain and at times combustible relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders in Beijing. In China, street-level, unchecked nationalism—nationalism en masse—is a precarious threat both to the CCP and to regional and global stability overall.

In 2012, Xi took control of a China unthinkable without Deng Xiaoping. By opening up its economy and jettisoning Mao-era programs, China created an average of 10 percent growth per year over the thirty years beginning with 1980. Millions were brought from subsistence living to a point where median income now approaches a “middle-income trap.” As if to acknowledge this change, Xi reiterated his commitment to Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” shortly after coming to power.

But this phrase, “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is by now, of course, “nonsense,” China scholar Roderick MacFarquhar [4] said at the time. Communism no longer connects the nation; it is no longer a unifying ideology. Instead, China now has

“No ideology. No sense of what the country is about. And the only way, and it is a very dangerous way, that they can achieve some kind of unity between party, state and people, is the dangerous route of nationalism.”

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, and with the strict tenets of communism shed as a unifying ideology, nationalism has been paired with robust economic growth in China to legitimize the country’s leadership. Both contributed to an “authoritarian resilience,” as China scholar Jessica Chen Weiss [5] describes it. Now, nationalism and economics have begun to decouple as growth has slowed and stocks have tumbled. Comparisons with Deng have turned from complimentary of Xi to concerning for China as a whole. “The country is now going through a crisis of transition, unparalleled since Deng Xiaoping set out to put clear water between China’s future and the Mao era,” writes George Magnus [6], an associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and senior advisor to UBS, in the Financial Times.

What connects the faltering economy with the animosity between China and Japan is that antiforeign protests are some of the only forms of mass, organized protest that have been permitted to take place in China. As Weiss points out, while anti-Japanese demonstrations were repressed in the 1990s and 2000s, they nonetheless flared up in 1985, 2005, 2010 and 2012. Moreover, she notes, the 1985 anti-Japanese protests were early precursors of the pro-democracy protests of 1986 and 1989, giving participants much needed experience in mass mobilization. Weiss explains what the CCP knows well, that “[e]ven strong authoritarian governments may have difficulty reining in protests that are widely seen as patriotic and legitimate.”

History shows that Chinese officials quickly repress demonstrations about domestic issues. This is less the case with antiforeign protests, which not only can have an intrinsic, patriotic legitimacy leaders find difficult to counter, but also, as Weiss argues, can have a value for China’s leaders to signal resolve in diplomacy.

In a statement released for the anniversary of the end of World War II on August 15, Japanese prime minister Abe said that his “heart is rent with the utmost grief” about the damage done by his country. But he also emphasized that “[w]e must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” This statement joins a list of recent perceived slights, including a row this summer over the treatment of the war in Japanese textbooks, that irk many Chinese.

Chinese-Japanese tensions have eased somewhat since the worst days of 2012, which Weiss says saw the largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since relations were normalized in 1972. Of the 287 prefecture cities Weiss and a colleague studied in 2012, nearly three-quarters saw street protests [7]. Should Xi tolerate another spate of anti-Japanese protests, he would be using popular sentiment to signal to Japanese officials that China’s avenues for compromise are few. Importantly, this wish to signal resolve in diplomacy is weighed against the threat that such protests will spiral out of control, turning to domestic grievances and turning against Beijing. In this way, any anti-Japanese protests ostensibly about the Second World War are a potential rallying point for discontent about the present. “In current American usage,” the scholar Bernard Lewis noted, “the phrase ‘that’s history’ is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.” Not so in much of the world, and not so in China now.

China’s leaders, Xi chief among them, can wield nationalism for their own ends. And now, leaders may wish to double down on nationalism as both the economy and the legitimacy the government has gained in the post-Deng era from a strong economy weaken. But nationalism isn’t an easy tool to control. As Weiss points out,

“the past two Chinese governments fell to nationalist movements that accused them of failing to defend the country from foreign encroachments: the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Manchu leaders of the Qing dynasty.”

Going into this autumn, policy makers should be mindful of what is happening in China’s streets, as well as what Xi does and says before and during his trip to Washington.

John Richard Cookson is assistant managing editor of The National Interest.

Image [8]:Flickr/Creative Commons.
http://www.nationalinterest.org/print/blog/the-buzz/the-real-threat-chinese-nationalism-13729

After ISIS: Fully Reappraising U.S. Policy in Afghanistan-Thomas F. Lynch III

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on After ISIS: Fully Reappraising U.S. Policy in Afghanistan-Thomas F. Lynch III

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The U.S. strategy for withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces from Afghanistan, nearing completion of its first and largest tranche, was officially delayed at least a year by President Obama on March 24, 2015. The announcement formalized informal U.S. troop-level modifications authorized by the President that began back in November 2014. It was confirmation of a welcome and necessary but insufficient delay in a strategically flawed drawdown that will have lasting negative consequences if not altered even more fundamentally before the end of 2015. Despite the modest benefits from the delay, the largely unaltered U.S. and NATO drawdown trajectory into a limited support and counterterrorism mission—known as Operation Resolute Support— is too deep and lacks too many critical military capabilities to properly safeguard minimal U.S. and Western security requirements for Afghanistan and within wider South Asia.

The revised drawdown would leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2015.1 Unnamed Obama administration officials made clear that the president’s March 2015 announcement does not revisit the basic premise of comprehensive U.S. military and intelligence withdrawal from Afghanistan first announced in early 2014—only now this withdrawal would conclude more steeply in late 2015 and into 2016, removing all but 1,000 troops before the end of the president’s second term.2

Before this series of late-2014 force profile adjustments and the March 2015 announcement, the administration hailed the long-awaited conclusion on October 1, 2014, of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the newly-formed government in Kabul.3 This ten-year security arrangement, which had languished for almost a year, came with a sense of relief. It alleviated fears that Afghanistan’s lingering political morass might require the full departure of U.S. and Western forces by the end of 2014. But the details behind both this primarily counterterrorism-focused agreement and a parallel deal struck between Kabul and NATO remained a source for serious concern. Nothing in these agreements placed a formal, low-threshold limitation on post-2014 U.S. or Western military forces in Afghanistan.4

Indeed, President Ashraf Ghani quickly confirmed that, unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, he welcomed a far more robust and capable extension of U.S. and Western military forces in the country.5 Yet, President Ghani had inherited a self-limiting framework where the Obama administration—in partial concert with an alienated Karzai administration— voluntarily constrained U.S. and NATO support troops in Afghanistan to 12,500 (9,800 of those Americans) beginning on January 1, 2015, with complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces promised by the end of 2016. The Obama administration consistently argued that a responsible transition to 350,000 of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by 2017 would also assure U.S. freedom of action in counterterrorism operations against any renewed presence of international terrorist outfits for the coming decade.6

But the assurances of a low-risk transition to security in Afghanistan do not withstand scrutiny. The promised level of military commitment remains short of barely serious, failing to reasonably safeguard the most basic U.S. and Western security requirements in mid-2015, much less beyond 2016. It is too small to offset the major operational support shortcomings of the underresourced ANSF, making it unlikely that outside financial donors or entrepreneurs will accept the risks of significant economic investment in Afghanistan. Despite the Obama administration’s grudging March 2015 concessions to slow the drawdown, its constraints still confine the U.S. military to locations, missions, and in numbers insufficient to detect, deter, or disrupt the inevitable rise in intra-regional militant and proxy conflicts. It also remains a misshapen drawdown framework, focusing far too little attention upon intelligence gathering and fusion of information about the ever-evolving major terrorist network threats that transcend the Afghan–Pakistan border and interact across wider South Asia.

 

U.S. and Western Security Interests

The United States and Western allies need not retain military force in Afghanistan now and beyond 2016 to perfect Afghan democracy, assure the absolute destruction of the Taliban, or force an unwilling Pakistan to revisit its support to militant proxies in Afghanistan. These objectives are strategically untenable and fiscally imprudent, requiring a residual military manpower footprint of more than 30,000 at an indefensible price tag of greater than $30 billion.7

Instead, the United States and its coalition partners have three main security objectives in Afghanistan and across wider South Asia, ones that it can only achieve with a more wisely tailored post-2016 military support presence in Afghanistan. (Why Afghanistan? Because Pakistan and Indian sensitivities won’t allow a U.S. military presence, and an offshore U.S. military presence cannot anchor a sufficient amount of timely intelligence or operational feel to reduce the remaining strategic risk to critical U.S. security interests in Afghanistan and the wider region.)

First, U.S. safety demands that Afghanistan not again become a safe haven for Salafi jihadist terror groups planning for and rehearsing spectacular acts of international terrorism. Disrupted but unbowed, a number of these groups remain willing and able to return to Afghanistan should a misshapen or underresourced U.S. military and intelligence presence enable that re-emergence.8

Second, the United States and its allies have a significant security interest in arresting the high potential for a spiral of militant proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan. Nuclear-armed powers since 1999, these South Asian antagonists have fought four major conventional wars since 1947, and since the late 1990s have cultivated an array of militant proxies in Afghanistan. Without sufficient Western residual military and intelligence presence, these proxies will increasingly come in contact with each other and compete heavily for the services of, or defection by, Afghan military units with loyalties on one side or another.

Finally, the United States and her allies have a significant security objective in assuring the cohesion of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This remains a critical, more tactical means to reducing risk to the two U.S. security interests listed above, which are more strategic. The ANSF is a 350,000-member strong U.S./NATO creation that is and will remain extremely fragile. Even more than their Iraqi counterparts, the Western-trained and -equipped Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) lack vital capabilities for a serious and sustained counterinsurgency fight. Without outside military advisors or support coordinators down to the fighting brigade level in limited but meaningful numbers, these groups of trained-enough-to-be-very-dangerousmilitia-cadres are likely to fragment and scatter in a process that would guarantee return to a highly undesirable Afghan civil war. That, in turn, would increase the likelihood that India–Pakistan proxy clashes will escalate and that more ungoverned and unpoliced space becomes available for global terrorist safe haven.

The United States cannot ‘fix’ the region or eliminate the major security challenges most dominant within Afghanistan. However, it can better support the already faltering ANSF, become more aware of the rapidly evolving jihadist militant milieu in the Afghanistan–Pakistan region, and become better informed about the worrisome possibility of Indo–Pakistani proxy hostilities playing out across the border region. The ongoing U.S./NATO drawdown must be evaluated more comprehensively in light of these major strategic requirements.

 

Assessing the Environment: Afghanistan and the Wider Region

Undeniably, Afghanistan entered 2015 in a better place than it did 2002. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) completed formation in late 2014 of a third democratically elected government and experienced the first peaceful transition of power in the history of modern Afghanistan. Enormous international attention and over $67 billion in international investments between 2003–20109 have advanced Afghanistan’s capacity for self-governance, improved national health care, expanded schooling opportunities for Afghan youth (especially girls), and better connected Afghanistan to the outside world than ever before. Afghanistan also begins 2015 with a 350,000-member ANSF consisting of an army, a limited air force, national police, and border and customs forces—all of which are manned, equipped, and somewhat trained for internal policing and limited counterinsurgency operations.

These improvements and others are important. Yet, Afghanistan remains significantly challenged for the foreseeable future. Economically, it is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid. Almost 40 percent of the population is below the official poverty line. A similar percentage is unemployed. Most Afghans continue to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, and medical care. Participants at the July 2012 Tokyo international donors conference pledged an additional $16 billion in civilian aid through 2015. This assistance remains critical; as Afghanistan had a budget deficit that grew to 13 percent in 2013 as the decade-long artificial economy fueled by international security-related investments rapidly contracted. The United States and other international donors fund almost 60 percent of Afghanistan’s national budget, with the Afghan government only raising $2 billion in revenues in 2013 (against a stated budget need of $6 billion).10 In 2014, GIRoA experienced two major budget crises. These halted critical infrastructure projects and required an international bailout of $537 million to pay civil servant salaries including those for its military and police.11 International donations beyond 2015 are vital to Afghanistan’s economic prospects. Yet few post-2015 donations, beyond those promised by India and China, now exist.12 It seems clear that the international community anxiously awaits evidence that Afghanistan can provide acceptable domestic security and stability to warrant additional investments.

International investments also require belief that the Kabul leadership is taking verifiable steps to curb the expansive corruption in Afghanistan.13 President Ghani and his partner in the unity government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, recognize this and are tackling the issue. For instance, Ghani has re-opened the long-dormant investigation of the 2010 Kabul Bank scandal, when confidants of then-President Karzai reportedly used the bank to finance a $1 billion personal Ponzi scheme that, when discovered, collapsed the bank and threatened the Afghan economy—but the perpetrators were never charged.14 Ghani also has prioritized legislation to effectively criminalize money laundering and terrorist financing.15 He and Abdullah have released a December 2014 anti-corruption strategy titled, “Realizing Self-Reliance,” which outlines approaches to redress the three “drivers” of corruption in Afghanistan: weak rule of law, collusive government procurement practices, and regulations that incentivize bribery.16 As a vote of confidence in these and other ongoing steps toward stabilizing Afghanistan’s fragmented political environment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a “New Development Partnership” between the United States and Afghanistan, providing an $800,000 civilian aid package linked to the progress of Afghan reforms.17

Overdue anti-corruption strategies and political reconciliation efforts by the Afghan government are necessary, but insufficient. Potential investors in the country, as well as U.S. policymakers and taxpayers who are supporting current projects, also need to know that internal Afghan security concerns will not impact the flow of commerce. To use one example, China and India have already contracted to invest billions in mining Afghan natural resource deposit areas, but security fears have dramatically limited the pace and cash-flow associated with these ventures.18 Afghan security concerns thus are the linchpin to vital external economic and commercial engagements from the wider global community.

The most dangerous threats to Afghan security have not changed much in the past twenty years. Three main regional security dynamics degrade stability in Afghanistan. Each is closely related to a significant U.S./Western security objective, or a combination of all three. First, the Taliban insurgency remains Afghanistan’s most pressing security issue. It is very uncertain that the historic Afghan Taliban—the broad group including those loyal to Mullah Omar as well as those answering directly to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or acting as part of the Haqqani Group—will be able to unseat GIRoA ever, much less in 2015.

Although it is an indigenous insurgent group, the Afghan Taliban is substantively abetted by Afghanistan’s cross-border rival: Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban’s principal patrons, the Pakistani military and intelligence services, clearly support Taliban militant operations against GIRoA forces and coalition support formations within Afghanistan.19 This cross-border support enabled Afghan Taliban survival despite the enormous losses it took at the hands of a surging NATO–ISAF and U.S. military forces during 2009–11. Subsequent to 2012, quiet but persistent Pakistani ISI Agency support enabled the Afghan Taliban to return as a military and shadow political force in a limited but ever-growing number of locations across south and southeastern Afghanistan.20

While the Pakistani security establishment seems to prefer conservative southern Afghan Pashtun political-security control across border provinces in Afghanistan, there is evidence that Pakistan’s senior political and military leadership does not wish a return of the Afghan Taliban to complete control across Afghanistan.21 Nonetheless, the continued expansion of de facto Afghan Taliban political and military control in Afghanistan’s southern and southeastern regions poses a severe security challenge for GIRoA. Such a presence dangerously weakens GIRoA authority over internal security and puts at risk Afghanistan’s major economic transit route from Ghazni through Helmand provinces, the Ring Road, and the hub-to-spoke border-crossing roads that link to it.

Second, the security dilemma competition between India and Pakistan weighs heavily on future Afghanistan internal security prospects. India and Pakistan have a longstanding history of treating influence in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game. Islamabad believes that India has established increasingly effective political and economic influence in Afghanistan by leveraging U.S. naivete´, the longstanding hatred of Pakistan among non-Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, and economic assistance amounting to some $2 billion promised—and over $1 billion delivered—since 2002. Pakistan’s dark perceptions persist despite the fact that there are only four Indian consulates in Afghanistan in addition to its Kabul embassy, precisely the same number that Pakistan maintains. Yet, the fear of being squeezed in an Indian security nutcracker has led Pakistan’s ISI to keep the Afghan Taliban in play as a security proxy in Afghanistan.

Conspicuous in this role is the Afghan Taliban’s affiliate Haqqani Network. An insurgent group focused primarily on the Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khwost, the Haqqanis have acted as a major collaborator with Pakistan’s ISI in striking Indian assets across Afghanistan, reportedly conducting major terrorist attacks against Indian diplomats and workers in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and recently in Herat at ISI behest.22 Since 2012, Pakistan has increasingly come to fear a growing intelligence nexus between the Afghan national intelligence service (NDS) and the Indian foreign intelligence service (RAW). Long complaining about GIRoA and Indian covert support for expatriate Baluch insurgent activists, Pakistani officials now point to a growing number of reported contacts between NDS and anti-Pakistan Taliban insurgents (TTP) as evidence that GIRoA and India are colluding to try and topple the government in Islamabad.23 While shrill, there appears to be at least some modest substance behind these Pakistani complaints, making it certain that Pakistani security concerns in Afghanistan will only grow worse as Western forces meet drawdown timetables.

Beginning in late 2013, Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff, General Raheel Sharif, and other Pakistani military leaders reached out to the government in Kabul with offers of greater military and intelligence cooperation. Then-President Hamid Karzai politely rebuffed these offers as disingenuous, believing Pakistani support for anti-GIRoA militant groups like the Taliban to be intractable and the overtures to come from a cynical desire to counter growing Afghan–Indian security cooperation. By late 2014, Pakistan military leaders began touting the positive response of the new GIRoA leader, President Ashraf Ghani, to these standing offers as evidence of historic progress; they expressed hope that a bilateral intelligence sharing and border control agreement might be reached to inhibit the use of sanctuary by militants on either side of the border.24

While any collaborative dialogue is welcome, it is hard to forecast an enduring positive outcome. The fundamental mistrust between Kabul and Pakistani’s military-intelligence establishment runs deep and will not be overcome easily. For fear of its information traveling to India, Pakistan’s ISI will not fully share with the Afghan NDS its interactions with Pashtun militant groups that operate from within Pakistan and have had historic utility in Pakistan’s security posture vis-a`-vis India. Faced with such an asymmetry in transparency, the Afghan NDS will not decouple from historic ties to the Indian RAW, leaving Pakistan’s ISI wary of collaborative NDS–RAW support for anti-Pakistan militant leaders and outfits that may be hiding in the Afghanistan– Pakistan border region.

For its part, India has preferred not to provoke Pakistan while the prospect for outside-generated security and stability in Afghanistan was present during the decade of U.S./NATO security leadership. Nonetheless, India has longstanding enmity toward the Afghan Taliban and a silent but firm commitment to see that neither it nor any analog Pakistan-abetted Muslim militant outfit ever again rules from Kabul or governs sufficient space in Afghanistan to become a conduit for anti-Indian terrorist activities. Indian military and civilian leaders uniformly fear that any Afghan Taliban return to power would carve out a safe haven for Islamist militant training and a stage for terrorism against Indian and Indian interests.

While some opinion leaders in India have written that a more decentralized Afghanistan government with some space for conservative Pashtun federated control in the south and southeast of Afghanistan might prove tolerable, most in India stand resolved to resist any Taliban return—standing with GIRoA now, while preparing to vigorously support a non-Pashtun militia resistance to Taliban rule should Afghanistan break apart under duress from too little ANSF capability and too little outside economic investment.25 Increasingly, India has been offering more direct support to Afghan security forces—training, equipping, and education—as Western forces stand down. At the same time, New Delhi has been expanding and extending its military and intelligence footprint at locations in Tajikistan that can be used to provide logistical, medical, equipment, and intelligence support for a GIRoA fight against the Afghan Taliban or other Pakistani militant proxies. It is clear that India will not be caught flat-footed: New Delhi will support GIRoA’s efforts to remain sovereign and to safeguard Indian personnel and investments in Afghanistan, simultaneously setting the diplomatic conditions in Iran and the military-intelligence access conditions in Tajikistan to sustain organized militant resistance should GIRoA suddenly collapse under the weight of Pakistani-abetted insurgency.26

Finally, Afghanistan will remain a top-tier target for international terrorist organizations seeking safe haven from which to plan, plot, and launch catastrophic global attacks against U.S. and Western interests. Many such groups view Afghanistan in mystical terms—the home of the first Sharia law-based emirate under the Taliban—and believe the porous Afghanistan–Pakistan border, along with easily accessed international transit hubs from major cities in Pakistan, to represent the ideal location from which to manage global jihad.27 Robust U.S. counterterrorism activities on both sides of the Afghanistan–Pakistan border during 2008–2013 greatly disrupted the activities of a host of these groups, killing dozens of prominent global jihadist outfit leaders and denying these areas for unfettered terrorism plotting.

Bowed but unbroken, many leaders from these groups remain in the region, intermixed with jihadist outfits and local militant organizations in Pakistan as well as in Central Asia and Iran, waiting for the right moment to attempt reincarnation. In his September 2014 announcement of al-Qaeda of the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri prominently praised Mullah Omar and the Taliban mujahedeen, signaling to all Salafi jihadist groups in South Asia that they should fully resource a Taliban-led effort to reestablish a Salifist emirate in Afghanistan as Western military forces depart.28 At the same time, a growing array of South Asian-based jihadist groups has reportedly infested eastern Afghanistan. Even skeptics of Pakistani military complaints acknowledge the basic veracity of its 2014 reports that remaining leadership of al-Qaeda-complicit groups have gone to ground in Nuristan, Kunar, and Nangarhar provinces in Afghanistan.29 Consequently, Afghanistan will remain a highly contested space for bruised but unrepentant international jihadist organizations—and in combinations that will prove a challenge to even wellresourced and well-focused intelligence agencies.

The successful disruption of jihadi terror organizations from 2009–13 in Pakistan and Afghanistan emanated primarily from eastern Afghanistan and functioned largely from U.S. military presence there. Deliberately constructed as a primary feature of the 2008–09 military uplift, this backbone enabled the coalition to independently generate rich and timely human, signals, and electronic information about jihadist militant interactions on both sides of the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. The U.S. intelligence network arrayed across eastern Afghanistan produced an information-action link vital to credible counterterrorism. This was an extensive undertaking featuring military and nonmilitary intelligence agencies and units. U.S. military forces provided the backbone for this effort. Major portions of two 6,000-soldier U.S. Army military intelligence brigades spread into dozens of small operational bases across eastern and southern Afghanistan, co-locating with operational ground units, military special operators, and other government intelligence agencies.30 The precise number of U.S. military and non-military personnel involved is not openly available, but certainly exceeded 12,000 during the height of the four-year operational period.

This kind of a focused and U.S.-led effort was necessary because of the unreliability of regional government intelligence organizations, the rapidly shifting allegiances and combinations of regional and international jihadist outfits present along the rugged Afghanistan– Pakistan border, and the crippling capability and will issues inhibiting Pakistan’s ability to acceptably counter the threat.31 While the size of border terrorist and militant milieu has not diminished dramatically. It is thus more than fair to ask, how well do the residual arrangements for Afghanistan accommodate the retention of this important intelligence capability?

 

Meeting the Security Risks

Disturbingly, signs abounded during 2014 that the U.S./NATO military drawdown had dramatically increased risk in all three areas of the Afghan security challenge, and simultaneously to the three major U.S. and Western security objectives there. To begin with, the Afghan National Army (ANA) demonstrated considerable weakness in maintaining security against Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan’s south, its east, and in Kabul itself—areas where U.S./NATO combat troop presence had all but vanished by mid-2014. In the south and east, Afghan military units lost many hard-won gains from the U.S./NATO uplift of 2009–11. Key parts of the Sangin area in southern Helmand province fell under Taliban sway in the late summer of 2014, just a few short months after British forces and U.S. Marines withdrew. It took a substantial amount of direct U. S./Coalition military support to partially reverse a major Taliban victory.32

By the fall of 2014, bands of Afghan Taliban affiliated with the cross-border Haqqani Network were reported largely in control of eastern Khost and Paktika provinces, some of them there after fleeing in the face of Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb offensive in North Waziristan that began in June 2014.33 Finally, suicide bombers, roadside bombs, and rocket attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul during the fall of 2014 crested to levels not seen since 2008.34 By the end of October 2014, Afghan Army and National Police forces had suffered more than 4,600 deaths for the year—an unsustainable rate of attrition.35 These disturbing trends spotlighted the well-known shortfalls in ANSF capabilities that became ever-more visible during the U.S./NATO force drawdown.36

Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies exhibit no fundamental change in support for the Afghan Taliban and other anti-Indian jihadi outfits operating in Afghanistan. Despite late 2014 statements by U.S. military officials in Afghanistan that Pakistan military operations into North Waziristan have disrupted the ability of the Haqqani Network to launch terrorist attacks on Afghan territory—statements dramatically amplified in Pakistani press—there is little to suggest that even if true, these operations will produce lasting effect.37

Pakistani Army Chief of Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif stated that the long-awaited, late-2014 anti-terrorism operation Zarb-e-Azb into North Waziristan was a matter of national survival, and one that showed no favoritism toward any terrorist group.38 But the run-up to the operation and subsequent events tell a different story. Outside observers reported that the long-telegraphed operation allowed time for ISI-favored militants from the Haqqani Network and other North Waziristan outfits to depart the area for temporary haven cross-border in Afghanistan or in safe zone locations within Pakistan.39 October 2014 reports from Afghanistan that it had ‘captured’ two prominent Haqqani group facilitators only reinforced the belief that Pakistan’s favored militants have been enabled with safe houses elsewhere in the country. One of the captured Haqqani leaders—detained in the UAE or Saudi Arabia before transfer to Afghanistan—reported that he lived in the Chakwal district of Pakistan not far from the Pakistan military headquarters town of Rawalpindi.40 Simultaneously, Pakistan military-intelligence accusations that Afghan government and ANSF forces are unable to capture or kill escaping North Waziristan militants, and that Afghanistan’s NDS is actually working with Indian intelligence services to “turn” fleeing Pakistani Taliban into agents for use against the Pakistan government, grow greater every day.41 The historic Indo–Pakistani animus is palpable in Afghanistan, and the space for this animus to grow in size and scale increases with every withdrawn U.S./NATO military asset.

Finally, the U.S. drawdown from 80,000 troops in January 2013 to roughly 10,800 in March 2015 has already badly compromised the linchpin of a successful future counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan: a robust and autonomous intelligence backbone.42 The ever-evolving terrorist milieu is a cross-border Afghanistan– Pakistan dynamic that requires retention of a fair amount of the superstructure painstakingly built between late 2008 and 2012 in eastern Afghanistan. But most of this superstructure has been lost already—a direct casualty of the Obama administration’s move to a skeletal military footprint by December 2014.

In the spring of 2014, U.S. intelligence officials openly acknowledged that the CIA must close its bases along the Pakistani border and pull its operatives back to Kabul.43 These officials made it clear that while intelligence assets and contractors are used to guard its bases, it relies on military transportation, logistics, and emergency medical evacuation and cannot risk significant deployment in Afghanistan’s rural areas without U.S. troops nearby. Thus, it would take another 3,000–3,500 U.S. troops—about a military intelligence brigade with supporting logistical and force protection forces—in the post-2016 mission to sustain a minimally sufficient, autonomous U.S. civil-military cross-border counterterrorism partnership. The early 2015 U.S. military force contingent in Afghanistan has too few of these intelligence capabilities, leaving the United States increasingly unable to monitor, anticipate, and counteract what certainly will remain a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex set of terrorist interactions. The worrisome security indicators in Afghanistan during 2014 most clearly gave President Ghani and U.S. Forces Commander General John Campbell pause—especially in light of the outcomes witnessed in Iraq and Syria, where the comprehensive U.S. military and intelligence departure clearly contributed discerning a major terrorist-insurgent threat too late, requiring a taxing and expensive U.S. military response.44 unbiased collection and Afghanistan–Pakistan is clearly not Iraq–Syria, but some of the enduring lessons of properly understood security challenges and reasonably assessed future military-intelligence requirements seem to apply.45 Two stand out. First, the nexus between insurgents and Salafi jihadist terrorism is pernicious and fast-moving. A robust, autonomous U.S./Western intelligence network is vital, as local intelligence agents cannot be counted on for transmission of important nuances of network interactions. Second, once lost in a country, a viable U.S. military-interagency intelligence nexus is very costly and time-consuming to reconstruct.46

A truly serious level of security commitment by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and for the wider region must meet three main objectives, none of which are sufficiently accommodated as of mid-2015. First, any serious commitment must include independent and robust intelligence and strike assets to track in detail and act swiftly against international terrorist organizations looking to establish sanctuary in Afghanistan. Second, it must provide ANSF with sufficient direct operational support in the key counterinsurgency capabilities these units inherently lack: aero-medical casualty evacuation, aerial troop transport to crisis areas, heavy indirect fire support from air and artillery, rapid and reliable logistical resupply, and reconnaissance and intelligence support down to brigade and regimental levels. Finally, it must sustain sufficient training and operational military presence in Afghanistan to dampen the incentives for proxy militia agents from Pakistan, India, or other regional actors in sparking internecine war in Afghanistan or cross-border war in Pakistan.

The present drawdown as amended in early 2015 still does too little for the robust operational support needed by the ANA. It also provides far too little operational or strategic intelligence framework to monitor the increasingly negative interplay of Indian and Pakistani proxy agents, or to independently track the ever-evolving cross-border terrorist milieu. There is sufficient flexibility in the BSA framework to redress these limitations, but only with a more sober and serious U.S. focus on the key types and appropriate numbers of military force required.

A proper residual U.S. military presence should be composed of 20,000 personnel, not 9,800 or 10,800. It must be augmented by 4,500–5,000 NATO trainers and advisors, not 2,700 or less. This force should not be cut in half in a year or zeroed-out at the end of 2017, as presently planned by the Obama administration, but allowed to remain at a 20,000 level until political and security accommodations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan and India, mature to the point where regional collaboration on Afghan stability is assured. Such a U.S. force would not be cheap, but it could easily be sustained with an annual budget of $20 billion—a far cry from the nearly $125 billion spent in 2010 to address a Taliban menace to Afghan stability and an al-Qaeda resurgence in western Pakistan.

Three thousand of these U.S. troops would provide multi-dimensional air and ground logistical support for tactically capable but operationally limited ANA. Another 10,000 are necessary for advise and assist missions with the ANA and with selected Afghan National Police (ANP) formations down to the levels of divisions and brigades—a far more robust undertaking than the present limitations to ANA corps level and above. There is no way to fight a credible counter-insurgency in the inhospitable and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan without indirect fire support, timely aerial strike support, aero-resupply, and aero-medical evacuation. U.S. forces found this out themselves in 2004–08, and thus committed several U.S. Army helicopter battalions and multiple U.S. Air Force air wings to these missions during the 2009–2013 period—support for about 120,000 allied troops in the field. In 2015, the ANA and ANP field twice that number of ground troops but only have about 10 percent of the U.S. air assets. A March 2014 report discussed in some detail how a weak Afghan Air Force raises serious concerns about the ability of the entire ANSF to combat the Taliban insurgency.47 A modest commitment of a U.S. Army helicopter lift battalion, an attack battalion, and a dedicated U.S. Air Force Fighter wing would comprise about 3,500–4,000 of this 10,000-person package.

A robust U.S. Special Operations element of 3,000 members must also remain to assure responsive and capable counterterrorism capability. These will assist Afghan special units against threats to Afghan sovereignty and must conduct autonomous counterterrorism operations against potential encroachment by international terrorist organizations.

Finally, some 4,000 military intelligence troops must remain to assure quality and timely tracking of the threats faced by Afghan and U.S. forces. More importantly, these troops would autonomously track the complex interplay of international jihadist outfits across the Afghanistan–Pakistan region, assuring rapid U.S. operational responsiveness to metastasizing threats and a robust independent capability to assess what will surely be incomplete and biased assessments from the Afghan NDS and Pakistan ISI.

The United States also would be wise to fashion a recurring annual (or biannual) field training exercise featuring an Afghan division paired with a U.S. brigade rotated in from the United States—thereby demonstrating continuing commitment and U.S.–Afghan interoperability. No such exercise was present in the initial plans for implementation of the U.S.–Afghan BSA.

Major U.S. force concentrations would best base from Bagram, Kabul, Kandahar, and points north and west, with only those advise-assist troops, autonomous intelligence, and Special Forces assets necessary for the south and east basing within compounds there run by the ANA. The March 2015 Obama administration announcement of a drawdown delay alluded to the fact that these three Afghan locations would be manned by U.S. forces through at least the end of 2015—a welcome change of prior plans to quit all but Bagram.48 However, a mere extension of mid2015 residual U.S. force dispositions does not yet sufficiently reconsider the enormous strategic risks from the existing undersized and ill-apportioned U.S. military element.

 

U.S. Domestic Politics—Past Constraints and New Opportunities

The Obama administration’s November 2014 and March 2015 announcements of altered troop withdrawal timelines for Afghanistan reflected evolving domestic political drivers. These considerations have long-colored strategic options in Afghanistan. In his 2008 first-term presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama labeled Afghanistan the “good war” and vowed that it would be his priority for U.S. forces in harm’s way—and one far ahead of any strategic obligation in Iraq.49 After committing to a surge of U.S. forces in support of his administration’s new Afghanistan–Pakistan (Af–Pak) strategy during 2009 (that led to an increase in U.S. troops from about 34,000 in January 2009 to 100,000 in mid-July 2011), President Obama made it clear that he would not leave U.S. forces there indefinitely.50

In many ways, the President’s impetus to get in, get done, and get out reflected the ambivalence of the wider U.S. polity to the Afghanistan enterprise. Public opinion polls in 2008–2009 found that the U.S. people worried about terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but were even more wary of never-ending war, and were angry at Washington for its spending addiction despite the deep bite of the ongoing economic recession across most of the United States.51 As observed by U.S. political scientist Michael Mazarr in a 2012 essay, almost 50 percent of polled Americans in 2009 stated that the United States should mind its own business and let other countries get along the best that they can, up 20 percent from a similar Pew Research Center poll conducted just seven years earlier.52

In 2009–10, the administration was able to walk the fiscal tightrope and load up the $35 billion supplemental funding bill for Afghanistan with additional non-defense appropriations, like $18 billion for Department of Energy loan guarantees and $10 billion for an education jobs fund, taking the final Fiscal Year 2010 supplemental authorization package to just over $70 billion.53 But the administration knew instinctively that it could not do ‘guns and butter’ with a deep or long force commitment into Afghanistan. From mid-2011 through mid2014, an unstated but clear Washington political compact made any serious strategic discussion of a definite withdrawal date all but unquestionable.

But in mid-2014, the domestic political calculus underwriting an inelastic, time-phased drawdown in Afghanistan changed. This change emerged along three dimensions—one international and two domestic. The proximate international cause was the rapid and noisy emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS’s rise came from a combination of badly flawed politics in Iraq after U.S. withdrawal and the chaos of the Syrian civil war. The dynamics of ISIS drew sharp and sustained criticism for the Obama administration’s hand in an abrupt end to U.S. military presence in Iraq and for the administration’s tepid funding for “moderate” rebel groups in the Syrian civil war.54 The ISIS phenomenon elevated a domestic political critique that the administration had badly underappreciated the security risks of imprudent withdrawal from overseas military and intelligence investments.

Simultaneously, the pain from the implementation of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, also known as sequestration, and its limitations on military operations and options gave pause to a number of national political leaders, both in Congress and in the White House. Two years of defense leader warnings that BCA security force limitations were putting warfighters at risk and undermining national security interests were having an effect.55 Many in Congress felt the political sting from painful sequestration layoffs of Defense Department employees and other federal workers in 2013.56

Finally, both of these factors took on a new context with the emerging race for the White House in 2016. By late 2014, most political observers concluded that the 2016 Presidential election would be heavily influenced by foreign policy considerations—and to a degree not seen for more than a decade.57 The early favorites to become party nominees and standard-bearers in the 2016 elections—Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans —have established distance from the Obama administration’s drawdown policies in Iraq during 2009–11 and in Afghanistan from 2012–14.58 Candidates with an aversion to remaining in Afghanistan or upping the ante in the anti-ISIS campaign have also entered the field, notably Tea Party competitors for the Republican nomination in Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz.59

The politics of the ISIS crisis and response created an altered landscape during late-2014 debates in Washington about funding for overseas military operations.60 A curious combination of Republicans and Democrats found common cause while generating an anti-ISIS funding amendment to the FY2015 defense budget that won Presidential support and a clear majority of congressional votes.61 This shift also generated a $64 billion supplemental defense appropriation beyond the baseline defense budget—now referred to as an Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. That FY2015 OCO included funding authorization for the administration’s November 2014 announced extension of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the numbers previously planned for in 2015.62 This convergence of political interest in better funding U.S. engagement against ISIS and other international terrorist groups reflects growing public anxiety with the revealed risks from precipitous withdrawal in Iraq. Year-over-year ABC News/Washington Post polling of Americans showed that in mid-December 2014, 38 percent of Americans felt that the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, up from 28 percent in December 2013; only 56 percent of Americans felt the war was not worth fighting, the lowest negative number since mid-2011 polling data on the subject.63

Alert to this U.S. political shift, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Washington, DC, in the last week of March 2015 with a shrewdly calibrated message attuned to growing U.S. concerns about international instability and ISIS. The Afghan president spoke in front of the U.S. Congress and several Washington think tanks about the emerging threat in Afghanistan, invoking the specter of an ISIS-affiliated group in Khorasan (the name Islamic radicals use for Afghanistan–Pakistan and Iran) and claiming that ISIS was already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan.64 There was actually little objective evidence to support Ghani’s assertion about ISIS. Indeed, General John Campbell, the overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had only just before warned of a yet potential ISIS threat to Afghanistan, stating that the evidence of a presence thus far has been limited to “branding efforts” by individuals disaffected with the Taliban leadership.65 The General’s statement was much better aligned with the reality of what was a rather insignificant ISIS presence in Afghanistan as of early 2015.66 However overstated, President Ghani’s claims about ISIS risks for Afghanistan had two clear merits for the wider strategic case for greater U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. First, Ghani’s reference to Afghanistan being in the heart of the “land of Khorasan” was a worthy message. The ‘other’ international Salafi jihadist terror organization, al-Qaeda, has long coveted Afghanistan becoming an essential element in an Islamic emirate of Khorasan.67 As noted earlier, there is strong evidence that al-Qaeda’s central leadership will push hard to regenerate such an emirate in the event of a dramatic end to Western military presence.

Second, Ghani recognized—and was not too shy to exploit—the ongoing moment of U.S. political re-alignment, reluctantly accepting the need for annual defense budget OCO appropriations to counter international instability. To the extent that Ghani’s warnings dovetail with U.S. worries, then there is a prospect that U.S. politicians may, for at least the next several years, find some $20–25 billion in support of Afghanistan’s defense and in supporting Afghanistan’s role in countering international terrorism’s gain of a foothold in ‘Khorasan.’ The convergence of international terrorism’s new face and the United States’ post-2014 political balance between fiscal austerity and international political risk makes it suddenly possible to envision a pathway to U.S. funding necessary for a constructive strategic outcome for Afghanistan.

 

Conclusion

The composition, disposition, and authorities of a U.S. residual force are the most important aspects of leverage available now for U.S. security policy in a very dangerous part of the world. Indeed, South Asia is the only place in the world with two implacably hostile nations, each with more than 180,000 million citizens that have fought four major wars in the past sixty years and now possess nuclear weapons. It is also the region with the most toxic brew of international jihadist outfits and state-sponsored radical militia groups.

In these numbers, and enabled with the proper mission activities, a 20,000man residual U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan would reduce the searing risks left uncovered by the marginally altered 2015 U.S. forces drawdown plans. A properly crafted residual military force necessarily acknowledges that the United States cannot ‘fix’ the region or eliminate the three major challenges to security most dominant within Afghanistan. However, the United States can better posture itself to deter the worst threats, better support the already faltering ANSF units, better inform itself about the evolving nature of Indo-Pakistani proxy hostilities, and better ensure that it has timely and relevant intelligence about the evolving nature of international jihadist outfits. The end-state promised for late 2016 U.S./NATO military presence and operational authorities in Afghanistan remain insufficient to meet these major requirements.

Residual U.S. bases and forces in South Korea have been performing precisely such a crisis deterrence and crisis response role for at least the past 40 years. Declining from a 1953 number of 325,000 to about 60,000 in the 1960s and then to about 40,000 during the 1970s and early 1980s, forward-stationed U.S. military forces helped keep the United States “in,” North Korea “out,” the South Koreans and Japanese “calm,” and the Chinese “cautious.” In a parallel time, critics of U.S. overseas presence lamented that U.S. military assistance to South Korea at the time of the first U.S.–South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 1966 was four times what the Koreans spent on their 600,000-man military force, and that Washington paid for a Corps-sized forward-stationed Army force with three air wings—a total of some 60,000 troops—in a country barely able to stand on its own two feet.68 But less than a decade later, in 1975, that U.S. operational military and intelligence presence had enabled both regional stability and a Korean export-led growth economy to rise from nothing into an ascending economic entity. By the late 1970s, South Korea began to pay for its own security forces on-budget, and in 1991 Seoul began contributing toward U.S. military stationing and exercise costs.

In contrast, the absence of U.S. intelligence and operational forces in Iraq from late 2011 onward surely blinded the United States and her allies from the dangerous convergence of resurgent jihadist groups and politically disaffected Iraqi as well as Syrian Sunni tribes from 2012–2014, denying a timely or effective early response. The U.S. security interests in South Asia are no less demanding than in Northeast Asia or the northern arc of the Middle East. Prudence should dictate that Washington and its partners aim to have Afghanistan in 2020 look more like South Korea in 1966 than Iraq in 2014. The U.S.–Afghan BSA is not the same as the U.S.–South Korean Mutual Defense Treaty, but it need not be. The 2014 U.S.–Afghan BSA is permissive enough and sufficient to enable a full array of national defense, counterterrorism, and stability-enhancing activities necessary to safeguard the major U.S. security objectives in Afghanistan and within the wider region.69

Thus, why not scope the residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to a size and posture able to address the intractable dilemmas that remain? The hour is late, but the means to reduce presently unacceptable local, regional, and international security risks in Afghanistan are clear. So too are the domestic political pathways for fully funding a strategically serious residual force— political possibilities that were not present from 2011–2014. With sober reflection on the aftermath of a too-dramatic exit from Iraq, a comprehensive policy and strategy review for U.S. military-intelligence presence in Afghanistan into 2016 and beyond needs to be conducted during 2015, endorsed by President Obama, and its conclusions funded for the remaining months of the Obama administration and the beginning months of a successor president.

 

Notes

1.         Michael D. Shear and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. to Delay Pullout of Troops from Afghanistan to Aid Strikes,” The New York Times, March 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/25/world/asia/ashraf-ghani-of-afghanistan-wants-us-troops-to-stay-longer.html; and Raf Sanchez, “US to slow troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, ” The Telegraph (UK), March 24, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/norththeUnitedStates/usa/11493 232/US-to-slow-troop-withdrawal-from-Afghanistan.html.

2.         See Shear and Mazzetti, “U.S. to Delay Pullout of Troops from Afghanistan to Aid Strikes”; and Carol E. Lee and Colleen McCain Nelson, “U.S. Slows Pace of Afghan Troops Withdrawal,” The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-meets-with-afghan-president-ghani-amid-troop-drawdown-concerns-14 27209840.

3.         Formally known as the Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States of The United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, this document was essentially crafted between Washington and Kabul by November 2013, but then-President Hamid Karzai refused to sign it. It was signed on September 30, 2014, the day after new President Ashraf Ghani was sworn in. See, Marherita Stancati and Nathan Hodge, “U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement Signed,” The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-afghan-bilateralsecurity-agreement-signed-1412076436.

4.         The U.S.–Afghanistan BSA makes no guarantees of minimal military assistance, monetary contributions or basing locations. This lack of specificity enabled an outside-in roadmap for U.S./NATO military drawdown that had more to do with U.S. financial and political “supply” constraints than with the critical security “demand”

requirements generated by U.S. vital interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Asia.

5.         See “Afghan lower house approves 12,500 NATO-led troops remaining,” Agence Francais Presse (AFP) in The Japan Times, November 23, 2014, http://www.japantimes. co.jp/news/2014/11/23/world/politics-diplomacy-world/afghan-lower-house-approves-12 500-nato-led-troops-remaining/#.VH9okDGkPME; Clar Ni Chonghaile, “Afghanistan: what will happen when the troops—and their dollars—depart,” The Guardian (UK), November 27, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/nov/27/afghanistan-nato-troops-withdraw-ashraf-ghani; and. Rod Nordland and Taimoor Shah, “Afghanistan Quietly Lifts Ban on Night Raids,” The New York Times, November 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/24/world/asia/afghanistan-quietly-lifts-ban-onnight-raids.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region&re gion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1.

6.         Administration claims are found in Gordon Lubold, “Obama Orders 9,800 Troops to Remain in Afghanistan with All Out by 2016,” Foreign Policy, May 27, 2014, http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/05/27/obama_to_announce_9800_troops_to_remain_in_afghanistan_all_out_by_2016; and, Adam Entous and Carol Lee, “Obama Details Plan for Forces in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/articles/obama-details-planfor-forces-in-afghanistan-1401234489.

7.         For several such indefensibly expansive proposals, see Seth Jones and Keith Crane, “Afghanistan After the Drawdown,” Council on Foreign Relations, Special Report no. 67, November 2013; Kimberley Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan, “Why U.S. Troops Must Stay in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, November 23, 2012, http://www. understandingwar.org/otherwork/why-us-troops-must-stay-afghanistan; and Frederick

W. Kagan and Christopher Harmer, “How Many troops does the U.S. need in Afghanistan?” Institute for the Study of War, Backgrounder, January 17, 2013, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/how-many-troops-does-us-need-afghanistan.

8.         As an example of this risk, see Praveen Swami: “Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahari Announces New Front to Wage War on India”, The Daily Express Online (India), September 4, 2014, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_ 0_0_200_0_0_43/content/Display/SAR2014090415037228?returnFrame=true.

9.         Afghanistan Economy Profile 2014, Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/afghanistan/economy_profile.html. This figure may be low. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) reported in September 2014 that the United States alone had spent $109 (US) billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002. However, SIGAR number includes a lot of military infrastructure expenses that are not unambiguously part of Afghan development assistance. See Tony Capaccio, “US Military Classifying Assessments of Afghan Military,” Bloomberg, October 30, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-10-30/u-s-militaryclassifying-assessments-of-afghan-military.html.

10.       These figures reported by the U.S. SIGAR in September 2014. See David Lerman and Eltaf Najafizada, “Afghan Deal Rekindles Question on U.S. Pace in Leaving,” Bloomberg News, October 1, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-10-01/afghan-deal-rekindles-questions-on-u-s-pace-in-leaving.html.

11.       Kevin Sieff and Joshua Partlow, “Afghan economy facing serious revenue shortage,” The Washington Post, April 15, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghan-economy-facing-serious-revenue-shortage/2014/04/15/6ddce38a-5be9-46ad8f3b-1eb2ef4ed9bd_story.html; and, “Letter from the Office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and U.S. Department of State Response,” September 26 and October 10, 2014, http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/specialpercent20projects/SIGAR-14-101-SP.pdf.

12.       See Brian Spegele and Nathan Hodge, “China Pledges $327 Million in Aid to Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/articles/china-pledges-327-million-in-aid-to-afghanistan-1414566221; Gareth Price, “India’s Policy Towards Afghanistan,” ASP 2013/14, Chatham House, August 2013, pp. 5-6, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Asia/0813pp_indiaafghanistan.pdf; “India promises more reconstruction aid for Afghanistan,” Press TV, May 22, 2013, http://www.presstv.com/detail/2013/05/22/304832/india-vows-to-send-aid-to-afghanistan/; and Lucy Westcott, “Afghanistan Conference: U.S., U.K., Pledge Support to Fledgling Government,” Newsweek.com, December 4, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/afghanistan-conference-us-uk-pledgesupport-fledgling-government-289338.

13.       Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow, “Corruption in Afghanistan still a problem as international donors meet,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2012, http://www. washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/corruption-in-afghanistan-still-a-problemas-international-donors-meet/2012/07/06/gJQAhxjgSW_story.html.

14.       See John Boone, “The Financial Scandal that Broke Afghanistan’s Kabul Bank,” The Guardian (UK), June 16, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/16/kabulbank-afghanistan-financial-scandal.

15.       Hannah Gais, “How Ashraf Ghani’s Government will Address Afghanistan’s Endemic Problems,” The Diplomat, March 30, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/howashraf-ghanis-government-will-address-afghanistans-endemic-problems/; and, Mary Beth Goodman and Trevor Sutton, “Tackling Corruption in Afghanistan: It’s Now or Never,” Center for American Progress Report, March 17, 2015, https://www. americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2015/03/17/108613/tackling-corruption-inafghanistan-its-now-or-never/.

16.       See, “Realizing Self-Reliance: Commitments to Reforms and Renewed Partnership – Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” London Conference on Afghanistan, December 2014, http://www.afghanistan-un.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/REALIZINGFINAL-SELF-RELIANCE-25-November-2014.pdf.

17.       Abdullah Sharif, “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Pushes the Reset Button,” The World Post – Huffington Post, March 30, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abdullah-sharif/afghan-president-ashraf-gani_b_6962074.html.

18.       For example, see Lynne O’Donnell, “China’s MCC turns back on US$3b Mes Aynak Afghanistan mine deal,” South China Morning Post, March 21, 2014, http://www.scmp. com/news/world/article/1453375/chinas-mcc-turns-back-us3b-mes-aynak-afghanistanmine-deal.

 

19.       For detailed evidence of this support see, Matthew Waldman, “The Sun in the Sky: The Relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan Insurgents,” Crisis States Research Centre Discussion Papers – London School of Economics, June 2010, http://www.aljazeera.com/mritems/Documents/2010/6/13/20106138531279734lse-isitaliban.pdf, Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), especially pp. 129-234.

20.       For example, see “Pakistan helping Afghan Taliban – Nato,” BBC News Asia, February 1, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16821218.

21.       Moeed Yusuf, Huma Yusuf and Salman Zaidi, “Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite,” A Jinnah Institute Research Report, 2011, http://www.jinnah-institute.org/images/ji_afghanend game.pdf.

22.       See Rod Nordland, “Attacks on Foreigners in Capital Get Afghan Faction’s Message Across,” The New York Times, October 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/world/asia/haqqani-network-sends-message-with-kabul-attacks.html?_r=0;Paul Cruickshank, “The Militant Pipeline,” New America Foundation, February 2010; and Praveen Swami, “Herat attack a challenge for Narendra Modi,” The Hindu, May 23, 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/herat-attack-challenge-for-narendra-modi/article6041162.ece.

23.       See Umar Farooq, “Afghanistan-Pakistan: The Covert War,” The Diplomat, January 1, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/01/afghanistan-pakistan-the-covert-war/.

24.       See Barnett R. Rubin, “Ghani’s Gambit: Can Afghanistan and Pakistan Ever Get Along?” The New York Times, March 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/opinion/can-afghanistan-and-pakistan-ever-get-along.html.

25.       Price, “India’s Policy Towards Afghanistan, pp. 3 & 9.

26.       For a discussion of India’s upgrades to its military and intelligence access in Tajikistan, see Rajeev Sharma, “India’s Anyi military base in Tajikistan is Russia-locked,” Russia and India Report, October 26, 2012, http://in.rbth.com/articles/2012/10/26/indias_ayni_military_base_in_tajikistan_is_russia-locked_18661.html; and, “India, Tajikistan to step up counterterrorism cooperation,” Business Standard, September 11, 2014, http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/india-tajikistan-to-stepup-counterterrorism-cooperation-114091101203_1.html.

27.       See Thomas F. Lynch III, “The 80 Percent Solution: “The Strategic Defeat of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Implications for South Asian Security,” The United States Foundation National Security Studies Program Policy Paper, February 2012, especially pages 8-10.

28.       See “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri launches al-Qaeda in South Asia,” BBC News Asia, September 4, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29056668; and, “Full Text of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s audio message,” The Daily Star, http://www. thedailystar.net/upload/gallery/pdf/transcription-zawahiri-msg.pdf.

29.       See “Pakistan wants Afghanistan to hand over Maulana Fazlullah,” Expresss Tribune, October 21, 2014, http://tribune.com.pk/story/454861/pakistan-wants-afghanistan-tohand-over-maulana-fazlullah/; Bill Roggio, “US military continues to claim al Qaeda is ‘restricted’ to ‘isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan,’” The Long War Journal, November 19, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/11/us_military_ continue.php; and, Zahir Shah Sherasi, “US drone strike kills 7 on Pak-Afghan border,” Pakistan Dawn (English), September 14, 2014, http://www.dawn.com/news/1131869/us-drone-strike-kills-7-on-pak-afghan-border.

30.       See Soibhan Gorman, “suicide Bombing in Afghanistan Devastates Critical Hub for CIA Activities,” The Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB126225941186711671.

31.       An excellent review of the daunting challenges faced from jihadist group combinations and evolutions in Pakistan and by Pakistan is in Stephen Tankel, “Domestic Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2013, especially pp. 15-21, http://www.operationspaix.net/DATA/DOCUMENT/8112~v~ Domestic_Barriers_to_Dismantling_the_Militant_Infrastructure_in_Pakistan.pdf.

32.       See “Afghan troops battle mass Taliban Assault in Helmand,” BBC News Asia, June 15, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28012340; Rod Nordland and Taimoor Shah, “Afghans Say Taliban are Nearing Control of Key District,” The New York Times, September 6, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/world/asia/afghanistan.html? _r=0; and, Ratib Noori, “ANSF Regain Control of Sangin,” Tolo News, October 12, 2014, http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/16711-ansf-regain-control-of-sangi..

33.       See Elizabeth Williams, “Taliban Summer Offensive Shows Increasing Capability,” Institute for the Study of War (ISW), September 2014, http://www.understandingwar. org/sites/default/files/Talibanpercent20violencepercent20report_0.pdf.

34.       See “Violence Marks Afghanistan President’s First Month in Office,” Associated Press, October 28, 2014, http://www.ndtv.com/article/world/violence-marks-afghanistanpresident-s-first-month-in-office-612841; and Lynne O’Donnell and Amir Shah, “Attacks in Kabul raise Concerns about Security,” The Sand Diego Union-tribune, November 20, 2014, http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/nov/20/attacks-in-kabulraise-concerns-about-security/.

35.       See Andrew Tilghman, New Afghanistan Commander reviews Drawdown Plans,” Military Times, November 14, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/14/afghanistan-drawdown-review/19041195/.

36.       The major ANSF capability shortfalls are well documented in U.S. military assessments and outside contractor studies. Among these, Jonathan Schroden, et. al., Independent Assessment of the Afghan National Security Forces, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), January 2014, http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/CNA percent20Independentpercent20Assessmentpercent20ofpercent20thepercent20ANSF. pdf stands out as a comprehensive overview.

37.       On proud Pakistani press reports of U.S. military leader complements for the Pakistan military incursion into North Waziristan, see “Pakistani Army’s operation in North Waziristan disrupted Haqqani network: U.S. commander,” Newsnation Pakistan, November 6, 2014, http://www.newsnation.in/article/60114-pakistani-armysoperation-north-waziristan-disrupted-haqqani-network.html. For evidence of earlier U.S. military commander reservations about the impact of the Pakistani incursion into North Waziristan, see the statements of then-NATO ISAF and USFOR Commander General Joseph Dunford in, “Pakistani forces target militants without discrimination in Waziristan – security advisor,” Xinhuanet China News Service, July 21, 2014, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/world/2014-07/21/c_133500222.htm; and, “US military leaders say it’s too soon to evaluate Pakistan offensive in N. Waziristan,” Associated Press, August 29, 2014, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/08/29/us-military-leaderssay-it-too-soon-to-evaluate-pakistan-offensive-in-n/.

38.       For General Sharif’s claim that Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a matter of national survival and shows no favoritism toward any terrorist group, see Munir Ahmed, “Pakistani officials: Suspected U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan kill 5 militants,” Associate Press, October 9, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2014/10/09/usdrone-strikes-kill-5-militants-in-nw-pakistan.

39.       For example see, Christine Fair, “The Pakistan army’s Foray into North Waziristan: Get Used to Disappointment,” War on the Rocks, July 7, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/the-pakistan-armys-foray-into-north-waziristan-get-used-to-disappointment/. Also see, “Senior Haqqani leader shot dead in Pakistan,” Al Jazeera, November 11, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2013/11/senior-haqqani-leader-shot-deadpakistan-20131111115352444789.html.

40.       Declan Walsh, “2 Haqqani Militant Leaders are Captured, Afghan Officials Say,” The New York Times, October 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/17/world/asia/haqqani-leaders-arrested-afghanistan-khost.html.

41.       “Pakistan censures NATO over militant safe havens in Afghanistan,” English Islam Times, June 26, 2012, http://www.islamtimes.org/en/doc/news/174377/en/doc/news/423234/israeli-soldiers-shoot-injure-palestinian-teen-in-west-bank; “Striking revelalreak/]tions: Hakimullah Mehsud’s top aide in U.S. custody,” The Express Tribune, October 12, 2013, http://tribune.com.pk/story/616941/striking-revelations-hakimullahmehsuds-top-aide-in-us-custody/; Matthew Rosenberg, “U.S. Disrupts Afghans’ Tack on Militants,” The New York Times, October 28, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/world/asia/us-disrupts-afghans-tack-on-militants.html? pagewanted=all&module=Search&mabRe ward=relbias percent3As percent2C percent7B percent222 percent22 percent3A percent22RI percent3A13 percent22 percent7D.

42.       For troop drawdown numbers in 2013 and 2014 see, Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terrorism Operations Since 9/11, (Congressional Research Service, Report No. RL33110) (Washington, DC: December 8, 2014), especially pp. 9-11, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.

43.       Julie Pace, “Obama to Keep 9,800 Troops in Afghanistan After 2014,” Associated Press, May 27, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/27/obama-troops-afghani stan_n_5397671.html.

44.       For a review of the consequences from a rapid U.S. military and intelligence exit from Iraq, see Rick Brennan, “Withdrawal Symptoms: The Bungling of the Iraq Exit,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2014), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142204/rick-brennan/withdrawal-symptoms. For an assessment of the uncertain, but certainly extensive, costs to dealing with the severe security challenge posed by the Islamic State Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, See Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terrorism Operations Since 9/11, especially pp. 19-72.

45.       For a similar conclusion, see Mark Sedra, “The Danger of Unfinished Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan,” Security Sector Reform Resource Centre, September 30, 2014, http://www.ssrresourcecentre.org/2014/09/30/the-danger-of-unfinished-securitysector-reform-in-afghanistan/.

46.       This lesson is featured in both U.S. military operational lessons learned studies of Iraq and Afghanistan and in preliminary strategic reviews. See Decade of War, Volume I: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations (Suffolk, VA: Joint & Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA), June 15, 2012), especially pp. 2-5, 25-28 and 36-37.

47.       Gary Owen, “Flying After 2014: Which aircraft for the Afghan Air Force,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 2, 2014, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/flying-after-2014-which-aircraft-for-the-afghan-air-force/.

48.       Shear and Mazzetti, “U.S. to Delay Pullout of Troops from Afghanistan to Aid Strikes”; and author interview with Department of Defense official working Afghanistan policy, March 30, 2015.

49.       See “Obama calls situation in Afghanistan ‘urgent’,” CNN (US) Election Center 2008, July 21, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/20/obama.afghanistan/; and, “The First Presidential Debate – Transcript,” The New York Times,September 26, 2008, http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/debates/transcripts/first-presidentialdebate.html.

50.       The Press Office, The White House, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” December 1, 2009, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nation-way-forwardafghanistan-and-pakistan.

51.       A CNN/ORC poll in late August 2009 found that 74 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents opposed the war, leaving overall support for the conflict, 42 percent. See, Yochi J. Dreazen, “Call for an Afghan Surge,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2009, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB125302644252312177. Also see Jeffrey M. Jones, “Domestic Priorities Top The United Statesns’ To-Do List for Obama,” Gallup.com, January 19, 2009, http://www.gallup.com/poll/113869/domesticpriorities-top-theUnitedStatesns-list-obama.aspx.

52.       Michael J. Mazarr, “The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency,” The Washington Quarterly 35, no. 4, (Spring 2012), pp. 11-12, http://csis.org/files/publication/twq12FallMazarr.pdf.

53.       See Jim Arkedis, “Time to End Supplemental Budgeting,” Progressive Policy Institute Paper, June 30, 2010, http://www.progressivepolicy.org/issues/budget/time-to-endsupplemental-budgeting/.

54.       See Liz Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-hidden-hand-behind-the-islamic-state-militants-saddam-husseins/2015/04/04/aa97676c-cc32-11e4-8730-4f473416e759_story.html; Max Boot, “Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy failure,” Commentary Magazine, September 2, 2014, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/2014/09/02/obamas-pattern-of-foreign-policy-failure/.

55.       See John McCain and Mac Thornberry, “The United States’s Dangerous Defense Cuts,” The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/johnmccain-and-mac-thornberry-theUnitedStatess-dangerous-defense-cuts-1425943297; and David Weigel, “Iraq Syndrome,” Slate, September 9, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/09/senators_weighing_obama_s_airstrikes_against_isis_democrats_fear_trusting.html.

56.       See Teagan Goddard, “Obama to Fight Against Automatic Spending Cuts,” Political Wire, January 29, 2015, http://politicalwire.com/2015/01/29/obama-fight-automaticspending-cuts/.

57.       See Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann, “First Read: A Foreign Policy Election (More or Less) is Coming for 2016,” NBC News, March 27, 2015, http://www. nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/first-read-foreign-policy-election-more-or-less-coming2016-n331276.

58.       See Josh Rogin, “Hillary Clinton Pushed Obama to Keep Troops in Iraq,” The Daily Beast, June 18, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/18/hillary-clintonpushed-obama-to-keep-troops-in-iraq.html; Hillary Clinton, Hard Choices (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), especially pp. 460-470; Lesley Clark, “Jeb Bush on foreign policy: Mistakes made in Iraq, I am my own man,” McClatchy News Service, February 18, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2015/02/18/257094/jeb-bush-on-foreignpolicy-mistakes.html; and Matthew Cooper, “The World According to Jeb Bush,” Newsweek, February 18, 2015, http://www.newsweek.com/jeb-bush-foreign-policy307813.

59.       See Mark Welch, “Rand Paul and Ted Cruz Try to Out-Fiscal-Hawk One Another,” Reason, March 30, 2015, http://reason.com/blog/2015/03/30/rand-paul-and-ted-cruztry-to-out-fiscal.

60.       Hannah Gais, “ISIS invades midterms,” Foreign Policy Association Blogs, September 16, 2014, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2014/09/16/isis-invades-midterms/.

61.       David Alexander, “Congress Passes Spending Bill Backing Expanded Campaign Against ISIS,” Reuters, December 12, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/12/congress-defense-authorization_n_6317742.html; and Dan Hirschorn, “Senate Democrat Wants Bill Allowing Andi-ISIS Strikes in Syria,” Time, September 2, 2014, http://time.com/3259564/isis-iraq-syria-bill-nelson/.

62.       David Alexander, “Congress Passes Spending Bill Backing Expanded Campaign Against ISIS”; and Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terrorism Operations Since 9/11.

63.       See, “Afghanistan,” PollingReport.com.

64.       See, Richard Sisk, “Ghani Warns U.S. Congress of Emerging ISIS Threat in Afghanistan,” Military.Com, March 25, 2015, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/03/25/ghani-warns-us-congress-of-emerging-isis-threat-in-afghanistan.html.

65.       Ibid.

66.       See “Foreign fighters flow to Syria,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2015, http://www. washingtonpost.com/world/foreign-fighters-flow-to-syria/2015/01/27/7fa56b70-a63111e4-a7c2-03d37af98440_graphic.html; and Don Rassler, “Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan,” Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) – West Point 8, Issue 3 (March 2015), pp. 7-11, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CTCSentinel-Vol8Issue322.pdf.

67. I     bid.

68.       See Chung-in Moon and Sangkuen Lee, “Military Spending and the Arms Race on the Korean Peninsula,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, http://www.japanfocus.org/Sangkeun-Lee/3333; and “Inquiry into U.S. Costs and Allied Contributions to Support the U.S. Military Presence Overseas,” Report of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, Sess., 113-12, April 15, 2013, especially pages 18-19, http://file:///C:/Users/Dr.%20Thomas%20F%20Lynch/Downloads/SASC_basing%204. 16.2013.pdf.

69.       See “Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Korea,” Treaties and Other International Acts, Series 6127, July 9, 1966, http://www.usfk.mil/usfk/Uploads/130/US-ROKStatusofForcesAgreement_1966-67.pdf.
http://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/after-isis-fully-reappraising-us-policy-afghanistan

John Riddell on Zimmerwald, 1915: New socialist resistance against war-

Posted by admin On August - 29 - 2015 Comments Off on John Riddell on Zimmerwald, 1915: New socialist resistance against war-

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The Zimmerwald conference, a small gathering held in Switzerland 100 years ago, on September 5-8, 1915, marked a turning point in the world socialist movement. Socialists from many countries issued an appeal that united anti-war socialists during World War I and helped prepare the revolutions with which it concluded. To mark the Zimmerwald centenary I am presenting links to three major documents of the conference in new translations, together with my short introduction.
Documents of the Zimmerwald conference
Introduction to the 1915 Zimmerwald conference (by John Riddell) – below
Letter to the conference by Karl Liebknecht
Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left (drafted by Karl Radek)
The Zimmerwald Manifesto (drafted by Leon Trotsky)
Introduction
100 years ago: 42 delegates from 11 countries met in the first international conference of socialist currents opposed to World War I, held 5-8 September 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The resulting “Zimmerwald Manifesto” helped inspire a mass movement of anti-war and socialist activists across the warring countries of Europe.
Posted above are links to new translations of the Zimmerwald Manifesto and of two other conference documents: a letter from renowned German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht and a text proposed by a radical caucus at the conference, the “Zimmerwald Left”.
The Socialist International had collapsed at the outset of war in August 1914, and contact between member parties was broken off. The following year, socialists in Switzerland and Italy called for a conference that could restore inter-party relations and reaffirm the principle of internationalist opposition to the war. Socialist women and youth opened the road by holding their own international gatherings in March and April 1915.
Socialist party officials in most warring countries were hostile to this proposal, but a small conference of anti-war socialist parties and groups was nonetheless scheduled for September 1915 in Switzerland. Delegates set out from Bern, Switzerland, on a 10-kilometre trip to the conference site, a guest house in the village of Zimmerwald. They joked about the fact that 50 years after the foundation of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four horse-drawn coaches. “But they were not sceptical”, conference delegate Leon Trotsky later wrote. “The thread of history often breaks – then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.”[1]
Divergent goals
While agreed in their opposition to the war, delegates were divided in their goals. The main conference organiser, Swiss socialist Robert Grimm, sought above all to revive the structures of the shattered Socialist International. By contrast, left-wing delegates, led by the Bolshevik current in Russia, set their sights on organising a new, revolutionary international, free of the “opportunism” that had led to the socialist collapse in August 1914.[2]
Significantly, Grimm and some other delegates of the conference’s right wing did not wish to condemn parliamentary support for “war credits” – that is, approving funds for government war spending. Yet most anti-war socialists held support for war credits to be a violation of fundamental principle, and this issue was to split the German Social Democracy only two years later. The difference was smoothed over in Zimmerwald by inclusion of modified wording on this point in the final manifesto.
Letter from Karl Liebknecht
On the first day of the conference, a letter from imprisoned German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht was read out to the conference and received with great enthusiasm. Liebknecht had won fame among workers across Europe in December 1914 as the first German parliamentary deputy to vote against war credits. (See “When Karl Liebknecht said ‘no’ to world war”.)
Liebknecht’s statement highlighted central themes advanced by left-wing delegates at the conference, including the need to resume class-struggle initiatives for workers’ interests and to break from the alliance with capitalist rulers imposed by the right-wing Social Democratic leaders – a policy he summed up in the slogan “Civil war not civil peace”.
Liebknecht also called for an “irreconcilable judgment” against the pro-war socialists and for building a new International “on the ruins of the old”.
Zimmerwald Left
Also translated is the resolution drafted by Polish socialist Karl Radek on behalf of 11 left-wing delegates from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Germany and Switzerland convened by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. This group, which became known as the Zimmerwald Left, said that workers’ anti-war struggle should aim at “the overthrow of the capitalist government” and an end to capitalist power. The draft resolution incorporated Liebknecht’s challenging formula regarding resumption of the class struggle.
Although a minority at the Zimmerwald Conference, the Zimmerwald Left soon became a rallying point for revolutionary socialism and can be viewed as a precursor of the Communist International founded in 1919.
Zimmerwald Manifesto
Despite significant disagreement, the conference unanimously approved a manifesto drafted by Leon Trotsky. The manifesto, revolutionary in spirit and thrust, was intended as a appeal to the masses rather than a statement of principles and tactics. The Zimmerwald Left criticised the text for failing to analyse opportunism and omitting any discussion of how to carry out the struggle against war.[3] Nonetheless, the Left supported the manifesto as a “call to struggle” and a basis for united action among antiwar socialists.
Military censors in the warring countries suppressed reports on the Zimmerwald conference and its manifesto. Still, news filtered out, and the manifesto was widely distributed as an underground leaflet. The ideals of Zimmerwald became a source of inspiration for a growing movement of militant action which prepared the revolutions of 1917 and 1918.
“The conference of Zimmerwald has saved the honor of Europe”, wrote Trotsky’s newspaper, Nashe Slovo, on October 19, 1915, “and the ideals of the conference will save Europe itself.”[4]
Notes
[1]. Leon Trotsky, My Life, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970, p. 249.
[2]. Substantial portions of the Zimmerwald conference proceedings can be found in John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, New York: Pathfinder, 1984, pp. 276-322. For a short account of the Zimmerwald conference, see R. Craig Nation, War on War, Chicago: Haymarket, 2009, pp. 85-95.
[3]. For the Zimmerwald Left`s statement on this point, see Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle, p. 315.
[4]. Quoted in Nation, War on War, p. 92.
http://links.org.au/node/4565

The principles of liberation: how Lenin rescued Marx-Chris Nineham

Posted by admin On August - 24 - 2015 Comments Off on The principles of liberation: how Lenin rescued Marx-Chris Nineham

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Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography (Monthly Review Press 2015), 552pp.

Chris Nineham reviews ‘Reconstructing Lenin. An intellectual biography’ by Tamas Krausz
No one seriously concerned with changing the world can avoid Lenin. As Hungarian Marxist Tamás Krausz puts it, ‘the discontented keep running into Lenin’s Marxism at every turn’ (p.316). This, Krausz points out, is above all because Lenin was so central to the Russian Revolution, the first, and up to now most important, anti-capitalist experiment aimed at a stateless society (p.9).

Krausz’s book is not an introduction to Lenin, for that you have to look elsewhere.[i] But it is much more than its billing as ‘an intellectual biography’. Krausz has set himself the ambitious task of examining the principles that motivated and guided Lenin and testing how they matched up against reality. Based on decades of research, the book is a bit obtuse in parts, and the translation feels unreliable, but it makes a series of crucial arguments.

One important thing Krausz does is discredit the myths about one the most demonised political figures in history. As he points out, the industrial-scale vilification of Lenin is normally based on two contradictory stereotypes, one that he was a brutal ideologue, the other that he was a ruthless pragmatist. As this book helps make clear, both are travesties. Lenin was famously flexible and creative, but Krausz’s shows, against Lenin’s detractors who talk of ‘many Lenins’, that through the twists and turns of his struggles, ‘there existed a line of intellectual development that kept his lifework together’ (p.10).

Another great virtue of the book is that, like Lenin, Krausz locates politics in its historical context. His judgements always assess the interplay between human action and stubborn reality. Crucially, Krausz understands that it is only in this way that the ultimately tragic outcome of the Russian revolution can be explained.

Most importantly, Krausz sees Lenin as an essential figure in the history of the struggle for human liberation. Krausz is at pains to show Lenin didn’t create his own ‘ism’, despite repeated attempts to suggest he stood separate from or outside some ‘legitimate’ socialist tradition. His work was in fact a defence and a development of Marx’s and Engels’ emancipatory project, often against those who wanted to blunt its radical edge. Krausz shows that Lenin’s positions and attitudes were already explicit or implicit in Marx. ‘What he did was rediscover, reenergise, and deepen elements of the Marxist tradition that mainstream European social democracy was intent on burying’ (p.360).

Given the nature of most of the literature, some of Lenin’s principles that Krausz outlines may be surprising.

1 Change comes from below. His central project of building a revolutionary movement involved Lenin in a series of struggles against what was then called ‘opportunism’, the idea that socialism could be brought in gradually from above through parliament.

This struggle started at the end of the nineteenth century as Lenin polemicized against the growing strand of reformist politics in the international movement and worked to create an organisation committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the tsarist state. He and his comrades reached a breaking point with the mainstream of the international movement (the Second International) when most socialist parties voted to support their own side in the First World War.

With typical sensitivity to the need for an all-round strategy, Lenin also argued against abstention in parliamentary elections. At the same time, electoralism was only ever a secondary component in the revolutionary process. Revolution was fundamental to Lenin because only radical social transformation could open the way to human control of society and therefore to true freedom, ‘what interested Lenin most in the history of revolutions was how labourers gained the ability to control their lives, if only for a week or a month’ (p.191).

2Method matters. Lenin wrote relatively little philosophy, but it was axiomatic for him that revolutionary theory was a necessary basis for revolutionary action and that the two had to be integrated. In Krausz’s words, ‘there was no doubt that he was the first to recognise the practical significance of methodology in the Marxian theoretical heritage and consciously make it serve applied action’ (p.145).

Two particular insights became more and more explicit in Lenin’s writings. First, his stress on the importance of understanding historical developments in their totality, in all their interconnections. Second, his sense that history is not a linear process, as reformists and many others tended to see it, but proceeds by breaks and leaps, as deep-seated developments reach critical moments of change. In Krausz’s words, ‘he restored the Hegelian Marxist theoretical methodological awareness, based on “totality” to its rightful place, including, first of all, the qualitative leap of revolutionary change, the dialectical dismissal of the old civilisation’ (p.365).

Lenin’s insistence on a dialectical understanding of reality had concrete outcomes. Judging each situation in its totality, he sought to understand the key, potentially transformative element contained within it, and therefore the priority at any particular moment for revolutionaries, ‘the key link in the chain’. In 1915 for example, Lenin grasped the way in which the eruption of imperialist war was creating conditions that transformed the significance of the revolutionary movement in Russia:

This war has involved all Europe, all the most advanced countries with mass and powerful socialist movements. The imperialist war has linked up the Russian revolutionary crisis, which stems from a bourgeois-democratic revolution, with the growing crisis of the proletarian socialist revolution in the West … The Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution is now not only a prologue to, but an indivisible and integral part of the socialist revolution in the West’  (quoted on p.154).

3Humans make history. His hostility to gradualism involved rejecting a widespread prejudice at the time; the idea that change was an inevitable part of the working out of historical processes, not something that had to be consciously fought for to achieve. In Krausz’s words, Lenin was the ‘person who, after Marx, repositioned praxis once again at the centre’ (p.152).

That is to say, he regarded human ideas and action as part of social totality and not somehow outside of it. Following Marx, he understood that in the working class, capitalism had created a  class that had universal interests, that could only liberate itself by abolishing class altogether. He believed that in the right circumstances even small numbers of people can have an enormous influence on the outcome of events. This was not because small numbers can create change themselves but because ‘the potential of millions joining is contained within these conditions’(p.155).

4Imperialism shapes the system. Imperialism was central both to Lenin’s understanding of modern capitalism and to his revolutionary strategy. The mass slaughter of the imperialist war and the growing struggles for national liberation against the great powers opened up new possibilities for revolutionary change. His controversial understanding of nationalism depended on this. He distinguished between different nationalisms. For those living in the great powers any talk of defence of the fatherland was reactionary:

‘In a war between Germany and England the issue is not democracy, but world domination, i.e. exploitation of the world. That is not an issue on which social democrats can side with the exploiters of their nation … presenting it as a democratic war, is to deceive the workers and side with the reactionary bourgeoisie’ (p.160).

This was the starting point that led him to support Karl Liebknecht’s famous slogan raised during World War One: ‘the main enemy is at home.’

The nationalism that emerges in oppressed or occupied countries is radically different. Unlike many socialists of the day he supported the national movements of oppressed peoples as a matter of principle, as well as because they could weaken the structures of capitalist domination. Further, he analysed imperialism and the struggle against it in the context of the wider class struggle; ‘he built the demands for the elimination of national oppression, inclusive of linguistic and cultural oppression, into the “universalist” concept of class struggle’ (p.166).

5Revolutions have to be organised. His critique of reformism also involved a rejection of the idea that fundamental change can come about spontaneously. In his famous 1903 pamphlet What is to be done?, he attacked the common division of socialist activity into parliamentary reform on the one hand and trade-union struggle on the other. One of his arguments was that workers do not automatically reach the level of socialist consciousness through trade-union struggle alone:

‘According to his analysis the working class is subject to bourgeois society not only in its generality, but also concretely, since all preconceived notions associated with the capitalist system find their way into the deepest consciousness of workers. The working class is unable to rid itself spontaneously of these preconceived notions … From this he came to the conclusion that there “cannot be a revolutionary movement without a revolutionary philosophy”‘ (p.114).

After the experience of the first Russian revolution of 1905, Lenin amended some of the formulations he made in What is to be done?, but he held to the basic point which was confirmed over and over again in the tumultuous years that followed. Learning the logic of political struggle, the forces participating in it and so forth, involves conscious strategy, planning and organisation. This requires an organisation dedicated to revolutionary politics.

Krausz shows that even at the most difficult times Lenin never advocated an organisation separate from workers. On the contrary, he always sought ‘a network of legal and underground organisations dedicated to enlisting in a social-democratic movement. Lenin’s basic objective in creating these networks of agents was to facilitate communication and political activity between different sections of an oppressed society’ (p.115).

6The revolution is international. Lenin’s controversial call in April 1917 to the Russian movement to go beyond bourgeois, democratic demands, and to launch a struggle for a society run by workers and peasants, was based on two insights. One was that the weak and vacillating bourgeoisie could not be trusted to enact even basic democracy; ‘the Russian bourgeoisie and the quavering middle classes could not stabilise either the old “semi-parliamentary” system, (with or without the tsar) or the bourgeois democratic system. In his view, these attempts at stabilisation opened the path to counterrevolutionary dictatorships if the revolutionary solution is set off or suffers defeat’ (p.195).

The second was the understanding of Russian revolution as part of a wider revolutionary process. Even before the end of the nineteenth century, he conceived of the coming Russian Revolution as part of an unfolding of the world revolution (p.91). We have seen that the outbreak of World War One reinforced this sense. Krausz stresses that from 1917 onwards, Lenin and his comrades always saw the fortunes of the movement as inextricably linked with those of the international revolution.

7Democracy and the workers’ state. Lenin’s most widely read pamphlet, State and Revolution, is one of the great expositions of popular democracy as the route to human liberation. It draws strongly on Marx and Engels and in particular ‘excavates’ key ideas of theirs that had been buried by the opportunists (p.177).

The central propositions of the book are that the contemporary state is shaped by its role as a guarantor of the capitalists’ power and is far from neutral. For this reason it cannot be reformed but has to be dismantled and replaced if working people are to successfully construct society anew. The new state would have a radically different social structure, run by ordinary people, and so profoundly and organically democratic it would eventually ‘wither away’.

Yet, precisely because of capitalism’s power and influence over society – wealth ‘is fully capable of achieving domination over any democratic Republic by bribery and through the stock exchange’ – the fight against capitalism doesn’t end, as in the anarchist dream, with one blow. After the initial seizure of power, the new state institutions will be needed to dismantle class society fully and to eradicate the influence of the capitalists (p.195).

As Krausz argues, State and Revolution was not a utopian vision or a party line, it was the theoretical expression of contemporary events. In an astoundingly short period of time mass workers’ and peasants’ councils, called soviets, sprung up in Russia bringing millions into direct political activity. In the following years they sprung up temporarily in many parts of Europe. Communist parties also exploded in size in the same period and ‘by 1919 “communism” had constituted itself as a European mass movement, a “global party”’ (p.197).

The Russian reality turned out very differently however. The workers, peasants and soldiers councils, which initially formed the basis of the new state, were decimated by a combination of Western blockade, invasion, famine and civil war. Within a few years, the Bolsheviks were reduced to fighting a desperate rearguard action. Clinging on to the social gains of the revolution in the face of poverty, civil war and the erosion of the regime’s social base involved methods of repression of counter-revolutionary opponents that took the regime in a very different direction to that outlined in State and revolution.

Krausz questions some of the painful measures that the Bolsheviks took in these years including the banning of opposition parties, and points to contradictions in their policies. However, he also explains that in general, circumstances gave them little room to manoeuvre and he documents how Lenin and his comrades were constantly trying to find ways to counteract the concentration of power in the hands of a new bureaucracy.

He shows how the Bolsheviks continued to struggle for the successful spread of the revolution, a prospect which between 1918 and 1923 was perhaps closer than for which Krausz himself allows. Nonetheless, he also shows that, in the absence of such a breakthrough, the contradictions of the situation became impossible. Lenin, Krausz says, understood the predicament clearly and tried to find ways to ensure that ‘workers could defend themselves against the “distorted workers’ state’” (p.333), but the fundamental problems of isolation, economic weakness and war formed ‘concrete historical sets of relations that could not be transcended at the time’ (p.332).

Krausz portrays Lenin as a dedicated revolutionary committed to workers’ self-emancipation to the end. For all the revolutionary’s inevitable errors, the crucial point is that he ‘was stranded in historical circumstances’ and it was this that opened the way for the Stalinist takeover, that was the antithesis of the Leninist experiment. The argument so dear to reactionary historians that Lenin led to Stalin is therefore a reversal of reality. It was in fact the external limits on the revolution that strangled it. This is why, as Krausz explains, Lenin’s emancipatory project, the logical development of Marx’s in new circumstances, speaks so clearly to us today (p.369).

Notes
[i] For good introductions to Lenin see Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (Verso 2009), a sample chapter of which can be read on Counterfire. Also see Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (Bookmarks 1986), and Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (Jonathan Cape 1975).
–Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
http://www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/17957-the-principles-of-liberation-how-lenin-rescued-marx-reconstructing-lenin

Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages-Graham Mustin

Posted by admin On August - 24 - 2015 Comments Off on Religion and revolution in the Middle Ages-Graham Mustin

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In International Socialism 141 Roland Boer gives a fascinating account of how Luther Blissett’s novel Q is “a stunning reclamation of the revolutionary Christian tradition for a whole generation of anti-capitalist activists”.1 The novel concerns the period of the radical Reformation and Boer situates this within the Marxist tradition before discussing the book itself. In this article I would like to look at the revolutionary Christian tradition before the Reformation, during the Middle Ages. I believe that this period has, with the exception of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, been under-represented in discussions among Marxists about the history of revolution and rebellion. My aim in this article is to extend the discussion of the role of religion in pre-capitalist revolutionary movements to the medieval period by briefly examining some of the more significant revolts. I will attempt to address the role that religion played within the economic and social context that created the conditions for rebellion against the established authorities.

The Marxist tradition: Engels and Kautsky

Marxist attempts to analyse revolutionary Christian movements begin with Frederick Engels. In his very influential The Peasant War in Germany he covers many of the same events that are central to Q.2 Another work that demonstrates Engels’s interest in the history of religion is On the History of Early Christianity, described by Boer as “much sharper” than The Peasant War, in which he discusses in detail the biblical book known as the Revelation of St John or the Book of Revelation. He argues that Christianity was a movement of the oppressed and makes direct comparisons with the socialist movement of his time. Referring to the risings of “oppressed peasants and town plebians” in the Middle Ages, he claims that they were “bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration”.3

As Roland Boer points out Engels does not argue that theology itself could be revolutionary or that religious ideas can provide a genuine expression of revolutionary social and economic aspirations. Instead he states that “in the popular risings of the Christian West…the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated”.4 This approach is one that other Marxists have adopted but is, I believe, an over-simplification of the complex inter-relationship between religious beliefs and social and economic revolt. While it is vital for Marxists to focus on the economic context in which religious movements occur, this approach underestimates the extent to which those who revolted against the social and economic order justified their revolt, and expressed their hopes for a more egalitarian society, through genuinely held, often millenarian, religious convictions. At a point in history in which religious belief was ubiquitous it would be surprising if those involved in popular movements of revolt did not justify their rebellion, to themselves and others, in religious terms. Their understanding of religion provided an ideological framework through which they perceived the social and economic situation in which they found themselves. Religion, in particular the apocalyptic prophesies in the Book of Revelation, also gave them hope in their conflict with the superior military forces they faced. Only a genuine belief in the intervention of God on their side could have encouraged such large numbers of the poor to risk revolt.

A more developed understanding of the role of religion in medieval communist movements can be found in the work of Karl Kautsky. Despite the justified criticisms that have been made of his role in the Second International and after, his work on religion is still useful. His Foundations of Christianity is a well-known and important work. However, for those studying pre-capitalist revolutionary movements Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation is of particular interest. In this work Kautsky analyses the antagonism between rich and poor in the Middle Ages. He identifies how the doctrine of voluntary poverty could be attractive to those who lived in poverty through no choice of their own. “Thus the primitive Christian doctrine…now fell on fertile soil; the doctrine that poverty is no crime, but rather a providential, God-given condition… Unveiled misery met the observer everywhere, in glaring contrast with wanton and excessive luxury”.5

Kautsky goes on to analyse communism in the Taborite movement, emphasising how religious radicalism justified social revolution: “All princes, nobles and knights were to be uprooted as weeds and utterly exterminated. Imposts, taxes and payments were to cease and all laws of princes, nations, towns, and peasants be abrogated as inventions of men and not of God”.6 Kautsky takes these religious revolutionaries much more seriously on their own terms than Engels does, as he does Thomas Müntzer, the German radical theologian and leader of the peasant revolt, and the Anabaptists. This acceptance that theological beliefs could motivate revolutionary movements is an important advance that Marxists studying medieval religious revolts can build on when studying popular movements of rebellion and revolt. In the process Kautsky points out some of the differences in the potential for revolution in the medieval period and under capitalism. In the medieval period religious belief was not only shared among all members of society but could inspire revolt against the powerful forces of the kings, emperors and bishops. In many cases it was only the hope of divine intervention, prophesied in the bible and preached by their leaders, that gave those who rose in rebellion a belief in the possibility of final victory.

Millenarianism and medieval revolt

Engels’s interest in the Book of Revelation is justified by the influence of this prophetic work on revolutionary movements including those in the Middle Ages. Norman Cohn’s book The Pursuit of the Millennium was the most influential historical work to draw attention to the importance of millennarian movements. He argued that it was vital to study what he described as “that subterranean revolutionary eschatology” that threatened the order of medieval society.7 Cohn focuses on the way that belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, who the Book of Revelation prophesied would defeat the Antichrist and rule on earth for 1,000 years in the period known as the Millennium, animated groups who were prepared to confront the existing spiritual and political powers. Cohn’s work is ­valuable in examining the range of such movements and the extent to which they threatened the established order. However, he did so from an explicitly anti-Marxist position that questioned the extent to which these revolts could be explained in terms of class struggle. Marxists need to build on the work of scholars such as Cohn who have taken these religious revolts seriously, and attempted to understand how genuinely held religious ideas motivated their participants, while situating them in the context of the economic crisis of feudalism and the class conflict that resulted.

What millenarian ideas did was to hold out the possibility of success to groups composed of the poor and disadvantaged who were taking on the powerful and well-armed forces of the medieval ruling class. Apocalyptic religious ideas gave rebels a belief that God would intervene to help them and punish their enemies who could be identified as the enemies of God by their wealth, luxury and oppression. Poor peasants needed to believe in divine intervention to be prepared to take on these forces. And again and again we see the rise of religious leaders who gave them this belief through radical preaching, often predicting the coming apocalypse. As Norah Carlin argues in her article “Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution” in this journal, in the Middle Ages “the material conditions for a socialist society were altogether absent and there was no revolutionary theory save the millenarian fantasies of some popular heretics”.8

Joachim of Fiore and the medieval prophetic tradition

The most influential figure in medieval apocalyptic prophecy was Joachim of Fiore. His influence spread very widely in the medieval period and can be seen as an important factor in popularising the analysis of the Book of Revelation and making it directly relevant to the present age. Joachim was born in Calabria in the 1130s and was working as an official in the court of the King of Sicily when he had a spiritual conversion. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he returned to Calabria and lived as a hermit before becoming a Cistercian monk. He writes that he was attempting to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation and was about to give up when on Easter morning he woke with a “spiritual understanding” of the meaning of the book. This was his idea of the three ages of history that he identified with the Christian idea of the trinity. The first age was the time of God the Father and the Old Testament, and the second age that of the Son, the New Testament. Joachim prophesied the imminent coming of a third age, that of the Holy Spirit. After the apocalypse, which he expected to happen in his own time, there would be a utopian age in which there would be an end to all class divisions.9 Joachim developed a far reaching reputation during his lifetime and was known as an adviser to popes and kings. His ideas spread widely and in the process popularised the idea of an imminent apocalypse that would overturn all existing authorities.

Joachim did not preach that believers should take action to bring about the coming millennium of perfect peace in a utopian, classless society. He did not tell his followers to take arms against the Antichrist and the forces of evil. Instead he believed that the good should suffer patiently and that God would defeat the Antichrist and usher in the new age. However, in the context of the Middle Ages, and in particular of the crisis of feudalism in the later period, the message of the persecuted suffering in silence and waiting for God to intervene could easily get lost. Those who wanted a more active form of millenarianism in which they took arms against their oppressors used the ideas popularised by Joachim but gave them a ­revolutionary interpretation.

One example of where these ideas could lead was the group known as the Fraticelli. They were Franciscans who broke with the Catholic Church over the doctrine of poverty, criticising the wealth of the church and the papacy in particular. Their letters clearly show how they used Joachite ideas to reach radical conclusions. If the church rejected their preaching and refused to accept them as the leaders of the new age then it could not be the true church. The pope, John XXII, who denied the poverty of Christ, was a heretic and to obey him was wrong. Some even identified him with the Antichrist. Among those who found these ideas attractive were the Ciompi, Florence cloth workers who were wage earners and excluded from the guild system and who referred to themselves as the “Popolo di Dio” (People of God).10 In 1378 they played a prominent part in a revolutionary uprising that burned down the palaces of some of the ruling elite and set up an alternative government.11 Thus, ideas of the coming of a classless utopia could lead to rejection of the existing religious and political authorities and, in a situation of social unrest, support for revolt against those authorities.

The shepherds’ crusade 1251

Popular involvement in crusading was one example of mass enthusiasm for a religious movement leading to a challenge to existing ideas of hierarchy and order. The crusading movement that had started with the ­extraordinary success of the First Crusade (1096-99) in winning territory in Syria and Palestine, was by the 13th century in a process of decline. The failure of crusades led by kings and nobles led to the rise of popular preachers who challenged the right of the rich and powerful to lead holy war against the infidel. The claim that God was now turning to the poor and dispossessed and that they would be given victory against his enemies because of their poverty became common. Although the aim of these preachers was to reclaim the Holy Land the movements that sprung up could lead their followers to confront the established authorities, particularly if these were seen to be opposed to them. In the context of the economic pressure caused by the rise in population and increasing rural discontent they could easily turn on the lords and the clerical authorities.

One of the best examples of this is the so called shepherds’ crusade of 1251. This started as a popular movement led by a charismatic leader, known as the “Master of Hungary”, who claimed to have been instructed by the Virgin Mary to lead the shepherds of France to rescue the French king Louis IX who had been captured while on crusade. According to the English chronicler Matthew Paris he preached that the Holy Land would not be delivered by the proud knights but by humble herdsmen. A large group of the peasantry and rural lower classes formed, reported as numbering 60,000 and including thieves, exiles, fugitives and other outcasts. It quickly became an anti-clerical movement with the orders of the church being denounced for their greed and wealth.

Matthew Paris, himself a Benedictine monk from the abbey of St Albans, reported them attacking the Cistercians as greedy amassers of flocks and land, the Benedictines for their pride and the bishops and their officials for their pursuit of money. He then reports, to his horror, that they were welcomed by the inhabitants of Paris who clearly shared these sentiments. They expelled the archbishop from Rouen, threw priests into the Seine and attacked monasteries in Tours, as well as attacking the Jews before the authorities managed to get together a large enough armed force to suppress them successfully.

The extent to which they were a socially radical movement is far from clear but they were a mass movement, mainly of the peasantry, who attacked the clergy as a pillar of the existing social order. It demonstrates that a popular movement inspired by religion could come to articulate and express in action the discontent felt by the mainly rural lower classes with the unfairness of the world they lived in and the hypocrisy of the church.12

The Peasants’ Revolt

The rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 is an example of a peasant social movement that received its ideological leadership from the lower clergy. At least 20 clerics played a prominent enough role in the leadership of the rising to be mentioned in chronicles and official records. The participation of so many members of the clergy can be partly put down to the numbers of exploited, unbeneficed clergy who scraped by substituting for wealthy absentee rectors and saying masses for the dead as chantry priests. Juliet Barker points out that stipendiary priests and chaplains who had no benefice of their own were only paid a small wage but had ­suffered years of high taxation.13

One of the most significant leaders was John Wrawe, a chaplain who played a major part in bringing the county of Suffolk into the rebellion. According to his own confession he attended a meeting of rebels from Essex, Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk at the village of Liston before assembling supporters and leading the attack on the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in England.14 He was clearly a leader whose authority was respected by the rebels. Letters sent by Martin Mannyng instructing the return of a freehold to him were sent “ex parte Johannis Wraw” suggesting that his authority was sufficient to ensure compliance. When John Ikesworth broke into the rectory at Wickmere, Norfolk, taking goods valued at ten pounds, he did so “by the command and warrant of John Wrawe”.15

It is significant that in both of these cases the leaders and their victims were members of the church. The wealthy abbeys were often the most oppressive landowners and the revolt gave peasants and townspeople a chance to settle old scores. The higher clergy also played a prominent role in government. The two most famous victims of the revolt were both clergymen as well as privy councillors, Simon Sudbury the chancellor and Robert Hales the treasurer. It is relevant, however, that the literate lower clergy often provided the leadership and would have given the revolt its ideological justification.

The best known clerical leader is, of course, John Ball. Ironically there is much less evidence to link him to the major events of the revolt than others such as Wrawe. The text of the sermon he is alleged to have preached to the rebels at Blackheath, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”, is a common statement of the lack of divine support for inequality on Earth that could be found in various forms throughout Europe at this time and the speech itself was very likely invented by the monastic chronicler.16 Although there are differences among the sources as to how important he was as an organiser, Ball is particularly significant because we have, as well as reports of his preaching from hostile chroniclers, a collection of letters containing political verses attributed to him which give us a unique opportunity to hear the unmediated voice of the rebels. In one, allegedly found in the tunic of a man about to be hanged, he bids “Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere”:

…Iohan the Mullere hath yground smal, smal, small
The Kynges sone of heavan schal pay for al.
Be war or be wo,
Knoweth your freend from your foo.

Thomas Walsingham, who quotes this in his chronicle, states that John Ball confessed that he had written this letter, and many others, and sent them to the commons.17 The letters give a sense of the way that religious ideas were integrated with anger at social injustice. Personifications of the common people such as “Jakke Carter” and “Jakke Trewmann” exhort the rebels to rise immediately and assure them of support from God “lokke that Hobbe Robbyoure be wel chastised for leyng of youre grace for ye have gret need to take God with yowe in alle youre dedes. For now is tyme to be war”.18 The phrase “now is the time” occurs again and again. There is an ambiguity about the letters, however, and they contain many popular aphorisms familiar from medieval preaching.19

It was the context in which they were sent that gives them a revolutionary meaning. John Ball was writing to communicate the urgency of the situation and using his religious authority to encourage his readers to join the rising. The fact that belief in divine support was such a common feature of these communications emphasises how important this was in encouraging the rebels to contemplate taking the action that they did. His letters and preaching may have encouraged them to go further than demanding the end of the poll tax, or even of serfdom, to question the whole basis of medieval class society. To do this required a belief system that used the common religious ideas of the age but reinterpreted them to condemn the powerful and wealthy and justify the rebellion of the oppressed.

The Hussite Revolution

Of all the heretical movements that challenged the Catholic church it was the Hussites of Bohemia who came closest to breaking the church’s monopoly of religion. Jan Hus was a priest who attacked the corruption of the church and called for the laity to be allowed to drink wine from the chalice at communion—traditionally restricted to the priest. This was known as “communion in both kinds” and became a major demand of the Hussite movement. Hus was condemned for heresy and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415, after having been promised a safe conduct. His followers reacted by rising up and driving the Catholic clergy from much of Bohemia. The Catholic authorities launched five crusades against the Hussites, each of which was driven back, before a peace agreement was reached in 1436.

The Hussite movement quickly divided with the moderate Utraquists, who were prepared to settle for communion in both kinds, ranged against a substantial radical movement. The radicals set up permanent settlements on hilltops in southern Bohemia where they attempted to imitate the communism of the original Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. The largest and most important settlement was named Mount Tabor and the radicals came to be known as Taborites.

The vast majority of the radicals came from the lower classes. Some were journeymen, indentured servants, unskilled workers and other marginal groups from Prague but many came from the peasantry. The 15th century in Bohemia saw a concerted attempt by landowners to deprive peasants of traditional rights, which gave them some level of independence, and to reduce them to the level of serfs bound to the soil and subject to increased feudal dues and services. There were also landless labourers and others with little to lose who were ready to support a movement that offered them hope and challenged a social order that promised them only oppression and poverty.20

In this environment there developed a group of former priests, led by Martin Huska, who began to preach an openly millenarian ideology. They announced that the wrath of God would be unleashed on those who did not join the Taborite strongholds. Taxes, rents and feudal dues would then be abolished and private property would cease to exist, ushering in a communist society with no earthly authority where “all shall live together as brothers, none shall be subject to another…the Lord shall reign and the Kingdom shall be handed over to the people of the earth”.21 This classless society would be achieved by massacres of lords, nobles and knights.

The use of religious ideology to justify class war was a response to the potentially revolutionary situation in Bohemia. The Taborite communities were mass movements of those who were increasingly radicalised by the successful armed resistance against the reactionary forces of the Catholic church. In this atmosphere of total war the millenarian preaching of Huska and his allies received a ready audience and helped inspire the extraordinary success of the Taborite armies. They were both social and religious radicals who could only envisage a successful revolution in millenarian terms. Only the intervention of God would allow the poor and dispossessed to sweep away the existing social order. The anarcho-communist utopia that they envisaged was the perfect society of peace and happiness that they saw prophesied in the Bible.22 In the end it was Jan Žižka, the son of a small squire, who led his troops to massacre the radicals in order to assert his military leadership of the Taborite movement.

The drummer of Niklashausen

The events of 1476 in the small German village of Niklashausen in the Tauber valley give another example of a religious movement that articulated ideas of social revolution. Hans Böhm was a shepherd who played the drum and pipes in the market place and inns, hence his nickname of the drummer of Niklashausen. In Lent of that year he burnt his drum in front of the parish church of Niklashausen. He then preached to the people that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him commanding all to repent, discard their unnecessary vanities such as golden necklaces and pointed shoes, and go on pilgrimage to Niklashausen. If enough people did this the virgin would be successful in her intercession with God who otherwise intended to punish mankind for their sins. Large numbers of common people, apparently from all over central and southern Germany, now began to head towards Niklashausen to join Böhm, hear the preaching of the holy youth and participate in the pilgrimage he had announced. The fact that so many peasants were prepared to go to Niklashausen without seeking permission was seen as threatening to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

The social situation in which Hans was preaching was one of increasing class conflict in the German countryside. In the period following the Black Death the decline in the population had strengthened the position of the peasantry against their lords. By the 1460s and 1470s the population had recovered and the lords were once again imposing their authority and implementing new income generating strategies that disadvantaged the peasants. The bitterness that this created led to a series of rebellions culminating in the great rising of 1525. In this context it is not surprising that Böhm’s preaching began to raise social and economic grievances and that his religious revelations gave the oppressed the hope that they could overcome their oppressors with divine aid. He began by criticising the clergy, stating that God was not prepared to tolerate their behaviour any more. The day of reckoning was coming when the clergy would attempt to cover their tonsures to escape retribution. Killing a cleric would be seen as an act that would acquire merit in the eyes of God and there would soon be no priests or monks left. Böhm called on his audience to refuse to pay all taxes and tithes and demanded that priests should give up their benefices and live only on what food people were prepared to donate to them.23

Eventually Hans shared a new revelation that threatened the existing social and economic order. The Virgin Mary had appeared to him and told him to “say to all the people that my son wishes and orders that all tolls, levies, forced labour, exactions, payments and aids required of the prelates, princes and nobles be abolished completely and at once. They shall oppress the poor no more”. He then received a further revelation that the woods and waters of the Earth should be held in common for the use and pleasure of all the faithful in Christ and not just for the rich.24 Everyone should live together as brothers enjoying the same freedom and doing the same work. He also attacked the Emperor and the Pope for their support for the lords. It was this combination of religious revelation of a perfect world on Earth with demands that directly addressed issues of dispute between the peasantry and the landlords that accounts for his success. As Cohn argues:

It was the prestige of the preacher himself, as a miraculous being sent by God, which drew the tens of thousands into the Tauber valley. The common people, peasants and artisans alike, saw in him a supernatural protector and leader…a saviour who could bestow on them individually the fullness of divine grace and who would lead them collectively into an earthly Paradise.25

The extent of the popular response to Böhm’s preaching clearly frightened the authorities. The fact that the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg sent soldiers to seize the prophet, after he had called on his followers to assemble with arms, shows how seriously he was seen as a threat to the social order. Even then thousands marched to Würzburg to release their leader, only being scattered by canon fire and mounted troops. After he was burnt at the stake every attempt was made to obliterate all trace of him, even demolishing the church at Niklashausen that was the site of pilgrimage.

Conclusion

The brief examples referred to above hopefully give a flavour of some of the ways in which religious enthusiasm could combine with social and economic grievances to create the potential for rebellion and revolt. Even commonly held ideas sanctioned by the Catholic church, such as the religious argument for crusading, could be used to justify attacks on clerical and secular authorities. This became even more powerful when economic crisis and class conflict created the conditions in which apocalyptic preachers could mobilise large numbers of followers. Belief in divine intervention, particularly when linked with millenarian expectations of the imminent apocalypse, could give peasants and the poor the hope that they could overturn the existing social and economic order. This allowed them to move beyond particular economic demands, often based on shared memories of customary practice, to challenge the very existence of classes and ranks within medieval society.

Again and again religious visionaries preached an agrarian communist utopia, often to be achieved by the massacre of the nobility and their clerical supporters. Of course not all rebels went as far as this and not all popular religious movements motivated their followers to confront the powers that be. However, the number of cases in which this did happen is significant. We cannot understand the way that groups of peasants, artisans and the marginalised within medieval society were prepared to confront the heavily armed and well trained troops of the ruling class without taking seriously their religious beliefs. The economic and social context determined what they were fighting for, and who they were fighting against, but it was the interpretation of religious ideas common in medieval Europe that gave them the vision of a classless society and the hope that they could achieve it.

Notes

1: Boer, 2014, p139.

2: Engels, 1927.

3: Engels, 1894, p2.

4: Boer, 2014, pp142-143, Engels, 1894, p2.

5: Kautsky, 1897, p1.

6: Kautsky, 1897, p3.

7: Cohn, 2004, pxv.

8: Carlin, 1978, p43.

9: Reeves, 1999, pp2-6.

10: Reeves, 1999, pp39-41.

11: Carlin, 1978, pp48-49.

12: Hilton, 1990, pp100-102.

13: Barker, 2014, p294.

14: Barker, 2014, pp295-304.

15: Barker, 2014, p306.

16: O’Brien, 2004, p27.

17: Dobson, 1988, p381. Thomas Walsingham was a Benedictine monk from St Albans Abbey who wrote chronicles including the Historia Anglicana< and Chronicon Angliae which give details about the rising. He was a witness to the rebels attack on St Albans Abbey and to the trial of John Ball.

18: Dobson, 1988, p382.

19: Barker, 2014, p433.

20: Cohn, 2004, p215.

21: Cohn, 2004, p215.

22: Kaminsky, 1967, p359.

23: Cohn, 2004, p228.

24: Wunderli, 1992, pp70-71.

25: Cohn, 2004, p229.

References

Barker, Juliet, 2014, England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 (Little, Brown).

Boer, Roland, 2014, “‘All Things are in Common’: Theology and Politics in Luther Blissett’s Q”, International Socialism 141 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/all-things-are-in-common-theology-and-politics-in-luther-blissetts-q

Carlin, Norah, 1978, “Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution”, International Socialism 1 (summer), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1978/no2-001/carlin.html

Cohn, Norman, 2004 [1957], The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Pimlico).

Dobson, Richard Barrie, 1988 [1970], The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (Macmillan Press).

Engels, Frederick, 1927 [1850], The Peasant War in Germany (Allen and Unwin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/peasant-war-germany/

Engels, Frederick, 1894, “On the History of Early Christianity”, Die Neue Zeit, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894/early-christianity

Hilton, Rodney, 1990, Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Verso).

Kaminsky, Howard, 1967, A History of the Hussite Revolution (University of California Press).

Kautsky, Karl, 1897, Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1897/europe

O’Brien, Mark, 2004, When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (New Clarion Press).

Reeves, Marjorie, 1999, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future: A Medieval Study in Historical Thinking (Sutton Publishing).

Wunderli, Richard, 1992, Peasant Fires: The Drummer of Niklashausen (Indiana University Press).
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