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Archive for January, 2016

Rebuilding a Class Movement-Daniel Howard

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on Rebuilding a Class Movement-Daniel Howard


In Solidarity
Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States
By Kim Moody
Haymarket Books, 2014, 332 pages + notes and index, $22 paperback.
IN THE SUMMER of 2000, the Solidarity National Office mailed me a copy of Kim Moody’s new essay “The Rank-and-File Strategy: Building a Socialist Movement in the United States.” I sat for hours on my couch, reading and studying this pamphlet that would change my life.

Moody asked why socialists today are so isolated from workers’ struggle. Surveying the history of U.S. socialism and labor, he argued that socialists need to link up with struggles in the workplace — and that we need to take on union officials when they get in the way.

Our job is to meet workers where they’re at, help build organization and link up with other workers, and learn from each other the deeper lessons about capitalism and the need for something different.

When I read Moody’s pamphlet for the first time, I was finishing up my last year of college. I had joined 50 other students in an 11-day anti-sweatshop building occupation at our college, and I wanted to make the labor movement — and socialism — my life.

A year later, I took a job as a 411 telephone operator. Fifteen years later, I’ve changed jobs (a few times), but for me and many other socialists in the labor movement, the ideas in that pamphlet still guide our work.

Does the “rank-and-file strategy” hold up? Over the past 15 years, I’ve had more failures than successes — I’ve seen workers expelled from elected union office for taking on top union officials, dissidents split and switch sides, and organizing drives fall apart. I’ve wondered if the economy and employment has changed too much, if unions are just too far gone, or if we should do more “political” work in the unions.

It turns out Kim Moody has been asking many of the same questions. His new book In Solidarity includes both his 2000 essay and a new one, “Updating the Rank-and-File Strategy.”

His conclusion? Socialists still need to link up with workers who want to fight back, on the job, on bread-and-butter issues:

“(R)ank-and-file rebellions are a more-or-less constant feature of the US labor movement — a consequence of bureaucratic business unionism. Some of these movements succeed, many fail, while others eventually succumb to the pressures innate in the capital-labor relationship and its intuitional superstructure. But most have the potential to help construct a new layer of experienced activists.” (158)

And there are signs of hope — immigrant workers are on the move, union dissidents and radicals have transformed several local unions, and the number of activists showing up to the Labor Notes conference has doubled.

Three years ago in my union, one of the biggest healthcare locals in New York, members toppled top officials. We’ve gone on to train 500 new stewards, and those workplace leaders have stopped a safety-net hospital from closing, blocked private equity firms from taking over our hospitals, and put forward a credible strike threat covering more than 17,000 hospital workers.

I’m going to focus here on Moody’s essay on “Updating the Rank-and-File Strategy,” but he covers a lot of ground in this collection, with essays on Marxism and working class consciousness, the mass strike, new organizing strategies, hospital organizing, immigrant worker struggles, and more. Together, these make a must-read handbook for socialists who want to make a real difference in the world.

Moody’s earlier books include An Injury to All (1988), Workers in a Lean World (1997) and U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition (2007), all published by Verso. He was a founder of Labor Notes and as well as being a longtime labor journalist, participated as a telephone union activist in the militant activities of the early 1970s.

The earliest item in this collection is a seminal 1966 position paper, “Toward the Working Class: An SDS Convention Paper,” by Moody, Fred Eppsteiner and Mike Flug, submitted to the Students for a Democratic Society convention that year. [Due to typographical glitches, Flug’s name is somewhat butchered here and the first sentence reads “Why do sociologists” — where the text of course said “socialists” — “view the working class as a potentially revolutionary force?” (317)]

Have the Jobs Gone Away?

Kim Moody and other socialists formulated the rank-and-file strategy in the context of an upsurge in the early and middle 1970s. Activists from Moody’s organization, the International Socialists (IS), as well as other radical tendencies of the time, got hired into auto plants, steel mills, truck depots, and the telephone company.

IS members were inspired by the political vision of “socialism from below” as well as the rank-and-file militancy that was bubbling up in work places and communities. They linked up with wildcat strikers, Black and Latino militants and women workers fighting for jobs and respect.

The mid-1970s turned out to be the tail end of the last major rank-and-file upsurge in U.S. labor history. Socialists correctly predicted that “the employers’ offensive” would get worse — but many socialists were surprised by the near-collapse of top union resistance in the 1980s. Four decades later, work, the working class, and our unions are very different — and in worse shape.

But all the jobs did not go to China. The real story is a lot more complicated than popular perceptions. In the 1980s, employers embraced “lean production” methods to increase their control over work and boost profits. They subcontracted out work. They re-designed work processes to squeeze every second out of workers. And they broke up the assembly line into “production chains,” sometimes spread over many hundreds of miles and across national boundaries, and held together by a “just-in-time” logistics system.

Moody first explored lean production in Workers in a Lean World, and revisits may of those themes in an essay here on “Contextualizing Organized Labor in Expansion and Crisis.”

Employer power is up, but resistance didn’t go away:

“Does this fragmentation of the workforce mean not only that marketplace approaches may be needed in some cases, but more seriously, that the workplace power that characterized the era of industrial unionism has evaporated? On the contrary, the whole structure of contemporary production of goods and services, frequently linked by just-in-time or ‘logistics systems,’ is highly vulnerable to strikes and other direct actions.” (156-7)

Aren’t Today’s Unions Too Far Gone?

U.S. union membership shrank from 16.3 million in 2000, the year The Rank-and-File Strategy was published, to 14.8 million in 2011. (152). The rank-and-file strategy doesn’t claim that today’s unions will or can become revolutionary organizations.

We work in these unions because they are by far the largest and most diverse organizations of the U.S. working class — and because when resistance breaks out, it often first surfaces in the union: “The 2000s, much like the 1990s, were not a decade of working-class upsurge. Yet, like the previous decade, they saw their share of rank and file-based union reform movements.” (158)

Especially at the local union level, where unions tend to be more democratic, socialists have opportunities to link up with activists, stewards, and local unions officers who want to fight back. Faced with going extinct, even some top-level union officials are adopting more aggressive tactics:

“More generally, there appears to be a new generation of local activists and leaders, in and out of office, who want to fight the intolerable conditions being imposed by employers both public and private.” (150)
Immigrant workers — both inside and outside of unions — have led mass strikes and forced the AFL-CIO to reverse their support for exclusionary immigration policies.

The first wave of the 1930s upsurge passed through old AFL unions before new organizations were built. We don’t know if today’s existing unions can be revived, or if they will just be a stepping stone to new unions or organizations. But the fight against employers is happening right now in these unions, and that’s where we need to be:

“If Marx and Engels thought of trade unions as ‘schools’ of war or sites where workers become ‘fit for administrative and political work,’ socialists today should understand that building workplace organization capable of disrupting the labor process is also a training ground for the wielding of greater, more extensive power down the (revolutionary) road. It is, to some degree, a transitional form of organization and power. To oversimplify, today’s shop steward organization may be tomorrow’s factory council — even if that is well down that road. At the moment, workplace shop stewards’ organization is the key to effective resistance and to greater disruptions required to shift the balance of class forces.” (157)

What About Organizing the Unorganized?

Over the past year, I’ve been inspired by the strikes — and victories — of fast food workers. But SEIU, which is leading many of these efforts, is allergic to letting workers run their own organizations.

Moody says that new organizing was one of the “missing tasks” he left out of the original pamphlet, and his new collection includes two chapters on employer anti-union tactics and new organizing. Top-down efforts to stop the decline of union membership have largely failed:

“The formation of Change to Win, for example, was supposed to put new life and energy into organizing; it didn’t. It was a nonstarter that led to more top-level internal conflict than new organizing. Indeed, the grand troika of ‘new’ uinon tactics of the 1990s and 2000s — mergers, neutrality/card check, and ‘leverage’ — have all failed to produce the expected or intended results. (151)

“What’s needed is an approach based on worker self-organization — not just because we are ideologically committed to it, but because it works. Moody cites research from Kate Bronfenbrenner that shows that unions that run intensive grassroots organizing campaigns are more likely to win new members.” (155)

We’ll see if fast food workers take more of the struggle in their own hands. Socialists need to figure out how we can help support them.

Should Socialists Run for Union Office?

As unions decline, it’s actually becoming a tad easier for reformers to win office — it’s what one of my friends calls “lemon unionism.” But if given lemons, should we take the opportunity to make lemonade?

In my short time in the labor movement, I’ve worked with several groups of dissidents elected to local union office. One group got driven out of office on made-up charges from International Union officials. Another, including several socialists, came under heavy fire from the same International Union, and ended up making their own peace with the union officialdom — and abandoning their reform program.

It’s so easy for local union officers to give in to the pressures from employers and a bureaucratic collective bargaining system. But it’s not inevitable.

In my current union, we’ve found that building a different kind of union is very hard, but possible. As Moody says, the secret is “training new grassroots leaders to broaden the base, building effective stewards organizations, creating broader forms of member mobilization and involvement, and not buying into ‘experts’ and lawyers who are likely to push you back into “the well-worn grooves of business unionism.” (159)

The choice is not just between a “service model” and the “organizing model.” Too often, the “organizing model” means that members become tools of the leaders, turning out for events, and turning our militancy off and on at the command of campaign leaders:

“Bureaucratic business unionism has always practiced both. The ultimate ‘organizing model’ union, the SEIU, continues to provide services from above, recently carrying this practice one remove further from the membership by initiating a grievance servicing call center.” (219)

The rank-and-file strategy gives us a third model — one based on the real self-organization of workers.

What Does it Mean Today?

Does the rank-and-file strategy ignore all the other movements that can help workers develop militancy and radical consciousness? Should socialists in the labor movement do more explicitly political propaganda?

In an older essay included in this volume, Moody and Sheila Cohen look at the nature of working-class consciousness, or what they also call the “common sense” of the working class. Most working people do not positively endorse the ideology of our bosses. Instead, after years of defeat, most working people passively accept these ideas:

“Yet the impermanence, the instability, in many ways the fragility of this acceptance is also indicated when we probe more deeply into the precise nature of ‘actually existing’ working-class consciousness. Here we discover, rather than coherent and explicit assent to a consistent set of ideas and ‘values,’ a more complex mix: one characterized less by undifferentiated ideological domination than by inconsistency, contradiction, and lack of information.” (29)

When workers fight back — and have some success — they may start looking for new ways of thinking:

“The point here, then, is not that workers need to be ‘incited’ to resist capital by a corps of eager socialists. Rather, what is required of socialists is a commitment to focusing on and developing the implications of existing, contradictory, conflictual worker consciousness.” (41)

We call this approach the transitional method — meeting workers and their struggles where they are, but helping them make those struggles successful by realizing the root of the problem in capitalist control over everything.

Of course working-class consciousness and struggle can develop from many sources — just look at the recent struggles of immigrant workers and Black Lives Matter — surely two of the most important working class struggles of the last 10 years.

In my union, I’m happy to report that our new officers have rented buses to help members link up with Black Lives Matter. And that’s also why I’m a part of a socialist organization that brings together activists from many different movements.

Socialists in and around Solidarity (and the groups that came before us, and other groups too), have tried to put the rank-and-file strategy into practice. We can be proud of what we’ve accomplished — especially building and supporting Labor Notes. At the end of his new essay, Moody says that the Labor Notes network is looking more and more like the best of the Trade Union Educational League of the 1920s.

Still, many of the socialist workplace activists who founded Solidarity have retired, and we haven’t replaced them. Ten years ago, I was part of a network of young socialists helping each other get rank-and-file jobs. In a tough job market, many of the young radicals in our network couldn’t find work, and drifted away.

Two people who did get jobs — one as a warehouse worker, the other as a nurse — are still at it 10 years later. Both are now rank-and-file leaders in their local unions, helping rebuild and transform those unions at the grassroots.

Work sucks and it is getting worse. Worker resistance is on a modest upswing. The disconnect between socialists and worker activists is still too wide. As Moody said in the original pamphlet, we don’t have a road map, but the rank-and-file strategy gives us a compass for figuring out how to cross that gap.

January-February 2016, ATC 180

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The January-February 2016 Against the Current (#180) features:

Karen R. Miller on Racial “Liberalism” in 1930s Detroit
Mary Helen Washington on recovering Black Women’s writing
reviews of The Black Cultural Front and F.B. Eyes
remembrances of Ahmad Rahman and Ron Scott, two of Detroit’s early Black Panthers
Malik Miah on the targeting of Black lives, Muslims, and immigrants
Dianne Feeley on the UAW/Big Three Contracts
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How does ecosocialist politics differ from traditional socialist and labor politics? How do we ensure the generalized satisfaction of needs for all, including the equalization of living standards between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world, if humanity can no longer afford to keep expanding production based on energy from fossil fuels?

In 2014 Solidarity’s Ecosocialist Working Group began a project to discuss these and related questions. We publish three essays here as the beginning of a working paper exchanging ideas, proposals, and possible strategic frameworks. We also invite your comments.

See the questions and responses here: Six Questions for Ecosocialists.

Mary Helen Washington 1 day 18 hours
I respect Steve Garabedian’s 1 week 4 days
Democratic and Revolutionary Forces 2 weeks 1 day
Book including Hugo Gellert 2 weeks 4 days
“…democratic and 3 weeks 1 day

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The Corbyn Experiment-James Stafford

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on The Corbyn Experiment-James Stafford


Jeremy Corbyn speaking in February 2015 (Global Justice Now / Flickr)
Depending on who you ask, Britain’s Labour Party is either soaring, or in free-fall. There is evidence for both propositions, but the reality is messier. Against international trends, membership has surged by some 180,000 this year, to an estimated 370,000. This is a level close to that of every other British political party combined. The early signs are that the commitment of new members is meaningful. Many have proved willing to show up to party meetings, donate money, and participate in local campaigns. The vast majority are there because of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The veteran left-wing London MP for Islington North became an overnight sensation during the leadership contest following Labour’s crushing defeat at the 2015 general election. The party’s reinvigoration as something approaching a mass movement, alongside its clear declaration of left-wing intent, has been greeted by progressives and socialists around the world as the latest sign of the volatility and opportunity of post-2008 politics.
Even in British terms, however, the numbers involved in the Corbyn movement were relatively small. Before we draw big conclusions about what his leadership means, it’s necessary to dwell on the more parochial realities of British politics: to work out where he came from, how he won, and what hopes he has of making his leadership matter to anybody outside the immediate confines of the British left. Dubious assertions that the British political and financial elite should be “scared” of an energized Labour party won’t get us very far. Corbyn’s leadership should not be viewed as merely one example of a broader flourishing of populist anti-austerity politics across Europe. Corbyn’s victory owed much to the specific and local circumstances of British Labour in summer 2015, as the party reeled from an epochal electoral defeat. Whether Corbyn’s leadership can prosper outside this very specific moment remains an open question.
The key piece of local context to understand is just how bad May 8, 2015 was for the Labour Party. The Conservatives, as callous and blundering as ever, nonetheless cleaned up in marginal English seats, destroying their Liberal Democrat coalition partners in the process. David Cameron, slapdash and conceited throughout the campaign, increased his vote share, pushing Labour ever further back into its urban and ex-coalfield heartlands. This is a virtually unprecedented feat for a British governing party—still less one with no tangible record of success. Cameron has presided over a failed policy of austerity and a boom in the use of food banks in Britain alongside countless instances of gross incompetence: a corrupt fire-sale of postal services, a near-breakdown of the social security system, a farcical non-renegotiation of competencies with the European Union, botched market reforms of Britain’s treasured National Health Service (NHS). And yet the voters still come. Why? The analyses multiply, but few combine empirical rigor with any sense of promise for Labour’s revival.
The problem for the British left now is far worse than in the 1980s, when the electoral requirement was simply to bolt on enough Tory switchers to an obvious Labour core. The thoughtful MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, put it succinctly: “We lost everywhere to everybody.” In Scotland, Labour lost forty of its forty-one MPs to a Scottish National Party (SNP) that many mistake for a left-wing force. Labour owes both its founding mythology and post-Thatcher “modernization” to the docks, coalmines, and law schools of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Wipeout in Scotland is a body blow. There is a growing fear, meanwhile, that northern England could be next. The region’s more affluent voters, and successful ethnic minorities, are being targeted by a Conservative party offering a cooked-up form of administrative federalism (the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”) to local elites. Its economically left-behind voters, meanwhile, show signs of turning to the national-populist UK Independence Party (UKIP). Analysts attribute the shock election defeat of the party’s prominent finance spokesman, Ed Balls, to a combination of Labour abstentions and a strong UKIP vote. (Best known in the United States as a pal of Larry Summers, Balls is now on sabbatical at Harvard.)
The two ex-ministerial candidates for the leadership, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, were unable to speak to the gravity of Labour’s situation in the aftermath of the 2015 defeat. They wasted most of the summer campaign shadowboxing with a neo-Blairite right that never stood any chance of winning the membership. Indeed, the immediate post-election mood music from key figures on the party’s right was crucial to Corbyn’s ultimate success. Ambitious younger MPs, alongside noisy Blair-era grandees, argued that Ed Miliband’s mildly social-democratic prospectus had been a foolhardy deviation from the iron laws of British politics. Within hours of defeat, the airwaves were full of vague, threatening-sounding claims that Labour’s problems stemmed from it being “anti-business,” “pro-welfare,” and—worst of all—“left wing.” The eventual candidate from the party’s right, inexperienced Leicester MP Liz Kendall, was more interesting than these backers allowed her to be, but never overcame the negative effects of their tin-eared chivvying of a shattered and fearful base.
The real flashpoint came, however, when party veteran and interim leader Harriet Harman made an astonishing decision to whip a parliamentary vote in favor of a new round of punitive Conservative benefit cuts in July. This was the product of extraordinary Westminster groupthink, as well as dumb gesture politics, designed to show the country that Labour had “listened” to the message it received in May 2015 (even though nobody could really know what that was). It was difficult for anyone outside the parliamentary party to envisage a scenario where voting with the government—against the interests of Labour’s few remaining core supporters, and five years before the next election—would do much for the fortunes of the opposition. The echoes of 1931, when one of the first Labour governments fell apart over similar demands for “sound money” from the City of London, were overpowering. The 2015 capitulation, however, resembled farce rather than tragedy. Cooper and Burnham sensed danger and eventually secured a retreat to a position of abstention, but the damage had already been done. Corbyn duly led forty-odd rebels through the “no” lobby of the Commons and moved into an unassailable lead with the membership.
Why was the benefits farrago so important? Not, it should be noted, because of any particular effect on the new activists Corbyn was bringing to the party: they were always unlikely to endorse run-of-the-mill candidates like Cooper or Burnham. Rather, it was significant because it convinced many long-standing members, in the immediate wake of a terrifying election result, that only Corbyn could be trusted to preserve Labour’s identity as a recognizable party of the left. Voting for Corbyn could thus be a despairing, defensive gesture, as much as a declaration of radical intent. Victory for the left at the top of the party was not replicated all the way down. Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan, stalwarts of the party’s social-democratic center, triumphed in their simultaneous campaigns for the deputy leadership and London mayoral nomination.
All this is not to deny Corbyn’s skill. He and his team saw earlier and more clearly than anybody else that changes to Labour’s membership structure were making internal elections easier to disrupt. The conversion of Labour leadership elections into open national primaries was a longstanding project of the party’s right, who still look to the United States, and the Democrats, for political inspiration (the European-minded note the French Parti Socialiste and the Italian Partito Democratico have also taken on this model of candidate selection, with some success). In previous elections, an “electoral college” system was used that divided the Labour movement up into its constituent parts: parliamentary party, membership, affiliated trade unions, and socialist societies. An MP’s vote counted for many times more than that of an ordinary member, which in turn counted for more than that of a trade unionist who had not joined the party. Preservation of this system would have favored anti-Corbyn candidates, who between them commanded the support of nearly the entire parliamentary party.
Better still for the Corbynites was the introduction of a new category of the “registered supporter,” now given equal weighting in leadership votes. This produced a situation where a long-standing MP or local government representative had as little influence on the outcome as somebody who had signed up as a supporter for £3 the day before the deadline. Some 88,000 such supporters, recruited online and via a series of packed town-hall meetings, signed up to vote for Corbyn, dwarfing the other candidates’ feeble efforts to play the new system (notoriously, nobody other than Corbyn remembered to put a signup button on their campaign website). In the absence of the party membership reforms, the second-placed candidate, Burnham, would have won a narrow victory thanks to the overwhelming backing he received from the parliamentary party. As a result, far fewer blog posts about the global march of the radical left might now have been written, even if exactly the same number of people had been mobilized by Corbyn’s campaign.
The point of recounting this rather bitty, deflating narrative isn’t to deny what is genuinely significant about Corbyn’s leadership and the movement behind it, but to try and understand it better—as a product of contingency and failure as much as radical brilliance or inspiration. In terms of the long-term evolution of the Labour party’s base and political strategy, it is certainly a watershed moment. The party has slipped its moorings in its passive, historic, and deferential trade-union base, launching onto the choppy waters of an atomized, affective politics, mediated by social networks, but still rather traditional in its methods and outlook. For the untold story of the result is the precipitous collapse of the old “affiliated members” section: largely ordinary trade unionists, given the right to vote in Labour elections by virtue of their union’s continued financial and political links with Labour. This can partly be attributed to another party reform, which makes participation and financial contribution to political activities by ordinary trade unionists an opt-in, rather than an opt-out, affair. But the fact remains that Corbyn did not enthuse this group: just 41,000 bothered to opt in and vote. As a comparison, the number who automatically received ballots and subsequently returned them was nearly 250,000 in 2010—and some 400,000 in 1994, when one Tony Blair was elected leader with a similar margin of victory. Indeed, Labour’s present carnival of internal democracy pales in comparison to that of 1994. The electorate that chose Blair included close to a million people, even allowing for some duplication between the different sections of the electoral college. The 2015 contest attracted less than half of that, and largely swapped trade unionists for party cadres. Overall levels of participation in the leadership vote were still higher than in 2010, and many trade unionists may simply have chosen to become full members. The impression over the longer term, however, is of a deepening, rather than a broadening, of the party’s appeal.
This should give pause for thought. Surging support for a radical candidate for national political leadership has not been accompanied by any broader upswing in labor militancy. Participation in the British Labour party may have grown in intensity, but it is further than ever from broader developments in society and the economy. We don’t yet know if the “Corbyn surge” is masking a broader decline. Serious examination of the social composition of Labour’s new base is hard to find—research is only just getting underway—but a few things seem plausible, anecdotally at least. Young and old predominate, alongside a smattering of middle-aged former members who left the party in disgust over the Iraq war. The young are certainly the most politically promising. Racially and socially diverse, they no longer buy the boomer ideology that they should be selling themselves, padding out their CVs to protect against the chill winds of a post-crash world. They recognize at eighteen or twenty what it’s taken my slightly older millennial crowd until their mid-twenties to realize: landlord exploitation, soaring debt, and poor job prospects have nothing to do with our lack of industry or intelligence, and everything to do with the political might of Britain’s oversized rentier class.
Corbyn’s clarity, energy, and compassion spoke directly to this group, as much as his age (he’s sixty-six) and demeanor appealed to altruistic pensioners. While the Corbyn campaign brought new constituencies into the party, however, it would be a mistake to suggest that it organized them in innovative ways. Around the edges there have been a few gestures towards crowd-sourced policy, but it’s hard to claim that it’s core to the project. Along with his key lieutenants and supporters, Corbyn has been declaiming at length from platforms for years. He continued to do so, albeit to bigger crowds, at his packed campaign rallies. The audience never really gets to set the agenda. The leader’s hallmark is his “principled,” stubborn consistency, rather than any particular willingness to engage in genuine dialogue with those who have uncomfortable things to say about the modern Labour party (a category that includes much of the electorate). A good, top-down social media strategy, nice graphic design, plenty of coverage from a mischievous summer press, well-organized public meetings, a decent amount of trade-union money (if not votes); this was very much politics as we have known it, and it was done rather well.
Here, however, the continuities end. It is difficult to convey to those outside Labour (or indeed the United Kingdom) just what a big departure Corbyn’s leadership is, not only from “New” Labour, but also from much of the party’s pre-Blair history. Indeed, it is difficult for many inside the party to accept this: for them, Corbyn, aged, dogged, and principled, represents a reassuring return to the Party’s “real” origins and values. But this isn’t true. Since the election of Clement Attlee in 1935, the far left within the party has never held the leadership; and never has such a peripheral figure shot so rapidly to the top. When candidates coming from out of the party’s left groupings have taken the leadership—notably Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock—they have led the party down a more centrist route. Michael Foot, the recent leader to whom Corbyn is most often compared, was a completely different proposition: an experienced former Cabinet minister, he was endorsed by the party as a conciliatory, “soft-left” figure, who could hold the ring in the fierce left-right battles then gripping the party. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983 as a protégé of Tony Benn, the candidate Foot was elected to stop, and has been a reliable member of the Parliamentary Party’s tiny far-left awkward squad ever since. Like Benn, Corbyn has spent his career as much in opposition to the Labour Party of Bevin, Wilson, and Callaghan as to that of Blair and Brown. Taking Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Perry Anderson’s “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964) as their starting points, Corbyn’s wing of the party have consistently expressed their disappointment in the small-c conservatism, pro-NATO foreign policy, unreconstructed monarchism, and petit-bourgeois morality of Labour’s leaders and voters. These, in short, are people for whom even the 1945–51 Labour government was something of a disappointment.
In his personal beliefs and rhetoric, meanwhile, Corbyn is probably further down this road than Benn. The latter consistently rooted his politics in an idea of an English radical tradition, developed by New Left historians like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, as well as his own intense spirituality. When Benn was in his prime, no speech was complete without a reference to the Bible, the Diggers, or the Levellers.
Corbyn’s style is very different. More rational dissent than old-time religion, he talks abstractly about justice and human rights, and struggles to invoke loyalty to anything that is historically rooted and specific. Corbyn’s entrenched secular cosmopolitanism—for all its endearing bookishness and occasional articulacy—probably takes him further away from most remaining English Labour voters, let alone potential Tory or UKIP switchers. It is also a non-starter in Scotland, where it is now impossible to talk about social justice without going through the nation first.
The misconstrual of Corbyn as a traditional Labour figure is actually a product of “New” Labour’s trashing of both the party’s labourist and socialist history. The Blairite discourse of modernization lumped together the corporatist Keynesianism of the party’s old right with the New Left radicalism of its enemies into a single compound, “Old” Labour. This could be made usefully responsible forthe inflation and trade-union militancy associated with the 1970s Labour governments, as well as the notorious left-right splits of the 1980s. New Labour’s erasure of these older divisions, alongside the accumulated mistakes of his rivals, enabled Corbyn tactically to don the mantle of the very social democracy he once decried as insufficient and emerge as the custodian of the party’s traditional identity.
The residual influence of Ralph Miliband, however, is visible in the new leadership’s extreme ambivalence toward the idea that the 2020 election needs to be won by Labour at all costs. The phrase that Corbyn and his most senior lieutenant, finance spokesman John McDonnell, most often use when talking about the party they want to lead is “social movement.” The answer to the problem of electability is to “change the conversation,” rather than to try to win tactical battles within the stifling confines of Britain’s political culture. This certainly needs to happen to a degree, not least because Labour has been playing by the rules for a long time now, with steadily diminishing electoral returns. At the same time, however, it is very difficult to see Labour operating successfully as a purely countercultural force. It is still, just about, one of two conceivable parties of government, and it would be a betrayal of that potential to desert the field of high-political competition.
And whether we like it or not, the high-political stuff still matters. The judgment about whether parties of the left need to prioritize electoralism or movement-building should surely vary with the structure of the state in question, and the nature of the opposing forces. Britain is extraordinarily centralized, especially in England, which means that there are few points of pressure or resistance in the system. The gentlemen’s agreements that once preserved Britain’s unwritten constitution, alongside the autonomy of its professions and civil society, mean little to this new generation of ruthless, entitled Conservatives—people who look at Netanyahu or certain aspects of the Republican party and see something they admire. Particularly since Corbyn’s election, they believe more than ever that they are required to prevent Labour from ever exerting any kind of power in the state again. To this end, they are introducing crippling financial and legal restrictions on unions and charities, making it harder for the poor and the precariat to register to vote and hurriedly redrawing constituency boundaries on the basis of the resulting shrunken and affluent electorate. It’s all terribly unfair, but it is happening, and doubtless new ruses will be cooked up as time wears on. The Harper- or Bibi-ization of British politics is well underway.
Can Labour survive the onslaught? Much depends on Corbyn’s ability to break the habit of a lifetime and discover some political flexibility. There are worrying signs that his supporters mistake victory within the party for victory in the country: a logical corollary of their movement-building political strategy, but also a dangerous delusion of grandeur. The party is larger than it was, but it is still a very small world. The tactics and rhetoric that won the leadership will not win the Commons.
But there are grounds for hope: many of Corbyn’s policy positions do not only appeal to the narrow segment of the Labour party from which his particular politics has sprung. Inequality is on everybody’s agenda, in the United Kingdom as in the United States. Renationalizing the railways, a key early demand, appeals to a sense both of patriotism and of economic justice. If Corbyn’s political vocabulary can expand beyond abstract appeals to justice and equality, and match the potential of some of his policies, the outlook for Labour might yet improve. In 2015 the key thing the party lacked was a narrative: Labour looked like “austerity-lite” with a few technocratic policies that didn’t add up to much more than the sum of their parts. The renewal of Labour’s broader vision for the good society is what is needed by 2020. The Corbyn leadership—provided it lives up to its rhetoric of promoting inclusion and debate—may be the shock that is needed to deliver this.
Corbyn’s biography and political style may still disqualify him from effectively contesting the premiership—assuming he wishes to do so. But the danger for Labour does not really lie in his being too left wing. Rather, the problem is his inability to offer reassurance to the unaligned, or to respond convincingly to unfolding events. The electorate is worried about a great many things: economic insecurity, geopolitical chaos, refugee crises, most of all terrorism. If the easy answers of hatred and violence are to be eschewed, alternatives demand compelling and energetic presentation. Corbyn’s confused response to the security concerns raised by the Paris attacks, alongside his apparent disinterest in defusing a party row over Syrian military intervention, pushed Labour’s polling numbers to near all-time lows.
It would be nice to think that out of crisis will come a turn to the radical left, but that hasn’t really happened so far. Instead, Britain feels ever more shrunken, mean, cold, and peripheral. The Conservatives are generally far better than Labour at speaking to—and perpetuating—this perception. Overcoming it will be a phenomenal labor of political skill, flexibility, and dedication, which will likely require the party to completely reimagine itself. All those new members have a lot of work to do.
James Stafford is a PhD student in history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and co-edits Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics.

Europe’s refugee crisis-Nicole Colson

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on Europe’s refugee crisis-Nicole Colson


The pictures of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in early September led to an outpouring of charity and solidarity with the thousands of refugees and migrants that continue to pour into Europe. Yet even as thousands of refugees and migrants were placing their lives in peril each day in an attempt to reach Europe, European leaders continued to erect increasingly punitive legal and physical barriers designed to push back those seeking asylum.

Aylan Kurdi’s death—one of 3,138 migrants who died or went missing in the Mediterranean by mid-October 20151—brought home the sharp reality of the scale of the refugee crisis currently impacting Europe and beyond. According to a June report from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people uprooted from their homes globally by war and persecution in 2014 was the largest on record. Some 59.5 million people were classified as “forcibly displaced” at the end of 2014, a rise of more than 8 million from 2013—the biggest ever jump seen in a single year. 2 As of early October 2015, the figure had grown even higher—to well over 60 million—and was expected to continue to rise rapidly.3 In all, the UNHCR expects a 40 percent increase this year in the number of people fleeing to Europe by boat.

Estimates suggest that 80 percent of the refugees currently begging entrance to Europe are from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—countries decimated by decades of Western imperialism and civil war, as well as the violence of dictatorial regimes like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the reactionary forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the Middle East is by no means the only area of the globe impacted. One out of every 122 people on the planet is now classified as either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. In addition to the 15 million uprooted in Iraq and Syria, there are more than a dozen other conflicts displacing people around the world, including South Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Burundi, Nigeria, Congo, and Central America. Congo alone has 2.7 million displaced people.4 UN High Commissioner António Guterres warned in June, “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”5

The number of those seeking entrance into Europe pales in comparison to those displaced internally and throughout the Arab world. Of Syria’s population of some 20 million, for example, an estimated 7.6 million are now classified as “internally displaced,” and 4 million have been forced to flee to other countries in the region, including Lebanon (which has taken in more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees),6 Turkey (which has taken in some 2.2 million), 7 and Jordan. One out of five people now in Lebanon, a country one hundred times smaller than Europe, is a refugee.8

Wealthy Gulf states have done much to fuel the fighting in the region but little to help refugees whose plight has worsened from their actions. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have funded sectarian Sunni armies in Syria (including, until recently, ISIS). Private donors in these states continue to fund ISIS.9 Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign and naval blockade in Yemen—which brings together a coalition that includes Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, and the Gulf states, and has the backing of Britain and the United States—has created a humanitarian disaster in that country. One million are internally displaced, and 80 percent of the population is in need of food, water, and medical aid, according to aid agencies.10

In fact, no Gulf state is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. No Syrian refugees have been resettled in Kuwait, Bahrain, or the United Arab Emirates, despite those countries’ financial and political interest in Syria. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates say that they have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the United Nations for refugee relief—yet they remain unwilling to take in significant numbers of refugees. Aid groups point out that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have a particular responsibility given that they have helped fuel the Syrian civil war by financially sponsoring various rebel groups against Assad.11 Saudi Arabia claims to have donated hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to countries like Jordan and Lebanon and to have given 100,000 Syrians residency since the beginning of the civil war. One Saudi official explained that the country had not publicized its aid and asylum to refugees because it did not want “to show off or brag in the media.”12

According to the New York Times, some 200,000 Syrian civilians have now been killed in the course of more than four years of the Syrian civil war.13 Some 19,000 have been killed in air attacks alone carried out by Assad’s government, which have deliberately targeted populated areas with so-called “barrel bombs,” large containers filled with explosives and projectiles designed to inflict maximum damage and drive survivors from their homes. Creating refugees seems to be a conscious part of Assad’s strategy.14

The US government has not taken any responsibility for its own oversized role in the creation of the refugee crisis in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere—a crisis resulting from its own military involvement or through its backing of regional players responsible for worsening the crisis. Years of sanctions, invasion, occupation, and air strikes since 9/11, as well as the deliberate fomenting of sectarian divisions to prop up various US-friendly powers, have been chief drivers of these refugee crises. Additionally, US opposition to the Arab Spring revolutions included stoking and supplying various counterrevolutionary forces in the Middle East with weapons, adding to the brutality.

As of September 2015, however, the United States had taken in only 1,243 Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011.15 The Obama administration announced that by 2017 the United States would increase the total number of asylum-seekers it takes each year to 100,000, up from its current 70,000 limit—a drop in the bucket of what’s needed and what the world’s superpower could provide.16 (And it’s almost certain that congressional Republicans—who have already expressed opposition to increasing the number of refugees to the United States from the Middle East—will block any move to increase the number of refugees.17)

Russian air strikes in Syria—along with the current US bombing campaign—will almost certainly continue to exacerbate the refugee crisis, as will the potential of a Russian ground attack. The Turkish government has estimated that 3 million more may attempt to flee Aleppo and the surrounding area as a result.18 For these refugees, however, the repression and danger they face in their attempts to cross into Europe still pale in comparison to what they face back home—and will continue to prompt thousands to attempt to flee.

The situation in Europe
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), by mid-October the number of those crossing daily into Greece took a sharp upturn, reaching 7,000 a day, including more than 2,000 a day on the island of Lesbos.19 Boats and life jackets litter beaches and bodies of those drowned at sea sometimes wash ashore. As of October 20, 650,000 refugees had arrived by sea in Italy, Greece, Spain, and Malta in 2015.20 If they survive the perilous journey from their country of origin to a place where they can cross the Mediterranean and cobble enough money together to pay smugglers for passage on overcrowded boats, refugees arriving in Europe are again subjected to a new litany of hardships and humiliations.

Although they have been applied inconsistently depending on the country, European Union regulations stating that those seeking asylum must register in the country in which they first land has meant that refugees are often forced into squalid, overcrowded camps with few resources while they wait to complete a backlogged registration process before attempting to move onto other countries. Some 20,000 refugees were living “rough” on the island of Lesbos, which has a regular population of 85,000, as of mid-September, waiting for papers allowing them to travel, leading junior interior minister Yiannis Mouzalas to characterize the situation as being “on the verge of explosion.”21

Across Europe, refugees in and out of detention centers are living in the open air, lack adequate food, water, and medical care, and are facing serious repression from security forces—in some cases on both sides of various borders. For those who take their chances with smugglers to take them further into Europe, there are other dangers. In Austria in late August, seventy-one refugees suffocated in the back of a refrigerator truck abandoned on a highway between Budapest and Vienna.22 In France, hundreds of refugees have attempted to walk through the Channel Tunnel or even cling to trains in an attempt to cross.23 In Calais, thousands of migrants who once were housed in an old hangar were, in the face of British accusations that the French were “coddling” migrants, forced to live in makeshift cardboard slums its residents call “The Jungle.”24

Overwhelmingly, the first impulse of various governments—regardless of official rhetoric about respecting refugee rights—has been to clamp down on border security with barbed wire, border fences, police, and armed guards, and to make life as difficult as possible in an effort, they hope, to deter more people from coming.

The crackdown has been particularly brutal in Hungary, which has attempted to prevent refugees from crossing into countries like Germany and France. Following the implementation on September 15, 2015, of a hastily passed law that criminalizes people who cross the border without authorization—with a penalty of up to three years in prison—Hungarian police escalated their attacks on refugees. Video from the border on September 15 and 16 showed Hungarian riot police using tear gas and water cannons indiscriminately against desperate refugees—including families with small children—clamoring to be allowed into the country from neighboring Serbia.25 Former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said he believed “without a doubt” that current Prime Minister Victor Orban ordered the September 16 attack. Gyurcsány said he had also seen video showing Hungarian police opening a gate at one border crossing, and then deliberately and cruelly attacking the refugees who walked through, using tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons.26

On September 21, Orban’s right-wing Fidesz Party blocked with the far-right nationalist Jobbik Party to pass a law that allows the military to use even greater force against border-crossers, including “rubber bullets, pyrotechnical devices, tear gas grenades and net guns,” according to a statement on the Hungarian parliament’s website. Using the familiar rhetoric of the far Right, Orban declared, “The migrants are not just banging on our door: they’re breaking it down.”27

While the crackdown has been the most dramatic and severe in Hungary,28 governments across Europe, from wealthy nations like Germany to smaller and poorer countries in the Balkans, have responded by tightening their borders and attempting to discourage the influx of asylum seekers through physical and legal barriers. Yet the fact that such punitive measures will not stop desperate refugees from begging admittance to Fortress Europe will not deter governments from continuing to implement them. With the numbers of those seeking asylum fleeing to Europe set to spike before winter weather sets in, the situation is set to get worse, with an increasing likelihood of greater repression by European governments and even greater peril for refugees forced to take desperate risks to find ways into Europe.

They have no solution
Despite the escalation of the crisis, Europe’s leaders are offering little in the way of concrete solutions. Among the measures that could help stem the crisis are the dramatic escalation of aid for refugees both in European nations as well as in the Middle East; an opening of borders, allowing refugees to settle in countries of their choosing; and an end to imperialist aggression.

Yet not only have Europe’s governments been slow to provide the money needed to prevent refugee suffering inside Europe, aid promised to the Middle East for refugees has been slow to materialize. One of the main drivers of the refugee crisis has been the deterioration of conditions for millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Yet there has been a sharp fall in refugee aid funding by UN member nations, leaving the UNHCR budget 10 percent below its 2014 levels. By the end of August, the United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan had received only 37 percent of the $4.5 billion it had appealed for this year.29 Likewise, the UN’s World Food Program had received less than 40 percent of its needed 2015 funding by mid-October, forcing it to cut monthly stipends to Syrians in regional refugee camps by half, and to halt aid to 230,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. In all, international donors have promised $7.9 billion to help Syrian refugees, but have only provided $2.8 billion.30

Rather than pledging to take in significant numbers of refugees, EU leaders at a meeting in Brussels in mid-October agreed to offer the Turkish government an estimated 3 billion euros, visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens beginning in 2016, and the resumption of negotiations over Turkey’s bid to join the EU in exchange for the Turkish government cracking down on allowing refugees to leave the country for Europe. The plan calls for Turkey to set up more camps for asylum seekers, effectively outsourcing the processing of refugees.31 “Protection of our external borders is the main priority today,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said at the meeting.32

That is the cynical political calculus that EU politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and others are engaging in: Exactly how little can they do for the refugees while not inciting public anger over their callousness?

In the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron stated, “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees,”33 a public outcry forced him to announce a plan for the UK to take in up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 (a still pitifully small number). Incredibly, Syrian refugee children who are allowed into to the UK under the new measures could be deported when they reach age eighteen and others could face deportation after five years.34

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has won accolades from some in the media (and talk of a possible Nobel Peace Prize35) for her comparatively welcoming stance toward refugees. Merkel, in fact, has been pointed about calling for other EU countries to take on more of the refugee burden, despite the fact that Germany is the EU’s richest country. While it’s true that Germany had quietly relaxed restrictions stating that refugees must be fingerprinted and registered in the first European Union country they come to before being allowed to move onto another country, Merkel has only reluctantly spoken out in defense of refugee rights—preferring to at first stay silent amidst days of far right violence, including arson attacks against refugee centers and racist protests by the far right in the city of Heidenau.36 In mid-September, the German government ordered temporary border restrictions to cut off rail travel from Austria and instituted spot checks on train cars—signs that it too was cracking down on the number of refugees and migrants allowed in.

Drawing a parallel to the way in which Western governments, in particular the United States, refused at the 1938 Evian conference to take in Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Western governments are acting similarly today:

It’s just a political issue that is being ramped up by those who can use the excuse of even the smallest community as a threat to the sort of national purity of the state.… Indeed, at the time [of the Evian conference], the Australian delegate said that if Australia accepted large numbers of European Jews they’d be importing Europe’s racial problem into Australia. I’m sure that in later years, he regretted that he ever said this—knowing what happened subsequently—but this is precisely the point. If we cannot forecast the future, at least we have the past as a guide that should wisen us, alert us to the dangers of using that rhetoric.37

Capitalism and migration
Refugees and migrants do have certain rights under international law. In reality, however, these rights are constantly constrained by the role migrants play as a surplus labor force under capitalism. Neoliberalism, with its rapid, unconstrained model of economic growth, views migrants and refugees as both a potential drain on social services and state spending, as well as an important potential pool of low-wage labor. Increasingly, EU leaders have attempted to classify refugees as “economic migrants”—limiting their rights to asylum, permanent settlement, and social services, and providing a legal basis for eventual deportation. Political and business leaders are happy to have a pool of migrants and refugees as a solution to labor shortages and as a means for driving down wages for all workers. In essence, migrant labor, hemmed in by restrictive nationalist laws, become a cheap exploitable labor force that can be utilized when the economy is booming and deported when migrants are no longer “desirable.”

Merkel’s half-hearted welcoming stance toward refugees, for example, can be chalked up, at least in part, to the hungry way German capital is eyeing the influx of refugees and migrants as a potential solution to Germany’s labor shortage—estimated to be 600,000 workers and growing.38 In September, German employers including Deutsche Post and the automaker Daimler renewed calls for a relaxation of German labor laws to allow asylum-seekers to quickly enter the work force.39 German conservatives in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union likewise have called for a relaxation of minimum wage laws for refugees—a move that will likely be used to pit native-born against immigrant labor in an attempt to drive down wages overall.40 Meanwhile, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble has floated the idea of budget cuts as well as cuts to refugee benefits41 in order to keep Germany’s budget balanced. 42

Fears over refugees’ use of social services and entry into the workforce in various EU nations are being heavily exploited by the right wing, which has accused refugees of attempting to exploit comparatively generous European welfare systems. Center-Right politicians have been more than willing to play to these racist sentiments or at the very least stay silent about them until it becomes too politically costly not to say something. In the UK, as Deborah Orr wryly pointed out in The Guardian, at a time of record profits, today there are a record number of people with low-paying jobs. Trying to justify that is not always an easy feat for mainstream politicians:

For some reason, however, both Labour and the Conservatives have shied away from explaining to “ordinary people” that immigrants provide a steady supply of labor, stopping “ordinary” wages and expectations from getting out of hand. It’s a strategy that has placed Britain in the extraordinary position whereby it now has a record number of people in low-paid jobs amid historically low levels of wage inflation. That’s a hard “achievement” for any political party to sell. So they simply don’t try.43

Sensing an opportunity, the far Right has stepped forward to scapegoat refugees and migrants. Across Europe, forces including France’s National Front, Britain’s UK Independence Party, Germany’s PEGIDA, and others have attempted to capitalize on racist and Islamophobic sentiments by whipping up hysteria about refugees being “jihadis,” and taking the jobs and resources of the native-born. As the UNHCR’s Guterres noted, the fact that more than two-thirds of refugees worldwide are Muslim puts a special emphasis on the need to counter “the backward narrowness of xenophobia.”44

As Fran Cetti notes in International Socialism Journal, the backdrop to today’s crisis was the establishment of the “Fortress Europe” model of the mid-nineties, in which the increased internal freedom of movement and economic cooperation within the EU went hand-in-hand with borders that were secured against external migrants. Refugee crises are seen by EU leaders not as requiring a humanitarian response, but instead a military and security solution—even as the economic policies of neoliberalism and imperialism continue to fuel refugee crises on a global scale.

The imperial ambitions of Western nations, in particular the United States—but also its junior partners in the “war on terror” including Britain, France, and Germany—have created a number of destabilized “failed states,” particularly in the Middle East and Africa, that are directly responsible for fueling the crisis.

Cetti details this dynamic;

The people arriving at Europe’s outer borders are the frontline victims of neoliberalism. The majority, particularly those from North Africa, are escaping the devastation wrought in their countries by more than 30 years of neoliberal policies. These policies, however, cannot be separated from the wars and conflicts that are, in many cases, the most immediate cause of the current wave of displacement….

The fact that many countries are locked into intractable, long-term conflicts adds to the effects of the vast global disparities in income levels, health, education, and life expectancy between countries and regions. These disparities have soared over the last thirty years of neoliberal policies, reaching a point today when they have never been higher. Poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity have been entrenched in these countries by decades of debt “restructuring” imposed by Western states and financial institutions. The collapse of local economies and of formal and informal systems of survival in many countries in the Global South, and the unrelenting rise in rural dispossessions and urban unemployment, generate and are compounded by conflict and insecurity.

The idea therefore that “genuine” refugees can be differentiated from “economic migrants” is, and always has been, specious: in a sense, all migration from these areas of the world is forced migration.45

While Western nations make pronouncements about having a responsibility to “protect” civilians when they want a pretext for invasion, they ignore that supposed responsibility when it comes to aiding people displaced by their wars. When he recently announced that he was halting the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan—leaving thousands of US troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017—Barack Obama justified it on the basis of Washington’s “commitment to Afghanistan and its people.”46 Yet he and other Western leaders have remained silent about any commitment to the millions of Afghan refugees created as a result of the unending war.

Solidarity vs. xenophobia
The hope for pushing back against the scapegoating of refugees lies in the kind of solidarity and mass action that has begun to take shape among those Europeans demanding that their governments do more to address the crisis. Across Europe, hundreds of thousands have signed petitions and tens of thousands have protested their governments, demanding that refugees be let in. Many have also offered to open their own homes to refugee families—in defiance of government claims that there is no place for refugees to go.47

From Greece to Hungary to Austria and beyond, ordinary people have organized to gather and distribute blankets, food, toys, and other donations for arriving refugees.48 In many instances, ordinary people have attempted to shelter refugees from abuses by smugglers, the state, and right-wing forces by volunteering to drive or accompany refugees on their journeys—even at the risk of their own arrest.49 Thousands have turned out for protests big and small—from acts of solidarity like welcoming trains and buses of refugees as they arrive in countries of entry, to the tens of thousands who took part in large protests across Europe on September 12 with more than 50,000 marching in London, 30,000 in Copenhagen, and thousands more in other cities including Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Lisbon demanding that refugees be admitted.50

The refugees themselves are also showing the way, asserting their right to asylum even in the face of sometimes brutal repression, as when more than 1,000 refugees stranded in Hungary after trains were closed to them in September marched more than fifteen miles to the Austrian border, forcing the Hungarian government to temporarily back down on regulations preventing refugees from leaving the country. The refugees were met in Austria by volunteers holding handwritten signs saying “welcome” and handing out supplies. As Gareth Dale noted in Jacobin magazine, “The refugees’ movement found a welcome and welcoming echo in a collective response in Europe. For a public sphere accustomed to a drip-feed of xenophobia (and even refugee-phobia), the outpouring of solidarity and charity came as an epiphany.”51

For the Left, the ongoing refugee crisis places a renewed importance on political clarity—not only in relation to the causes of the crisis and the responsibility of Western governments, but in how we can develop solidarity with the refugees fighting for their own rights. Our answer to the crisis lies in organizing united fronts to challenge the racist demagogy of the far right, demanding that Western governments provide substantial aid to the refugees, open their borders and let the refugees in, and, most importantly, stop the imperial machinations that have created the crises driving the refugee exodus in the first place.

International Organization for Migration, “Mediterranean Update: Missing Migrants,” Missing Migrants Project, October 20, 2015, http://missingmigrants.iom.int/sites/def….
“Worldwide Displacement Hits All-Time High as War and Persecution Increase,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), June 18, 2015, http://www.unhcr.org/558193896.html.
“World’s Displaced Population now 60 Million, UN Official Says,” CBS News, October 5, 2015, http://linkis.com/8ssEhofficial-says/.
2015 UNHCR country operations profile—Democratic Republic of the Congo, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e45c366.html.
“Worldwide Displacement Hits All-Time High.”
Naomi Grimley, “Syria War: The Plight of Internally Displaced People,” BBC News, September 10, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-eas….
Justin Salhani, “Russian Intervention Could Increase Syrian Refugee Count by 75 Percent, Turkish officials warn,” ThinkProgress, October 6, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/10/0….
Nick Squires, “Migrant Crisis: Lesbos ‘on Verge of Explosion’ after Fresh Clashes,” Telegraph (UK), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnew….
Janine Di Giovanni, Leah McGrath Goodman, and Damien Sharkov, “How Does ISIS Fund its Reign of Terror?” Newsweek, November 6, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/2014/11/14/how-d….
Julian Bolger, “Saudi-led Naval Blockade Leaves 20m Yemenis Facing Humanitarian Disaster,” Guardian, June 5, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/ju….
Ashley Fantz, Becky Anderson, and Schams Elwazer, “Refugee Crisis: Why Aren’t Gulf States Taking Them in?,” CNN, September 8, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/08/world/gulf….
“Saudi Arabia Says Criticism of Syria Refugee Response ‘False and Misleading,’” Guardian (UK), September 11, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/se….
Karen Yourish, K.K. Rebecca Lai, and Derek Watkins, “Death in Syria,” New York Times, September 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/…
Mike Giglio and Munzer Al-Awad, “Assad’s Strategy is to Create Refugees,” Buzzfeed, September 20, 2015 (page no longer accessible).
Patty Culhane, “Will US Step up to Syrian Refugee Crisis Challenge?” Al Jazeera, September 9, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/americas/….
Michael R. Gordon, Alison Smale, and Rick Lyman, “U.S. Will Accept More Refugees as Crisis Grows,” New York Times, September 20, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/world/…?.
Marlin Mattishack, “Republican Fears US has Created ‘Federally Funded Jihadi Pipeline’,” The Hill, February 11, 2015, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/232526….
“Migrant Crisis: EU Plan Offers More Money for Turkey Camps,” BBC News, October 6, 20215, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-344….
“IOM Monitors Mediterranean Migrant Flows: 7,000 Crossing Daily to Greece,” IOM, September 10, 2015, http://www.iom.int/news/iom-monitors-med….
“Mediterranean Update: Missing migrants project, http://missingmigrants.iom.int/sites/def….
Squires, “Migrant Crisis: Lesbos ‘on Verge of Explosion’ after Fresh Clashes.”
Luke Harding and Daniel Nolan, “Hungarian Police Make Arrests over Lorry Containing 71 Bodies,” Guardian, September 29, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/au….
Christopher Dickey, “No End in Sight for Migrants’ Desperate Chunnel Blitz,” Daily Beast, July 29, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/20….
Holly Yan, Ben Wedeman, Milena Veselinovic and Tim Hume, “Refugee Crisis: Hungary Uses Tear Gas, Water Cannons on Migrants at Border,” September 16, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/world/euro….
“Slovenian Police Pepper-Spray Migrants at Border,” KSL.com, September 18, 2015, http://www.ksl.com/?nid=235&sid=36572677….
Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Migrant Crisis: Hungary Approves Use of Army, Rubber Bullets and Tear Gas against Refugees,” International Business Times, September 21, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/migrant-crisis-….
NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, September 17, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/nbcnightlynews/….
Stephen Erlanger and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “U.N. Funding Shortfalls and Cuts in Refugee Aid Fuel Exodus to Europe,” New York Times, September 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/world/….
“The Latest: US to Give $419 Million in Aid to Syria Refugees,” AP, September 21, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9275e57ac….
Kate Connolly, Ian Traynor, and Constanze Letch, “Angela Merkel Backs Deal Offering Turkey up to €3bn to Tighten its Borders,” Guardian, October 15, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oc….
Patrick Wintour, “Britain Should Not Take More Middle East Refugees, says David Cameron,” Guardian, September 3, 015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/se….
Kashmira Gander, “Syrian Child Refugees ‘to be Deported at Age 18,’” Independent, September 7, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/hom….
Justin Huggler, “Angela Merkel ‘Firm Favorite’ for Nobel Prize over Refugee Crisis—But Losing Favor in Germany,” Telegraph, October 8, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnew….
Merkel’s lengthy silence led to the Twitter hashtag campaign “#Merkelschweigt”—or “Merkel is Silent.” “’Merkel’ has Become a Verb in German Youth Vernacular,” NPR, August 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2….
Sam Jones, “Refugee Rhetoric Echoes 1938 Summit before Holocaust, UN Official Warns,” Guardian, October 14, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-develo….
Markus Dettmer, Carolin Katschak and Georg Ruppert, “Rx for Prosperity: German Companies See Refugees as Opportunity,” Speigel Online International, August 27, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germ….
Liz Alderman, “Germany Works to Get Migrants Jobs,” New York Times, September 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/busine….
Aditya Tejas, “German Conservatives Want to Relax Minimum Wage for Refugees: Poll Shows that Support for CDU Slips to One-Year Low,” International Business Times, September 29, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/german-conservati….
John Blau and Daniel Delhaes, “Schäuble Mulls Refugee Benefit Cuts,” Handelsblatt, October 15, 2015, https://global.handelsblatt.com/edition/….
Matthias Sobolewski, “Ballooning Refugee Costs Threaten Germany’s Cherished Budget Goals,” Reuters, September 17, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/1….
Deborah Orr, “Immigration is Vital to Neoliberalism—But No Politician Will Admit It,” Guardian, October 27, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree….
“World’s Displaced Population Now 60 Million, UN official says.”
Fran Cetti, “Fortress Europe: The War against Migrants,” ISJ, Issue 148, http://isj.org.uk/fortress-europe-the-wa….
Matthew Rosenberg and Michael D. Shear, “In Reversal, Obama Says US Soldiers will Remain in Afghanistan to 2017,” New York Times, October 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/….
Nina Strochlic, “10,000 Heroes Open Their Homes to Syrian Refugees,” Daily Beast, September 3, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/20….
Dan McLaughlin, “Volunteers Cross Borders to Fill Gaps in Refugee Crisis Response,” Aljazeera America, September 29, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/9/29/volunteers-travel-hundreds-of-miles-to-fill-gaps-in-refugee-crisis-response.html; Lizzie Deardon, “German Police Forced to Ask Public to Stop Bringing Donations for Refugees Arriving by Train,” Independent, September 1, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/….
“On the Road with Volunteers Offering Refugees Rides from Hungary,” DW, September 7, 2015, http://www.dw.com/en/on-the-road-with-volunteers-offering-refugees-rides-from-hungary/a-18697098; Lauren Frayer, “Risking Arrest, Thousands of Hungarians Offer Help to Refugees,” NPR, September 29, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/20….
“Thousands Take Part in Pro-Refugee Rallies in Europe,” Aljazeera, September 13, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/th….
Gareth Dale, “A World Without Borders,” Jacobin, September 21, 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/09/refug….

A workers’ International
 at a turning point-John Riddell

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on A workers’ International
 at a turning point-John Riddell


When revolutionary socialists met in a global congress in 1921, both their strong and their weak points were on full display. Their world alliance, the Communist International (Comintern), had built mass parties in the decisive countries of Europe. Yet, as 600 delegates from fifty-five countries gathered in Moscow that year, Lenin wrote, “Something is wrong in the International. . . . We must say Stop! . . . Otherwise, the International is lost.”1

The complete record of this tumultuous three-week event, finally available in English, enables today’s activists to make the acquaintance of their predecessors in the era of the Russian revolution and witness their efforts to map a new course. To the Masses, Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 will be available in a Haymarket Books edition in early 2016.

International Socialist Review is publishing three sets of excerpts from this book, the first of which appears in this issue.

Ebb tide
The Comintern’s crisis stemmed from a marked change of political conditions in Europe. A time of tumultuous workers’ upsurge had ended; the working class, although organized and combative, was in retreat.

The wave of revolution, which brought working people to power in Russia in 1917, had spread across Europe the following year, bringing World War I to an abrupt halt. In such decisive countries as Germany and Italy workers seemed able to triumph as in Russia, if only they could unite in effective parties and mass movements. As capitalism struggled to regain a fragile stability, hundreds of thousands of workers rallied to revolutionary parties linked in the Communist International.

Yet even as the new International’s massive growth inspired confidence in workers’ approaching victory, by the time of the Third Congress the capitalist class had launched an offensive that threw the workers’ movement into retreat across capitalist Europe.

Events in Italy in September 1920 registered this fact. Half a million workers across Italy had occupied their factories and begun to organize production under the leadership of factory councils. The movement spread, bringing the country to the brink of revolution. However, the Socialist Party, affiliated to the Comintern, took a business-as-usual approach, and the movement foundered for lack of leadership. This defeat led to a wave of anti-working-class violence across the country that culminated in the triumph of fascism two years later. The experience of the Italian factory occupations will be discussed in the second of our excerpts from To the Masses.

Debate on strategy
During the months that followed, as the employer attacks gained momentum across much of Europe, two contrasting policies were proposed in the Comintern regarding how to enable workers to regain the initiative. The disagreement concerned strategy, that is, the overall policy needed to guide workers’ struggles toward a decisive victory over the capitalist class. One initiative was to launch a persistent effort to unify the working class in broad struggles for immediate needs—a policy that a few months later was codified as the “united front.” The rival course, later dubbed “theory of the offensive,” was for the Communist parties to seek a favourable opportunity to launch their forces into confrontational action, acting on their own if necessary, in order to galvanize workers into motion.

The resulting debate on strategy dominated the Third Comintern Congress in June–July 1921 and is also the topic of our first excerpt, published in this issue.

The test of action
The German Communist Party (KPD), which then embraced an estimated 350,000 members, tried each of these approaches in turn.

On January 8, 1921, the KPD published an “Open Letter” addressed to all major German workers’ organization—including those with procapitalist policies—calling for united proletarian action against the employer offensive. The “Open Letter” included calls for a united defense of living standards, armed self-defense against far-right groups, and the freeing of political prisoners. Although rejected by leaders of the major groups to which it was addressed, the KPD appeal won significant support among their rank and file. Nonetheless, many in both the KPD leadership and the ranks felt this policy was over-cautious, and Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev and other leaders of the world organization in Moscow echoed these doubts.

On February 22, the German leaders most identified with the open letter approach, including Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin, were repudiated by a vote of the KPD Central Committee. They resigned, and a new leadership took the helm, determined to steer the party toward bolder initiatives in action. The new leaders’ opportunity came three weeks later, when the SDP governor of Prussian Saxony announced police occupation of the region to repress militant workers’ actions. The KPD leadership responded with a general appeal for confrontational action. A week later, the KPD, acting alone, issued a call for a nationwide general strike and unsuccessfully tried to provoke one, looking to spark a revolutionary situation. For example, on March 24, “Communists used every means, including force, to attempt to set off a general strike,” writes historian Pierre Broué. “Groups of activists tried to occupy factories by surprise in order to prevent the entry of the great mass of non-Communist workers, whom they called ‘scabs.’”2 This initiative, termed the March Action, was a costly failure, causing the party to lose tens of thousands of members.

Legacy of defeat
Following the March Action, its initiators pledged to continue on their “offensive” course. Some other party leaders, particularly Levi and Zetkin, attacked this policy and called for a return to the open letter approach. In mid-April Levi, on his own, published a critique accusing the KPD of “putschism”; he was then expelled for “gross disloyalty and severe damage to the party.”3

As delegates gathered in Moscow for the June 1921 Comintern congress, March Action supporters appeared to enjoy majority support. Even the Bolshevik leadership’s delegates to the Comintern Executive Committee were divided, with Lenin and Leon Trotsky sharply criticizing the action while others were sympathetic to the “revolutionary offensive” approach. In the congress itself, as Ian Birchall commented in his review of To the Masses, “The debate was extensive and thorough-going, with a range of positions being vigorously presented. All the dirty linen was piled up on the congress floor.”4

The congress also took time to discuss the world economic situation, trade unions, policies of the Russian Communist Party, youth and women’s movements, cooperatives, anti-imperialist liberation movements, and party organization. International Socialist Review’s third set of excerpts will be from reports by Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai (Russia), and Lucie Colliard (France) on the Communist Women’s Movement.

The main achievements of the congress can be summarized under five headings: It adopted a strategy seeking to win to communism a majority of the working class through committed involvement in workers’ daily struggles. This course was expressed in the congress call “to the masses,” and formulated more precisely by Clara Zetkin (quoting Lenin) as, “Win over the masses as a precondition to winning power.”

It launched a campaign to draw together the diverse expressions of anti­capitalist resistance in a “united fighting front of the proletariat.” This approach was expanded, six months later, to embrace alliances with nonrevolutionary currents within the working-class movement in what became known as the “united front.”

It resolved to integrate into the International’s program what later became known as “transitional demands,” that is, demands infringing on capitalist property rights and power as part of “a system of demands that, in their totality, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, and mark out the different stages of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship.”

It produced an analysis of how fluctuations in the capitalist economy can promote anticapitalist consciousness among working people, rejecting reliance on the expectation that capitalism would collapse of its own.

In a discussion marked by sharp antagonisms and many missteps, the congress sought, through frank debate and in a spirit of compromise, to promote principled unity of the diverse forces linked to the International.

The Comintern’s “YouTube”
In an era when audio recording was still in its infancy, Comintern stenographers at the Third Congress diligently transcribed everything said in the daily sessions and translated the resulting texts into several languages. Typesetters and printers then did their job, and in about ten days, the printed transcript of each session was in delegates’ hands. Within a few months, a thousand-page edition of the congress in German, the Comintern’s main working language, circulated internationally.

It has taken a good deal more time than that to produce a full English-language version. But when the Haymarket edition appears in February 2016, readers will be transported back to the congress floor to witness the debate and meet delegates of many viewpoints.

Through this imaginative journey, we will be helping to carry out an essential task of socialists, that of rediscovering and preserving the historical memory of our movement, and helping to make it available for a new generation to weigh and assess.

As for the historic place of the Third Comintern Congress, Italian Marxist Luigi Cortesi has aptly caught the mood of the occasion:

The grandeur and representativity of the congress impressed on the world a constantly more tangible reality of an alternative to the capitalist system. There is no evading . . . a sense of the historic solemnity of this gathering, almost a parliament of humanity.5

The congress opened up a two-year period, probably the most creative in Comintern history, of innovative attempts to forge workers’ unity in action. It well deserved Trotsky’s praise in a July 14, 1921, speech to Communist youth, when he termed it “the highest school of revolutionary strategy.”6

Quoted in John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 25.
Pierre Broué, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 501.
See David Fernbach, ed., In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012). Relevant texts by Levi and Zetkin are also included in To the Masses.
For Birchall’s review, see https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/review-an-essential-resource-on-communisms-early-years/.
Luigi Cortesi, Storia del comunismo (Rome: Manifestolibri, 2010), 466.
Leon Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International vol. 1 (New York: Pathfinder 1972), 297.

ISIS, imperialism and the war in Syria-Anne Alexander

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on ISIS, imperialism and the war in Syria-Anne Alexander


For the fourth time in less than a decade and half the UK is at war, and once again the vast majority of the victims will be Muslims. Bolstered by the votes and voices of the Labour right, on 2 December David Cameron finally secured the parliamentary majority he needed to extend military operations to Syria. The star performance that night was not the prime minister’s however. The media’s plaudits were reserved for shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, who invoked the memory of the International Brigades and their fight against fascism to build a case for war. Although opposition to intervention in Syria is growing outside parliament, with thousands protesting in the square outside as the debate took place, Benn’s arguments are important because (not for the first time) they serve the interests of the British ruling class by translating Cameron’s imperialist adventurism into a language that has a resonance far beyond the coteries of Labour MPs plotting to overturn Jeremy Corbyn and crush the unexpected resurgence of the Labour left.

The speech articulated a number of key arguments central to the case for war, including the claim that taking military action against ISIS is an effective solution to the “threat of terrorism” in the UK, and that this will also make things better for the people suffering under the group’s rule. Failure to support British military action means complicity in ISIS’s atrocities, Benn argued, claiming that ISIS is a “clear and present danger” to “international peace and security”.1

In order to counter these arguments effectively, we need to show how they are based on a faulty analysis of what kind of organisation ISIS is, where it came from, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. In order to counter the accelerating drive towards imperialist war in the Middle East, and intensifying racism, Islamophobia and repression in Europe, we also need to do more than this. We have to make a clear and coherent case that the real alternative to imperialism, the Middle East’s dictators and despots, and the vicious sectarianism of ISIS will be forged by the people of the region themselves, in their struggles from below for social justice and democracy. A left that despairs of this now, after witnessing millions take on the tyrants from Morocco to the Gulf in a popular uprising without precedent in the region’s history, will not offer any alternative at all. A left that contents itself with mouthing apologetics for RAF bombing missions, or oscillates between one or other of the local powers and their global sponsors will be equally impotent.

This article will argue that there are three main elements to an analysis which avoids falling into the traps outlined above. First, we need greater clarity about the role of imperialism in the region (both the Western variety and the Russian version). Getting this question right means not falling into mechanistic analysis or conspiracy theorising, understanding the dynamics of competition and conflict between and within the states of the region and the global powers, and appreciating the uneven agency of the different actors in this process. Secondly, we have to get right our analysis of racism and Islamophobia in Europe, understanding that the ever-expanding battery of repressive laws dressed up as “counter-terrorism” may be rooted in the legacy of colonialism, but are an essential counterpart to the strategies of our rulers in their attempts to dominate the Middle East today. An analysis of the 13 November massacres in Paris or the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists which fails to set these acts in the context of the systematic social exclusion and political repression of Muslims in France, rooted in the history of a racist “civilising mission” dressed up in the universalist language of revolution against absolutism, risks not explaining anything at all.

Finally, we need to be clear and concrete about where the alternative for the region really lies and who can bring it into being. This means not only properly understanding the dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution that have gripped the Middle East for the past decade, but looking forward to debating strategies for the popular uprisings of the future. A crucial part of that strategy, we will argue here, lies in correctly ­understanding the role of Islamism in the region. It requires an analysis which distinguishes between mass movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt ended up reprising a similar role to social democratic reformists in the context of a revolutionary crisis, and armed jihadi groups. Failure to do this feeds into the despair that expresses itself either as apologetics for imperialism or various unpleasant regimes, or turns into paralysis.

Where does ISIS fit in? One of the key arguments advanced here is that all the different parts of this analysis are needed to understand the ISIS phenomenon properly: it is born out of the destruction caused by imperialism, out of the crushing of the hopes of revolution and feeds on the despair bred by racism and Islamophobia in Europe. But it is equally important to grasp that ISIS is only a small part of a much bigger picture. It is easy to be mesmerised by the horror of the battle over Raqqa, but we cannot forget that the more important frontlines are those still to be drawn.

Imperial hubris: The unmaking of Iraq

The catastrophe which engulfed US attempts to assert itself as the leader of the“new world order”2 through the remaking of Iraq created the conditions for the rise of ISIS in more ways than one. As I have outlined in more detail in a previous issue of this journal, ISIS’s direct predecessor, the group founded by Jordanian Islamist Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, first coalesced in Iraq shortly after the US invasion.3 It distinguished itself by its anti-Shia sectarianism and its brutality, leading eventually to a backlash from the Sunni communities where its fighters sought to operate. However, in the context of US policies which embedded sectarian competition at the heart of the weak and fragmented state, the Islamic State of Iraq rose again from the ashes of Zarqawi’s defeat. Its resurgence was fed by the systematic marginalisation of Sunni political leaders by a deeply corrupt, authoritarian regime dominated by sectarian Shia parties and militias, such as the Da’wah Party of Nouri al-Maliki and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Maliki’s decision to send in troops to crush a protest movement which had mobilised thousands across Western and Northern Iraq during the winter of 2012-13 in largely peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to corruption and sectarian discrimination, was a particularly grim turning point. In a very direct sense, ISIS’s leadership was schooled in war in Iraq. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi passed through detention in Camp Bucca, and many of his second and third rank commanders are said to be former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army.4

The impact of successive US interventions on Iraq through two decades of war, sanctions and occupation was little short of catastrophic. US policies took sectarianism to new heights, parcelling up what remained of the state between confessional militias and rapacious neoliberal corporations. Iraq’s social fabric was torn apart through a process of ethnic and sectarian “cleansing” and civil war. By June 2007 four million Iraqis, one in six of the total population, had been forced to leave their homes. Two million had fled the country to neighbouring Syria and Jordan and two million were internally displaced.5 The result was an Iraq which looked very similar to the maps of “ethnoreligious divisions” the CIA used to produce in the decades before the invasion of 2003, with their tripartite partition of the country into Sunnis, Shia and Kurds.6

The implosion of Iraqi society is often presented by apologists for Western intervention as somehow the inevitable consequence of pre-existing sectarian antagonisms. The West’s mistake, according to this line of thought, was to leave “too soon” rather than to have invaded at all. There is a mirror image of this argument proposed by some who oppose intervention, on the grounds that “we” should have left the warring tribes and sects of the region to get on with the nasty business of killing each other. The huge efforts US officials went to in order to break cross-sectarian unity in the early phases of the occupation give the lie to the certainty of such claims. They pursued a scorched-earth policy in the largely Sunni town of Fallujah, the epicentre of armed resistance in Western Iraq, while drawing the Shia militias which had led the fighting against occupation in the South into a political process led by the sectarian parties to whom they promised the lion’s share of the state.7

The disaster of US intervention in Iraq also created the conditions for the rise of ISIS in a number of broader ways. Although the US remained the most powerful global power in the region, its position had weakened both militarily and diplomatically. Regional powers, both allies of the US such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, and its foes, such as Iran, gained room to manoeuvre as a result. In the case of Iran, the impact of US ­miscalculation in Iraq was clear to see. The leadership of the Islamic Republic built on longstanding ties with Iraqi Shia Islamist opposition movements before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and benefitted from the installation of its clients at the heart of the reconstituted administration through US policies which deepened sectarian competition across state and society.

The destruction of Syria

Decades of US intervention in Iraq thus resulted in the interaction of three processes which were to have profound consequences for the fate of the Syrian Revolution. The embedding of sectarian competition in the neoliberal post Ba’athist state created a number of important actors in Syria’s conflicts, including ISIS itself and sectarian Shia militias which mobilised to defend the Assad regime. The sectarian polarisation also occurred at a regional level, becoming the general ideological cover for intensified competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This meant that the ambitions of both regional powers and the great powers which stood behind them flowed into and shaped the dynamics of counter-revolution and civil war. Finally the waves of mass displacement not only scarred Iraqi society, but placed enormous strains on Syria, which hosted millions of Iraqi refugees in the decade before the 2011 uprising. It is important to emphasise that the extreme brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s revenge on Syrian people made the transformation of the revolution into civil war almost inevitable, and sectarian conflict highly likely. Combined with the devastation of Iraq, it created a catastrophe on a scale not seen in the region for decades.

Following the tactics honed by his father in crushing a localised rebellion in Hama in 1982, Assad’s military strategy set in motion the vicious spiral of conflict which eventually overwhelmed the Syrian Revolution and the hopes of many who risked their lives to make it. Syrian government forces first laid siege to Deraa the small town near the border with Jordan where the arrest of children for writing anti-government graffiti had triggered protests in March 2011. As demonstrations spread the regime’s troops moved in to encircle other towns, bombarding residential areas with artillery and using machine guns to mow down protesters. Banias came under attack in May, and by November Homs, one of the epicentres of the uprising was besieged.8 Mutinies in the army and the defection of soldiers and officers led to the emergence of the Free Syrian Army in July 2011.9

Over the following months the uprising was transformed into an armed conflict: on the opposition side Islamist armed groups with access to funds, weapons and experienced fighters came to dominate, pushing aside other groups. Many of these groups had been successful in winning the backing of regional powers, particularly the Gulf states, which sought to influence the outcome of the conflict by providing arms and funding. An opposition offensive in July 2012 forced government forces to retreat from large areas of the country around Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Ezzor and Daraa.10 This was followed nine months later by a government counter-attack, aided by Lebanese militia Hizbollah, which brought areas on the Lebanese border back under regime control. The ebb and flow of war displaced first tens, then hundreds of thousands. By June 2014 around half of the total population had been forced to flee their homes. The regime’s tactics of encircling and bombing dissident population centres using barrel bombs, cluster munitions and chlorine bombs have created suffering on a massive scale.11 The latest stage in the conflict has seen Russian forces take action in support of the Assad regime, aimed at preventing its collapse and ensuring a voice for Russia’s geo-strategic interests in any future negotiations.

Some have argued that key elements in the regime’s ­counter-insurgency strategy created a dynamic which led rapidly to sectarian civil war. According to Joseph Holliday’s analysis, Assad’s commanders deployed only trusted army units who were largely chosen on grounds of their confessional makeup, while other units were confined to barracks.12 Lacking the manpower to deploy in much of the country (a fact that helps to explain why regime forces essentially abandoned large areas of the north east), the regime raised paramilitary forces, again from “trusted” communities and regions. Together regular and paramilitary forces engaged in “clear and hold” operations against opposition-held districts which were ostensibly aimed at “clearing” out opposition fighters, but quickly became “cleanse and hold” as large sections of the Sunni population either fled or were forced out by government troops. The pattern of selective deployment also accelerated the regime’s adoption of a scorched earth policy towards areas it was unable to hold, with repeated use of barrel bombs and even ­ballistic missiles.13

ISIS’s success in Syria, as in Iraq, is predicated on appalling levels of social destruction.14 However, there are also more specific factors at work. One of the key advantages that ISIS has enjoyed in Syria is that its military aims are different to those of the other major protagonists. Its commanders did not enter the Syrian conflict with the goal of either thwarting or accelerating the fall of Assad, rather their efforts were directed towards establishing and consolidating their caliphate. Their territorial strategy worked in symbiosis with that of the regime, in that ISIS wanted regions that Assad’s forces had decided were impractical to hold, particularly the north eastern regions around Raqqa. Unlike for the opposition armed forces, this was not a staging point on the road to Aleppo or Damascus, but became an end in itself.15 Another dynamic that aided ISIS’s consolidation was the deepening of sectarianism, and in particular the growing polarisation between a “Sunni” northeast and the concentration of Alawite and Christian populations in regime controlled territories. As in Iraq, ISIS is no bystander in this process, but has reportedly carried out many acts of sectarian “cleansing”. Finally, ISIS was much better placed than most other forces in Syria to benefit from the interaction between the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. As it had deliberately set itself the goal of breaking down the border between the two countries, ISIS could use each as a hinterland for offensive operations in the other, and could transport material, men and arms from one front to another.

Can ISIS build a state?

A year and a half after the fall of Mosul, there can be little doubt that ISIS’s leadership are not only serious about building a state, but they have been relatively successful in beginning to do so (notwithstanding limitations which we will discuss in more detail below). This does not mean that their project will succeed but it does mean that we need to understand firstly why building a new state is so important to them, and secondly what are the resources they can draw on as they attempt to do this.

ISIS’s state-building project cannot be separated from the devastation of Iraq and Syria over years of war, sanctions, occupation and ­counter-revolution. ISIS’s leaders have concentrated the brutality of fragmented and violent societies into a form of government which could be directly compared with the practices of organisations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Like ISIS, these groups emerged in the context of a long-running insurgency and in the Cambodian case, years of US bombing as a spill-over from the Vietnam War.16

In the Iraqi case, US occupation played a transformative role by framing the struggle over the post-Ba’athist state in sectarian terms, deepening existing grievances and creating the material conditions for the birth of new ones. The post-Ba’athist state failed to keep its citizens safe from either the US occupying troops or other bodies of armed men, it failed to provide adequate services and basic infrastructure, and its security forces repeatedly carried out sectarian killings under the direction of party-militia leaders. Meanwhile, in Syria, Assad’s brutal attacks on areas liberated from government control have made the idea of returning to Ba’athist rule a horrific prospect for millions.

The document entitled Principles of Administration in the Islamic State, published by Aymenn al-Tamimi and the Guardian in December 2015 sheds interesting light on the ideology which underpins ISIS’s state-building activities and how the group attempts to put this into practice.17 The text provides a narrative of Sunni Arab loss and marginalisation which, far from being fleshed out with Qu’ranic citations or references to traditions of Sunni jurisprudence, articulates a case for statehood in surprisingly narrow terms. Chapter five deals with provincial administration. After decrying the role of the Sykes-Picot agreement in dividing up Sunni Muslims between the new states of the region, the author leaps forward nearly nine decades to argue that Sunnis have been systematically marginalised and oppressed:

In Iraq, the separation of Sunnis from Shia was clear, along with the neglect of the administrative centres in every Sunni area, and indeed the appointment of officials from the filthy Rafidites [Shia] in areas of Sunni population. Meanwhile regions under the rule of Kurdish and Shia factions were entrusted with independence from the decisions of the ruling presidency, as we saw in Kirkuk and Arbil, and even in smaller areas such as Najaf and Kerbala which enjoyed undeclared “religious” administrative independence.18

The specific nature of the author’s complaints against the Iraqi state, and the fact they express a narrative of exclusion from decision-making and denial of state resources which sounds like the lament of a frustrated former provincial official is highly suggestive. The author paints a claustrophobic picture of the “Sunnis” hemmed in on all sides by hostile ethnic, religious and political forces: “All these divisions denied the Sunnis the most basic rights, making the Alawites masters of the sea, the Shia in Iraq kings over the oil and the trade routes, the Yezidi Kurds sheikhs of the mountains, while the Druze became masters of the mountains bordering Israel.”

The redrawing of these borders by ISIS is presented as both an act of self-defence in the face of hostile forces, and the potential springboard for future expansion:

It was both religiously correct and rational to redraw the borders of the provinces and to carefully study every development that takes place in the region. We are thus preserving the Sunni backbone, strengthening its resources and centres, and then regiments can be deployed in order to radically restructure the regions which will be subject to the rule of the Islamic State.

The idea that a “Sunni backbone” is located approximately in the areas where ISIS is attempting to build its state makes some sense in an Iraqi context (provided one accepts particular sectarian narratives), but is illogical in Syria, where Sunnis were the majority everywhere with the exception of the coastal regions around Latakia and the southern province of Suweida.

While it is always possible to read too much into a single document (the authenticity of which it is extremely difficult to prove), the ideas expressed in the Principles of Administration do chime with much that ISIS has done in practice. If it is genuine, it provides striking confirmation of the argument that ISIS’s success is based largely on alignment of interests between the small number of effective jihadi fighters who lead the organisation, former Ba’athist security and army officers and some of the political and military leaders in Western Iraq, in the context of the social destruction wreaked by war and counter-revolution.

ISIS’s ability to succeed as a state also partially rests on the failures of other, smaller competitors. As James Fromson and Steven Simon note:

The same governance void that paved the way for ISIS’s military conquests also led to conditions of insecurity across most of Sunni Syria and Iraq. The result was the rise, particularly in Syria, of banditry and small-time gangsterism as various militias competed for power. ISIS has replaced this with industrial-scale gangsterism, but by largely monopolising the use of force, it has also temporarily eliminated the sources of internecine conflict responsible for many residents’ complaints.19

Such analyses certainly oversimplify the complex situation in the liberated areas in Syria, and it would be wrong to think of all of ISIS’s competitors as merely “bandits”. However, the point about how ISIS’s military success has allowed them to take another step along the continuum from protection racket to recognised state, remains valid.20 One of the advantages of “industrial-scale gangsterism” is that it allows the practitioners to cannibalise existing state institutions. ISIS monopolises enough force in the territories under its control to assert control over these institutions, both as a means to extract resources from its subjects and to provide them basic services, whereas smaller, less successful groups could only plunder or paralyse them. Testimonies from residents and purported ISIS government documents published online point to a consistent pattern of ISIS taking over, rather than dismantling, government institutions. The group has forced teachers, doctors and nurses to return to work under new management under the threat of being declared an unbeliever or losing their homes.21 A detailed investigation by the Financial Times shows how large parts of the oil and gas industry in Syria is essentially shared between ISIS and central government control, with oil workers from regime-held areas being appointed to work under ISIS management by the state oil companies. The main reason for this lies in ISIS’s success in seizing control of gas fields which are the main supply of fuel for Syria’s electricity grid, leaving the ­government to conclude that pragmatic accommodation with its rival was a better option than allowing the lights to go out in Damascus.22

Underpinning the state-building project lies a formidable military and security apparatus, led at least in part by former Ba’athists.23 Brutal and arbitrary punishments, combined with an efficient system of informers are the means by which the caliphate ensures compliance with its orders. ISIS appears to have a highly-militarised state apparatus, with the upper reaches of ISIS’s institutions firmly under military control.24 Courts and media institutions are organised centrally, closely ­following the shape of the Ba’athist state.25 Former Ba’athist officers have very likely provided crucial battlefield experience in conventional combat, as well as familiarity with some captured weaponry. It is possible they have also inspired or advised on the creation of ISIS’s efforts to organise paramilitary forces for children, whose name, “The Cubs of the Caliphate” (ashbal al-khilafa) echoes that of the “Saddam’s Cubs” (ashbal saddam) force set up by the Iraqi government in the 1990s.26

Despite this, there are still formidable obstacles in the way of ISIS consolidating as a state. Many of these obstacles are military. If the worldview encapsulated in The Principles is accurate, ISIS’s leaders are making an ideological virtue out of the fact that they are surrounded by enemies. They also display a rare talent for making them. Until now, ISIS’s commanders have been successful in managing battles on multiple fronts, and (despite claims by the Pentagon to the contrary) appear to have lost relatively little significant ground as a result of the US-led bombing campaign against them since June 2014.27 However, this situation may not last, and beyond having roused too many enemies at once, there are other potential military difficulties on the horizon. ISIS is well-stocked with advanced military hardware, thanks to having captured armaments, vehicles and tanks from the Iraqi and Syrian armies. But bullets are in relatively short supply, and spare parts for their vehicles will become increasingly scarce as the wear and tear takes its toll.28 Both of these things are critical to ISIS’s ability to take their enemies by surprise in unexpected military offensives.

There are questions too, about how successfully ISIS can generate the revenue it needs to function as a state and prosecute its wars. Wildly fluctuating estimates of the group’s wealth have circulated in the media, and ISIS itself claimed to have set a budget of $2 billion with a $250 million surplus for 2015.29 The Financial Times estimated ISIS’s crude oil production to be running at around 34-40,000 barrels per day, earning the group an average of $1.5 million a day.30 Other sources have suggested lower levels of earnings from oil: Aymenn al-Tamimi published documents said to be “financial accounts” for December 2014-January 2015 from ISIS’s Euphrates province (spanning Deir Ezzor province in Syria and western districts of Anbar ­province in Iraq) in October 2015. According to the accounts, daily revenues from oil and gas in this province amounted to $66,400.31 The largest source of revenue listed in the document was not oil, however, but “confiscations” of property and goods, accounting for 44 percent of the province’s income. It would not be surprising if ISIS’s income is largely internal and essentially based on plunder. A key question for the future of the state-building project will be if ISIS can transform a warlord economy into a war economy, or if it will start to falter once the loot begins to dry up.

Islamophobia, counter-terrorism and the transnational jihad

The parochialism of the worldview expressed in The Principles seems at odds with ISIS’s grand claims to the universal loyalties of Muslims (even though its definition of who qualifies as a Muslim is very narrow), and contrasts with the group’s success in winning thousands of foreign recruits. In order to understand how these two, apparently contradictory aspects of ISIS’s success are linked, we need to analyse the relationship between three processes: the consolidation of transnational networks of jihadi fighters over several generations since the 1980s, the transformation of Muslims into all-purpose scapegoats by a new generation of right-wing populists and fascists (aided and abetted by more traditional conservatives), and the erection of a battery of racist and repressive laws restricting the rights of migrants and lately focused on “counter-terrorism”. In countries such as Britain and France, these processes can mesh with long histories of colonialism in the Middle East and active imperialist roles in the region today to potentially produce a self-reinforcing dynamic between the racists who target Muslims in the name of “counter-terrorism” or “defending Western values” and jihadi supporters or sympathisers who carry out attacks on behalf of ISIS.

“We are at war”, intoned French president François Hollande in response to the attacks on concert-goers and diners in Paris on 13 November. The fact that the young men who murdered 130 people at the Bataclan and elsewhere were actually almost all French or Belgian citizens prompted sarcastic responses from the stars of the French intellectual right. Éric Zemmour asked whether instead of bombing Raqqa, Hollande should attack Molenbeek, an area of Brussels visited by the attackers.32 While he may have been joking (as the BBC felt obliged to point out), there are many in France who take this kind of racist bile more seriously. As Adam Shatz points out, French imperial ambition to integrate its captured ­colonial territories into the body of the state has flipped over into a rhetoric claiming that whole districts of Paris and Strasbourg are now “lost territories of the Republic”.33

French imperial expansion in the 19th and early 20th century ­projected the vision of an indivisible France onto North Africa, Indochina and Africa, driven by a self-proclaimed “civilising mission”. The fake universalism of the kind of Republicanism which was constructed in the process masked the creation of settler-colonial societies in places such as Algeria, where a racist order separating colonist from colonised, and non-Muslim from Muslim was only overthrown through a long and bloody struggle for liberation. It is telling that before November 2015, the biggest single episode of mass murder on the streets of Paris was the killing of up to 200 Algerian protesters on 17 October 1961 on the orders of police chief Maurice Papon. The magnitude of this particular crime went ­unacknowledged by the state for 50 years.34

It is also telling that the last declaration of a state of emergency was in 2005, in response to the revolt which shook the suburbs where descendants of France’s colonial empire have been trapped in poverty for decades. Branded as perpetual “immigrants” (now labelled “third” or “fourth generation”), they are presented with the impossible challenge of assimilation into a society which simultaneously demands they renounce key aspects of their culture in order to be accepted, and still punishes them for the things they cannot change, such as their surnames and the area where they grew up, by discriminating against them when they apply for a job or attempt to find housing.35

The young men who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists and shoppers in a kosher supermarket in January 2015, and those who massacred 130 people in November, were almost all French or Belgian. The only exception was the suicide bomber at the Stade de France who seems to have been carrying a Syrian passport, although that does not mean that he actually was Syrian.36 The Charlie Hebdo killers grew up in poverty in northeastern Paris and attempted to fly to Iraq to join the fight against the US occupation. They eked out a living in hand to mouth jobs between stints in a squalid prison system, where 70 percent of the inmates are Muslims compared to an overall Muslim population of around eight percent.37

We should be wary of reproducing a left-wing version of a “conveyor belt” theory which suggests that distressed youth from the banlieues will automatically end up killing their fellow citizens. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo group that process took over a decade, while in the meantime the grip of the racist right on French politics intensified and (not coincidentally) the French state shifted to a more directly interventionist role in the Middle East. As Jim Wolfreys has outlined in an earlier issue of this journal, France has been in the grip of an “Islamophobic spiral” for many years, thanks to the efforts of the far-right “to rehabilitate racism by focusing on culture rather than race”, with the complicity of the mainstream parties and in the absence of consistent opposition to Islamophobia from the left.38 The French left’s uncritical adoption of the imposition of the Republican creed of laïcitié (secularism) from above by the state has played a key part in weakening attempts to mobilise against racism.39

Nevertheless it is important to see Hollande’s war cry, not as the traumatised reaction to terrorist attacks, but a product of the interplay of deeply-rooted processes: the specific legacy of France’s colonial past, the racist logic of competition between fascists and politicians across the political spectrum who have constructed Muslims as all-purpose “others” and an increasingly interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East. A final crucial element is the failure of the French left to build effective opposition on any of these fronts, partly as a result of the dominance of traditions of anti-clericalism which lend a veneer of radicalism to the imperial and racist strategies of the state.

Elements of this picture are present in many European countries, including Britain. We have our own populist right, which, while far behind the surge of votes for the Front National in France, has profoundly reshaped electoral politics in recent years. For decades, successive governments have compulsively tightened restrictions on migration and demonised refugees. The Tory government’s new Prevent counter-terrorism strategy makes it a legal duty for teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers to report on their pupils, patients, clients and co-workers if they suspect them of being “radicalised”.40 The British state has its own toxic history of ­colonialism and its own stake in the destruction of Iraq and Syria.

Conclusion: The alternative from below

The final element in the analysis is the question of how to prepare for the popular uprisings of the future, and what role the analysis of ISIS in particular and the analysis of Islamism more generally can play in this process. In the depths of a brutal counter-revolution which has wreaked havoc across the region, this may seem an academic exercise. Yet, there are plenty of reasons not to write off the potential for future explosions of popular protest. As we have discussed in detail in this article, the revolution and counter-revolution in Syria took place in a context which was already shaped by the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq.

In Egypt, by comparison, although a vicious counter-revolution led by the military and aided by the Gulf states has restored dictatorship, has not experienced the kinds of social destruction we have witnessed in Syria, and some parts of the popular movement have proved surprisingly resilient. Despite killing thousands and jailing tens of thousands, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime has not been able completely to quell all forms of popular protest. Workers strikes and protests continue, although some of the key leaders of the independent unions have been co-opted by the counter-revolution.41

The narrative of the “war on terror” and fear of ISIS has been a powerful ideological weapon in Sisi’s hands, however. And much of the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force, has been justified by the regime and its apologists as necessary in order to stop “Islamist terrorism”. Egypt has its own ISIS affiliate, which declared that Sinai was a province of the Islamic State, although it is notable that until now this group has been more interested in fighting the Egyptian army in Sinai, than embarking on the kind of sectarian massacres that characterise ISIS elsewhere.42

There are two reasons why it is important to reject lines of argument that either capitulate to the narrative of the military regime in presenting the Muslim Brotherhood activists as terrorists, or see the Brotherhood as a counter-revolutionary force distinct from, but comparable to the military.43 The first is that failing to see the contrasts between Islamist organisations such as the Brotherhood, which have a mass popular base and often play a reformist role, and ISIS, makes it more difficult to understand either. The second reason is that characterising the Brotherhood as counter-revolutionary makes it more difficult to organise effective resistance to the regime, as it cuts off the revolutionary forces that have survived the crackdown, from the large numbers of people who support or look to the Brotherhood as the main organisation still defying the military.

The question of whether there can be at some point a revival of the popular movements which erupted across the region in 2011 is also important outside the Middle East. The best answer to those who want to justify bombing on “humanitarian” grounds, is to argue that far from needing Western warplanes and tanks to deal with dictators or warlords, ordinary people across the region have weapons of their own: mass strikes and protests. Although the revolutionary promise of 2011 was not ultimately fulfilled, it provides the most concrete demonstration of their power to remake the Middle East from below we have ever seen.


1: Benn, 2015.

2: Bush, 1990.

3: Alexander, Anne, 2015a.

4: See Naisse, 2015 and Atwan, 2015.

5: Forced Migration Review, 2007.

6: Go to www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/iraq_ethnoreligious_1992.jpg (from the CIA’s 2003 Iraq country profile).

7: Alexander, Anne, 2015a.

8: Marsh, 2011; Amnesty International, 2011; Bakri, 2011.

9: Asharq Al-Awsat, 2011.

10: See Charron, 2014, for a summary of the key events in the conflict and the impact on the civilian population.

11: See Charron, 2014 and reports by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 2011-2015, available online at www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx

12: Holliday, 2013.

13: Holliday, 2013, p56; see also International Crisis Group, 2014, p7 on the use of barrel bombs.

14: See Naisse, 2015, on this point.

15: Raqqa’s strategic importance to ISIS lay in the fact that this provincial town could be combined with territory in Iraq, thus creating a stable centre for ISIS’s state-building project across the existing border.

16: See Shawcross, 1979, on the US bombing campaign against Cambodia which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and International Crisis Group, 2004 on the LRA.

17: Al-Tamimi, 2015b; Malik, 2015.

18: The quotation and the two that follow are the author’s own translation from the Arabic published by Al-Tamimi.

19: Fromson and Simon, 2015, p40.

20: “War makes states”, Charles Tilly once pointed out in an essay that compared the process of state formation to organised crime—Tilly, 1985.

21: See Al-Tamimi, 2015a.

22: Solomon and Mhidi, 2015a.

23: Atwan, 2015; Fromson and Simon, 2015.

24: See Al-Tamimi, 2015a. The list of ISIS senior figures compiled by Charles Lister in 2014 includes the following ministerial roles alongside more conventional posts: War Minister, Minister of General Security, Minister of Foreign Fighters and Suicide Bombers, Minister for Weapons and Minister for Explosives—Lister, 2014.

25: Al-Tamimi, 2015b; see Caris and Reynolds, 2014, on the ISIS court system in Syria.

26: Davis, 2005, pp232-233.

27: Gilsenan, 2015; Mak, 2015.

28: Fromson and Simon, 2015; Solomon and Mhidi, 2015b.

29: Al-Araby al-Jadeed, 2015.

30: Solomon and Mhidi, 2015a.

31: Al-Tamimi, 2015c.

32: Morel, 2015; Schofield, 2015.

33: Shatz, 2015.

34: Willsher, 2011.

35: See Delphy, 2015.

36: Reuters, 2015; Chrisafis, 2015.

37: Chrisafis, 2015; Moore, 2008; Alexander, Harriet, 2015.

38: Wolfreys, 2015.

39: Birchall, 2015.

40: See Asquith, 2015 for a statement by National Union of Students leaders on opposing Prevent.

41: See Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, for more on this issue.

42: See Attallah and Afify, 2015.

43: For a survey of this debate, see Alexander, Anne, 2015b.


Al-Araby al-Jadeed, 2015, “Islamic State Group Sets Out First Budget, Worth $2bn” (4 January), http://tinyurl.com/z295wel

Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny, 2014, Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed).

Alexander, Anne, 2015a, “ISIS and Counter-revolution: Towards a Marxist Analysis”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/isis-and-counter-revolution-towards-a-marxist-analysis

Alexander, Anne, 2015b, “Reformism, Islamism and Revolution”, Socialist Review (October), http://socialistreview.org.uk/406/reformism-islamism-revolution

Alexander, Harriet, 2015, “What is Going Wrong in France’s Prisons?”, Telegraph (17 January), www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11352268/What-is-going-wrong-in-Frances-prisons.html

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, 2015a, “Archive of Islamic State Administrative Documents” (27 January), www.aymennjawad.org/2015/01/archive-of-islamic-state-administrative-documents

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, 2015b, “Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State —full text and translation” (7 December), www.aymennjawad.org/18215/principles-in-the-administration-of-the-islamic

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn, 2015c, “The Archivist: Unseen Islamic State Financial Accounts for Deir az-Zor Province” (5 October), www.aymennjawad.org/17916/the-archivist-unseen-islamic-state-financial

Amnesty International, 2011, “Syria Death Toll Rises as City is Placed under Siege” (9 May), www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2011/05/syria-death-toll-rises-city-placed-under-siege

Asharq Al-Awsat, 2011, “Syrian Army Colonel Defects forms Free Syrian Army” (1 August), http://english.aawsat.com/2011/08/article55245595/syrian-army-colonel-defects-forms-free-syrian-army

Asquith, Shelly, 2015, “Why I won’t be working with Prevent (and how you can avoid it, too)” (13 August), www.nusconnect.org.uk/articles/why-i-won-t-be-working-with-prevent-and-how-you-can-avoid-it-too

Attallah, Lina, and Heba Afify, 2015, “Sinai: States of Fear”, Mada Masr (28 February), http://www.madamasr.com/news/politics/sinai-states-fear

Atwan, Abdel-Bari, 2015, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi).

Bakri, Nada, 2011, “As Syria Hits City, UN says Toll Climbs”, New York Times (8 November), www.nytimes.com/2011/11/09/world/middleeast/syria-lays-siege-to-a-city-homs-that-puts-up-a-fight.html?_r=0

Benn, Hilary, 2015, “Full Text of Hilary Benn’s Extraordinary Speech in Favour of Syria Airstrikes”, Spectator (2 December), blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/12/full-text-of-hilary-benns-extraordinary-speech-in-favour-of-syria-airstrikes

Birchall, Ian, 2015, “The Wrong Kind of Secularism”, Jacobin (19 November), www.jacobinmag.com/2015/11/charlie-hebdo-france-secular-paris-attacks-lacite

Bush, George H W, 1990, “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress” (11 September), http://millercenter.org/president/bush/speeches/speech-3425

Caris, Charles C, and Samuel Reynolds, 2014, ISIS governance in Syria, Institute for the Study of War (July), www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISIS_Governance.pdf

Charron, Guillaume, 2014, “Syria: Forsaken IDPs Adrift Inside a Fragmenting State” (21 October), www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/syria/2014/syria-forsaken-idps-adrift-inside-a-fragmenting-state

Chrisafis, Angelique, 2015, “Charlie Hebdo Attackers: Born, Raised and Radicalised in Paris”, Guardian (12 January), www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/12/-sp-charlie-hebdo-attackers-kids-france-radicalised-paris

Davis, Eric, 2005, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Blackwell).

Delphy, Christine, 2015, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror (Verso).

Forced Migration Review, 2007, “Iraq’s Displacement Crisis” (June), www.fmreview.org/iraq

Fromson, James and Steven Simon, 2015, “ISIS: The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now”, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, volume 7, number 3, http://tinyurl.com/z2276p9

Gilsinan, Kathy, 2015, “How ISIS Territory has Changed Since the US Bombing Campaign Began”, Atlantic (11 September), www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/isis-territory-map-us-campaign/404776

Holliday, Joseph, 2013, “The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War, Institute for the Study of War” (March), www.understandingwar.org/report/assad-regime

International Crisis Group, 2004, “Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict” (14 April), www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/africa/horn-of-africa/uganda/Northern%20Uganda%20Understanding%20and%20Solving%20the%20Conflict.pdf

International Crisis Group, 2014, “Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Civil War” (9 September), www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2014/mena/rigged-cars-and-barrel-bombs-aleppo-and-the-state-of-the-syrian-war.aspx

Lister, Charles, 2014, “Islamic State Senior Leadership: Who’s Who”, Brookings Institute (November), www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2014/11/profiling-islamic-state-lister/en_whos_who.pdf?la=en

Mak, Tim, 2015, “Exclusive: Pentagon Map Hides ISIS Gains”, Daily Beast (22 April), www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/22/the-pentagon-s-isis-map-is-so-wrong.html

Malik, Shiv, 2015, “The Isis Papers: Behind ‘Death Cult’ Image Lies a Methodical Bureaucracy”, Guardian (7 December), www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/07/isis-papers-guardian-syria-iraq-bureaucracy

Marsh, Katherine, 2011, “Syrian Forces Fire on Protesters as Tanks Roll into Banias”, Guardian (7 May), www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/07/syrian-forces-fire-on-protesters

Moore, Molly, 2008, “In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims”, Washington Post (29 April), www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/28/AR2008042802560.html

Morel, Thomas, 2015, “‘Bombarder Molenbeek’: la blague d’Eric Zemmour n’a pas fait rire grand monde”, Metronews (18 November), http://tinyurl.com/hv26hq2

Naisse, Ghayath, 2015, “The “Islamic State” and the Counter-revolution”, International Socialism Journal 148 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/the-islamic-state-and-the-counter-revolution

Reuters, 2015, “Dead Killers, Hunted Suspects after Paris Attacks” (16 November), http://tinyurl.com/j5zrems

Schofield, Hugh, 2015, “Paris Attacks: Fury Over Claims by Philosopher Onfray”, BBC News (25 November), www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34904939

Shatz, Adam, 2015, “Magical Thinking about ISIS”, London Review of Books (3 December), www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n23/adam-shatz/magical-thinking-about-isis

Shawcross, William, 1979, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (Simon and Schuster).

Solomon, Erika, and Ahmed Mhidi, 2015a, “ISIS inc: Syria’s ‘Mafia-style’ Gas Deals with Jihadis”, Financial Times (15 October), www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92f4e036-6b69-11e5-aca9-d87542bf8673.html#axzz3uIEAXneJ

Solomon, Erika, and Ahmed Mhidi, 2015b, “ISIS: The Munitions Trail”, Financial Times (30 November), www.ft.com/cms/s/2/baad34e4-973c-11e5-9228-87e603d47bdc.html#axzz3uIEAXneJ

Tilly, Charles, 1985, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge University Press).

Willsher, Kim, 2011, “France Remembers Algerian Massacre 50 years on”, Guardian (17 October), www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/17/france-remembers-algerian-massacre

Wolfreys, Jim, 2015, “After the Paris Attacks: An Islamophobic Spiral”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/after-the-paris-attacks

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Half socialist? Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union-John Rose

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on Half socialist? Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union-John Rose


A review of Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (Reaktion Books, Critical Lives series, 2015), £11.99

Paul Le Blanc faced a daunting challenge when he agreed to write a book about Leon Trotsky and his life in exile for the Critical Lives series, which specialises in brief introductions to leading political and cultural personalities. How do you briefly introduce one of the greatest leaders of the world’s first socialist revolution that then apparently rejected him? How do you summarise all the unanswered political questions that were intensified by Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union in February 1929?1

The most powerful chapter of the book is appropriately titled “Revolution Betrayed”. This, of course, is also the title of Trotsky’s most famous book of the 1930s, written as the crisis of Communism was reaching its climax: The Book in George Orwell’s 1984. Le Blanc’s discussion of André Malraux, the gifted left wing French novelist, illustrates the difficulty of understanding Trotsky’s betrayal by the Soviet Union. Malraux “personally witnessed the debacle of Stalin’s policy in China, which resulted in the slaughter in 1927 of many idealistic revolutionary militants. He told their story…in one of the great novels of the 20th century, La Condition humaine (Man’s Fate)”.2 The novel was highly valued by Trotsky, and ­mirrored his own devastating assaults on Stalin and the Comintern’s policies in China. Now Malraux is introduced here very effectively to illustrate the great paradox at the heart of the 20th century’s crisis of Communism. How could someone like Malraux, who had an unusually refined and detailed grasp of the treachery of Stalin and his policies, nevertheless rally to Stalin and desert Trotsky?

We will return to this question in a moment. But first we need to note critically that apart from two other sentences,3 this is the only reference to what was nothing less than the sabotage of a potential socialist revolution in China. This was the first major showdown between Stalin and Trotsky over an international question with parallels with the Russian Revolution itself. It was indeed part of the “decisive contest” between the two leaders, to use Isaac Deutscher’s words.4 Failure of the Communist movement internationally to discuss the lessons of China in 1927 meant it was doomed to repeat similar mistakes in the 1930s.

The “Revolution Betrayed” juxtaposes Stalin’s “People’s Front” perspectives with “The Great Madness”, a phrase originating in Prosecutor Vyshinsky’s demand during the Moscow Trials that each of the “mad dogs be shot”, but evoking the full weight of Stalin’s internal policies for the period.5 Only the madness turns out to have a terrifying rational core. The tremendously positive reception to the People’s Front perspectives internationally helped Stalin emphasise the rational core and somehow get away with minimising the scale of the Terror. This was despite the fact that nothing less than the total destruction of the aims and objectives of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, including its core cadre, was at stake, turning communism into its opposite, symbolised of course by the systematic persecution, and ultimate assassination, of the Terror’s principal victim, Leon Trotsky.

The complexities involved in this process are impressively explained. So let me write now: buy this book! It provides brief succinct explanations for many of Trotsky’s most important writings. It is very stimulating, often beautifully written and highly original. It pulls no punches in criticising Trotsky’s earlier overcautious approach to Stalin. It describes the influence of workers’ movements on the young Trotsky very well, there are rich and thoughtful insights into his personality as well as a good discussion of the continuing obsession with Trotsky among conservative scholars, the wider media and the art world, itself an unintended tribute.

The reader is drawn into and becomes absorbed in the nightmare world of Stalin’s sinister and sickening hounding of Trotsky, including the meticulous destruction of Trotsky’s family, often with the tacit support of “liberal” governments and Communist Parties everywhere. Notwithstanding the criticisms outlined here, in part driven by the severe restrictions imposed by the publishing format, it succeeds in introducing new readers both to Trotsky and particularly his life in exile.

However, there is one highly significant omission, which cannot be excused, in this case, by the cramped space within which the book was written, namely Le Blanc’s failure properly and critically to assess Trotsky’s interpretation of Stalinism and the debates this provoked. The issues involved here are of such magnitude that they will dominate this review.

In 1935, at the 7th World Congress of the Communist International, its new head, Georgi Dimitrov, “mapped out before the assembled leaders and representatives of the parties of world Communism a new strategic orientation”, the People’s Front: “‘The toiling masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice…not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism’”.6 As Trotsky pointed out, this was “the traditional policy of Menshevism against which Lenin fought all his life. It signals the renunciation of proletarian revolution in favour of conservative bourgeois democracy”.7

Le Blanc points out that:

The primary purpose of the People’s Front was to form electoral coalitions of working class parties (Communists, Socialists or Social Democrats) with pro-capitalist liberal parties for the purpose of winning elections and forming governments that, while initiating social reforms, would preserve a democratic republic along with a capitalist economy, and maintain a pro-Soviet foreign policy—thereby (presumably) blocking fascism. In France and Spain such governments were established. The problem with this, Trotsky argued, is that fascism arose out of the crises of capitalism, just as imperialism and war arise out of the natural dynamics of capitalism. To preserve the unity of the People’s Front, it was necessary to repress the uncompromising militancy of working class struggles—but this was the force needed to end both capitalism and the threat of fascism.8

But, Le Blanc argues, Trotsky’s critical stance isolated him from the “the broad coming together of progressive forces” that the Popular Front policy produced. Le Blanc hails the historian Paulo Spriano, who describes the “great political turn which was welcomed…by masses of workers, peasants, the middle class (the last term referring to professionals, more or less declassé intellectuals, artists, small business people). Communism had acquired a new countenance: it spoke with a different voice, one which echoed the profoundly humanistic, rational, libertarian and egalitarian qualities of the Enlightenment—emphasising the virtues of ‘the people’”.9 Well, yes, “Stalin is better than Hitler,”10 as Trotsky ruefully observed.

Surely this is the most extraordinary moment in 20th century history? Communism becomes the worldwide rallying point for the defence of Enlightenment values against the threat of fascist barbarism as it openly opposes the politicisation of workers’ struggles against capitalism. It is the moment it also intensifies its own barbaric orgy of self-destruction, the political accompaniment to its forced collectivisation of the land and catastrophic concentration of industrial development, literally only achievable at gunpoint.

The infamous “Moscow Trials” were triggered by the assassination in late 1934 of Sergey Kirov, a pro-Stalin Communist leader linked to oppositionists associated with Grigori Zinoviev. Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev headed a list of 50 people accused of being part of a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Centre”. A new History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would explain how the Trotskyite-Zinovievites were aiding both the Nazis and the Western capitalists, “fascism found faithful servants,” ready to commit “acts of terrorism…to defeat the USSR in order to restore capitalism”.11

Further public trials would include Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, Alexei Rykov and various other Bolshevik leaders of both the “right” and the “left”, all accused of similar conspiracies. But Conspirator No 1, Leon Trotsky, though constantly denounced as linked to all the different groups of traitors, couldn’t be brought to trial because for the moment at least he had a degree of protection abroad.12

The public confessions of the accused were and remain truly disturbing. True, the extreme methods of torture, the threats to family members—often carried out, the promises to avoid the firing squad—always broken—partly explain it, but not fully. Whatever their differences and earlier political weaknesses, these former Bolshevik revolutionaries had devoted their lives to the overthrow of capitalism and had often demonstrated unparalleled courage in the long years in the underground struggle against the Tsar. Victor Serge’s poem, Confessions, caught something in addition about their broken personalities: “We have never been what we are/The faces of our lives are not our own/Today our only truth is despair”.13 Trotsky developed this theme, describing the Stalinist “art” of breaking revolutionaries.14

The scale of the repression reached genocidal proportions: “It has been estimated that more than 2 million people were condemned from 1934 through 1938—with more than 700,000 executions and over a million were sent to increasingly brutalised labour camps where many more perished”.15

The “Revolution Betrayed” chapter, which so successfully contrasts Stalin’s People’s Front perspectives with the “great madness”, nevertheless disappoints when it comes to its discussion of Trotsky’s politics, which informed his book of the same name. Inexplicably, Trotsky’s argument is split into two separate parts of this chapter, which inevitably builds in quite unnecessary confusion for the reader wanting to grasp difficult and highly controversial arguments. Even more inexplicably, while the first part rests upon some very important passages from Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed,16 the second part dispenses with Trotsky altogether, instead relying on a recent Stalin biographer Robert C Tucker and the author’s own commentary.17

In the first part of the chapter we have Trotsky’s analysis, which is partly based on Marx’s writings in The German Ideology: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of ­communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for ­necessities begins again, and that means all the old crap must revive”.18

The unanticipated isolation of the socialist revolution in economically backward Russia meant exactly the old crap reviving. Trotsky provided the memorable example: “When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line…when the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order…the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy”.19 Trotsky added that nobody who has wealth to distribute ever omits themself. He shows the new bureaucratic elite enriching itself, “limousines for the ‘activists,’ fine perfumes for ‘our women’”, to such an extent that such “socialism” could “seem to the masses a new refacing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong”.20

Yet Trotsky insisted that capitalism had not been reinstated:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency towards primitive accumulation created by want breaks through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of a privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counter-revolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy.21

To help prepare for the overthrow of the bureaucracy would be the “task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International”.22

But was the Soviet Union a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism? The second part of the chapter, intentionally or otherwise, casts doubt on this perspective”. There was, as Le Blanc says, “a method in the madness. What Marx called primitive capitalist accumulation [emphasis in the original]—involving massively inhumane means (which included the slave trade and genocide against native peoples, as well as destroying the livelihood of millions of peasants and brutalising the working class during the early days of industrialisation)—had created the basis for a modern capitalist economy”.23

It’s left for Tucker to explain that Stalin had undertaken something similar, “a policy of revolutionary advance in the construction of socialism, for which the speedy collectivisation of the peasants was a necessity. He thereby steered the state into a revolution from above”. Tucker is then quoted as showing how long it took for Stalin’s comrades to “divine what the apostle of socialism in one country” intended.24 This is hardly surprising because Stalin hoped to achieve, in just a few years, an industrialisation programme which had taken capitalism at its origins centuries! A paragraph or two can hardly capture the impact this would have but they do at least underline that if this was indeed “socialism” then something had gone radically wrong:

Stalin’s “revolution from above”…remorselessly squeezing the working class, choking intellectual and cultural life, killing millions of peasants and culminating in purge trials, mass executions, and a ghastly network of prison camps (the infamous Gulag)… At the same time, an immense propaganda campaign proclaimed that socialism was being established…which involved a personality cult glorifying Stalin.25

In the last part of the book we are introduced to Rae Spiegel or Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky’s “devoted secretary” during his final exile in Mexico,26 as well as the great Trinidadian intellectual C L R James.27 What we are not told is that Dunayevskaya and James developed an important criticism of Trotsky’s analysis, insisting that Stalin’s “revolution from above” had indeed reintroduced capitalism albeit in the novel form of state capitalism. In 1942 Dunayevskaya, using official Russian statistics, argued that “the reality of the world market…would not permit Russia to tear itself out of the vortex of the world economy and build ‘socialism in one country’”.28 She would later insist that the law of value operated in Russia because its state-run industries exploited alienated labour. The arguments were more fully developed in the book State Capitalism and World Revolution that she wrote with James and Grace Lee Boggs, published in 1950. At the same time Tony Cliff was developing his own theory of state capitalism.29

This is, frankly, a startling omission particularly because the state capitalist analysis fits so well with Tucker’s discussion of Stalin’s “revolution from above”. Tucker argues that the so-called “modernising” Tsar, Peter the Great, captivated by the beginnings of capitalism in Western Europe in the early 18th century, served as Stalin’s role model:

Stalin followed Peter’s example in looking to the West for aid in Russia’s industrialisation… An exhaustive study concludes that “no major technology or major plant under construction between 1930 and 1945 has been identified as a purely Soviet effort.” The foreign companies involved in this massive technological transfer…reads like a Who’s Who of world capitalism.30

Tucker sees the huge iron and steel centre at Magnitogorsk in the Urals as

a microcosm of the hierarchical new society taking form… The ordinary workers lived in wooden barracks, crowded into minuscule, barely furnished rooms…at the bottom, an underclass of convict labourers…went to work under police guard, and did the heaviest work…for next to no pay… Five miles away, in a small suburban world of which the workers had hardly any knowledge, lived the elite, and the foreign engineers working on contract, in…houses equipped with running water and central heating, served by a well-stocked special store… This suburb was informally called “American City”… Bolshevik theory envisioned the withering away of the state, but Stalin the Russian national Bolshevik saw things differently. Statelessness was no part of his intention, and socialist society…was not…classless. The revolution from above was creating a new privileged service class.31

Trotsky regarded as Stalin’s “greatest crime” not simply that he carried his totalitarian “revolution from above” by smashing the opposition of workers and peasants, but that he did so in the name of socialism, thus potentially compromising the very future of the revolution and communism itself.32

Several generations later and well into the start of a new century, we continue to live in the shadow of that awesome prediction. It matters that we report frankly and fully the major controversies sparked by Trotsky and his writings. This is particularly true of the conclusion to the one controversy that might liberate us from a cumbersome and even, arguably, compromising defence that somehow the Soviet Union was “halfway between capitalism and socialism”. We have had the luxury of several generations in relatively tranquil circumstances, not afforded Trotsky, to debate this matter fully and reach a conclusion that is arguably intellectually, politically, morally and dare even be said, scientifically, superior to the original. Yes, there is a continuing argument but both sides need to be put. Trotsky would have expected nothing less. One of the greatest lessons politics had taught him was resistance to “dogmatic orthodoxies”.33


1: Le Blanc, 2015, pp58-62.

2: Le Blanc, 2015, pp100-101.

3: Le Blanc, 2015, p51. The two sentences do touch on the fundamental flaw of Comintern policy. “Close ties” with nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek which left the Chinese Communists completely unprepared for the nationalists’ murderous onslaught on them. But the crushing of the workers’ insurrection in Shanghai isn’t mentioned, nor is there any wider discussion of Stalin’s justification for an all-class alliance of workers and peasants with the Chinese nationalist bourgeoisie.

4: Deutscher, 1959, chapter 5.

5: Le Blanc, 2015, p113.

6: Le Blanc, 2015, p104.

7: Le Blanc, 2015, p105.

8: Le Blanc, 2015, pp105-106. Trotsky predicted with astonishing accuracy that the Popular Front “experiments” in France and Spain would end in disaster, precisely because of Stalinist connivance in the repression of working class activity. The restricted space in the book means that the example of France is ignored completely, while the three pages on Spain, the curtain-raiser to the Second World War (pp135-138), frustrate because of all the tantalising questions it raises that demand answers. To give just one example, Trotsky had a mass following in Spain. In 1936 a socialist revolution appeared momentarily to be gathering pace in response to Franco’s attempted fascist coup. But Trotsky had a bitter falling out with the POUM, the organisation that contained many of his supporters but which nevertheless joined the Popular Front government. In fairness, the author partly resolves this problem with a strong recommended bibliography. I would like to add one reference to it, Andy Durgan’s article “Trotsky and the POUM” (Durgan, 2006).

9: Le Blanc, 2015, p105.

10: Deutscher, 1963, p380.

11: Cited in Le Blanc, 2015, pp111-112.

12: In Norway—but hounded out even there—Le Blanc, 2015, pp125-126.

13: Serge cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p113.

14: Quoted in the fourth volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky—Cliff, 1993, p347-348.

15: Le Blanc, 2015, pp114-115. See also the author’s chilling description of the extraordinary mass hunger strike at the Vorkuta labour camp, led by Trotskyists (pp121-124).

16: Le Blanc, 2015, pp106-109.

17: Le Blanc, 2015, pp115-120.

18: Cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p106.

19: Trotsky, 1936, cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p107.

20: Trotsky, 1936, cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p108.

21: Trotsky, 1936, cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p108-109.

22: Trotsky, 1936, cited in Le Blanc, 2015, p109. As Le Blanc says this was highly problematic. Unfortunately lack of space prevents a proper discussion of the Trotskyist Fourth International, except to note that its chronic weakness worldwide was partly attributable both to the success of Stalin’s People’s Front policies and the witch-hunts of “trotskyite-fascists” by Communist Parties everywhere. Nevertheless, however tiny, it helped carry the true significance of the Bolshevik revolution beyond Hitler and Stalin and the Second World War to a new generation of revolutionary socialists.

23: Le Blanc, 2015, p116.

24: Le Blanc, 2015, p115.

25: Le Blanc, 2015, p116-117.

26: Le Blanc, 2015, p147.

27: Le Blanc, 2015. p150.

28: Cited and sourced in Birchall, 2011, p105.

29: For a good introduction to this subject as well as the relations between Dunayevskaya, James and Cliff, see Birchall, 2011, pp105-108, and Callinicos, 1990, pp73-85. Cliff revisited his own theory of state capitalism in great detail in his own chapter “Revolution Betrayed” in the fourth volume of his Trotsky biography. It’s an additional puzzle that Cliff isn’t referred to by Le Blanc, especially as Duncan Hallas’s Trotsky’s Marxism, which relies heavily on Cliff’s analysis, is referenced.

30: Tucker, 1990, p97.

31: Tucker, 1990, p113-114.

32: Deutscher, 1963, p103.

33: Le Blanc, 2015, p185.



Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time (Bookmarks).

Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (Open University Press).

Cliff, Tony, 1993, Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, 1927-1940 (Bookmarks), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1993/trotsky4

Deutscher, Isaac, 1959, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford University Press).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1963, The Prophet Outcast, Trotsky 1929-1940 (Oxford University Press).

Durgan, Andy, 2006, “Marxism, War and Revolution: Trotsky and the POUM”, Revolutionary History, volume 9, number 2, http://fundanin.org/durgan10.htm

Le Blanc, Paul, 2015, Leon Trotsky (Reaktion Books).

Trotsky, Leon, 1936, The Revolution Betrayed, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet

Tucker, Robert C, 1990, Stalin In Power: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941 (W W Norton & Company).

Lenin, Religion, and Theology-Roland Boer

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on Lenin, Religion, and Theology-Roland Boer


Lenin, Religion, and Theology
Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013. 360pp., £25 pb

Reviewed by Karthick Ram Manoharan


Karthick Ram Manoharan is a PhD student at the Department of Government, University of Essex. His research focus involves a Fanonist critique of identity politics.


Can Lenin be seen as a revolutionary prophet, a Moses who desired to take the proletariat to the promised land of communism, or a St Augustine who would become eventually become the ‘Doctor of the Church’ of state socialism? For those familiar with Lenin’s writings, his revolutionary optimism, which has a certain messianic ring to it, is hard to miss. Yet, Lenin was also a hard-nosed realist, dismissive of hyper-enthusiastic revolutionaries, and often acerbic to those he dubbed as practicing left-wing infantilism. Lenin, a person who celebrated revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed and exploited” (1977, 125), in a letter to American workers written in August 1918, pragmatically cautioned “We are banking on the inevitability of the world revolutions, but this does not mean that we are such fools as to bank on the revolution inevitably coming on a definite and early date” (ibid., 462). Lenin had faith, but with conditions.

In Lenin, Religion, and Theology, Roland Boer reads the chief protagonist of the Soviet revolution as “principled and theoretically motivated opportunist, or perhaps a creative heretic in Marx’s mold” (8). The image of Lenin not just as an interlocutor of Marx, but also as an interpreter of biblical texts emerges in Boer’s work. Noting how “biblical imagery” underlies several of Lenin’s texts (51), the author argues that in Lenin, there is a radicalization of the stories and the parables of the Gospels (58). Boer has painstakingly gone through the primary works of Lenin – and his contemporaries, comrades and critics – to present Lenin to the reader in a most novel manner. While Boer engages with all the familiar suspects in the field of Marxism and theology – Agamben, Badiou, Benjamin, Jameson, Zizek – he is original in his reading of Lenin. His work can itself be called a creative heresy.

Boer provides a much needed introduction to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar for Enlightenment, whom Boer terms “one of the most fascinating figures of the Russian Revolution” (74) and his work Religion and Socialism. Lunacharsky was skeptical of mechanistic Marxism and believed that Christian theology, though the religion itself might have undergone corruptions, had a certain emancipatory core to it. Lunacharsky saw Jesus as “the scourge of the propertied and the wealthy” and St Paul as a “revolutionary, democratic internationalist” (81). In that tradition, Marx too was a prophetic figure in the line of Christ “full of fiery condemnation of oppression and longing for deliverance” (76).

Many have worked to reconcile the emancipatory content of Christian theology with the critical economic insights that Marxism provides, most notably Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire and San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by right-wing militias for his radical views. The origins of Christian liberation theology could be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th Century Italian Catholic priest, who sought to create a Christian Order that would serve the poor. Later, Gerrard Winstanley, an 17th Century Protestant reformer in England and the founder of the Diggers movement, would be one of the precursors to utopian communism. Tolstoy, a Russian Christian anarchist, too shared such similar concerns. It shouldn’t be of surprise that Lenin had much respect for the author of War and Peace but was dismissive about the author of Crime and Punishment. The Slavophilic Christianity of Dostoevsky was too pessimistic for Lenin’s taste. Lunacharsky’s Tolstoy inspired Christian optimism on the other hand was welcomed by Lenin, with qualifications.

Boer is also quick to point out the loophole of the blind optimism of inevitability that lies in the Christian eschatological narrative, something Lenin was also sensitive to despite his great regard for Lunacharsky. Lenin must be read here as an atheist Christian: Christian, in so far as he inherited the radical tradition of liberation theology, atheist, since he opposed the deification of any material or immaterial category, be it the proletariat or the revolution. The Revolution might be a miracle, one of a touching point between “spontaneity and organization, between the unexpected and the expected” (135), yet, without a professional vanguard – the Jesuits of Communism – no revolutionary movement could capture and retain power.

This book is important at a time when matters of religion, especially Islam, are the hottest topic of debate in Western media. While the extreme Right is happy to portray all followers of that religion as potential terrorists, some sections of the Left treat any criticism of Islam or cultural practices of Muslim communities as Islamophobic. Which is the wrong side here? To use Stalinist rhetoric, both right-wing deviation and left-wing deviation are wrong!

Those who argue that there is no separation of the secular and the religious in Islam and condemn it and those who argue the same and approve it are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in history happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, a rather ‘dogmatic’ Leninist, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all public services. In practice, Hoxha was the most rabid ‘Islamophobe’ of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – which are now accused of harboring Islamophobia – that railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

What position then should a Western leftist adopt? To Lenin, a priest or a worker who was a believer had the right to be in the party provided they did not attempt to proselytize using their power as a party member (21). That is, the party would provide space to a believer, but it would not legitimize their beliefs. At a time when the word ‘tolerance’ is much abused by liberal multiculturalists in the West, it is necessary to adopt an attitude of critical solidarity with minority communities. A solidarity that recognizes that they are being marginalized by virtue of prejudices against their faith or ethnicities and that is willing to engage with them in a universalist platform, compulsorily combined with a critical attitude that is willing to challenge the reactionary tendencies within these communities. This Leninism is the need of the hour.

Che Wants to See You: The Untold Story of Che in Bolivia-Ciro Roberto Bustos

Posted by admin On January - 21 - 2016 Comments Off on Che Wants to See You: The Untold Story of Che in Bolivia-Ciro Roberto Bustos


Che Wants to See You: The Untold Story of Che in Bolivia
Verso, London, 2013. 468pp., £25 hb

Reviewed by Daniel Gaido


Daniel Gaido is a researcher at the National Research Council (Conicet), Argentina. He is author of The Formative Period of American Capitalism (Routledge, 2006) and co-editor, with Richard Day, of Witnesses to Permanent Revolution (Brill, 2009), Discovering Imperialism (Brill, 2009) and Responses to Marx’s ‘Capital’ (Brill, forthcoming).


The publication of these memoirs by one of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s key men in Argentina and Bolivia is a major political and literary achievement. Politically, not because it shows the superiority of Che’s rural armed foco strategy and his peasant way to socialism over Marx’s strategy of building a revolutionary working-class political party, but because it provides a truthful account of Che’s guerrillas exploits, and in that sense it is the best homage that could have been paid to his memory. Artistically, because Bustos’ unique experiences are rendered in a lively and captivating style, which makes the reading of these at times brutal and traumatizing reminiscences an enjoyable experience.

Ciro Bustos was born in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1932. A painter by profession, he studied at the School of Fine Arts of the National University of Cuyo, Mendoza. Attracted by the Cuban Revolution, in 1961 he travelled to Havana, where he met Che, who included him in the group he chose to carry out his revolutionary project in Argentina – part of Che’s wider “continental plan” to set up a guerrilla base in Northern Argentina and Southern Bolivia and Peru. As such, along with Jorge Masetti, Bustos was a member of the founding nucleus of the People’s Guerrilla Army (Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo, EGP), which operated in the Argentine province of Salta in 1963-4. After the failure of that attempt, Che reconvened Bustos for his guerrilla project in the Ñancahuazú region of Bolivia. After the defeat of this new project, Bustos was sentenced in Camiri to 30 years in prison. Released in 1970 by the government of General Juan José Torres in Bolivia, he lived under Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile and moved to Argentina shortly before Pinochet’s coup in 1973, only in order to be forced to leave his country shortly before Videla’s coup in 1976. He now lives in Malmö, Sweden, where he wrote his memoirs, originally published in Spanish as El Che quiere verte in 2011.

We will skip over Bustos’ formative years in Argentina and begin with the account of his experiences in Cuba. He tells, for instance, that already in the second half of the year 1961 (“la segunda mitad del año 61”, the English version reads: “the mid-sixties”) “Political control had degenerated into Stalinist sectarianism, spreading through Cuban society” (38). He also recalls an Argentine professional couple, doctors sent by the Argentine Communist Party, who invited him over to dinner. The wife, seeing him excited about the revolution, told him: “Your disillusionment will be very painful, I’m afraid. Communists are coming out of the woodworks like mice, taking over everything, to get at the cheese” (43).

Those early symptoms of Stalinization led to an early crisis when Jorge Ricardo Masetti, the journalist who had risked his life to report on the Sierra Maestra guerrillas during the revolution, and who had been trusted with the creation of Cuba’s news agency, Prensa Latina, was ousted from that institution in April 1961, prompting Gabriel García Márquez’s resignation. The blow at Masetti – whose name would be erased from the history of Prensa Latina in a time-honoured Stalinist fashion (455-6) – was a blow at Che, who gradually changed his attitude towards the Cuban Trotskyists from denouncing them as agents of American imperialism to rescuing from jail those whom he could still help (by 1965 the Cuban Trotskyists where officially banned, see Gary Tennant’s outstanding dissertation, available online: Dissident Cuban Communism: The Case of Trotskyism, 1932-1965).

Che made perfectly clear to his recruits that commitment to his project was “more a commitment to death than to life” (50), telling them: “‘Remember, as from now, you are dead men. From now on, you’re living on borrowed time’” (76). This Guevarist conception of revolutionary politics as a suicidal enterprise stemmed from Che’s conception of armed propaganda as the demiurge of subjective conditions, but his urgency to set up guerrilla groups in Latin America must also be seen as a series of increasingly desperate attempts to rescue the Cuban revolution from the deadly embrace of Stalinism.

Che formally appointed Masetti, now persona non grata for the Stalinists, as his second in command or comandante segundo, at the head of a group of half a dozen people, recruited mostly from the periphery of the Argentine Communist Party, in charge of setting up a rural guerrilla base in the Orán region of the Argentine province of Salta. Bustos’ memoirs recount in detail the “army of five madmen’s” tortured odyssey from Cuba through Prague, Algiers (an attempt by Masetti and Che to break free from their dependence on the Stalinist apparatus) and Bolivia to Argentina, from November 1962 to June 1963. Bustos was put in charge of the group’s communications with Cuba, and he vividly remembers this reference to the Cuban revolution in one of the messages: “In one that I helped decipher — the phrase is engraved on my memory — Che says: ‘Nuestra atalaya se hunde lenta pero inexorablemente’ (Our vantage point is slowly but inexorably sinking), and he added that by now we should be in our zone of operation in northern Argentina” (99).

Masetti’s guerrilla army was swiftly and overwhelmingly defeated, more by its geographical isolation and lack of a social base than by actual combats, of which Bustos recalls only one incident. But still, twelve people died and thirteen guerrillas were taken prisoner and put on trial, Bustos himself only barely escaping because he had been put in charge of establishing the urban support network, of which the mainstay was the group that edited the journal Pasado y Presente in the city of Córdoba. It was in Córdoba that he learned that the border police had raided the guerrilla camp in Salta – through the local newspaper (172). Bustos vindicates his former comandante’s revolutionary record and rejects the accusation that Masetti executed two of his own men due to their Jewish extraction, adding that “half the EGP national leadership was Jewish” (155). He also sets the historical record straight against “the efforts of the Cubans in the Americas department to Peronize our experience […] We worked exclusively with young people disenchanted with the Communist Party and groups that had split off from the party. Che gave express orders that no Peronists were to be accepted” (461), because, he said: “It’s too risky, they are too infiltrated” (289).

After the disastrous Salta experience, the EGP began to have doubts about Che’s foquist strategy, and Bustos together with José María “Pancho” Aricó travelled to Cuba in May-July 1964 to explain them to Che himself, but Aricó was overwhelmed by Che’s presence and kept silent. The EGP urban structure in Argentina was still largely intact, and at the beginning of 1965 their leadership held a plenary session in Montevideo, Uruguay, where it was decided to suspend guerrilla activities in Argentina “until such time as conditions were ripe for us to move into a more populated area with access to, and the participation of, an organized workers’ movement” (206). But this resolution couldn’t be transmitted to Che, because in that same year he fired his parting salvo against the Stalinists at his famous last speech in Algiers on 24 February and then disappeared from sight, prompting all sorts of rumours until, in October 1965, Fidel Castro announced his departure from Cuba and his resignation from all his army ranks as well as his government posts.

In May 1966 Bustos was summoned back to Havana and later travelled through China. Then, in January 1967 he was met by Tamara Bunke, the young woman who would die later that year with Guevara in Bolivia, with the message “Che Wants to See You.” He flew to La Paz, Bolivia, where he met Régis Debray, the vain and superficial “theoretician” of foquism, and Tamara herself. Together they reached Che’s guerrilla camp at Ñancahuazú in March 1967, where Che entrusted him with the mission of activating the EGP network. “Strategic objective: Seizing power in Argentina,” Che told him (276). His plans were to enter Argentina with two columns of about one hundred men, “Argentines, in the space of no more than two years” (277). Despite the mandate he had received from the EGP not to insist on a guerrilla foco, Bustos decided to go on with Che’s plans, faced with the fait accompli of his presence at the head of a guerrilla force, but events immediately went out of control.

The desertion of three unreliable recruits prompted their discovery by the army, the abandonment of the base camp and an early military confrontation on 23 March 1967, in which the army fell into an ambush, suffering several dead and injured as well as a major, a captain and many soldiers taken prisoner. Despite this early triumph, the prospects of Che’s Bolivian guerrilla were grim: contact with the outside world was lost, supplies were low, the number of sick people (due among other things to malnutrition) was mounting, and there were no realistic prospects of recruitment among the local population. Indeed, the chosen location was most unsuitable for creating a peasant base: “Bolivia was the only country in South America where (in 1952) a nationalist revolution had introduced agrarian reform, giving land rights back to its peasant farmers, descendants of the ancient Inca empire. The miserable inhabitants of the area where the guerrillas were fighting actually owned their shacks and strips of land — with more bugs than fruit on it, but nonetheless theirs. At the slightest sign of outside interference or latent threat to their possessions, they would inform the army” (284).

It was decided that Bustos, Debray and a freelance photographer who somehow managed to reach the guerrillas, George Andrew Roth, should try to escape the army’s dragnet, taking advantage of Roth’s bona fide status as a journalist, with a safe-conduct from the top military brass. They were quickly arrested on 20 April 1967 and subjected to intensive interrogation, though not tortured.

Bustos’ instructions were to keep the guerrilla’s network in Argentina (then under the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía) secret at all costs. As regards the Ñancahuazú guerrillas, Che instructed him to avoid revealing the presence of Cubans. As for Che’s own presence, it was to be revealed only if it became clear that the army already knew it, and then given as much publicity as possible to try to break the guerrillas’ isolation. According to Bustos: “it did not matter what Debray or I said, nor when we said it: they already knew […] they had already established the presence of Che under the alias of Ramón, a group of Cubans under his command, some Peruvians and, naturally, Bolivians” (343-4). In these conditions, Bustos drew sketches of the guerrillas which later led to the accusation that it was him who had betrayed Che, although according to one of the CIA agents, who spoke about it years later, Debray “sang like a canary” (xiv).

Bustos believes that Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership abandoned Che and his guerrillas to their fate: “Cuban Intelligence had recalled their man Renán Montero (aka Moleón in Bolivia or Iván when the EGP were training in Havana) from his post in La Paz in March, immediately after the first combat. He was not replaced” (357). The same happened to him, and to his wife and two daughters, during his trial and subsequent imprisonment: they received no help whatsoever, while the Cuban state showered attentions on Debray, who did not really need them (his mother was a Gaullist member of parliament for Paris and he enjoyed the personal protection of General Charles de Gaulle).

During Bustos and Debray’s trial at Camiri, Che was murdered on 9 October 1967, and they were subsequently condemned to a thirty-year sentence, but released in December 1970 by the left-wing military regime of General Juan José Torres, subsequently killed in Argentina by the military dictatorship in 1976. During their time in prison Che’s diary was delivered to the Cuban government (which immediately published it) by Antonio Arguedas, minister of the interior in President Barrientos’ government, an ex-Communist and self-confessed CIA agent during the previous six years. “Arguedas lived in Cuba for a time (like Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s killer), was showered with honours, received the honorary title of ‘compañero’, attended the 26th of July ceremonies in the Plaza de la Revolución in the government box, and returned to Bolivia two coups d’état later” (400).

The English translation is not a full rendering of the beautiful Spanish original but a slightly shortened version. On the other hand, the chapter headings have been improved and provided with a chronology. For reasons of space we cannot provide examples of Bustos’ prose, we will close this review with an anecdote from his time at Camiri prison: “Only once was a book confiscated: A Plan for Escape by Bioy Casares, which had nothing to do with prisoners escaping” (384).

Islam’s Path to Modernity-MOHAMMAD FAZLHASHEMI

Posted by admin On January - 19 - 2016 Comments Off on Islam’s Path to Modernity-MOHAMMAD FAZLHASHEMI


UPPSALA – Many in the Muslim community have long taken issue with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The declaration, these critics attest, was created by colonial powers with a long history of gross human-rights violations, and amounts to yet another attempt by a few Western players to impose their will upon Muslim countries. Islamic conservatives and fundamentalists go a step further, as they declare that no human invention can equal – much less supersede – sharia law, which amounts to the word of God.
This clash between the UN’s secular human-rights standards and Muslim religious doctrine mirrors the broader conflict between Islam and modernity – a conflict that has left some citizens of Muslim countries, including women and non-Muslims, highly vulnerable. Fortunately, an emerging school of Muslim thought addresses the question in a new way, emphasizing that the Quran, like any religious text, must be interpreted – and that those interpretations can change over time.
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In fact, the Quran does defend principles like liberty, impartiality, and righteousness, which indicates a fundamental respect for justice and human dignity. The problem, as emphasized by the Iranian theologian Mohsen Kadivar, is that many parts of sharia law are linked to pre-modern social structures, which deny women or non-Muslims the same protections as Muslim men receive.
It does not help that, as George Mason University’s Abulaziz Sachedina points out, men have been the ones to interpret Islam’s holy texts. This, rather than those texts’ true content, is the root cause of legal discrimination against women in Muslim countries.
The theologian Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi points out that Islamic law regarding punishment – which includes brutal practices like stoning and amputation – originates from the Old Testament. Islam did not invent these punishments; they were simply the prevailing practices of the time.
As societies progress and evolve, so must the rules and standards that govern them. As the Iranian theologian Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari of the University of Tehran emphasizes, many of the ideas associated with justice and human rights, as we understand them today, were completely “un-thought” in the pre-modern era. But Muslims cannot simply disregard such ideas on the grounds that humans had not developed them at the time the Quran was written.
With the abandonment of outdated notions of tiered justice and the recognition of the liberty and dignity of all individuals, Shabestari believes that it will become possible to realize the Quran’s message that there should be no compulsion in religion. People’s religious decisions should be driven by their sense of faith, rather than their desire to retain their civil rights.
According to the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, this distinction between religious beliefs and civil rights should be obvious. But interpretations of Islamic law have traditionally been so focused on questions about mankind’s various duties that they have failed to recognize it. For Soroush, however, the denial of human rights based on “a person’s beliefs or absence of belief” is undeniably a “crime.”
The school of Muslim thought promoted by these scholars, who come from both Sunni and Shia backgrounds, offers a way forward for Islam. Its adherents know that key Islamic concepts, beliefs, norms, and values can be harmonized with modern social structures and understandings of justice and human rights. By recommending ways to do so, they are reaffirming the durability of the core Islamic tradition. To use the language of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, they are creating “saving translations,” whereby a language, conceptual apparatus, and social system is updated to reflect progress in human reason.
Such saving translations in Islam have been emerging for a considerable period of time. Indeed, the late Iranian writer and philosopher Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri fell out with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after being designated his successor, over policies that he believed infringed on people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. In defending freedom of speech, Montazeri referred to a Quranic verse stating that God taught humans how to express themselves. “How can God, on the one hand, teach humans the ability of expression and, on the other hand, limit it?”, he asked. The obvious conclusion, he declared, was that “no one should be condemned for heresy, libel, or insult just for expressing his or her opinion.”
Montazeri, like today’s innovative Muslim thinkers, chose to remain open to alternate interpretations of the Quran, rather than becoming trapped by accepted tradition. The saving translations that these figures have offered demonstrate that modern global norms like the UDHR are not only compatible with Islam; they are deeply embedded within it. Reinterpreting – or even abandoning – antiquated rules rooted in outdated social structures does not amount to subverting the word of God. On the contrary, it proves the true depth of Islam’s sacred texts.
—Mohammad Fazlhashemi is a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Capitalism and Its Current Crisis-Prabhat Patnaik

Posted by admin On January - 19 - 2016 Comments Off on Capitalism and Its Current Crisis-Prabhat Patnaik


The “thirty-year crisis” of capitalism, which encompassed two world wars and the Great Depression, was followed by a period that some economists call the Golden Age of capitalism. Today, however, capitalism is once again enmeshed in a crisis that portends far-reaching consequences. I am not referring here to the mere phenomenon of the generally slower average growth that has marked the system since the mid-1970s. Rather, I am talking specifically of the crisis that started with the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2007-8 and which, far from abating, is only becoming more pronounced.

The Western media often give the impression that the capitalist world is slowly emerging from this crisis. Since the Eurozone continues to be mired in stagnation, this impression derives entirely from the experience of the United States, where there has been talk of raising the interest rate on the grounds that the crisis is over, and inflation is now the new threat. There are, however, two points about the U.S. “recovery” that need to be noted.

First, the so-called recovery has been greatly influenced by the boost in consumer demand, which in turn was stimulated by the drastic fall in oil prices. However, this increased demand has not been accompanied by any notable increase in investment activity, despite the fact that long-term interest rates are near zero—that is, despite a monetary policy that has been as supportive as it can be. We have, in other words, a repeat of the situation of the late 1930s, prior to the U.S. rearmament drive, when capacity utilization improved in the consumption goods sector without much recovery in the capital goods sector.1

Secondly, even this limited recovery in the United States has coincided with an extraordinarily high rate of unemployment. Official statistics show an exactly opposite picture, of a decline in unemployment to just 5 percent at present. But what is missed in these figures is the large exodus from the labor force: millions have become too discouraged to continue seeking work, and are therefore no longer counted as unemployed. In fact, if one takes the labor force to working-age population ratio (the labor force participation rate) from 2007, when the Great Recession began, and recalculates the size of the current labor force on that basis, then the current unemployment rate would be around 11 percent.2 Many would put the figure even higher, on the grounds that the official size of the labor force is an underestimate even for the base date.

To claim, therefore, that the United States is experiencing a full recovery is, in terms of working class well-being and economic security, wrong. And if we consider the rest of the world, especially recent developments in the “emerging economies,” the situation is much worse.


The most significant of these developments is the slowing down of the growth rate in countries like India and China—that is, the spread of the crisis to the so-called emerging economies, especially China. Let us locate this slowdown in its proper context.

Since 2005, the trade-weighted exchange rate (TWER) of China—its exchange rate vis-à-vis a basket of currencies, where the weight of each currency depends upon its relative importance in China’s trade—has appreciated by 50 percent. Even between 2009, when the TWER spiked, and 2015, the extent of appreciation was 20 percent. This basically meant that the Chinese economy was creating more room for the rest of the world to compete with it, and hence, in effect, to grow at China’s own expense. China could afford to do so because an asset price bubble was then sustaining its domestic growth rate. In a sense, therefore, China was supporting the growth rate of the rest of the world, in much the same way that the United States had done decades earlier—though of course the stimulus provided by China was not as large. This Chinese support explains why the crisis continued, but not in as accentuated a form as it would have otherwise.

But the asset price bubble in China has now collapsed, which, together with the effect of global stagnation on Chinese exports, has slowed the nation’s growth rate. This explains the recent devaluation of the yuan by a little less than 4 percent, and the Chinese government’s apparent willingness to effect greater devaluation in the future, camouflaged as a commitment to make the yuan more “market-determined.”

In a number of ways, the devaluation of the yuan, and official hints that further devaluations cannot be ruled out, constitutes the start of a whole new dynamic. First, it marks the beginning of a spate of competitive currency depreciations—apparently effected by the market but with the connivance of their respective governments—and hence of “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies, another echo of the 1930s, after the collapse of the gold standard. Indeed, after the devaluation of the yuan, several currencies have also depreciated vis-à-vis the dollar. This is because the “market”—that is, speculators—have expected such depreciations and hence behaved in a way that actually brings them about. Meanwhile, goverments have been either unwilling to intervene to support their currencies, since that would hurt competitiveness and reduce net exports, or unable to do so, in cases where they lack adequate foreign exchange reserves.

This spate of currency depreciations, which are likely to recur, represents, in effect, a struggle between countries for a larger share in a non-expanding world market. I discuss the issue of non-expansion below, but two points about this struggle over markets should be noted here. First, the United States is at a disadvantage in this struggle, since the currency depreciations are all vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. This means that there is no way that the dollar itself can be made to depreciate relative to other currencies. The United States has predictably postponed the increase in its interest rate, which the Fed has been promising for some time, since such an increase would only have appreciated the value of the dollar still further. Unfortunately, the Fed cannot lower its interest rates any further since they are already close to zero, and monetary policy is incapable of pushing them into negative digits.

Thus, while the United States cannot use monetary policy to defend its net exports and hence prevent the additional unemployment arising from a reduction in net exports, it also cannot even hope that the value of the dollar vis-à-vis other currencies will stabilize at their current level. When other currencies fall relative to the dollar, it only strengthens the tendency of wealth-holders around the world to flock to the dollar. This means that the undermining of the United States’ net-exports position will continue, thereby exacerbating U.S. unemployment. In short, the dollar’s role as a universal medium of wealth-holding, which has allowed the United States to finance massive current account deficits, will act as an albatross at the level of domestic activity and employment.

To defend its domestic activity, the United States therefore has no alternative policy measure but to impose implicit or explicit trade restrictions, such as those in the Bring Jobs Home Act introduced in the Senate in July 2014. For even if the United States were to overcome the neoliberal aversion to fiscal activism in pursuit of larger employment and actually undertake a fiscal stimulus, without trade restrictions, the employment-generating effects of such a stimulus would leak out abroad even more than before. But any imposition of trade restrictions would undermine the neoliberal order, presided over by international finance capital, which the United States is committed to defending.

The second point to note about this struggle over a non-expanding world market is that it would no longer just remain “non-expanding” in the weak sense of the term, but would actually begin to contract. This is because in a situation of widespread currency depreciation all currencies do not move up or down exactly synchronously. Consequently the calculation of profitability on projects becomes more difficult, as costs and revenues can fluctuate over any arbitrary stretch of time. Hence, the risks associated with investment increase, causing everywhere a shrinking of investment below what it otherwise would have been, and with it an overall contraction in the world market.

This brings us to the second aspect of the new dynamic. The recent fall in China’s growth rate has led to a collapse in world commodity prices (though some, like oil, began falling even earlier). This has already affected the growth rates of a whole range of countries dependent on commodity exports, like Australia, Chile, and Brazil, with the latter now “officially” declared to be suffering from a recession. The generalized fall in commodity prices will serve to shrink the world market still further.

True, I said earlier that the fall in oil prices was a factor in boosting demand in the United States and hence provided a demand stimulus for the world economy. But there is a difference between the effect of a fall in oil prices alone and that of a fall in commodity prices in general. In the case of oil, the mean “marginal propensity” to spend—to use a Keynesian term—is higher for the buyers than for the sellers (since the latter are dominated by kings and sheikhs), while the opposite is likely to be true for other commodities.

Though the fall in commodity prices in itself constitutes an additional cause of the worsening crisis, it poses a still greater threat through another channel, namely the prospect of what the early twentieth-century economist Irving Fisher called “debt deflation.”3 Fisher argued that if primary commodity prices, and consequently manufactured goods prices, fall, then the real burden of debt goes up for those for whom such goods appear on the asset side, against money-denominated debt obligations on the liability side. To improve their balance sheets, therefore, they try selling these assets, which only makes things worse, leading to huge falls in asset prices and hence to bankruptcies that deepen the recession. The advanced capitalist countries have been on the brink of deflation for a long time; current developments may push them over the edge and compound the crisis greatly.

The third feature of the current crisis is the tendency toward falling stock prices. This can be part of the above-mentioned process of a commodity price fall-induced debt deflation itself. And insofar as the prospect of slower growth leads to stock price falls, independent of any fall in commodity prices, it can be an autonomous source of debt deflation. Falling stock prices, in other words, would also increase the pressure for balance sheet adjustments, which result in further falls in stock prices—and so on.

What is particularly noteworthy here is that these three aspects—falls in exchange rates (vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar), in commodity prices, and in stock prices—are likely to reinforce one another, as is happening now. World capitalism, in short, is poised for a serious accentuation of the crisis. And at the core of this crisis is the fact that there are no expansionary factors working towards an increase in the size of the world market. On the contrary, even the long-run tendency is now in the opposite direction, toward contraction. Let us now examine this latter issue.


A long line of argument going back to Rosa Luxemburg and Michał Kalecki states that a capitalist economy requires exogenous stimuli, as distinct from endogenous stimuli, for its sustained growth.4 “Endogenous stimuli” are those stimuli for increased productive capacity that arise from the very fact that the economy has been growing. Their inadequacy for explaining sustained growth arises from the following problem: just as an economy subject to growth generates expectations of future growth, and hence induces capitalists to add to capacity in anticipation of such expansion, thereby keeping the momentum of growth going, so any slackening must work in the opposite direction. Capitalists must cut back on additions to productive capacity, and this will exacerbate such slowing of growth. And if an economy is caught in stagnation with no expansion at all, then capitalists have no reason to expect any growth (if endogenous stimuli are all that exist), and hence will not add to productive capacity, which in turn, by suppressing demand, would tether the economy to stagnation.

Since this has not been the actual experience of capitalist economies, then there must be exogenous stimuli that bring forth investment, or autonomous additions to demand, quite independently of whether the economy has been growing. Exogenous stimuli, in short, prevent the economy from remaining trapped in stagnation and explain sustained long-term growth.

This argument follows quite simply from a rejection of Say’s Law, that is, from a recognition of the possibility of a deficiency of aggregate demand. The fact that aggregate demand may be deficient is what makes capitalists assess demand prospects before deciding to increase capacity, and this in turn is what makes endogenous stimuli insufficient for explaining growth, and giving rise to the need for exogenous stimuli.5

Among exogenous stimuli, three in particular have received attention from economists: pre-capitalist markets, state expenditure, and innovations. I use the last term in its widest sense: advances which make capitalists, with access to some new process or product, undertake additions to capacity in the hope of stealing a march over their rivals (or at least of not falling behind). However, the role of innovations as exogenous stimuli has been questioned, in my view legitimately, by a number of writers.6 In oligopolistic markets, where price cuts to sell at the expense of rivals are generally eschewed, capitalists tend to give whatever investment they would have otherwise undertaken the form that innovation demands, rather than actually undertaking additional investment (that is, adding further to capacity), and in that case innovations cease to be genuinely exogenous stimuli. This is also confirmed by economic historians, who show that during the interwar Great Depression, the available innovations, instead of helping capitalism overcome its crisis, actually remained unused, and were introduced only in the postwar period of high aggregate demand.

Pre-capitalist markets, or more generally the phenomenon of capital pushing outwards from its metropolitan core, played an important role as an exogenous stimulus in the pre-First World War period. The picture, however, was not as straightforward as Rosa Luxemburg suggested, in which capitalism simply selling at the expense of the pre-capitalist producers in the colonies. It was much more complex. Both labor and capital migrated from the metropoles of Europe toward the temperate regions of white settlement, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. Over four-fifths of all capital exports went to these regions. But the goods produced in the metropolis, especially in Britain, the largest capital exporter of the period, were not necessarily the ones most in demand in these developing “new regions,” which rather required raw materials and foodstuffs from the tropical zones. Metropolitan goods were sold in the tropical colonies, and the tropical goods were exported to the new regions.

The important point is that the tropical goods exported from the tropical colonies to the new regions in this system, which was dominated by the British, were not just equal in value to the metropolitan goods imported to the tropical colonies. That is, the tropical colonies were not merely used to change the form of the goods exported to the new white settler regions. The tropical exports to the “new world” were of much greater value than the goods the tropical countries received as imports from the metropolis, and while the domestic currency payment to the local producers of this export surplus came out of the colonial government’s tax revenue (extracted largely from the very same producers), the gold and foreign exchange earnings from this export surplus were appropriated by the metropolitan country, without the tropical colony acquiring any claims upon the metropolis. This difference therefore constituted a gratuitous extraction by the metropolis from the tropical colonies without any quid pro quo (an imbalance that Indian nationalist writers, who were the first to uncover it, called a “drain of surplus” from the colonies).

The exogenous stimulus in the pre-First World War period, in other words, came from the colonial system, which incorporated both the colonies of conquest, like India, and the colonies of settlement, like the United States, through a complex mechanism. This mechanism had three interlinked elements: a process of “deindustrialization,” that is, displacement of pre-capitalist producers, notably textile manufacturers, inflicted upon the colonies of conquest by imports from the metropolis, which Rosa Luxemburg highlighted; the drain of surplus described above; and through this drain the ability of the metropolis to export capital for developing regions of recent settlement, in the commodity-form of tropical primary commodities, which these regions needed. The largest colony of conquest, India, posted the second largest merchandise trade surplus in the world for fifty years before 1928—second only to the United States—but its exchange earnings were entirely appropriated for supporting the metropolitan balance of payments.7

This entire arrangement, which underlay the secular boom spanning the Victorian and Edwardian eras, fell apart after the First World War. We need not enter here in detail into the reasons for this collapse, which included, inter alia, the “closing of the frontier”; the encroachment by Japan on the Asian colonial markets of Britain; and the world agricultural crisis, which led to a collapse of the colonies’ exchange earnings, undermining the triangular system of payments.8

The subsequent interwar period was thus one when capitalism was without any exogenous stimulus, with the colonial system no longer effective and state intervention in “demand management” not yet even part of the theoretical discourse.9 Is it any surprise then that the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred precisely during this period?

State intervention to boost aggregate demand was tried first in Japan under Finance Minister Takahashi in 1931, but was extended by the Japanese militarists far beyond what Takahashi had wanted—to the point of having him murdered when he objected to higher military spending. It was introduced in Germany in 1933 with the Nazi rearmament drive. In the liberal bourgeois economies, it came on the eve of the war itself, with a stepping up of military expenditure necessitated by the fascist threat. It became a normal feature of capitalism, as distinct from a mere contingent necessity, only in the postwar years when, under the twin impact of the socialist threat from outside and of working-class restiveness from within, metropolitan capitalism was forced to abandon for the moment the principles of “sound finance.” Such working-class agitation within the metropolis arose because workers who had made great sacrifices during the war were unwilling to return to their pre-war situation of unemployment and poverty.

The postwar years of state intervention in demand management, which produced low levels of unemployment unprecedented in the history of capitalism, and hence high levels of growth (in response to the high demand), high levels of growth in labor productivity, and high levels of growth in real wages, have been described as a Golden Age of capitalism. While state intervention occurred in nearly every nation, the entire system was also buttressed by massive military expenditure by the United States, which opened (and maintains) a string of military bases all over the globe. As the Vietnam War escalated and U.S. military expenditure swelled, financed by printed dollars—decreed to be as good as gold under the Bretton Woods system—the rest of the world was obliged to hold on to these dollars, even as excess demand generated inflation. This inflation prompted a shift to commodities, and later to gold, resulting in the abandonment of the Bretton Woods system. An engineered recession followed, made worse by the fact that the price of one crucial commodity, oil, was kept up by a cartel, OPEC, even as other prices subsided.

But if the mid-1970s recession in the capitalist world was the start of the dismantling of state intervention in demand management, the basis for this dismantling lay elsewhere. It lay in the phenomenon of the globalization of capital, especially finance capital, which had been occurring since the late 1960s and which had since gathered momentum. The regime of globalized finance meant that while finance was international, the state remained a nation-state. All nation-states therefore had to bow before the demands of finance capital in order to prevent any capital flight.

This in turn meant controlling fiscal deficits, because, as we have seen, finance capital favors “sound finance” and dislikes fiscal deficits; it also meant reducing the tax burden on capitalists. These together snuffed out the scope for state intervention in demand management. Any stimulation of activity, either through a fiscal deficit or through a balanced budget multiplier (where revenues are raised to match increased state expenditure by taxing the rich) became well-nigh impossible.10 Subsequently, of course, austerity in government spending was projected as a virtue on the purported grounds that private investment was crowded out by government “profligacy,” an argument which was only Say’s Law (supply creates its own demand) in a new guise.

The point of this disquisition is to suggest that capitalism in the present era, the era of globalization which entails above all the globalization of finance, is without either of its two main exogenous stimuli—pre-capitalist markets and state spending to boost demand. The only stimulus for a boom therefore, apart from debt-financed enhancement of consumer expenditure (which can only be transient), arises from the formation of occasional asset-price bubbles. But such bubbles, even though they may produce occasional booms, inevitably collapse, so that the average level of activity through booms and slumps is lower than under the regime of state intervention. Besides, asset-price bubbles cannot be made to order; the system cannot hold a gun to the heads of speculators and force them to feel the kind of euphoric expectations that underlie bubbles. Consequently there may be long intervals, even during this period of general slow growth, when the system is submerged in prolonged stagnation and recession. There is, however, an additional factor of great importance that makes matters even worse in the era of globalization. Let us turn to it now.


In the period before the current globalization, the world economy was deeply segmented. Labor from the South was not allowed to move freely to the North. As W. Arthur Lewis pointed out, there were two great streams of migration in the nineteenth century: a migration of labor from tropical and subtropical regions like India and China, which went as “coolie” or indentured labor to other tropical or subtropical regions; and a migration of labor from temperate zones of Europe, which went to other temperate regions like the United States, Canada, and Australia.11 Once the era of slavery had run its course, these two streams were kept strictly separate through severe restrictions on tropical migration to the temperate lands.

But while tropical labor was not free to move into the temperate regions, capital from the latter was free to move into the former. Yet despite this formal freedom, capital chose not to do so except in specific spheres like mines, plantations, and external trade. In particular, it did not move manufacturing to the tropical regions, despite the very low wages prevailing there—a result of the process of deindustrialization mentioned earlier. Capital from the temperate regions generally moved into other countries within the temperate region itself, complementing the flow of labor migration.

The world economy was therefore segmented between the tropical and the temperate regions. In this segmented universe, the labor reserves of the South did not restrain the rise of real wages in the North when labor productivity increased. There was consequently, on the one hand, a widening of inequalities between the North and the South that encompassed even the workers, and on the other hand, a boost to demand in the North from rising wages that would not have occurred in the absence of this segmentation.12

Contemporary globalization has brought this segmentation to an end. Even though labor from the South is still not free to move to the North, capital from the North is now far more willing than before to locate manufacturing and service-sector activities—the latter largely through outsourcing—in the South. This now makes real wages in the North subject to the baneful influence of the massive labor reserves of the South. Not that real wages in the United States or any other advanced country are anywhere near parity with Southern real wages. However, they tend to remain stagnant even as labor productivity increases in the North. In fact, in the period of globalization, while the vector of real wages across the world remains more or less unchanged owing to the restraining influence of third-world labor reserves, the vector of labor productivities increases across the world. Both in individual countries and in the world as a whole, therefore, the tendency is for the share of surplus in output to increase. It is this context which explains Joseph Stiglitz’s finding that even as the labor productivity in the United States has increased substantially between 1968 and 2011, the real wage rate of an American male worker has not increased during this period; indeed if anything it has marginally declined.13

This has two major implications. First, the increase in inequality now is not so much between two geographical parts of the globe (indeed, several third-world countries have experienced faster per capita income growth than the advanced capitalist world) as between the working people of the world on the one side and the capitalists of the world and others living off the surplus on the other. It is this increase in “vertical” as distinct from “horizontal” inequality that is reflected in recent works by several mainstream economists, like those of Thomas Piketty, though they attribute this inequality to altogether different and unpersuasive reasons.

The second implication is that, since the “marginal propensity to consume”—again to use a Keynesian expression—is higher from wage income than from incomes derived from economic surplus, this growing vertical inequality in incomes (or, more precisely, the tendency toward a rise in the share of surplus in world output) produces a tendency toward a deficiency of aggregate demand and the problem of surplus absorption.

This of course is an ex ante tendency, which could be kept in check if—as Baran and Sweezy argued, noting a tendency toward such stagnation in the United States a half-century ago—state expenditure could be appropriately increased to counteract it.14But what is noteworthy about the current period of globalization is that it both produces an ex ante tendency towards global demand deficiency and also prevents any possible counteracting state expenditure to overcome this tendency, due to the opposition of the vested interests to fiscal deficits and taxes on the rich. (It should be noted that larger state expenditure financed through taxes on the poor and the working class, who have a high propensity to consume anyway, does not boost aggregate demand, and so cannot counteract the tendency toward deficient demand.)

The only offset against this trend toward demand deficiency, therefore, can come from the occasional asset price bubbles discussed earlier. Unfortunately, since they cannot be made to order, and since they inevitably collapse, the world economy in the era of globalization becomes particularly vulnerable to crises of recession and stagnation, which is exactly what we are now experiencing.

In other words, when we combine these two features of the current globalization—namely the absence of any exogenous stimuli together with the endogenous tendency toward a global demand deficiency—we get an inkling of the structural susceptibility of contemporary capitalism to protracted stagnation. Either of these two features, i.e., the internal and external contradictions, would produce a tendency toward stagnation on its own. In the current period, however, the two features act together, and it is this fact which underlies the travails of contemporary capitalism.


The economic implications of protracted stagnation, and the possible systemic responses to it at the macroeconomic level, are matters I shall not enter into here. I shall, however, end by drawing attention to an obvious political implication, one that relates to the threat to democracy that this protracted stagnation poses, of particular significance in the case of my own country, India.

The general incompatibility between capitalism and democracy is too obvious to need repetition here: capitalism is a spontaneous system driven by its own immanent tendencies, while the essence of democracy lies in people intervening through collective political praxis to shape their destinies, including especially their economic destinies, which militates against this spontaneity. The fate of Keynesianism, which thought that capitalism could be made to operate at close to full employment, and thereby be made into a humane system through state intervention in demand management, shows the impossibility of the project of retaining capitalism while overcoming its spontaneity.

This conflict becomes particularly acute in the era of globalization, when finance capital becomes globalized, while the state, which remains the only possible instrument through which the people could intervene on their own behalf, remains a nation-state. Here, as already mentioned, the state accedes to the demands of finance capital, so that no matter whom the people elect, the same policies remain in place, as long as the country remains within the vortex of globalized finance. Greece is only the latest example to underscore this point.

But once we reckon with the tendency of the system in the era of globalization to fall into a protracted crisis, this incompatibility becomes even more serious. In the context of crisis-induced mass unemployment, the corporate-financial oligarchies that rule many countries actively promote divisive, fascist, and semi-fascist movements, so that while the shell of democracy is preserved, their own rule is not threatened by any concerted class action. And the governments formed by such elements, even when they do not move immediately towards the imposition of a fascist state as in the case of classical fascism, move nonetheless towards a “fascification” of the society and the polity that constitutes a negation of democracy. In third-world societies such fascification not only continues but even increases the scope for “primitive accumulation of capital” at the expense of petty producers (which also ensures that the world labor reserves are not exhausted).

But that is not all. Since such fascism invites retaliation in the form of counter-fascistic movements, as in the case of Hindu supremacism in India, which is starting to encourage a Muslim fundamentalist response, the net result is social disintegration. This disintegration is the denouement of the current globalization in societies like mine, and no doubt in many others. It is important, of course, to struggle against this, but at the current juncture, when there are no international workers’ movements, let alone any international peasant movements, and hence no prospects for any synchronized transcendence of capitalist globalization, any such struggles must necessarily be informed by an agenda of “delinking” from capitalist globalization. This delinking should entail capital controls, management of foreign trade, and an expansion of the domestic market through the protection and encouragement of petty production, including peasant agriculture; through larger welfare expenditure by the state; and through a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and income.


For a discussion on this point, see Harry Magdoff, “Militarism and Imperialism,” reprinted in his collection Imperialism Without Colonies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).
This is calculated from the U.S. Labor Statistics, Department of Labor. If we divide the number of persons employed in October 2015 (when the unemployment rate was 5 percent) by the workforce as it would have stood if the employment-population ratio in June 2007 were the same in October 2015, then the employment rate comes to 89.4 percent. This gives an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, or 11 percent in round numbers. This is pretty close to the U-6 unemployment rate of the BLS (10 percent), even though the latter is calculated differently.
Irving Fisher, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions,”Econometrica 1, no. 4 (1933): 337–57.
See Rosa Luxemburg,The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1951 [1913]), and Michał Kalecki, “Observations on the Theory of Growth,”The Economic Journal 285 (1962): 134–53.
A detailed discussion of this issue can be found in Prabhat Patnaik,Accumulation and Stability under Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
See for instance Joseph Steindl, Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976); Joan Robinson, introduction to Luxemburg,The Accumulation of Capital; and Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1966). For a discussion of this point in an historical context, see W. A. Lewis,Growth and Fluctuations 1870–1913 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1978).
For a detailed discussion of the issues involved, see Utsa Patnaik, “The Free Lunch: Transfers from the Tropical Colonies and Their Role in Capital Formation in Britain During the Industrial Revolution,” in K. S. Jomo, ed.,Globalization under Hegemony: The Long Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006); and “India in the World Economy 1900–1935: The Inter-War Depression and Britain’s Demise as World Capitalist Leader,”Social Scientist 42 (2014): 488–89.
While the first of these factors was emphasized by Alvin Hansen in his bookFull Recovery or Stagnation? (New York: Norton, 1938); the second factor, the role of Japanese competition, is discussed in Prabhat Patnaik,Accumulation and Stability; and the third, the world agricultural crisis, in Utsa Patnaik, “India in the World Economy.”
Lloyd George’s proposal in 1929 for a public works program financed by a fiscal deficit to provide jobs to the unemployed, whose numbers had by then already risen to a million in Britain, was shot down by the British Treasury on the basis of an utterly erroneous argument that Joan Robinson, in her bookEconomic Philosophy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), calls “the humbug of finance.” The famous article by Richard Kahn on the “multiplier” effect (“The Relation of Home Investment to Unemployment,”Economic Journal 41, no. 162 [1931]: 173–98), which provided the theoretical core of the Keynesian revolution, was written as a refutation of this Treasury view. For a discussion of the arguments involved, see Prabhat Patnaik, “The Humbug of Finance,” inThe Retreat to Unfreedom (New Delhi: Tulika, 2002).
The United States no doubt constitutes an exception here: since its currency is still taken to be “as good as gold,” increases in U.S. fiscal deficits do not cause any capital flight and are therefore sustainable. But at the same time, the consideration that the demand expansion caused by such an increase would significantly leak out abroad through higher imports, which would mean greater external indebtedness of the U.S. for generating jobs abroad, stands in the way. The closeness of the U.S. government to financial interests that frown on fiscal deficits, and the pervasive prevalence of the ideology of “sound finance,” also work in the same direction.
W. A. Lewis,The Evolution of the International Economic Order, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).
This demand aspect is emphasized by Joan Robinson in her introduction to Luxemburg,The Accumulation of Capital, 26–27.
Joseph Stiglitz, remarks to the AFL-CIO Convention on April 8, 2013.
Indeed, this was the crux of their argument inMonopoly Capital.

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