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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Red Rosa, “Junius,” and Leninism

During the early years of the First World War, revolutionary Marxists-- those who opposed the war in its entirety-- were bitterly disappointed in the leaders of the socialist parties and the workers’ organizations who chose to take the side of their governments in prosecuting the great war. They used their isolation and alienation from these parties to examine some of the burning questions opened by the ongoing slaughter of millions.

Vladimir Lenin, in exile in Bern and Zurich, Switzerland used this time to write extensively on the relation between late capitalism, monopoly capitalism-- an era given the name “imperialism” -- and war. His thinking on national self-determination, revisionism, and opportunism were also taking shape in his writings.

At the same time, another revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, was jailed for her opposition to the war. She used her time, like Lenin, to develop fresh ideas on the trajectory of the socialist project-- its missteps and prospects. From this effort came The Crisis in the German Social-Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet), a pseudonymous [Junius] contribution smuggled from her jail cell and published in 1916.

Lenin read The Junius Pamphlet. He made the egregious error of assuming that the author was a man, an error all too common in the time. However, he is uncharacteristically fulsome with his praise: “Written in a very lively style, Junius’ pamphlet has undoubtedly played and will play an important role in the struggle against the ex-Social-Democratic Party of Germany, which has deserted to the side of the bourgeoisie and the Junkers, and we heartily greet the author.”

Lenin added: “On the whole, Junius’ pamphlet is a splendid Marxian work, and in all probability its defects are, to a certain extent, accidental.” Lenin, typically, was a critical reader who let nothing pass without exposing defects.

In the case of Luxemburg’s pamphlet, Lenin objects to her lack of dialectical rigor. In the heat of her condemnation of the betrayal of the working class by the socialist leadership, she too-often generalizes features of this specific imperialist war at this specific time and place as though they were universal truths. For example, Luxemburg’s universal claim that “In the epoch (era) of this unbridled imperialism, there can be no more national wars” violates Lenin’s oft-repeated practical understanding of dialectics: “But it would be a mistake to exaggerate this truth; to depart from the Marxian rule to be concrete; to apply the appraisal of the present war to all wars that are possible under imperialism; to lose sight of the national movements against imperialism.”

He elaborates:

The fallacy of this argument is obvious. Of course, the fundamental proposition of Marxian dialectics is that all boundaries in nature and society are conventional and mobile, that there is not a single phenomenon which cannot under certain conditions be transformed into its opposite. A national war can be transformed into an imperialist war, and vice versa. For example, the wars of the Great French Revolution started as national wars and were such. They were revolutionary wars because they were waged in defence of the Great Revolution against a coalition of counter-revolutionary monarchies. But after Napoleon had created the French Empire by subjugating a number of large, virile, long established national states of Europe, the French national wars became imperialist wars, which in their turn engendered wars for national liberation against Napoleon’s imperialism.
Not sharing Lenin’s dialectical rigor, Luxemburg’s claim becomes a denial of the possibility of wars of national liberation.

Lenin seldom missed an opportunity to explain dialectics as a concrete analysis of a concrete situation-- an insistence on avoiding broad generalities that failed to respect changing circumstances and changing relations of social forces. His dialectical method separated his views from some of his comrades on the national question, strategy, and tactics.

But “[t]he chief defect in Junius’ pamphlet… is its silence regarding the connection between social-chauvinism (the author uses neither this nor the less precise term social-patriotism) and opportunism.”

Left social-chauvinism-- the unquestioned support for the “fatherland,” the homeland, my country, right or wrong, and its policies by leftists-- does not spring from nothing. As Lenin argued often, but most straightforwardly in Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International (January, 1916):

The relatively “peaceful” character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics. They were able to win the confidence of the masses only by their protestations that all this “peaceful” work served to prepare the proletarian revolution. This contradiction was a boil which just had to burst, and burst it has.

Where Luxemburg leaves the betrayal of the socialist antiwar policy dangling, as though it fell from the sky or happened through incompetence, Lenin insists that it was a process, an ideological deterioration based upon “the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with ‘their’ national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting.” His condemnation of this development is emphatic:

Social-chauvinism is opportunism in its finished form. It is quite ripe for an open, frequently vulgar, alliance with the bourgeoisie and the general staffs. It is this alliance that gives it great power and a monopoly of the legal press and of deceiving the masses. It is absurd to go on regarding opportunism as an inner-party phenomenon… Unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s “own” national bourgeoisie, which exploits other nations; it means splitting the international proletariat. This does not mean that an immediate break with the opportunists is possible everywhere... It means only… that history, which has led us from “peaceful” capitalism to imperialist capitalism, has paved the way for this break.

We can summarize Lenin’s objections to The Junius Pamphlet-- reluctant though they be-- with the following points:

1. Luxemburg fails to fully explain the link between the ideological drift of the left in the decades before the First World War which led to the ensuing corrupted politics and the capitulation of the left to war fever.

2. Luxemburg does not acknowledge that there can be justifiable “national” wars (wars of national liberation) in the era of imperialism.

But where Lenin’s writing on imperialism is an argument-- a polished, profound argument, Luxemburg’s pamphlet is a rich, vivid essay, exposing the direct, unbroken line from capitalism to imperialism to war and its barbaric consequences.

Is there a more eloquent description of imperialist war?

Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls… Every government sees every other as dooming its own people and worthy of universal contempt… Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth-- there stands bourgeois society… the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity.

And what does imperialist war in the twentieth century bring?

Frederich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” ... A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses towards its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Frederich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration-- a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism… The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves… to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.

I can’t imagine a more apt description of life in the era of imperialism: unthinkable global wars, countless, interminable regional and local wars, economic instability, vast inequalities, cultural vulgarity, and crude individualism-- a wounded, bleeding civilization. Luxemburg exhibits an uncanny foresight: “[an Anglo-French victory in World War I] would lead to a new feverish armaments race among all the states-- with defeated Germany obviously in the forefront. An unalloyed militarism and reaction would dominate all Europe with a new world war as its ultimate goal.”

How right she was. Two decades later, Germany was rearming at a furious pace, with war in Spain-- a precursor to the coming European war-- raging, Italy invading Ethiopia, and Japanese expansion fully moving ahead. Luxemburg fully grasped the intimate relationship of imperialism and war.

And she unequivocally and explicitly identified that relationship:

All demands for complete or partial “disarmament,” for the dismantling of secret diplomacy, for the partition of all multinational great states into small national ones, and so forth are part and parcel utopian as long as capitalist class domination holds the reins. [Capitalism] cannot, under its current imperialist course, dispense with present-day militarism, secret diplomacy, or the centralized multinational state.

Of course, anyone familiar with the works of Lenin and Luxemburg recognizes that revolutionaries should, nonetheless, encourage the masses to press for these reforms as essential for their deeper appreciation of the need for socialism and the final settlement with capitalism.

The thinking of Lenin and of Luxemburg congeal completely and satisfactorily in one long passage that should be read by every activist and applied to our struggles today:

The events that bore the present war did not begin in July 1914 but reach back for decades. Thread by thread they have been woven together on the loom of an inexorable natural development until the firm net of imperialist world politics has encircled five continents. It is a huge historical complex of events; whose roots reach deep down into the Plutonic deeps of economic creation…

Imperialism is not the creation of any one or of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognizable only in its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.
From this point of view only is it possible to understand correctly the question of “national defense!” in the present war.

The national phase, to be sure, has been preserved, but its real content, its function, has been perverted into its very opposite. Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialistic desires, a battle cry for imperialist rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic war. [my emphasis]

In this passage, Luxemburg could as well be offering a popular paraphrase, a distilled summary of Lenin’s thesis in his essential work, Imperialism. Like Lenin, she characterizes imperialism as a stage and not a constellation of great powers, a stage that no capitalist state can avoid or from which it can withdraw. Imperialism is a nexus of relations-- a system-- associated with capitalism in its most rapacious and unstable form, a form that systematically generates war, ever more devastating war.

It is for these reasons that “In a discussion of the general causes of the war, and its significance, the question of the ‘guilty party’ is completely beside the issue.” The roots of imperialist war-- to be found in the capitalist predatory mechanism of competition-- make the ‘guilty party’ strictly contingent. As Luxemburg recounts, there were at least five distinct occasions in which World War I could have easily begun. What does it matter which occasion sparked the war?

What does the thinking of Luxemburg and Lenin, shaped in the midst of imperialism’s first great, global war, have to offer us today, over a century later?

Ideas born from Luxemburg’s imprisonment and Lenin’s exile surely deserve more than scholarly interest. Both stood firmly, and with demonstrated integrity, against policies that served up working people to a fate of death and destruction. If working people were to sacrifice, let it be for liberation from the tyranny of capital. Or, for Lenin, let it be to drive out the rule of a colonial oppressor.

Both were appalled that the left of the time abandoned its partisanship for working people, its working-class internationalism, to endorse-- even participate in-- imperialist war, war to advance interests of national bourgeoisies.

Neither bothered to distinguish between the antagonists in imperialist war. It did not matter to Luxemburg that Czarist Russia fought for “the political interests of the nation” and “not for the economic expansion of capital.” Russia participated in the imperialist system and did not deserve the support of workers.

Nor did it matter to Luxemburg that many in Germany believed that “German guns” would liberate Russia from Czardom. Instead, she reminds us, “never in the history of the world has an oppressed class received political rights as a reward for service rendered to the ruling classes.”

Imperialist war is not one in which workers weigh the issues (as expressed by their respective bourgeoisies), pick a side, and go off to die.

The last three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union-- similar to the forty years prior to World War I mentioned by Lenin above-- have been witness to the rise of left opportunism-- the abandonment of the socialist project and the elevation of a muddled, meta-class, identity-driven liberalism.

Like its twentieth century antecedent, twenty-first century opportunism has spawned its own version of “social-chauvinism” -- let’s call it “imperial exceptionalism.”

These are the practitioners of so-called “American exceptionalism” or its European equivalent. They are “leftists” who have dutifully endorsed and apologized for US and NATO intervention and aggression in the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, and, most recently, Ukraine. With differing degrees of understanding, they have supported the so-called Orange Revolution, the 2014 coup, and resistance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all in the supposed interest of human rights. This group defends imperialism as humanitarian intervention.

These modern-day “social-chauvinists” have long abandoned the idea of class and are, thus, totally invested in forcing bourgeois values on the rest of the world. They find no contradiction in forcefully imposing Western-style “democracy” on others, while denying those same people their right of self-determination. They justify imperialist intervention as the duty of the guardians of civilization. Their arrogance knows no bounds.

As Lenin maintains, a “break” must eventually come with these class traitors.

Still others resolutely resist US and European meddling and aggression, but cling to the model that imperialism is strictly US imperialism and every other country is either a loyal satrapy, a client, or a neo-colony of US imperialism. This idea has more in common with the imperialism of ancient Rome than with the imperialism understood by Lenin and Luxemburg. Such a perspective poses the US as the system’s architect, ruler, and enforcer, with Europe, and other advanced capitalist states loyal enablers, legitimized and protected by US economic and military might. All other countries either tolerate, comply, or resist this arrangement.

This is an “empire” theory of imperialism that sees the structure of imperialism held together-- not with monopoly capital, spheres of influence, and class interests-- but with the brute power of the US. It is a state version of the great-man theory of history.

On this view, imperialism is not a system evolved from nineteenth-century capitalism to protect and capture markets, put accumulated capital to work, and exploit every nook and cranny in the world; it is not a system of rivalries; it is, instead, a hierarchical system with the benefits flowing up to a monolith and subjugation flowing down to those countries that are dominated to one degree or another. It simply exists. And from this myopic perspective, imperialism, as we have known it, will end when US imperialism is throttled.

While this may be a snapshot of how things look at a quick and superficial glance, there are two elements that separate it from a Marxist deeper dive.

On the one hand, it leaves out the basic contradiction between capital and labor. The countries within the imperialist system-- participating by virtue of their capitalist economic system-- are all class societies. Their position in the imperial hierarchy does not change the class alignment of capital and labor. Improving their relative position or dissolving the hierarchy does not necessarily or fundamentally change that relationship. From the perspective of Lenin and Luxemburg’s theory, changing the hierarchical position is not worth the life-and-death sacrifices of the working class (with the exception of colonial subjection, in Lenin’s view, where struggle may change a country’s status and end class super-exploitation).

Secondly, and as a corollary to the first element, it is capitalism that is at the root of the modern imperialist system. Hierarchies have existed throughout history and at every level-- from the family to the nation-state to the global economy. In every hierarchy, there are fundamental social relations that dictate, that determine the hierarchy. In Roman times, Rome was at the top of the hierarchy, but it was not necessary that Rome was at the top of the hierarchy; under those same social conditions, other states could have and did strive to be in that position.

In feudal times, hierarchies were structured by a different, unique set of social conditions. Similarly, the lords enjoying the most dominant positions were challenged by others. Hierarchies are contested; they must be maintained; but they remain unless the conditions-- the social relations-- allowing and maintaining the hierarchy are eliminated.

In Lenin and Luxemburg’s time, Great Britain stood at the top of the imperialist hierarchy, yet World War I proved that the existing pyramid of global dominance was neither stable, nor capable of being reformed. Its instability results in war, as it did when other great powers challenged Great Britain. As Luxemburg stated, the war could have begun on many occasions from different sparks and different challenges. It was the competition of capital that drove great-power rivalries; it will be the elimination of capitalism that will ultimately end imperialism and stifle the lust for war.

Karl Kautsky-- a leading social democratic theorist in Lenin and Luxemburg’s era-- gave life to the idea that the imperialist hierarchy could be replaced with a balance of great powers, an equilibrium that would maintain a peaceful, stable imperialism without violent conflict. In our time, proponents of globalization anticipated the same capitalist harmony in inter-state relations. These ideas infect today’s left through the concept of multipolarity, the notion that eliminating the US’s overwhelming dominance of the imperialist playing field will somehow result in a fair, civil, and polite era of capitalist harmony, with established rules and collegial sportsmanship. This is the same pipedream that petty-bourgeois reformers have that eliminating the giant monopolies or cartels will establish a kind and gentle capitalism composed of earnest small-scale entrepreneurs. Both notions ignore conflicting class interests and sanitize capitalism. Capitalist countries, like capitalist corporations, are in brutal competition with each other. On the scale of countries that leads not to harmony and prosperity, but to war.

Of course, the left in the US and Europe should spare no effort in attempting to stop US and NATO military spending, interference, intervention, and war-making; but the left should have no illusion that-- should that goal be achieved-- it exhausts the anti-imperialist project. That will come only when we eliminate capitalism. Whether it is unipolar or multipolar monopoly capitalism, it is still imperialism.

Greg Godels

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The War in Ukraine: A Year On

February 24th marked one year since Russian troops crossed the border with Ukraine and began its overt military intervention in what was a de facto civil war. From 2014 and the Western intervention resulting in that year’s coup against President Yanukovych, Ukraine has been a divided country engaged in a bitter, violent struggle over its future alignment. Indeed, that struggle had been simmering since Ukraine left the Soviet Union, with roots going back even further. Ukrainian nationalism has almost always sought to link independence with the protection of one powerful sponsor or another.

Like other civil wars, this war is the continuation of simmering, expanding political, economic, and social issues-- politics by other, more violent, brutal, and dangerous means. Except for the Soviet period, there has never been a stable, viable, enduring Ukrainian state. Nor has there been a Western-style “democracy” with sufficient popular support and legitimacy.

But the war is something more than a civil war. It is also an imperialist war contested between great powers claiming to defend the interests of factions engaged in the civil war. As with other imperialist wars, the great powers are contesting over direct and indirect economic interests while seeking to maintain or establish spheres of interest.

Russia, for its part, as a relatively new, emergent capitalist power, has an unbalanced economy, relying heavily on the export of its abundant natural resources, principally gas and oil. As a result of Cold War aggression, Russia also has a highly developed military-weapons industry as a legacy of the Soviet Union. Its role in the imperialist conflict revolves around defending its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the economic links established during the Soviet era, maintaining and expanding its share of the Western European energy market, and burnishing its position in supplying weaponry in the ever-expanding global armament frenzy. 

The US, on the other hand, as the self-styled leader and police of the capitalist world order, opposes Russia’s independent foreign policy and economic and political influence in Eastern Europe. Support for Syria, a country at odds with US and Israeli interests in the Middle East, undoubtedly brought Russia into even sharper conflict with the US. The dream of unchallenged US global hegemony was, no doubt, interrupted by Russia’s failure to pay obeisance. 

But the battle over natural gas markets-- seen as the transitional “clean” carbon-based energy source-- played an oversized role in motivating the conflict. With US potential natural gas production nearly limitless thanks to new technologies, the US urgently needed new markets. Most recently, investors were backing away from the industry because of low prices and shrinking profits.

As I wrote on February 2, 2022, more than three weeks before the Russian military invasion started:

…Biden’s administration harps on Trump-like sanctions aimed at the Russian economy and, not least of all, its energy sector.

If oil was a motivating factor in US foreign policy activism in the 1980s and 1990s, then natural gas is a decisive motivating factor today. Where the US was determined to secure oil resources in the past, energy independence and the fracking revolution motivate US policy makers to secure natural gas markets today.

In essence, the US is baiting the Russians into actions that will encourage the Europeans to reject their dependence upon cheap Russian natural gas. Instead, they want Europe to rely on expensive US liquified natural gas, a change that Europeans have, so far, resisted. War hysteria is meant to frighten the Europeans into rejecting the nearly completed Nord Stream pipeline and, instead, build costly liquified natural gas terminals to accept US gas. Thus, the underlying strategy is economic-- a not-so-subtle bullying of Europe into aligning with US economic interests.

The goal is to restart the botched, overinvested, badly managed fracking revolution that would now ride the tide of high energy prices.

The criminal destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines by the US and its allies only underscores the above analysis.

Today, the US is the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). Also, oil purchases from the US by the UK, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, and Germany have increased by 344,000 barrels a day since last February, according to The Wall Street Journal. The WSJ article quotes Daniel Yergin, an oil energy historian and vice chairman of S&P Global: “America is back in the most predominant position it has been in world energy since the 1950s… U.S. energy now is becoming one of the foundations of European energy security.” Those who see US imperialism as in a stage of irreversible decline might find this statement sobering.

The stakes of inter-imperialist conflict were established well before the intervention of February 24. To anyone paying attention, the worsening conflict was about much more than Ukrainian self-determination, democracy, or sovereignty. The encroachment of NATO was motivated by far more than protecting Eastern Europe from Russian aggression. And the Russian interests were less idealistic than simply liberating Ukrainians from themselves or neo-Nazis.

In response to the many who found noble motives on one side or the other, I wrote on February 14, ten days before the operation:

Those who remain skeptical of the economic motives behind the US warmongering must explain why Biden placed natural gas politics ahead of any other matter before him and his German ally [Scholtz] in this first significant policy exchange. Biden’s glee-- not shared by his German counterpart-- reveals the importance the US government places on seizing the natural gas market from the Russians, their rival in the energy business.

The Ukraine crisis presents other economic advantages as well. In less than two weeks, the US has sent eight cargo planes to the Ukraine with military supplies, part of the $200 million Biden authorized in new military aid. The xenophobic, ultra-nationalist Baltic states and Poland have sent massive amounts of military equipment to Ukraine as well, much of which is sourced from US corporations and will be replaced by aid or purchases from the US.

Whether Ukraine joins NATO or not, Ukraine is being militarized and will continue to be a destination for US arms. On this front, the US military-industrial establishment will win, regardless of the crisis outcome.

Adversaries on both sides of the Cold War-like divide will be armed to the teeth and the possibility of war raised accordingly.

US “aid” to Ukraine since last February is rapidly approaching 100 billion dollars-- far more than US aid to any other country or any other country’s contribution to Ukraine’s war effort.

With the Russian military invading on several fronts on February 24 of last year, the civil war reached a qualitatively greater intensity, with NATO sharply increasing its participation. Weapons poured into Ukraine, guaranteeing a conflict of a dimension unseen in Europe since World War II. Predictably, the Western propaganda machine spoke with one voice, portraying Ukraine as a hapless victim of unprovoked Russian invasion. 

Sadly, the social democratic and liberal left in Europe and the US-- blinded by the missionary zeal of the twisted doctrine of “humanitarian interventionism” and intoxicated by a media smear of everything Russian-- quickly fell in line with NATO’s militarization of Ukraine, going so far as calling for a military victory over Russia and regime change in Moscow. 

Western ruling classes proved adept at winning the broad center-left to the bizarre notion that a moral defense of Ukraine constructed around the principle of self-determination could be applicable to a regime that itself violated the democratic principle of self-determination by staging a violent coup d’état eight years earlier. 

As in 1914 in the early stages of World War I, the liberals and social democrats betrayed any anti-war principles to the fever of war. No anti-war movement was forthcoming from this camp.

In the US, this left-center opportunism is firmly held in place by fealty to the Democratic Party, whose imperial adventures are only softly challenged by liberals or social democrats.

Others on the left-- whether from a nostalgic conflation of Russia with the Soviet Union or a failure to understand Russia’s role in the imperialist system-- portrayed the Russian government as a liberator or as a paragon of anti-imperialism. This naive view turned reality on its head and imagined a corralling of imperialism-- a step towards a multipolar utopia-- as an anticipated result of Russia’s defeat of NATO’s surrogates on the battlefield of Ukraine. 

How Russia prevailing or any other alternative military outcome could benefit the working classes of Ukraine, Russia, or the West is beyond credulity. Illusions of a Russian version of humanitarian intervention unfortunately infect some elements of the left. Meanwhile, the bodies are piling up, homes are destroyed, and families are forced to flee.

Too few of us on the left rejected the two misguided choices, recognizing the essence of the war as imperialist conflict.

As the war ground on, I wrote on May 9, 2022:

The great tragedy is that the broad left-- the historical foil to war and imperialism-- remains divided, confused, and inactive while a bloody, destructive war rages, threatening to expand and escalate. As the war continues with no resolution, the only winner is US imperialism.

Trade union militants in Italy and Greece took to the streets to oppose the war, along with Greek Communists. Thousands marched in Prague in September against rising energy and other costs as a result of the war in Ukraine. Yet no national action against the war occurred in the US, and little in the rest of Europe. 

The fact that the Zelensky regime outlawed political parties, stripped labor regulations, and criminalized the opposition found most of the liberal and social democratic left unmoved (The AFL-CIO-- a strong supporter of Zelensky-- was eventually forced to object on behalf of its favored anti-Communist unions). 

Efforts for a peaceful settlement were persistently undermined by the Western powers-- the US, UK, and their NATO partners. 

In the face of intransigent Western governments and a lame, disputatious left guilty of misguided partisanship, the cause of peace was left to others. The populist right has attempted to take on the role of peacekeeper, at least to the extent of questioning the unconditional support for the further escalation of the war. As the war stalemated, right-wing politicians in opposition found mismanagement of the war to be a fertile field for political advantages. For a vivid example of right-populist war skepticism, see Representative Matt Gaetz’s scathing rebuke of US Defense Department officials, concluding that US money spent on guaranteeing Ukrainian pensions would be better spent in the US on bolstering pension reserves here.

Democratic Party elected officials, on the other hand, have been unmoved, staying solidly behind Biden’s instigation and expansion of the war.

The notorious corruption of successive Ukrainian regimes, the mobilizing of more troops and the introduction of more lethal and longer-range weapons, and weariness over the dwindling prospect of early victories are spawning questions and doubts. As the conflict is prolonged, support in the opinion polls is now sagging. This is reflected in less cheerleading and more nuance in coverage by leading newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post

A recent feature article in The Wall Street Journal, Domestic Political Troubles Return for Ukraine’s Zelensky, recounts both the checkered trajectory of Zelensky’s career and his immersion in a sea of corruption. Recently, a large number of his colleagues were ousted or forced to resign for serious corruption.

The article cites opposition politicians who portray the leader as “authoritarian” over his total dominance of the Ukrainian media. In addition, The WSJ reminds us that Ukrainian trust in Zelensky was down to 28% before the war. In short, the lengthy article tarnishes the image of the celebrity figure formerly viewed by the media as whistle-clean and selfless, perhaps a telling sign of some cracks in ruling class consensus.

Also, the sunny prospects of Ukrainian victory with advanced Western technologies are beginning to turn a little gloomy; in late February Zelensky  fired a top general serving as the commander of the joint forces of Ukraine. Apparently, Russia has seized the military initiative in Eastern Ukraine to rhe chagrin of Ukraine's leaders.

Most countries are refusing to be bullied by US efforts to steer them into condemning or sanctioning Russia. Both Peoples’ China and Lula’s Brazil have proposed plans for all parties to cease fighting and negotiate.

These and other changes and initiatives offer hope that resistance to the war will grow. This year, two encouraging national actions in opposition to the war were planned to rally in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the organizers of the events engaged in bitter Internet battles where some questions of substance were poisoned by egos, turf wars, and pettiness. Historically, rival peace organizations settle their differences and validate their approach in practice. We have seen factional and sectarian conflict in the peace movement before. At least, there is now motion to halt the war and negotiate, with another rally scheduled for March 18.

Recent actions in Europe are encouraging, as well. Thousands have marched in Berlin, London, and other cities.

Maybe we are seeing the first shoots of a soon-to-blossom movement to end the war and reject militarism.

As I wrote last September 7:

The war in Ukraine is the logical outcome of the unwinding of globalization, a process that began with the 2007-2009 world economic crisis… 

Competition intensified and rivalries became more virulent. Inevitably, economic competition leads to confrontation and confrontation leads to war.

The circumstances of war become less important and the deadly outcomes and possible escalations take center stage. Today, the likelihood of a long, bloody war and its potential expansion beyond borders demand action.

As this tragedy unfolds, the only answer-- the working-class answer-- is to pull out all stops to end it. We desperately need a militant movement to stop this war.

The need is even more urgent today.

Greg Godels

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Derangement Unbound

Karl Marx famously said in the Eighteenth Brumaire that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” While there are many examples of this insight from history, Marx could not foresee how farce would become the staple of the US ruling class, how elites would defend what they see as their interests with a web of calculated deception extending beyond the limits of the absurd.

Like the mad General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, Dr. Strangelove, an Air Force four-star General, Mike Minihan, “sent a memo on Friday [January 27] to the officers he commands that predicts the U.S. will be at war with China in two years and tells them to get ready to prep by firing ‘a clip’ at a target, and ‘aim for the head,’” as reported by NBC News. Further, the deranged General “directs all AMC [Air Mobility Command] personnel to ‘consider their personal affairs and whether a visit should be scheduled with their servicing base legal office to ensure they are legally ready and prepared.’”

Further evidence of the 1950s Cold War-like craze possessing the military and infecting a gullible public came on February 1 when the US Air Force designated a proposed Chinese-owned corn mill as a “significant threat to national security.” With 370 acres of farmland, Shandong-based Fufeng group saw an opportunity to mill corn to supplement the company’s food additive business. According to Yahoo!news, the locals saw the corn mill as an “economic development success” until the military warning turned them against the plans. North Dakota’s two Senators loudly led the chorus shutting down the project.

The Great Balloon Fiasco

The world woke up during the first week of February with a new and ominous threat-- a great balloon was floating slowly through the Stratosphere across some Western US states. Unnamed “officials” declared that the balloon was a Chinese spy balloon, sent to discover some profound military secrets. The declaration was followed by incriminations from politicians of both major parties, denouncing the treacherous Chinese Communists for their perfidy.

As hysteria mounted and civilians began to report new sightings of imaginary new balloons, a few dissident voices noted that balloon spying was a dated, obsolete technology superseded by advanced high-altitude, manned airplane overflights, which have been themselves replaced by satellites and high-tech cameras. Why would the Chinese use a balloon for espionage?

But “experts” emerged who claimed that there may well be an ever-so-slight advantage to be gained by proximity and slow speed. None of the overpaid newsreaders who occupy network anchor chairs noted that since the balloon had first been detected over Alaska, the military authorities had plenty of time to rush out to Walmart to buy tarpaulins to cover the sensitive military installations from the prying eyes of the balloon’s master.

Officials in Peoples’ China admitted that it was their balloon-- a meteorological balloon-- but denied that it was a spy balloon. They might well have pointed out that it was odd that the US government would make such a fuss when it publicly claimed nearly a year ago that it was planning to engage in balloon-spying and to direct it at the Russian Federation and the Peoples’ Republic of China!

But it gets better…

As the balloon precedes slowly across the US on a course bound for the mid-Atlantic states, politicians, retired military experts, and pundits denounce the inaction on the part of the Biden Administration and the military. Goaded into a response, the military launched its most sophisticated stealth jets to intercept it-- apparently to ensure that the enormous balloon could not take evasive action. A $400,000 Sidewinder missile brought the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina before the intruder could escape our valiant air-defense command.

Not only was the South Carolina engagement the most expensive combat victory over a balloon in history, but it was the first kill for the US’s most expensive fighter, except in war games, movies, and novels. No doubt the pilot will stencil a balloon on the fuselage of his F-22.

But this last-minute response to the cackling of the chicken hawks would not suffice. The naysayers continued to attack the Administration’s response-- not enough, too late. At the same time, comedians could not resist poking fun at the alleged national-security threat from a mere balloon.

To respond to both and underscore the seriousness of the balloon threat to our security, unnamed officials announced that spy balloons had penetrated our stout defenses earlier, including at least three times during the Trump administration. Rather than quieting the warmongers and snuffing out the levity, the defense officials opened a new can of worms.

Trump’s defense officials, including career bureaucrats and Trump haters like China-phobic John Bolton, claimed no knowledge of earlier incursions.

Even the unimaginative, power-ingratiating media could not reconcile the two claims: documented balloon incursions and an unknowing Administration. Did the military shield the information from civilian authorities? Was this proper? What does this mean?

To resolve this dilemma and close the can of worms, unnamed senior Biden Administration officials came forward with a new narrative: The earlier incursions were unknown at the time and only discovered later, after the change in administration.

This led to the undoubtedly unintended parody embedded in The Wall Street Journal headline: U.S. Says Balloons Weren’t Detected. If they weren’t detected, how do we know they were there?

Of course, the military has an answer: they found out later, but how they found out must remain a secret. “Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said Monday that the Defense Department ‘did not detect’ the previous balloons, adding that the intelligence community was made aware of them through other means of information collection,” according to Politico.

CNN reports that General VanHerck, the commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, attributes the failure to a “domain awareness gap”. Thus, the failure to detect three balloons, but to discover their presence later, is explained through a mystifying, arcane piece of military jargon: a “domain awareness gap.” Shades of “Advance to the rear!”

Predictably, the stalwart defenders of our interests in the House of Representatives voted 419-0 denouncing China’s “brazen violation of United States sovereignty,” with a balloon.

Like its precedent in the 1950s, today’s war mongers advance Cold War hysteria, regardless of how we view The Great Balloon Fiasco.

If the balloon were merely an errant private meteorological balloon, then the fact that its predecessors advanced across the US undetected would demonstrate the need for more vigilance, more advanced detection capacity, better interception possibilities, and more personnel-- a gift to the Pentagon’s budget.

But if the balloon is authentically a surveillance device, then we presumably have more reason not to trust the Communist leaders and must prepare for further aggression-- with a bigger military budget.

Both are ridiculous conclusions that follow from ridiculous, outlandish, and malignant premises. Balloons constitute no more security risk than the spy satellites that are commonplace today and ensure a relatively fair playing field in international affairs.

Yet the US State Department used the ill-fated balloon as an excuse to cancel Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s trip to Beijing-- a trip scheduled to reach understanding and lessen the tensions between the two countries, a peace that the US government doesn’t want.

While it is impossible not to see the absurdity-- the farce-- in these developments, they have deadly serious consequences. As their historical precedents did in stirring the Cold War pot, China-bashing prepares the US for war. The reckless provocations, the groundless charges, and the constant baiting of Peoples’ China all raise the risk of war.

We have seen this before, most recently in the US behavior leading up to the war in Ukraine.

It must be resisted.

Greg Godels

postscript: Yesterday, February 10, the US government announced that they had shot down "a high altitude object" over Alaskan air space. According to The Wall Street Journal, an unnamed Defense Department official said that "[t]he object didn't initially appear to belong to a government." Aliens, perhaps? The insanity continues...

Saturday, January 28, 2023

France and the Dilemma of Electoral Politics in the Twenty-first Century

French workers currently live nearly two years longer than their counterparts in member states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), composed of roughly the world’s most advanced capitalist countries. Further, they retire with full benefits, on average, nearly three years earlier than their counterparts in the OECD. Thanks to a rich history of militant struggle for a shorter workweek, a greater share of national wealth, and social benefits for retirees, workers in France enjoy a higher standard of living and a much longer secure retirement than most workers in other countries.

Of course, a better, longer, more secure life comes at a cost; France devotes much more of its GDP to support retirees than other OECD countries. It should be an obvious truth that it costs more to live longer.

And the people of France want to keep this system and improve it. They believe that spending more national wealth on the people is sensible and just.

With the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and his corporate backers threatening to raise the retirement age by two years, the opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of those polled oppose the change. 

To bring this opinion to the attention of France’s elites, two million people rallied and marched throughout France on Thursday, January 19; in Paris alone, the march extended for two and a half miles. 

Rather than bow down to the demands for austerity and competitiveness made by capital, working people in France are fighting to retain what earlier generations have won. They do not see the fate of the elderly as negotiable. 

Instead, the people defend senior benefits as an act of solidarity and not charity.

By delaying retirement benefits for two years and shortening the retirements of French workers, politicians believe that they could save as much as 150 billion dollars per year. Of course, this “savings” will never benefit working people.

However, it is thievery with the stolen national wealth redirected toward shoring up the fortunes of the ruling class.

The day after the massive demonstrations, President Macron announced that his administration planned to increase French spending on the military by 115-120 billion dollars per year over the next six years! So the proposed savings will go into the pockets of the armament industry and further increase the tensions in Europe unleashed by the war in Ukraine.

Since the consolidation of nation-states, rulers have used war and the threat of war to rally support. Not only is the war in Ukraine a reckless step toward regional, if not global, war, but the governing cliques are using it to justify their hold on power. Military spending is exploding across the region. Fear of a mythical Russian march to the sea serves the interest of all of the capitalist powers in the Euro-Atlantic area.

As it was in the twentieth century, war is the answer to the collapse of the traditional parties; war is the distraction from the inability of the center forces to rule effectively; war is the answer given to the masses searching for political alternatives to the misrule of the few. 

But if the majority of French voters oppose Macron’s initiative, how did he get reelected? He never hid his agenda from the people. If sixty to eighty percent of the voters oppose his policies, what is the secret of his electoral victory?

Macron’s election was the result of the dilemma presented to voters in nearly all of the so-called “advanced democracies” -- those countries organized around mature capitalist economic relations, but governed by a parliamentary system with nominally universal suffrage. 

Where these countries exist-- especially the US and Europe, but others as well-- voters must choose between two ugly options. They can support political parties that have abdicated social welfare for the individualistic, winner-take-all “justice” of the market. Or, on other hand, they can opt for the bogus anti-elitist populism of the refashioned right.

Understandably, many voters have turned against traditional parties that have been won over to “serving” social justice through the mechanism of private firms, NGOs, foundations, and charitable institutions. The US Democratic Party, UK Labour, the German SPD, Italy’s Democrats, etc. have abandoned their traditional posture of partisanship for the working class and surrendered to the philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats” -- the politics that is dismantling the welfare state safety net.

With the traditional center-left disregarding the working class and with working people slammed by a global shift in wealth distribution, a privatization and dismantling of public infrastructure, and a radical restructuring of employment away from high-paying jobs, voters are looking for alternatives.

Sections of the traditional right-- refashioned to attack indifferent elites, construct handy scapegoats, and offer easy, but misdirected solutions-- have rushed to fill the political void. Politicians like Trump, Boris Johnson, Orbán, Le Pen, Meloni have opportunistically capitalized upon the vacuum left by the mutation of the center-left parties. Their faux-populism captured much of the forgotten working class, desperate for an alternative, any alternative.

As the traditional center-left lost ground, it raised the alarm of extremism, even fascism. Like the bourgeois parties of the past, the mainstream parties resort to fear-mongering, rather than a critical examination of their trajectory, their departure from their purported advocacy for the masses. Whether it was touting the danger of the ultra-right or trumpeting the emergence of fascism, the center-left sought to rally voters around a united front against Trump, Le Pen, Meloni, et al., a solely defensive strategy that, at best, only forestalled the continuing influence of right-wing populism.

It is in this context, following this cautious, defensive strategy, that Macron won re-election. Against the rise of the right-populist National Rally party and its presidential candidate, Marine le Pen, the traditional French parties-- including the center-left and the new left-- unconditionally threw their support behind the “safe” alternative. The left neither sought nor received any major concessions from Macron for their votes. While they drew some satisfaction from stopping Le Pen, the left now faces a Macron determined to strip the working class of hard-won gains, ironically, a move that Le Pen does not support.

Those on the left who embrace the tactic of unconditional unity against the right as an electoral strategy should take a hard, sober look at how it played out in France. Happily, millions of French citizens are rising to the challenge now posed by rallying behind a “lesser of two evils,” a “lesser” that may prove far more destructive of living standards than the “other evil.” 

As history all too often proves, giving voters something to vote against can, at best, temporarily retard the advance of the false friends of the people. Decades of fealty to the “lesser evil” myth has only spawned an ever more skeptical, cynical, frustrated electorate, desperate for an alternative. Absent a left that stands for something, voters will continue to consider faux-populism as a legitimate alternative.

Greg Godels

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Good Bye, Slavoj

With a dismal start to the new year, it was hard to find a ray of hope among war news and parliamentary foolishness.

But gifts often come from unexpected places. My daily dose of CounterPunch-- the website co-founded by one of my journalistic heroes, the late Alexander Cockburn-- served up a gift: an article by Gabriel Rockhill burying the infamous pseudo-Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, in the dung heap that he merits.

Žižek is an intellectual pederast. By that, I mean that he is one of the latest in a long line of frauds, peddlers, and opportunists who seduce young people hungry for new ideas, for radical thinking, for a vision beyond the staid, ivy-covered walls of academia. He seduces them in the cheapest, most disreputable way, by weaving long, convoluted, purposefully obscure tapestries from manufactured, tortured words and clever, but paradoxical phrases. For the inexperienced, those hungry  for a perspective only available to those who with the patience to decrypt, Žižek and his ilk are irresistibly attractive. 

Many of us-- I suspect Rockhill as well-- have fallen under the spell of one or more of these intellectual conjurers in our studies. 

As long as there has been a left, there have been the distractors, the obscurantists, the charlatans who derail movements by diverting the energies of promising young people into the weeds of opaque theory.

In my student era, it was thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and others in the so-called Frankfurt School, who painted a dark picture of left prospects, directing radicals towards cultural critiques and the political efficacy of the lumpen proletariat and third world movements and away from working class agency and the then-influential Communist movements. It was not uncommon for young activists to carry unread copies of Marcuse’s books in their book bags to impress their friends. 

Later generations of radicals were subjected to “post-Marxist” French and German thinkers, who wrote nearly unreadable texts filled with neologisms and sentences constructed (or encoded) to be deliberately provocative and ambiguous. Much of this was scattered around the vague, but radical-sounding philosophical pole of postmodernism (and post structuralism). Intellectual hipsters collected the profound-sounding works of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others.

The fall of the Soviet Union only encouraged the growth and spread of confusion from thinkers who were intent upon “rethinking,” “reimagining,” or replacing Marxism. Before that devastating event, the existence of a real, existing socialist community was a splash of cold water to the faces of the academic dreamers.

Sadly, the handful of serious Marxists holding university positions are blocked from notoriety, while the poseurs like Žižek achieve celebrity status. And the best practitioners who combine theory and practice, like Michael Parenti, can’t get a teaching job or academic support at any level.

Common sense and experience should show everyone that prestige and recognition in an advanced capitalist country like the US will not find its way to authentic revolutionaries. Marxists like Herbert Aptheker, Phillip Foner, James Jackson, Victor Perlo, Henry Winston etc. never found their books reviewed in the New York Times, or their letters published. Conversely, manuscripts published by elite publishers and billed as dangerously fresh and original, like Hardt and Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press), are invariably a trip towards an ideological dead end. 

One can almost measure a thinker or his or her work’s value by its distance from acceptability or celebrity-- the more independent and challenging to the status quo, the more distant.

Žižek enjoys wide acceptance by the capitalist establishment as the iconic left thinker, a figure posed as the embodiment of rebellion and resistance to power. Far too many fail to see the contradiction in the ruling class promoting the agent of its demise. 

Now comes Gabriel Rockhill, exposing Žižek for the scoundrel that he is. 

Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek is a very long, demanding article. To smother the popularity of this intellectual fraud, one must delve into his entire career, his chameleon-like disguises, his shifts and maneuvers, his reliance upon obscure phrases and freshly minted words, his looseness with the truth disguised as “playfulness,” and his limitless opportunism. Rockhill tracks all of this, but at the cost of enormous research and documentation.

Sadly, this scholarship doesn’t fit well into the Twitter world, but no one should give an ounce of legitimacy to Žižek without reading this critique.

Rockhill recounts his own infatuation with Žižek during his formal education, his own encounter with the man, and his disillusion with his virulent anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism.

Amusingly, Rockhill dubs Žižek “the Elvis of cultural theory,” an apt description for someone who appropriated Marxism the same way that Elvis borrowed and diluted rhythm and blues for the amusement of a white, middle-strata audience at a time when the authentic practitioners were denied media access because of segregation and racism.

Žižek’s role in the anti-Communist opposition to the Yugoslavian leadership in his homeland is exposed and elaborated by Rockhill, noting the celebrity philosopher’s deep involvement with the post-Soviet regime and its move toward capitalism.

Further, Rockhill documents the convergence of  Žižek’s thinking with US (and imperialist) foreign policy, as well as his near xenophobic Eurocentrism.

The Discreet Charm of the Petty-Bourgeoisie, Rockhill’s penultimate section, takes the reader into the Lacan-Badiou-Nietzsche weeds that are the nourishment of the herbivorous Žižek. Rockhill does his best to render the discussion perspicacious, but I suspect that it is still two removes from clarity. Nonetheless, there are gems of Rockhill’s insights in the section.

I fear that Rockhill’s brilliant takedown may be lost to the tastes for brevity, shallowness, or anti-theory that plague so many on the US left. The fact that the CounterPunch link on its email blast to me took me to the wrong article only underscores my fear. 

Read this wholesome, nourishing article!

Greg Godels