Category Archives: communism

left that way is a dead end: a case study in palestine

If history is the alchemy of theory, then communists turned gold into lead in Palestine. When I first arrived in 2009, I was one of those hand-wringing well-meaning comrades who shed tears over the absence of a progressive political left in Palestine. No doubt, there exists in Palestine some of the strongest and bravest leftists in the region, but their work is for naught and their books (printed with French, German, and Canadian money) get used to warm hovels in Askar refugee camp. They are at best tolerated and called in from time to time to answer questions on economy. When the Soviet money dried up, the network of civil supporters did as well, until all that was left were empty storefronts and the staff had moved on to NGOs and ideologies that would catch the foreign dollar, euro, or dinar.

Like most other ideas – democracy, liberal rights fantasies, Wahhabism, western civic models, and open markets – communism was thrown into the trash heap in Palestine because it was presented in an unrealistic and condescending way. Leftists crouched around telefaxes worrying “No, you’re doing it wrong! You need to… There needs to be… This theory is really…” while Israel continued to pummel their neighborhoods. Such disregard was given to the situation on the ground, to the realities of the society, that after the militant wing died down the people themselves shrugged off the theories and put all their efforts into courting money and robbing the donors blind. A handful remained to churn out honest work, but their romance with how “they” did it seemed to only further alienate their efforts.

After all, what does the left really have to offer Palestine save money and a few PFLP t-shirts? Obviously not their unwavering support. The condescending insistence on ideological purity puts leftist organizations in the same boat as USAID. There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, in offering money with ideological strings attached – a business transaction obviously! – but don’t for a second try and fool yourself into assuming you’re helping. Own up to the fact you’re settling the hearts and minds as much as Israelis are.

A prominent leftist organization recently cut funding to civil society NGOs, insisting that their strategy had changed from promoting a “culture of dependence” through NGOs to funding political parties directly, thereby cutting out the middle man (the citizen) I assume! It is, of course, much easier to inject a political program directly into a certain class of people rather than to everyone. And how late the left is to this game! After all, the cafes and imported cars already promote a kind of politik and the imams living the high life in Masyoon can promote yet another. Now, 10 years too late, is when the left decides to try and resuscitate the leftist parties – at least, the ones that are allowed to exist by the powers that be.

Indeed, the left has spent so much time cozying up to the powers that be that no one takes them seriously anymore. With the dissolution of the Soviet paycheck, those left in the cold were simply begging to be invited to summits and dinners and willing to throw just about anything away for inclusion.

So where does this mentality come from? Look no further than the left of today, whether it be Kadima and its JStreet front, the progressives left holding the bag after the election of Obama, or the ineffectual and laughable socialist/communist parties of Europe.

24. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler origins of Israel, we recognise that over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. To call for its abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. Both are reactionary. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. The Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity.

25. The Palestinian national movement has been sustained only because of the existence of and its relationship with the wider Arab nation. Solving the Israel-Palestine question requires a combined Arab and proletarian solution. Communism and nationalism are antithetical. Nevertheless we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. In the conditions of Israel/Palestine that means supporting the right of the Palestinians where they form a clear majority to form their own state. Such a state is only realistic with a working class-led Arab revolution.

from CPGB Theses on “The Arab Awakening and Israel-Palestine

What fiery words to galvanize the youth of Palestine into direct unified action!

27. The immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which the Jewish Israeli nationality is given citizenship and religious, but not national rights, is in present circumstances to perpetuate division. Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution – the whole of the 20th century since 1933 militates against that. There is moreover the distinct danger that the poles of oppression would be reversed if such a programme were ever to be put into practice. In all likelihood it would have to involve military conquest. The call for a single-state solution is therefore impractical – Israel is the strong nation – and, more than that, reactionary, anti-working class and profoundly anti-socialist. Liberation and socialism must come from below. It cannot be imposed from the outside.

The thrust of this position is that only a unified working class revolution can solve the problems in the Middle East, and that until then the Palestinians will be left sitting in bulldozed houses. And God forbid they actually achieve a single state solution wherein their Jewish settler neighbors suddenly face a dearth of privilege, where they may in fact be tossed to the curb by the living, rightful inhabitants of the homes they have settled in!

Really, arguing this kind of thing is tedious and only engages those arguing, while those who are left in prison and at checkpoints tap their feet. When the people’s revolution fails to materialize, the leftists snap: “Weren’t you listening? Weren’t you reading your Marx?” Those gross intellectuals abroad typing up policy papers and party positions were the vanguard, why weren’t you jumping to attention? Where are the actual homegrown progressives? Well, if it doesn’t smell like a communist or walk like a communist, I’m not gonna call it a communist!

Beware to those who moan about the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” in such places! When your books and papers and groups can’t provide the soup, childcare, medical attention, and social services that those caught up in the “barbarity” of Islam can provide, you have a problem. Is there no one to work with, no one to attend your meetings? A Western leftist (centrist! rightist!) is not going to find the “partner” he wants in Palestine – the partner that looks, acts, and talks like he does – unless he molds a group to his pleasure. Rather than work within the parameters offered, rather than ask the Palestinians what they need, or worse – ask them how they think liberation should be achieved, the Westerner wants to dress up a few students and put money in their hands. They perch on a party and gain privilege over the party’s constituents by pumping money into party leaders.

I spoke with aid workers who lamented the state of things – how they had to pay for supporters, offer food or transportation to people in return for participation in their programs. Why would no one take initiative and make sacrifices? A somber walk through the old city of Nablus looking at martyr posters shows such people exist.. or at least once did. They did not die for foreign money, not for the pleasure of foreign political parties, not for a unified Arab proletariat and not for Karl Marx. They died for the people, their land, their memories, and their pride. Forcing people into contortions to fit your mold of “leftist progressive worth supporting” insults this.

I’m not Palestinian nor am I personally affected by this conflict past my experiences, but I have some suggestions for Western leftists who want to call themselves supporters of Palestine:

1. Stay close to the core truths of the conflict. There already is a one-state entity in Palestine and Israel and it is called al-Ihtilel (the occupation). It is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, imperialist, and reactionary. Do not deviate from this core truth and do not delude yourselves. Visit if you can, and if you cannot, take it from someone who’s been there or who is from there.

2. Support the people. Do leftists really need this lecture? Support the people. Support the people. If the people pray, support them. If the people throw rocks, support them. If the people oppress one another due to colonialism, do not think it is out of “barbarity” or inherent fault with the people and their traditions. It is more possible to fix the ills of social society by supporting the society rather than by shoving your morals down their throats with a spoonful of money to help it go down easier.

3. They do not trust you. You are not their comrade unless you are taking orders from the people. They are not your partners and you will never be on equal footing with them. You do not know the situation. You do not know Arabic. You do not have the right to pretend you know anything more more than the faces on the martyr posters. They are the ones to make the sacrifices, so let them decide what is worth making sacrifices for.

If leftists passionate about the Palestinian cause were as passionate about their own situations in their home countries, there might be change faster than you think. The I/P conflict does not exist in a bubble, it is the result of policies and attitudes worldwide that have nothing to do with the Palestinians… and if you call yourself a leftist this should be clear as day. Accepting that you have little to nothing to do with the Palestinian solution to the occupation (and it is coming) will give you leave to address the attitudes and policies in your own society that contribute to the occupation of Palestine and elsewhere. Involving yourself with what Arabs or Palestinians or Israelis “should do” is a misdirection of your efforts and borderline chauvinistic.

Just as the Palestinians are the winners and inheritors of their own liberation, so too are we responsible for what happens in our own communities. Your position should be to support the liberation and self-determination of oppressed people worldwide, but you should start with what you know best and among people you are affiliated with. Stop planning and criticizing action or positions abroad when you first need to take the log out of your own eye to see anything clearly.

February 11th

The aim is not to promote an organic Arab democracy ‘of the people, and for the people,’ but rather to promote an evolutionary “democratization” in which the old despots of American strategic support are removed in favour of a neoliberal democratic system, in which the outward visible institutions of democracy are present (multi-party elections, private media, parliaments, constitutions, active civil society, etc); yet, the power-holders within that domestic political system remain subservient to U.S. economic and strategic interests, continuing to follow the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, supporting America’s military hegemony in the region, and “opening up” the Arab economies to be “integrated” into the world economy. Thus, “democratization” becomes an incredibly valuable strategy for maintaining hegemony; a modern re-hash of “Let them eat cake!” Give the people the ‘image’ of democracy and establish and maintain a co-dependent relationship with the new elite. Thus, democracy for the people becomes an exercise in futility, where people’s ‘participation’ becomes about voting between rival factions of elites, who all ultimately follow the orders of Washington. 

This strategy also has its benefit for the maintenance of American power in the region. While dictators have their uses in geopolitical strategy, they can often become too independent of the imperial power and seek to determine the course of their country separate from U.S. interests, and are subsequently much more challenging to remove from power (i.e., Saddam Hussein). With a “democratized” system, changing ruling parties and leaders becomes much easier, by simply calling elections and supporting opposition parties. Bringing down a dictator is always a more precarious situation than “changing the guard” in a liberal democratic system.

from America’s Strategic Repression of the ‘Arab Awakening'”

The fever pitch excitement and elation on February 11th echoed another event in recent history: the Obama election. The power of the people was hailed and a new chapter in history emerged. After the disastrous upset of a false success the night before, when Mubarak appeared on television and called the Egyptian people his children, a pallid Omar Suleiman appeared the next night and said he was gone. Rejoice! Television presenters wiped tears from their eyes. The people danced in the streets. Finally – justice prevailed. Egypt was free! But what did that mean?

I was called a cynic immediately for not joining the rejoicing masses. Yet I’d been led on before. The election of Obama was supposed to herald a new age in progress and democracy and it has done nearly the opposite. Likewise, the day after Mubarak left office and the television cameras began to be shipped back home, the Egyptian military began a quiet bust-up of the few hundred protesters remaining in Tahrir Square who insisted with some confusion that their demands for democracy and a free society had not yet been made! The promises of the army to hold elections in September nearly echoed the ones made by Mubarak. Yet the people had cried for his resignation. Well, give the people what they want – but not what they really want. With so many slogans centered around one man, the dangerous possibility of the entire movement being co-opted by his name became a reality. With Mubarak gone, what was there left to complain about? You got what you asked for – now get back to work!

I still plan on traveling to Egypt in the coming weeks and will report back what I see, if these steps towards democracy – this outrageous show of the people’s power – have gained any wins towards alleviating the day-to-day situation of the Egyptian people.  I sincerely hope things have improved, yet it remains to be seen if the conditions of over 20 million living in slums on less than a dollar a day will have changed much. A social movement is only gauged in how it uplifts the lowest members in that society. I would hate for Mubarak to be right on this point. I sincerely hope the protesters were not simply the petit-bourgeois reacting to satellite television. I hope history sees February 11th as the first battle won in a broad people’s movement for actual change.

the almighty dollar: part 3, guest contribution

Part I and II of this series on the American Dollar can be found here and here.

Simple Thoughts on Money
by Donald Hughes

Money is not the root of all evil, but it does come from a sort of failing. That failing is that we have, so far, found it impossible to limit our consumption to our needs while contributing what we can in the absence of an apparatus of coercion. Even stating the problem, however, gives a sign of how difficult that challenge would be to meet. Money is how we make certain promises to each other. If we recognize our need for a high level of coordination between people and property with a fairly strict degree of rationing, it makes sense to express that coordination in prices. Once you have a set of prices, certain imperatives require a related monetary policy and systems of coercion to enforce the price system. Nothing in this seems inherently objectionable if you can tolerate the “original sin” of the loss of achieving the communist ideal. Prices perform strong information functions, and if they reflect real social costs then they are a beautifully simple way of conveying an immense amount of wisdom about how a consumer might behave. For example, if I buy food that is more expensive, I know it took more scarce resources to consume it, encouraging me to go for more efficient options.

One problem with this simple model is that markets produce severe inequalities which exacerbate the basic failing at the heart of prices, and become a tool for freezing in yawning gaps in wealth and power. One argument is that if inequality derives from free choices then it should be tolerated. For example, as Robert Nozick suggests, imagine if a person is good at basketball. Now imagine if everyone in an equal community gave a little bit of their money to see them play basketball. The inequality resulting from this would be immense, but is it really the sort of thing the state should be trying to prevent? The argument made is that both sides are better off, at least in ideal conditions, so that there shouldn’t be an arbitrary intervention to prevent free choices that lead to unequal resource outcomes. While this may be sensible to some degree, a counterargument, made by G.A. Cohen, is that a person acting in step with justice and community would not demand extraordinary inequalities in order to deploy their talents. Indeed, if we go back to the communist ideal, shouldn’t a person simply perform their best at basketball because it will make people happy, rather than using it as a strategy to deny them their wealth? While this argument seems powerful to me, one can easily see the complexity of the issue – if you have prices at all, then you really are accepting the logic of prices, to some degree.

Returning to the idea of the principle of community, I agree with the idea that true market rivalry is not consistent with a strong sense of justice. This places me on the socialist side of things. However, there are other values at play. One recognition of this diversity of values is a reasonable pluralism. If we are still in the age of money, then it seems unlikely that a planning system that approaches the totality of society is compatible with a maximum degree of latitude for a wide range of opinions on how to organize ourselves. That is, socialism might require more of us than we are currently able to agree on. I believe that workers’ self-management is an important component of participatory democracy, but I see how not everyone agrees with that, and how markets can allow different people to pursue radically different models of organizing with relatively little conflict. If there is to be an overlapping consensus on a certain political conception of justice, then, perhaps it makes sense to focus on issues of inequality within market societies, and in ways of introducing participatory elements in the economy in a more measured way in response to the advance of a more comprehensive moral doctrine associated with socialism. In other words, there might be sustained moral change over time until socialism becomes part of the overlapping consensus, but we need to recognize that it is far from agreed upon in current debates.

Pluralism is not the same as defeatism, of course. I do believe that money is historically contingent and may well disappear over time. There are good reasons to shape markets and to insist on maximizing workers’ control, and the state will still loom large over the many choices of how to structure society while guaranteeing access to adequate incomes and wealth. Using prices and structured property rights to achieve shared aims seems like a second best in the absence of a more complete Utopia. Even the limited planning functions of a social-democratic state are useful foundations for future moves towards an advanced form of a just society. It will take radical moral change or stupendous economic progress to make money superfluous, and it will be an immense effort simply to reign markets towards more egalitarian outcomes. Fortunately, the quest to achieve justice seems limitlessly exciting.

the suicide bomb

Is the suicide bomb an ethical weapon?

Many believe that no weapon is ethical, that bred within it is the cause for violence. There are those, also, who scale the ethics of weaponry as something that can be civilized vs. uncivilized. There are clean(er) ways of killing people, for instance, a predator drone or a gun. One can hardly imagine a film like Rambo where, instead of killing hundreds with a gun he decides to take them all out with a knife or his bare hands.

As weapons evolve, so does the death count. If we look at the trajectory of human development, as the population increases, so does the weaponry increase to kill more and more people. A hydrogen bomb, for example, or the machinery of the Nazi holocaust. The more space you put between you and someone else, the easier it is to kill, the less you feel it.

Whereas man used to be in touch with his violent side, confronted every day with the torments of violence in his world, nowadays we can comfortably kill people thousands of miles away and not feel a thing. The violence of the industrialized slaughterhouse also comes to mind.

So where do we rate the suicide bomb? Go to Nablus and you are confronted with posters and shrines to those who died or are imprisoned, a few of whom were suicide bombers or accomplices. Someone recently told me this was a glorification of violence. Open a Jane’s Defense and tell me who’s glorifying  violence.

In a place like Nablus, death is all around you. It stares at you from the walls, the wreckage, the bullet holes in the walls. It echoes in the eyes of others as they tell you their stories. Each death is like a blow to the face here. Mao once said, “To die for the reactionary is as light as a feather. But to die for the revolution is heavier than Mount Tai.” Compare it to the nameless, faceless coffins shipped back from Iraq.

Suicide bombers are not mindless drones lured by the temptations of heaven. They are human beings with families. They have to say good-bye and make preparations for their violence. They look their targets in the eye. They smile. They decide to go home when they see a baby carriage in a cafe. Predator drones don’t back down – the victims of wedding parties and funeral processions can tell you that. The human being in Nevada fires a missile and goes home to his family. The suicide bomber feels the weight of his or her decision with their entire body. It is literally the most important decision of their lives. The soldier in the foxhole tossing grenades can hardly say that each pull of the pin requires such forethought and soul searching.

Why is it that killing someone with your body is considered more barbaric and more cowardly in western civilization than killing someone with a tomahawk missile? Does the violence tickle that part of us left behind since the industrialization of war? Perhaps once we start to analyze the methods of war as closely as we do the reasons for killing will we rediscover the horror of taking lives.