December 10, 2018
“Fighting Fascism, How to Struggle and How to Win”
Haymarket, 131 pages
With the term fascism much in the news since Trump’s election, those concerned about it might want to consult the pros. They include Clara Zetkin, whose “Fighting Fascism,” originally published in 1923, was recently reprinted and Leon Trotsky’s “Fascism, What It Is and How to Fight It,” still, fortunately, in print. For both authors, a key feature of fascism is terror, violence on a massive scale against ordinary working people. By that standard, what we have seen so far in Trump’s America is not fascism. This doesn’t mean it’s good; in fact, what we see and what started long before Trump, which his racism and xenophobia amplify, is a kind of proto-fascism, because neoliberalism shades easily and imperceptibly into fascism. It does so through its savage assault on ordinary people’s living standards; by abolishing rent control (cited by Zetkin), by privatizing public enterprises (Zetkin also cites this), by slashing the social safety net, cutting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, by suppressing wages and undermining unions. Indeed, with regard to these neoliberal economic policies, Mussolini said it all: fascists “are liberals in the classic meaning of the word.”
Fighting fascism is something it would seem everyone is able to agree on. After all, 75 years ago, half the world was anti-fascist, because half the world was fighting fascism; Americans and Soviets allied against it. So it’s always a bit of a surprise to hear the term anti-fascist disparaged on a major news network like, say, Fox. If Fox is against anti-fascism, it’s not unreasonable to assume it favors fascism. Even if this is not yet explicit, it soon could be. Which is all the more reason to consult original anti-fascists like Zetkin and Trotsky: “The historic function of fascism,” Trotsky wrote, “is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations and stifle political liberties, when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.” According to Zetkin, fascism has two essential features, “a sham revolutionary program…and the use of brutal and violent terror.” In Italy, she writes, “fascism found its breeding ground in the disintegration and weakness of the economy.” Indeed, Mussolini’s assault on revolutionary workers’ organizations has some parallels to today’s corporate attacks on unions and to Trump-inspired, right-wing hysteria over migrant workers.
For Zetkin, fascism opportunistically seizes power, when socialists fail to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. She blames reformists, who weaken left-wing militancy and open the way for a government that thinks “better the fascists than the socialists.” This reformist failure was evident in the 1920s and ‘30s and was certainly evident during the 2008 economic collapse. Bailing out financial criminals, Obama squandered his political capital with working people, who voted in a Republican congress in 2010, and then defected to Trump in 2016. Many working people just did not want another Wall-Street Democrat in power. When Clinton rigged the campaign through the Democratic National Committee against Sanders, she may well have handed Trump the presidency.
Zetkin lists Italian fascism’s failures to fulfill its promises, and the list brings to mind Trump’s faux populism, though it is far more detailed than Trump’s pledges. Despite promises, Italian fascism did not provide proportional representation, women did not get the vote, an economic parliament was not created, no national assembly was summoned to reform the constitution, there were no protections for the eight-hour day and the minimum wage, no insurance for the elderly and invalids, no funds for the unemployed, no demands that workers participate in factory leadership, no progressive tax on capital, no military reform, and religion returned to the schools. Today’s Republican party would applaud many of these betrayals, considering them sound policy.
Zetkin argues that fascism uses “either ‘democracy’ or a dictator,” provides the troops for the corporate capitalist assault on working people and “consists everywhere of an amalgam of brutal terrorist violence together with deceptive revolutionary phraseology.” She would not have been surprised at how Trump deployed populism in the 2016 election, nor at the subsequent fascist violence in Charlottesville, nor at the anti-Semitic slaughter in Pittsburgh. These are symptoms of the disease in its earliest stage. We’ve passed the window for a vaccine, and lukewarm Democratic polices will not provide a cure. The infection is present. It remains to be seen whether it can be controlled.
November 15, 2018
"Can the Working Class Change the World?"
Michael D. Yates
Monthly Review Press, 216 pages
If the working class doesn’t save our vastly unequal and dying world, it’s difficult to see who will. Certainly not the billionaire class, which has the money to put the brakes on climate change by investing in renewables but has not yet seemed inclined to do so. They don’t seem particularly interested in eliminating inequality either. As for the better-off middle classes, they “are more likely to support fascism than profound social change,” according to Michael Yates in his new book, "Can the Working Class Change the World?" So that leaves the working class. Yates explains how workers can do this, but it’s not, he says, really a matter of can they, but rather that workers MUST change the world and quickly, before it’s too late – before climate change renders the earth inhospitable to humanity.
Yates is correct about the failures of capitalism – for billions of people it’s a calamity. “After several hundred years [of capitalism], there are still several billion people existing on the brink of economic ruin. Work is still hell for all but a few.” Yet many struggle to imagine a non-capitalist world, even though, as recently as 1980, “more than a quarter of the world lived in countries that had broken out of the capitalist global market.” In China and the USSR, “production was not predicated on profit, employment was guaranteed, and much of consumption by workers and peasants had been socialized, that is, provided without payment by individuals.” These countries’ citizens also enjoyed free medical care and free education. But the fall of the Soviet Union and the rush to state capitalism in China have been a disaster for workers worldwide. The two communist behemoths kept capitalism somewhat in line; once gone, corporations the world over renewed their assault on ordinary peoples’ living standards by dismantling social democracy. Now, in many places, capitalism is headed farther than mere neoliberal austerity – to the next step, fascism.
Given that recently the world’s 3.5 billion workers have lost power, how to reverse this trend? The first step, Yates argues, is to find an ally. And there is one ready at hand – the world’s three billion peasants. Clearly these two groups constitute most of earth’s population. The problem is that both are so busy eeking out a living, just surviving hyper-capitalism, that few have time or energy to terminate capitalist hegemony. Nonetheless, Yates has many suggestions. Paramount among them is radical education, provided by labor unions and peasant organizations. He quotes Peter Linebaugh: “Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.” Also capitalism’s nature – exploitation and expropriation – must be explained and can be: “peasants have been taught the rudiments of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.”
This book also critiques that bane of the campesino, capitalist agriculture. Yates quotes Ian Angus: “It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires ten calories of fossil energy.” Clearly industrial agriculture, relying on fossil fuels and billions of pounds of pesticides, promotes ecocide. Much of that industrial agriculture goes to feed the billions of farm animals that provide meat and dairy. So our diet must change too. Meanwhile, capitalist distribution of agriculture is wildly inefficient: 850 million to two billion people go hungry, Yates reports. He praises Cuba, whose agriculture has transitioned off fossil fuels and mechanization.
Yates also advocates democratizing labor unions, so that members run the unions and “abandon labor-management cooperation schemes.” This, he argues, will require getting “rid of the leadership.” His best model here is the United Electrical Workers. Yates also promotes union-like groups, or worker centers, like those in New York and Florida, and also the labor-community coalition in Richmond California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which has fought “for rent control, pollution abatement at the large Chevron oil refinery, against police brutality…against the harassment of immigrants by ICE,” and more. Neither the RPA nor its office seekers take corporate money, Yates reports. “It is also independent of the Democratic Party.” With similar organizations in other places, Yates writes, “they could coalesce into regional and national political bodies.” He also suggests other tactics for the worker/peasant alliance, including ways to fight structural racism and patriarchy to advance workers’ aims.
Can the working class change the world? Yes, Yates answers, if it pursues these goals: a sustainable environment; a planned economy; “socialization of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare;” worker-community control of workplaces; public ownership of social institutions like schools and media; a radically egalitarian society; opposition to the rule of the many by the few.
While Yates is correct that “only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off…barbarism,” getting billions of people to act radically is a tall order. Everywhere, across the globe, barbarism advances. Only the combined efforts of workers and peasants could stop this, but the sleeping giant has yet to awake. The sobering truth is that if that slumber continues, we and the fragile biosphere that supports life could all die in our sleep.
October 18, 2018
“The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”
Monthly Review Press, 256 pages
The world is awash in the blood of innocents. Nothing makes this clearer than Gerald Horne’s recently published “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism,” which puts the genocide of indigenous Americans at about 90 percent of their population’s total. The book also estimates that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans and five million indigenous Americans were enslaved by Europeans in the new world, a predicament that proved fatal for many of them. He refers to “the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, white supremacy and capitalism,” while throughout this volume, he relates the construction of a new racial identity, whiteness, and white identity politics.
Horne emphasizes the hypocrisy of a slaver merchant class that cloaked its interests in bombast about liberty. In the seventeenth century, London “merchants unleashed a steady fire of propaganda, portraying their unhindered entry into the slave trade as a matter of the nation’s life and death.” Cromwell’s merchant supporters won the propaganda war, as they muscled their way into the slave trade. “This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom, as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy, which nevertheless bamboozled generations to follow, including those who styled themselves as radical.” Horne also levels this criticism at the American Revolution of 1776.
The slavers did not always have an easy time of it. “Between 1673 and 1694 Jamaica experienced at least six major slave revolts of the enslaved, followed by eruptions in 1702 and 1704.” Slaves often employed arson against their oppressors and rebelled on their transport ships, too. In the mid-seventeenth century, more than 300 slave revolts occurred on Dutch ships. Also, Horne tells how Africans and indigenous Americans cleverly played different European powers against each other and joined with indentured Europeans in uprisings. But as “whiteness” was constructed as the new and paramount racial category, these tactics foundered, according to Horne. Early on, religious bigotry divided Europeans, Horne writes, but by the close of the seventeenth century, race determined everything.
Once established, a racially-based caste system was difficult to overthrow. Though the United States eventually abolished slavery, the world’s north-south color line today matches the one between the haves and the have nots. To the extent that color-caste has gone global, the slave trade – which, Horne writes, ransacked the healthy adult population of parts of Africa, thus crippling large swathes of that continent – is largely to blame. Hence Horne’s call for reparations at the end of his book.
This call is reasonable. Germany pays reparations to Jews whose lives were destroyed by the holocaust. Surely a multi-trillion dollar economy, that of the U.S. and European Union combined, can do the same. Unfortunately, under the current Washington regime, such a move seems unlikely. White supremacy has surged lately in the U.S., legitimized by a president who regards open racists as “fine people.”
One point that cannot be stressed enough is the symbiosis of capitalism and slavery. The southern United States was built on unpaid labor. Slavery was big business for merchants and the bandits who engaged in the slave trade stooped to any trick, promoted any lie, to increase their profits. Things haven’t changed all that much. Take the climate catastrophe today. As the planet burns from global warming and as freak weather events kill thousands, stupendously wealthy fossil fuel corporations pump out lies about their product having no role in the current ecocide. Their propaganda dominates U.S. media and government, making sane, civilized, scientifically informed discourse nearly impossible. Thus it was in the seventeenth century with slavery.
What slavery illustrated with painful clarity was that capitalism is about profit and regards the workers who create that profit as disposable. That has not changed; for proof just look at the sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and elsewhere today. With its tyrannical structure, the capitalist corporation ensures that the people it exploits have no say.
At his book's end, Horne mentions the Haitian Revolution’s challenge to the slave system and thus white supremacy. Later, across the ocean, the Bolshevik Revolution eroded “the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with ‘race’” by replacing it with the concept of class. Moscow’s threat, Horne writes, engendered Western entente with China, and thence we reach today’s juncture, with communist-led China surpassing the United States economically. “This represents a crisis for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the seventeenth century – white supremacy and capitalism not least.” As this comes about, Washington will resist. But the tide has turned: the current flows now toward a multi-polar world, not one dominated by a single, capitalist superpower. And the economic leaders in that world may very likely not be white.
September 23, 2018
“Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World”
Harvard University Press, 277 pages
The human rights movement has been criticized from the left in recent years, charged with abetting the grotesque results of neoliberal market capitalism, namely, runaway inequality. A new book by Samuel Moyn, “Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World,” clears the movement of this specific charge, but observes that “the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about material inequality.” Nor does he let go of a central fact in this debate, that is, “the coexistence of the human rights phenomenon with the death of socialism.” There are no innocent bystanders. By ignoring inequality and keeping public focus on other issues, human rights activists have made a dreadful mistake; though not to blame for the rise of right-wing authoritarian – some would say neo-fascist – governments throughout the First World, they have stayed silent on a condition fueling it, fury over inequality.
Of course people have the right not to be tortured, but we are in a sorry state if this is our baseline for social decency. In their defense, Moyn notes that human rights activists have pushed for a social minimum – a right not to starve, a right to existence – but even this is not enough. Moyn advocates a ceiling on wealth and to illustrate his view, begins his book’s conclusion: “Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus…” Imagine that Croesus is not a monster: Moyn says Croesus cannot stand torture and believes everyone has a right to subsistence. This, of course, is where we are headed in a world where a handful of people own as much wealth as billions of impoverished others. Indeed, in our world, it is questionable whether our handful of Croesuses really do care about torture and abuse. Certainly the bigwigs at Apple do not seem particularly concerned about the thousands of workers at the huge Foxconn center in Shenzhen, China, who put in 17-hour days doing extremely complex, repetitive fine motor tasks, so that they when they try to sleep in their dormitories they cannot stop shaking, while suicides have swept the workforce. Nor do the heirs to the Gap clothing fortune seem particularly concerned about ten-year-old children who have labored in their sweatshops in India, in what author Gerald Coles has called conditions close to slavery, even as the Gap fortune funds corporate U.S. educational darling, charter schools, at the expense of public education.
We may already inhabit Croesus’s world, without the hypothetical benevolence. As Moyn observes, “some national settings have been trending toward absolute inequality.” And it is a problem that “nothing in the scheme of human rights rules out Croesus’s world.” But there does exist a long history of people – and Moyn details that history – who did wish to rule out Croesus’s world. Those people were, and are, called socialists. They have a tradition of fighting inequality, and they used the welfare state in the west to do so, while in the east they used the communist state. Because of abuses associated with those communist states, the term “socialism” fell into a disrepute, from which it has only recently begun to emerge. But make no mistake – if the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyns or Andres Manuel Lopez Obradors of the world are too successful, market fundamentalist ideologues will not hesitate to tar them with the mid-twentieth century sins of communism.
Red scare tactics may not, however, work yet another time around. The world has gotten a good, long look at the ugliness of neoliberal austerity. Many U.S. millennials regard capitalism negatively. Given that so many of them graduated college bankrupted by debt, this is not surprising. Given that so many of them are underemployed or can only find work in service jobs, despite their B.A.s and despite official propaganda about the supposedly wonderful job market, it is not surprising that they esteem socialism. Moyn observes that human rights advocates may soon have no choice but to address inequality. Indeed the discontent over economic inequality that put Trump in the white house and other near-fascists in power in Europe has already caused human rights abuses – the separation of young children from their parents by ICE at the Mexican border and the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean en route to abysmal refugee camps in Europe, for starters. More abuses may be coming. Who should human rights activists team up with? Like it or not, the answer is socialists.
August 22, 2018
“Kropotkin, the Politics of Community”
PM Press, 314 pages
Anarchists have a bad reputation. Historically they are associated with terrorism, bomb-throwing, assassinations and the wild utopianism of a life without government, in chaos. Admittedly, over the course of centuries, some anarchists have fit this description. More recently, the word “anarchist” conjures images of the black bloc – black-clad rioters in balaclavas, smashing windows, car windshields and pitching rocks at police. In short, to many, anarchism means lunatic violence. But like most stereotypes, the anarchist one is misleading; applied to Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin – three notable anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – these stereotypes are simply piffle, as a new book by Brian Morris, “Kropotkin, the Politics of Community,” amply demonstrates.
Right from the start, Morris is at pains to distinguish between anarchist communists and socialists. But distinctions between founding a federation of autonomous communities or a workers’ state seem remote and secondary in these dark, reactionary times, in which an evil, thieving, global capitalist empire rules the world and through its environmental rape threatens the future of life on earth. What Kropotkin would call an empire of brigands has seized planetary control. In his day, at the time of the 1871 Paris Commune, there was hope. Now we have despair. But despair can be put to good use; with lucidity about where this global, fossil-fuel capitalism leads – to the grave – despair can invigorate the struggle for any socialist alternative.
At the turn of the twentieth century, people like Kropotkin, Lenin and Trotsky had good reason to believe that capitalism was dying and would soon be replaced by a more humane socialism. That belief led to a successful workers’ revolution in Russia, the first ever in human history. Others followed. Before the Russian revolution was betrayed by Stalin, people could hope for progress, that rapacious, thieving capitalism would yield to social ownership of social goods, that history was not merely the repetitive struggle, reenacted in each generation, between decency and solidarity on the one hand and the arrogant dominion of a minority of kleptocrats on the other. That hope is gone for now. There is nothing left at the moment but struggle.
If Kropotkin could see us now, he would doubtless advise us to promote trade unions, worker cooperatives, environmental activist groups and, especially in the global south, to aid the equitable distribution of land to poor farmers. He would have more suggestions than that, because he had learned from history. “The clan, the village community, the guild, the free medieval city,” Morris writes, “were all institutions, Kropotkin argues, by means of which the common people resisted the encroachments of brigands, conquerors and other power-seeking minorities.”
Kropotkin argued that mutual aid and altruistic sociability inhered in mammalian biology – in contrast to those who argued that what drove early humanity was a Hobbesian war of all against all. As Morris recounts, Kropotkin published articles on mutual aid to counter “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” dogma. Hence Kropotkin’s “vision of a new society that is based on mutual support and voluntary cooperation, not on coercive authority, hierarchy and exploitation.” But how to bring such a society about? Kropotkin considered anarchist bombings futile: “a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed by a few kilos of explosives.” According to Morris, “like the Marxists, Kropotkin always repudiated terrorism as a political strategy.” Though he argued for a massive social uprising to overthrow capitalism and the representative government that served it, and that, he insisted, always served it, he criticized the Russian revolution, mainly because of the Bolshevik role.
In 1919, Morris writes, Kropotkin, old and frail, met with Lenin, then at the height of his power. Kropotkin had returned to his country, Russia, the land of socialist revolution, and by meeting with Lenin, presumably hoped to influence the revolution’s course. Lenin did not take him seriously, Morris reports. Lenin, with his idea of the socialist state, must have regarded Kropotkin’s vision of a stateless federation of communes, cooperatives and mutual aid societies as quaint. Unfortunately, by the end of the next decade, the workers’ state had been hijacked, and in 1991, its remnants finally frayed to nothing. So maybe it’s time to dust off these anarchist writings that blend individualism and communism and reconsider what Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin had to say.
July 30, 2018
“Devil’s Mile, The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin’s Press, 290 pages
For much of the twentieth century, the Bowery meant destitution. It was where hobos slept in flophouses, where the homeless dozed on sidewalks, where vagabonds flocked to saloons and immigrants crowded in tenements. Nowadays the destitute don’t even have the Bowery. Where once they shared dormitories with bedbugs for 25 cents a night, now instead loom swanky high-rises. Manhattan, remade in the era of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, erased its poor, while promoting the interests of real estate moguls like Donald Trump. Who knows where the vagrants went – the outer boroughs, other cities, rusting inner suburbs, a few can doubtless still be spotted drifting like ghosts around their fast-disappearing old haunts. But they won’t be there long. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s “Devil’s Mile, the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery,” the thoroughfare has been remade in typical New York style: developers get rich, as they sweep inconvenient locals away.
Over forty years ago, when the real estate boom first picked up steam, New York landlords targeted middle class and poor families in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. The idea then was to drive them out, renovate the property and make millions, selling it as co-ops. Throughout the eighties and nineties, this pattern repeated in almost every Manhattan neighborhood. Why should the Bowery have remained untouched? Even if it was the world-famous destination of the down and out, the Bowery too, inevitably and finally became a magnet for real estate speculation.
New bars and fancy hotels “are the Disneyfied version of the old Bowery saloons, refashioned and glammed up for the young moneyed class that crowd into these places to party and decompress from Manhattan’s ferocious work environment,” Sparberg writes. “This is the demographic that now drives the Bowery economy.” The thoroughfare that added the term “Bowery bum” to the American lexicon, what Sparberg calls “the street synonymous with despair,” is now, like much of Manhattan, the playground of the rich. And the homogenization, the elimination of all classes except the very affluent, continues apace. “Notice all the half-finished towers that are going up, some as high as sixty stories, imperiously dwarfing the old brick walk-ups…that house artists, Chinese families and small businesses.” Those walk-ups are doomed, and not just because the logic of capitalism – unending, ultimately cancerous growth – dictates it. But because the Bowery metamorphosed often in its past, and each change was distinct, discrete and a nearly complete rupture with what came before.
Back when Manhattan was primeval forest, in the 1600s, the Bowery, Sparberg reports, was originally a Lenape footpath. “To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond…Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: redwinged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat area…Indians in canoes traversed the island via streams…” Sparberg traces the endeavors of the Dutch in New Amsterdam, then the British, noting a key abattoir on the Bowery, which linked the street in everyone’s mind with the meat business. In the late 1700s, Sparberg writes, the Astors came to the Bowery and, stingy and penny-pinching, amassed their fortune. In the 19th century, theaters crowded the Bowery, drawing a working class audience, including Walt Whitman, while Irish and German gangs, most famously the Bowery Boys, fought nearby.
Sparberg also portrays the civil war’s impact, especially with theatrical productions of the smash-hit, abolitionist tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” German beer gardens proliferated along the Bowery; one, according to Sparberg, held 3,000 people. She also sketches the infamous ties between Tammany Hall and the Bowery, how the bums were shipped from one polling place to another, voting repeatedly for the Democratic machine. Indeed it was in this post-civil war era that derelicts first began flocking to the Bowery. Then came Italian and Jewish immigrants, making the Lower East Side “the most densely populated place on earth, at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Prohibition squeezed the Bowery, but once lifted, more alcoholic wrecks than ever thronged the street, especially during the Depression. Lastly, in the 1970s, punk rock and its internationally famous venue, CBGB, flourished on the street Sparberg calls “New York’s dumping ground.”
The Bowery’s ongoing, posh transformation breaks abruptly with the immediate past. But it is in tune with the gentrification that has swept American cities in recent decades, making rents everywhere unaffordable for those working full time at minimum wage. When even the working poor cannot pay for shelter in urban America, is it any surprise that the homeless cannot find a sidewalk to sleep on? With gentrification come laws criminalizing loitering, eating in public, sitting on park benches – things homeless people do. Ejected from city centers, they pitch their tents on the outskirts, as in Seattle, or the slums, as in Los Angeles. They have to go somewhere, but everywhere they turn in gentrified America, the sign says “Keep Out.” Even the Bowery.
June 19, 2018
“A Nation Unmade by War”
Haymarket Books, 180 pages
In handing unprecedented power to his administration’s generals, Donald Trump has endorsed the U.S. military brand – failure is the new success. A seventeen-year long war in Afghanistan with no end in sight and no new ideas – hello? What about leaving? Fifteen years in Iraq and precious little to show for it besides nearly a million displaced Iraqis, cities turned to rubble, continued fighting and untold thousands dead? A proxy war in Yemen. Missiles flying into Syria. A failed state in Libya. And what do our military sachems say? The wars in the Middle East are a “generational conflict,” something we can bequeath to our grandchildren. And why? Because these generals have no idea other than doing the same thing over and over, even though it hasn’t worked. This, as Tom Englehardt explains in his new book, “A Nation Unmade by War,” is the definition of brain-dead.
That’s our military – the most expensive in the world by far, feasting like a vampire on our tax dollars – with not a single idea other than to repeat the same thing that has failed over and over. “An empire of madness,” Englehardt calls the U.S. with its endless wars and determination to deny the environmental catastrophe of climate change unfolding right before our eyes. Not only to deny but to ship crude from tar sands, fracked gas, coal and oil all over the world, to fry the planet as fast as possible. The brain-dead, endlessly violent military and the equally brain-dead, ecocidal fossil energy promoters – this is the lethal combination currently directing the world’s lone superpower.
This book is not a happy read. It documents the cost of America’s war on terror – $5.6 trillion – and how Bush and Cheney’s “soaring geopolitical dreams of global domination proved to be nightmares.” Indeed, Englehardt observes that in the past 15 years “no goal of Washington – not a single one – has been accomplished by war.” And yet the American wars grind on with no end in sight. Meanwhile, we inhabit “a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East."
“A Nation Unmade by War” consists of Englehardt’s journalistic columns, edited and strung together in book form. As such, there is a certain inevitable repetition, but given the stakes here, this is not a bad thing. Much of what Englehardt has to say cannot be said often enough. In fact, often enough won’t come until these arguments echo in so many people’s brains that they start opposing, en masse, a disastrous, mindlessly fatal political course. At the book’s start, Englehardt quotes Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, announcing that an invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.” Anyone who doubts the truth of Moussa’s prescient words, need only look at our post 9/11 grotesquely swollen and expensive national security state with its 17 secret agencies, or glance at the numbers of the secretive special operations command, seventy thousand soldiers strong, “which might be thought of as the president’s private army,” or consider the drone assassination program, creating new terrorists worldwide for our assassin-in-chief, or listen to our military leaders like David Petraeus referring to the mayhem we’ve unleashed on the Middle East as a “generational struggle.”
If doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time defines insanity, what are we to make of our generals’ endless calls for more missiles, more drones, more soldiers, where the previous flood of such has failed? Could it be that, well before Donald Trump’s attempt at kingship, our military leaders in Washington had lost their minds? This money, these trillions of dollars, could have gone to shift the world’s second worst carbon polluter from fossil fuels to renewables. In a country with truly sane leaders that would have happened. Our leaders would have observed the freak weather embodied in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, “nuisance flooding” in coastal cities and listened to our scientists’ warnings about our profligate burning of oil and gas. Instead scientists are screaming in the wilderness, the planet has overheated, arctic and Antarctic ice melt, Greenland is losing its glaciers, all of which means many feet of sea-level rise, but what do we get? A trillion-dollar upgrade of our nuclear arsenal, which will doubtless provoke Russia and China to something similarly wasteful, and eternally expanding war in the Middle East. Our so-called leaders will reap the ruined world they deserve, but unfortunately they may very well drag the rest of us down with them.
May 27, 2018
"Neruda, The Poet’s Calling"
HarperCollins, 628 pages
Many know that Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize laureate and Chilean poet, was a communist. Less well known is that until the 1960s, he was a diehard Stalinist. Though he had an understandable reason for this – Stalin was the only world leader to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, whose fascists murdered so many of Neruda’s friends – still his blindness about the dictator who slaughtered twenty million people is startling.
Neruda never left the communist party. As Marc Eisner documents in his new biography, "Neruda, The Poet’s Calling," the communists claimed him to the bitter end, finally and fearlessly right in the teeth of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Eisner’s description of Neruda’s 1973 funeral, after the coup and Allende’s suicide, is powerful: tens of thousands walked behind the coffin in defiance of Pinochet’s troops, who essentially had to stand down. “Communist youth of Chile!” A leader called out. “Companero [brother] Pablo Neruda!” And the crowd answered, “Presente! [he is present] Companero Salvadore Allende! Presente! Companero Victor Jara! Presente! Companero Pablo Neruda! Presente!” This, right under the eyes of the troops, defending the CIA-backed dictator.
For Neruda, the Spanish Civil War was a formative experience. Though a renowned poet before it, that struggle permanently altered his character and art; his youthful melancholy vanished, as Eisner documents. Neruda’s rival Jorge Luis Borges said: “When he became a communist, his poetry became very strong. I like Neruda the communist.” After Spain, Neruda became “a people’s poet.” He argued for “a dirty poetry, grimy from the hands of the worker, smelling of both ‘urine and lilies.’” Heartbroken by the fascist murder of his great friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, he wrote 21 poems in response to the civil war, collected in "Spain in the Heart." His friend, Rafael Alberti, who fought in the civil war, called Neruda’s poems “sacred verses for us.”
The list of writers who attended Neruda’s Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, “as the bombs fell on Madrid,” reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century literature: Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes and many others. Later, campaigning in Santiago for a presidential candidate, Neruda read from "Spain in the Heart" to members of the porter’s union: “They were completely silent while he read. When he ended, many applauded…then a man…[a] leader of the union said, ‘Companero Pablo, we are a much forgotten people. I can tell you that we have never felt such great emotion…’ The worker started to cry, as did others.”
As a diplomat, Neruda saved the lives of over two thousand Spanish Republicans, who would certainly have perished in Franco’s prisons and concentration camps, had he not arranged for a boat to bring them to South America and then for them to reside in Chile. Eisner writes: “Newspapers across the world described the venture, with Neruda, Chile’s ‘foremost poet,’ as The New York Tribune described him, identified as the director of the operation…One of the immigrants remembered: ‘The change could not have been more striking. We, the damnable reds, the humiliated, the dangerous, the murderers, transformed into heroes of democracy, treated marvelously, praised, cheered by crowds at the Mapocho station.’” Later there were accusations about Neruda conspiring against Trotsky in Mexico, there was his poem on Stalingrad, his campaigns for electoral office as a communist party candidate, his time as a senator, his poem against the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, more poems, his support for strikers, his newspaper articles throughout Latin America, his travels to the Soviet Union, his dramatic escape and exile from Chile during anti-communist years, when he could have ended up in a concentration camp for communists, run by the young Pinochet, his friendship with the radical Mexican muralists Rivera and Siqueiros, more poetry, his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers, his meetings with Castro and Che Guevara, his frantic travels all over the world – what a life!
Appended to this biography’s end are shocking allegations, made in recent years, that Neruda was murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen, while in the hospital for prostate cancer. He reportedly told his communist driver that he had been injected with poison. A few years ago, with the exhumation of his remains, it became clear that the official cause of death – cancer – was untrue. Whether these allegations of murder are confirmed remains to be seen. But it would not be surprising to learn that Neruda not only lived for his communist beliefs, but died because of them as well.
April 10, 2018
"The Infernal Library"
Henry Holt, 379 pages
Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.”
Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks.
There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal.
Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too.
Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is.
March 27, 2018
"Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook"
Melville House, 259 pages
Anti-fascists are often berated by politicians and the media for interfering with the First Amendment rights of Nazis. That media outcry occurs because, before they gain power and ban free speech, fascists always scream about their First Amendment rights. Fascists use those rights to advocate depriving various groups of their life and liberty. They also advocate genocide. Should they be allowed to do so? The illiberal and logical response is no. That has been the answer of anti-fascists from the 1920s to the present. They take fascists at their word, and history has proved them right to do so. They do not underestimate the danger. They know very well that Nazis marching in a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, would kill all the in habitants if they could.
There’s another reality: police often support fascists. In Greece, police in large numbers voted for and have protected the fascist group, now political party, Golden Dawn. According to Mark Bray’s recently published "Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook," with the police “looking the other way, or even participating in anti-immigrant violence,” local immigrants were attacked by Golden Dawn in 2012. The anti-fascist strategy to contain fascists was set back when police arrested and tortured 15 anti-fascists. Meanwhile, closer to home, in Charlottsville last summer, a fascist drove his vehicle into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, one of many counter-protesters, whom the police failed to protect. Since then, police have guarded fascists in Boston and Washington, D.C. from peaceful counter-protesters, going so far as to escort the beleaguered fascists to the nearest metro stop.
"Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook" lays out five lessons for anti-fascists: Historically fascists have gained power legally; many inter-war anti-fascists didn’t take fascism seriously enough, until it was too late; socialist and communist leadership responded more slowly to fascism than their rank and file membership; fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery and culture; it doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism. Bray notes the link between fascism and capitalism, warning that “it would be a mistake to entirely reduce fascism to a last resort of an endangered capitalist system.” But at the same time, “anti-fascism must necessarily be anti-capitalist. As long as capitalism continues to foment class struggle…fascism will always loom in the background as an authoritarian solution to popular upheaval.” How many reactionary donors who back Trump would in fact feel more comfortable in a neo-fascist state than in the social democracy advocated by Bernie Sanders? My guess is – a lot.
To the argument that suppressing fascist speech leads to a slippery slope, which ends with other groups or everyone losing free speech, this book replies: not if anti-fascists, rather than the state, do it, and do it through direct action. When fascists are quiet, so are anti-fascists, who do not take disrupting fascist speech to the next level. When they shut up the fascists, who are yammering to kill all the Jews or gays or Muslims, anti-fascists don’t then generally expand their attack to the next garden variety conservative group. “Efforts to deny a platform to fascists,” Bray writes, “grew out of the historic struggle…of movements of leftists – Jews, people of color, Muslims…to make sure that fascists do not grow powerful enough to murder them.”
In the past, many leftists mistook fascism for mere counterrevolution. The mistake cost them dearly in the interwar period. “Fascist ideological, technological and bureaucratic innovations,” Bray writes, “created a vehicle for the imperialism and genocide that Europe had exported around the world to bring its wars of extermination home.” This view casts the current fascist hysteria about a genocide of the white race in a rather strange light. There is no evidence, anywhere, for this supposedly impending white genocide. And speaking of extermination, two of the three countries with enough nuclear firepower to wipe out the human race happen to be majority white countries – the U.S. and Russia.
While “anti-fascists value the free and open exchange of ideas, they simply draw the line at those who use that freedom to promote genocide…” Bray writes. He observes that many liberals “support limiting the speech of working class teens busted for drugs, but not limiting the speech of Nazis.” In this context, it is worth remembering that both Hitler and Mussolini were invited into their respective governments, who knew very well what their views were, because they had expressed them freely for some time. Anti-fascists aim to create a climate in which that will not happen again. They aim to stop something that can start very small and then metastasize very quickly, with all the trappings of legitimacy.
“The Nazis and their allies killed roughly two hundred thousand Roma,” Bray writes, “about two hundred thousand ‘disabled’ people and thousands of homosexuals, leftists and other dissidents, while Hitler’s ‘final solution’ murdered six million Jews…these then are the stakes of the conversation.” Anti-fascist, Jewish and communist partisans helped Western democracies win World War II. The argument could be made that the Red Army did in fact largely win that war for us. These anti-fascist contributions to our current freedom, affluence and security are often conveniently forgotten.
Instead of liberals and leftists climbing up on a high horse to condemn anti-fascists, we should be thanking them.