Platypus Review 53 | February 2013
LEADING PUBLIC MEMBER of the Socialist Workers Party of the United Kingdom, Richard Seymour, who made a name for himself with the book The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008), polemicizing against campaigns of “humanitarian” military intervention such as the Iraq War, recently released his book on the late Christopher Hitchens, Unhitched, demonstrating that Hitchens remains an enduring and indeed indispensable phenomenon in the present system of thinking on the “Left.”
Hitchens became a flashpoint in his support for the U.S. and allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why was Hitchens’s position so significant? After all, arguably many millions of people around the world supported the war and its aims. Hitchens, of course, was a former member of the “Marxist Left,” and even continued to avow his adherence to this, accusing the “Left” rather of deserting him, at least as much as it could be claimed that he had deserted it. Not many accepted Hitchens’s position. It’s unclear that Hitchens fully accepted it himself.
So, Hitchens was and continues to be denounced as a “renegade.” But a renegade from what? The “Left,” which is supposed to express potential and possibility.
As a politics, the Left, like any other, must express the “art of the possible.” The exercise of the faculty of political judgment has been sorely tested in recent decades, and not only on the ostensible “Left.” It is an endemic problem. Such judgment over the course of events, and what if any actions are to be taken therein, must risk the gamble of engaging reality with the aim of changing it. In so doing, accommodation to reality or of changing it only in worse ways, inadvertently reinforcing current trends, may defeat any attempted political action and threaten its goals. The degree to which anyone can claim to be a political actor at all, one must argue for action that does not simply sanctify existing tendencies, but can actually claim responsibility for its effects. Politics cannot succeed dishonestly. At least not for the Left.
To give political cover for what’s going to happen anyway is mere opportunism, the worst sin in politics. For this renders politics, that is, deliberate action attempting to take responsibility for the course of events, superfluous. It degrades agency, and evades rather than actually taking responsibility. Politics properly aims to be more than merely the mask or the performative rehearsal of the status quo. Politics aims at agency, and agency of change. Maintenance of the status quo doesn’t require politics, but only reproductive technique. At issue in politics is the direction of change: What ought to happen that isn’t already happening? How do we rally people for such a cause? What is to be done? And where do we want such action to take us? There is always much to dispute in this. Contention is the essence of politics. The only question is, what can be possibly and desirably contested?
In the case of the Iraq War, there were many avowed goals on the part of the U.S. and its allies. But perhaps the most compelling ideological aim was the “democratization” of Iraq (beyond the merely technocratic aim of removing “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq, legalistically enforcing a prior United Nations mandate), freeing it from Baathist tyranny. This was the aim of the neo-conservatives, for example. And this aim was attacked by many, including traditional conservatives such as reelected President Obama’s current nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. A conservative Republican, Hagel earned the ire of many in his party for his dissent from the Iraq War, based on his opposition to the military adventurism motivated by the neo-conservative ideologues. In this sense, Hagel’s opposition to the neo-cons was from the Right, that is, conservative with respect to action: better to not do something than to do something wrong(ly).
But the opposition to the war from the avowed “Left” was supposed to be different from this: neither merely technical (as in favoring economic sanctions over military action) nor conservative.
Hitchens debated Tariq Ali on the Iraq War, and they argued over the relation between their shared opposition to the Vietnam War, previously, and their disagreement over the Iraq War, now.
One memorable exchange went as follows:
[Hitchens:] I think that the United States and coalition forces are not militarily defeatable in Iraq. . . . I think it's important to know first what can't happen. . . . Unless the United States chooses to be defeated in Iraq, it cannot be. Therefore, the insurgency, so-called, will be defeated. And all logical and moral conclusions you want to draw from that, should be drawn. [Ali:] Well, I think Christopher is right on this, that militarily, it is virtually impossible to defeat the United States. After all, they were not defeated militarily in Vietnam, either. . . . The question is this: The United States army cannot be defeated militarily; they're incredibly powerful, but can the Iraqi people be defeated? Can Iraq be anything else but a lame colony, a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation? . . . And so one has to move to a situation of U.S. withdrawal, and the emergence of an elected Iraqi government, which will determine its own future, including control of its own oil. There's no other way out.
What is remarkable about this exchange is how both Ali and Hitchens appear to have been correct in their estimations, however drawing opposite political conclusions. The U.S. was not defeated militarily by the insurgency; and there has been the emergence of an elected Iraqi government exercising independent sovereignty. And, as a result of both these eventualities, as the only possible outcome, the U.S. and allies have militarily withdrawn from Iraq.
While Hitchens may have been wrong with respect to the success of the military invasion and occupation, Ali was also quite wrong that the result of the war would be to render Iraq a “mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation.” Also, what Ali described as the only “way out” was achieved not by military resistance to the U.S. and allied occupation but rather its forcible subdual.
At the same time, what Hitchens warned about the “theocracy” threatened in Iraq, while perhaps not quite as virulent as Hitchens may have feared, has indeed triumphed, and precisely as a result of the occupation.
This renders the Iraq War a curious non-event. All that happened was great bloodshed, and at enormous financial and other social costs. The only question remaining, then, is: Was it necessary? Was it worth it? Was the war avoidable? Was the atrocity avertable?
What has the history of the Iraq War shown to be possible and desirable, moving forward? No one wants a repeat of what happened. Does that mean that the war was a mistake? What was the alternative?
The unspoken point of Ali in his debate with Hitchens was that not only, as Hitchens put it, was the U.S. and allied military defeat not possible but “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, but that what the U.S. and allies (at least the neo-cons) aimed to do, democratize and otherwise liberate Iraq, was also impossible, and that “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, too.
The “democracy” aimed at by the neo-cons and others in invading and occupying Iraq was only ever going to be a neoliberal farce: only the neoliberal version of “democracy.” If the U.S. and allies aimed at democratizing Iraq, this raised the question of the agency for doing so: How democratic, really, were the U.S. and its allies, as political agents, themselves? How democratic was the war? How democratic could it be, anyway? And: Could the ends of democracy be achieved by non-democratic means?
War in the modern era is only ever regrettable necessity. But it is also opportunity. Not only Hitchens sought to make it so, and perhaps none did so with less venality. Did the Bush administration seek to make use of Hitchens or did Hitchens try to make use of the Bush administration? There is a certain tragedy in that, however masked by Hitchens’s false bravado, easily rendered pathetic.
So that leaves the war itself. Was it inevitable? The sanctions regime, including “no-fly” zones over vast regions of northern and southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime faced opposition among the Kurds and Shia, respectively, had come into crisis. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, or Turkey would have accepted a return to a pre-sanctions status quo. Neither would have Kurdish and Shia opposition groups. At the very least, a civil war in Iraq was inevitable. Indeed, it was already ongoing. Of course such an ethnicized and culturalized civil war would have (for it already did) involve mass conflict, displacements and killings. Some advocated the war (Kurdish opposition groups); others took advantage of it (Shia opposition groups). Yet others resisted it (former Baathists and Sunni leaders) or at least tried to alter the course of its effects to their advantage. This was all more or less opportunism, however, not policy.
False necessities abounded, and were deployed opportunistically by both sides, such that further, growing threats could supposedly only be averted by military means: that it was preferable, for example, to face U.S. and allied military attack than to open Iraq to transparent arms inspections by the U.N., or that the political power of Baathist tyranny could be broken with desirable outcome only by military intervention. The two essential actors in the war were the Iraqi and U.S. regimes. And their conflicting politics were masked by crisis. (Internationally, the sanctions regime, the embargo that allowed only “oil for food,” was unraveling, whereas domestically, the Baathist regime was more tenuous, subsisting on an ever narrower basis.)
Not so Ali and Hitchens, neither of whom were in politically responsible positions or otherwise faced exigencies of necessity, but both of whom could only comment from the sidelines. They both advocated freedom for Iraq, but had radically different visions, not only of how to achieve this, but what it meant.
Hitchens’s pro-U.S. and allies position and Ali’s “anti-imperialism” both contained a kernel of truth: Hitchens that the Iraqi “resistance”/insurgency against occupation could only further the bloodshed and not advance the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and Ali that the invasion and occupation could only make things worse, undermining the very goals Hitchens and the neo-cons avowed, the liberation of Iraq.
Iraq is arguably more “democratic” and more politically dynamic today, involving more people and more diversely, as a result of the ouster of Saddam, than had been possible under the latter’s Baathism. But this has had nothing to do with genuine self-determination for the people of Iraq: no democracy. Nor has the debacle of the U.S. and allied military effort (the farce of a neoliberal, privatized/”outsourced” military policy) yielded a salutary political effect for people outside Iraq. The anti-war movement was as spectacular a failure as the war itself—and as spectacular a success. All around, common sense prevails. The political controversy died a quiet death, settled apolitically. Of the war, what opportunity could be made, was made. And we are all in great measure curiously in the same place as before. — All, that is, but the dead, who are not in a different place, but simply ended.
In certain respects, the Iraq War has not ended—will never end.
Victory is no victory; triumph is no triumph. Rather, misery prevails.
Failure has become success, and success has become failure. Ideologues were replaced by technocrats and technocrats by ideologues. Baathist state torture poses in retrospect as the only alternative to communitarian violence and civil war; and communitarianism as the only alternative to state repression. Obama was the only alternative to Bush; but only after Bush’s Presidency ended, guaranteeing Obama’s victory as the only “change” that could be “believed in.” “Sensible” political opposition to what the Obama campaign called “tactical success within strategic failure” triumphed; but still without undoing either the failure or the success of the war. McCain lost because no one wanted to face the war any longer. The only clear victims are the dead—and not all of them, for some must be counted among the war’s “victors,” having fallen willingly in pursuit and at least to some achievement of their goals. They, and politics.
And the victors? They have buried themselves in lies and crimes of opportunity.
The costs remain, but any sort of balance sheet is lacking. All political gain must deny itself, shamefaced. A solemn if not entirely satisfied silence rules that is no less opportune than the opportunism of the war itself.
Both sides—that is, both George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., and former Baathists, as well as both pro- and anti-war politicians and commentators such as Ali and Hitchens—can continue to claim to having been in the right: to have wanted the right things and pursued them in the only ways possible. And both remain wrong.
The only question is, where has this left us, now? |P
Platypus Review 25 | July 2010
On January 30th, 2007, Platypus hosted its first public forum, “Imperialism: What is it—Why should we be Against it?” The panel consisted of Adam Turl of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Kevin Anderson of the Marxist-Humanist group News and Letters, Nick Kreitman of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Danny Postel of Open Democracy, and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of this event; the full video can be found online at the above link.
The question of imperialism remains obscure on the Left. In light of the continued failure of the anti-war movement to end the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the decline of anti-war protest in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, it seems that the critique of imperialism has not been clarified, but only become more impotent in its opacity. Consequently, the Platypus Review believes that this panel retains its salience.
Adam Turl: To Marxists, imperialism designates the circumstance whereby economic competition among major capitalist countries, driven by finance capital, large banks, and big corporations, leads to political and military competition. This takes the form of an indirect competition for colonies, zones of influence, and trade networks. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq—it was not just about seizing oil, but controlling the access to oil of potential competitors to America, such as China. So “imperialism” is not just about bad foreign policy, but the necessity for a ruling class driven by competition to pursue such policies. But what force in society can oppose imperialism? My position is that working class people in the United States, whether they work at an auto plant or in an office, have the power and the interest to oppose imperialism.
Unfortunately, most of the 1960s New Left argued that large segments of the American working class benefit materially from imperialism. I do not believe this argument was ever correct, and it has only grown more implausible with age. The costs of imperialism are borne not only by those that the U.S. oppresses abroad, but also by working class people here at home. The benefits of imperialism are almost entirely accrued by the very wealthy here and by tiny groups of collaborators abroad.
Protesters at an anti-war demonstration.
Working class people identify with imperialist ideology only to their own detriment. It has been a great weakness of the U.S. labor movement that much of its leadership since World War II has identified with the economic interests of major U.S. corporations, ultimately leading to a massive decline of labor rights in America. Although corporations have reaped huge dividends, workers have benefited from neither the theft of Iraqi oil, nor the exploitation of workers around the globe—quite the opposite, in fact. More than 60 percent of the U.S. population has demonstrated repeatedly in polls that they oppose the occupation of Iraq. Imperialism breeds anti-imperialism: The crisis in Iraq, along with the economic crisis facing millions of workers here at home, has bred opposition to the war.
We face this common situation of having to build an anti-imperialist Left. As American workers begin to question the war, is there a Left to offer a position on the war and imperialism that makes sense? Without this, people will believe the commonsense answers pushed by Democrats, who say the war in Iraq is a policy misstep, rather than part of an imperial project in the Middle East connected, among other things, to America’s support of the occupation of Palestine. The Left needs to be rebuilt, and this means creating as large an anti-war movement as possible. With the debacle in Iraq our rulers are facing something of a crisis; now is the time to seize this moment to organize against the war.
Kevin Anderson: Imperialism is a system by which powerful, competing nations are driven to dominate and exploit weaker ones. It is not simply a conspiracy, but a social and economic process rooted in the very structure of capitalism. Modern imperialism seeks to dominate the globe in order to secure markets, cheap labor, and raw materials, a process analyzed by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.
Imperialism also has a concrete political and military aspect, but military control is necessary only to secure the access needed for economic imperialism to operate. Imperialism seeks to open up other societies to the penetration of capital, making direct occupation unnecessary and thus uncommon today, which is partly why even some pro-imperialists consider the war in Iraq reckless.
Finally there is cultural imperialism, which has dominated academic discussions of imperialism. Everything from Indiana Jones to the way colonized peoples are typically portrayed legitimates economic and political imperialism. Even elite cultural institutions, such as art museums, in the way they organize artwork—e.g., Egyptian artifacts in the basement and French paintings on the top floor—can reflect a fundamentally racist ideology assuring people of their cultural superiority and right to dominate.
Imperialism strengthens capitalism, but it always engenders resistance. Working people have to fight imperialist wars and thus pay its costs, so they resist; naturally, those directly subject to imperialism also resist. Forms of resistance vary, however, from progressive and emancipatory to reactionary: Take Pat Buchanan, who opposes the Iraq war strictly on isolationist grounds, so as to avoid involvement with “inferior races.” Imperialism is sometimes opposed by reactionary interests abroad, too, from Al-Qaeda to Serbian nationalists. Of course, generally, imperialism is opposed by progressive movements. It is important for anti-imperialists here, and those in countries directly oppressed by imperialism, to be willing to work together. Today, various U.S. organizations support Chiapas and Bolivia. Such progressive anti-imperialists must continue to oppose imperialism, but must also avoid supporting reactionary forms of anti-imperialism. It is not enough to say simply that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Nick Kreitman: Most anti-imperialists today have no program. At the anti-war marches they organize, groups like United for Peace and Justice advance no concrete alternatives. They simply hand you a sticker reading “Troops Out Now.” They do not elaborate on what they want after troop withdrawal, and therefore do not connect this struggle with the question of realizing a more just society. Of course, sovereignty should rest solely with the Iraqis. Yet, even as the war continues, the number of people turning out for protests dwindles because, at least in part, they can see no solution.
The Left needs to resume the responsibility of political leadership, which includes identifying and presenting alternatives to U.S. foreign policy. Only then can we overcome apathy. Unfortunately, the Left has failed to elaborate on what could be done, on what a new Iraq might look like, just as, in the 1990s, we failed to articulate a position on how the U.S. should engage Serbia, which misled people to believe we supported Miloševic.
We need people to articulate alternatives in the long term and to form concrete plans in the short term to end the occupation. Some are interested in this work, but they have not been trying hard enough to lead the movement, to provide solutions that will help us connect with people.
Danny Postel: The Balkan Wars of the 1990s proved confusing for those who, like myself, came of age politically during the Central America solidarity movements of the 1980s, and who were thus anti-imperialist as a matter of course. As Yugoslavia became engulfed in violence, the paradigm inherited from the anti-Vietnam War movement proved insufficient to understand what was happening. Kevin Anderson and I argued that anti-imperialism was obscuring what was critical at that moment. Unfortunately, support for Miloševic on the Left was all too real, drawing in leftists as prominent as Michael Parenti—who helped organize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Miloševic—as well as Diana Johnstone, Michel Chossudovsky, and Jared Israel.
Many on the Left in the 1990s were led down a dark alley, a situation analyzed thoughtfully in “Against the Double Blackmail,” an essay by Slavoj Žižek written around this time. There, Žižek argued that leftists needed to oppose both Western imperialism and its false antithesis, ethno-fascist gangster capitalism, which does not represent a form of resistance to but, rather, the mirror image of global capital and Western empire.
Since September 11, one can witness in dismay the return of this tunnel-visioned anti-imperialism that had deeply confused the Left about the Balkans. A critical stance toward myopic anti-imperialism has lost ground given the brazenness of the new era of global imperialism represented by the Bush administration. Despite this resurgence of U.S. imperialism, the example of Iran clearly shows the limitations of adopting imperialism as the sole organizing principal of leftist thought. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often employs the language of anti-imperialism, to the confusion of people on the Left. Some even admire him for it, especially when someone like Hugo Chavez embraces Ahmadinejad, the front man of Iran’s far right, as a “revolutionary brother.”
This is further confused by the fact that the emancipatory demands of Iranian dissidents tend not to be expressed in the idiom of anti-imperialism, but in terms of human rights and secularism, which are undeservedly dismissed as “mere bourgeois rights” by too many Marxists. The Iranian struggle is indeed anti-imperialist, but not to the exclusion of other issues. Student radicals publicly denounced Ahmadinejad for embracing David Duke at a global Holocaust conference at Tehran University [in December 2006]. Those students are saying their struggle is two-fold: It opposes imperialism and internal authoritarianism. Similarly, our struggle should be two-fold. We should struggle against imperialism, to stop the U.S. from attacking Iran, but we should also struggle in solidarity with emancipatory forces in Iran. Anti-imperialism is only half of our equation. It signals what we are against—but what are we for?
Chris Cutrone: Platypus takes its name from the animal because of its incomprehensibility, its resistance to classification. Like our namesake we feel that an authentic Left today would go almost unrecognized by the existing Left or, if recognized, seen only as a living fossil. We focus on the history and thought of the Marxist tradition, but in a critical and non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing for granted. We do this because we recognize our present, the politics of today, as the consequence of the Left’s self-liquidation over the course of at least a generation. It is our contention and provocation that the Left, understood in its best historical traditions, is dead. It needs to be entirely reformulated, both theoretically and practically, at the most fundamental levels.
The issue of imperialism provides a good frame for investigating the present international crisis of the Left. Though problematic for the Left for some time, the issue of imperialism has taken on particularly grotesque forms more recently, losing whatever coherence it had in the past. Today, it betrays symptomatically the Left’s dearth of emancipatory imagination. The present anti-war movement continues to struggle against the latest war by misapplying the template of the Vietnam War and the counterinsurgencies waged by the U.S. in Latin America. There, the U.S. fought against progressive agents for social change. The same cannot be said today. In addition to confusing the past with the present, the Left now tails after the crassest opportunism of the Democratic Party, for whom the more dead in Iraq, the more they can marginalize the Bush administration.
The Left has abdicated responsibility for a self-aware politics of progressive social transformation and emancipation. Instead, U.S. policy and the realities it grapples with are opportunistically vilified. Thus the Left shirks serious reflection on its own inconvenient history, its own role in how we got here. The worst expressions of this can be found in the intemperate hatred of Bush and in the idea, unfortunately prevalent in some leftist circles, that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks.
We in Platypus recognize that leftist politics today is characterized by its despair over the constrained possibilities of social change. Whatever vision for such change exists in the present derives from a wounded narcissism animated by the kind of loathing Susan Sontag expressed in the 1960s when she said, “the white race is the cancer of human history.” The desire for change has become reactionary. The Left has devolved into apologetics for the world as it is, for existing social and political movements having nothing to do with emancipation. Thus the Left threatens to become the new right. Many who consider themselves leftist dress up Islamist insurgents as champions of national self-determination. One recalls Ward Churchill calling the office workers killed on September 11 “little Eichmanns of U.S. imperialism,” or Lynne Stewart, the civil rights attorney, saying that Sheik Abdul Rahman, who orchestrated the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, might be a legitimate freedom fighter.
The Left has lost its basic orientation towards freedom, a problem going back at least as far as the 1930s. The perspective the Left once had on the question and problem of freedom has become occluded in the present. Consequently, the Left has largely decomposed into competing rationalizations for a bad reality that the Left, in its long degeneration, has not only failed to prevent, but actually helped bring about. The sooner we stem the rot on the Left the better, but first of all we must recognize the depth of the problem. This is why we in Platypus are dedicated to investigating the history of the Left’s demise, so that an imagination for social emancipation can be regained anew. The Left can only survive by overcoming itself. Seriously interrogating the received political categories on the Left, not least of all imperialism, is essential to establishing a coherent politics with any hope of changing the world in an emancipatory direction. The enemies of social progress have their visions and are pursuing them. Some are more reactionary than others. The only question for us now: What are we going to do on the Left?
Kreitman: At times, the Left can degenerate into supporting ethnic fascism. We should not idealize Muqtada al-Sadr or the Iraqi Islamic Party. We need to figure out how we are going to help a democratic, socialist Iraq emerge out of the current mess. If this just means leaving, that is what we should do. But is pulling out going to solve any of Iraq’s problems? Or will it just give the next president a pretext to return in five years? We need to identify who our allies are and how we can affect U.S. policy to provide the best of all possible outcomes in Iraq.
Turl: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformations in China, anti-imperialism certainly became more complicated. Nonetheless, opposing the imperialism of one’s own country still overlaps naturally with political support of organizations and countries resisting imperialism. There are two mistakes made by the Left. One is to associate any and all opposition to U.S. imperialism with progressive politics. The other is what Noam Chomsky writes about in Military Humanism, his study of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Serbia, which actually found support from so-called leftists. The 1990s broke the post-Vietnam reluctance of the U.S. to invade.
I disagree with Chris: I think the Left has more to do than examine our mistakes and despair. The Left is about a process taking place in society, about people radicalizing and struggling against injustice. We need to be engaged with those struggles around the world. There are debates going on in Venezuela today about what the future of that movement should look like. The Left should engage in these debates although, in the U.S., our most important obligation is to stand against our government telling anyone what to do in Venezuela.
Anderson: My interest has always been problematizing what the Left is doing. What alternative to capitalism we offer is connected with the critique of the Left, by the Left. Most would take issue with Ahmadinejad’s comments denying the Holocaust, yet many leftists think talking about such things will distract from organizing the next protest. However, every time we do not explore these critical questions, we lose a chance to clarify what our alternative to capitalism actually is. We imply that our political vision may resemble the world desired by any of the forces opposing imperialism, regardless of those forces’ politics. We have to explore the difficult questions of the Left even as we oppose the occupation of Iraq and affirm our solidarity with progressive movements.
Postel: To clarify, when I said we should be in solidarity with Iranian protesters, I do not just mean, “we Americans.” I mean, we on the internationalist Left: activists, people of conscience, progressives. Particularly in America, some leftists think that people outside Iran have no role to play in the Iranian struggles, because they come from an imperialist country. We do have a role to play: to ask people who are struggling, “What can we do for you?” and “How can we help your struggle?” In general, Iranian progressives do not want financial support from the Pentagon or think tanks. What they do want is the support of global civil society, from intellectuals, activists, leftists—that is, from people like us.
Cutrone: The Left is in a bad way when looking at the possibilities for developing a Left in Iraq. Regardless of intention, the U.S. forces in Iraq and the political process that they have protected—the emergence of an Iraqi state through elections—now stand between whatever possibility there is for an Iraqi Left, in the long term, and the immediate reactionary opposition from former Baathists, Islamists, and Shi’a paramilitaries. What does it mean to call U.S. policy “imperialist” when, on the ground, that policy is opposed primarily from the right? The Iraqi Communist Party put out a statement saying that, while they were opposed the invasion of Iraq, they now also oppose the reactionary military opposition to the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government. In other words, they were opposed to the U.S. occupation, but it matters to them how the occupation comes to an end. For, under the current conditions, the U.S. being forced out of Iraq by right-wing sectarians would be a disaster.
The critique of the Left internationally is a form of participation and solidarity on the Left. The Left exhibits some of its worst features on the issue of anti-imperialism. It is constantly trying to figure out where the Left is, what existing group one can point to and say, “This is the Left.” Too often this involves dressing up as “leftist” more or less reactionary opposition forces. In so doing, the Left expresses a conciliatory attitude towards the status quo. Against this, I say the most salient form of support is critique, and this applies to the preceding historical period, as well: The role of the American Left during the Vietnam War should have been to critique the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese regime.
Q & A
First, the real job of the anti-war movement in the 1960s was not to criticize the North Vietnamese regime, but to stop the genocidal war in Vietnam, and the movement succeeded. These wars are not just about abstract issues debated in graduate papers. Imperialism takes real lives. The ISO, which I am a member of, never had any problems supporting the Sandinistas against the U.S. and Solidarity against the USSR, because we took for granted that nations have the right to self-determination. This means, first, that activists in the advanced world have to be anti-imperialist as a principle, for it is not just about stopping oppression: We should support struggles against the U.S. because, if the forces of imperialism are defeated and weakened abroad, we can better fight for socialism here. Let’s be clear: the “dark alley” mentioned earlier—it was Stalinism. It was the identification, for 60 years, of socialism with totalitarianism and Soviet imperialism. Our task is to redevelop the socialist tradition by unearthing that crap, to make socialism relevant to the millions in this country who want fundamental change.
Cutrone: About Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive the NLF and the North Vietnamese communist regime expended literally thousands of cadres attempting to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Is that a form of fighting for social emancipation we can endorse? More broadly, I’m not sure the anti-Vietnam War movement succeeded. To the extent the U.S. was “defeated,” this was surely a Pyrrhic victory for Vietnam in light of the lasting devastation it suffered. Moreover, whether America lost or won militarily, the anti-war movement definitely did not win, as Vietnam presents no repeatable model of social emancipation.
The Left “here” and the Left “there” should be seen more in terms of an integral connection and less as a distant solidarity, which is a bad habit we inherit from the 1960s anti-war movement, expressed today in the idea that somehow the U.S. being defeated in Iraq automatically translates into an objective victory for the Left. This simply is not true, unless you think more Democrats in office is a triumph for the Left.
Anderson: The anti-war movement of the 1960s, which I participated in, had collapsed by the time the U.S. pulled out. Soon after, we had Reagan as president. The greater transformations we hoped to make out of the anti-war radicalism just did not happen. This failure was not simply a matter of America being a big, bad, reactionary country. It was because of all kinds of mistakes on the Left, not the least of which being the near idolatry of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
Turl: You are not going to get a defense of Maoism from me. But still, the anti-war movement of the 1960s forced America out of Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese people to win. Regardless of the politics of the government in Vietnam that resulted, the U.S. had to remain on the sidelines until September 11. That is a successful movement. Did the movement create socialism? If that is our standard, it will deter our participation in struggles for justice that do not measure up, forcing us into a passive stance.
Kreitman: We on the Left should be wary of trumpeting self-determination as one of our values. In the wake of the 1960s radicalism, defending “national self-determination” sometimes meant that the Left simply threw support to the best armed groups in a particular country, rather than take their politics into account.
The major problem in the 1990s was not that people were cloaking anti-imperialist groups in undeserved left-wing colors, but that the vast majority of leftists were apologizing for U.S. imperialism by supporting U.S.-led “humanitarian intervention.” We cannot, as leftists, afford to cease our support of national self-determination.
Postel: Few leftists believed humanitarianism motivated these U.S. interventions, though some liberal centrists may have fallen for that line. Most of us had a complex position on Western intervention in the Balkans. We who supported the Kosovo intervention, myself included, took that position out of a conviction that the consequences, not the motives, would benefit the Kosovar Albanians, as the Kosovar Albanians themselves argued.
Turl: One must differentiate between the politics of the people ruling the countries bombed by the U.S., and the right of the U.S. to bomb people. We make this distinction all the time in the Socialist Worker. We don’t gloss over the politics of the resistance in Iraq, but we also steadfastly defend the right of Iraqis to resist a foreign occupation and its troops. If there were an occupation of Chicago, I would defend the right of hardcore Republicans to resist that occupation. I wouldn’t care that they were right wing.
This relates to the stance of the Iraqi Communist Party, mentioned earlier. If the U.S. troops stand between the Iraqi Communist Party and obliteration, that is only because the Iraqi Communist Party decided to collaborate with the U.S. occupation and, thus, with the biggest imperial power on the planet. It is untrue that the U.S. stands between reaction and the Iraqi people, or that the U.S. troops are defending a nascent democracy, or whatever the propaganda on the evening news says. Most sectarian violence is created or stoked by America. The U.S. deliberately established an Islamic government in Iraq; next, the U.S. consciously decided to stir sectarian violence after it became clear their proxies, like Ahmed Chalabi, did not have a base in Iraq. After that, the U.S. began siding with different sectarian groups, and it is only then sectarian violence escalates. The longer the U.S. military stays, the more sectarian violence there is going to be and the more reactionary Iraqi politics will become. The only solution is to pull out immediately so that the Iraqis can sort everything out themselves.
Anderson: Imperialism with a capital “I” lasted from about 1880 until around the 1950s–60s. However, rather than simply ending, colonialism has been replaced by neo-imperialism. So economic and cultural domination persist after political independence, which is why one cannot understand imperialism without talking about capitalism. But, when Lenin wrote his classic work on imperialism ninety years ago, there were five or six competing powers. Since then, capitalism has become simultaneously far more globalized and centralized. The nature of imperialism and capitalism has changed as a result of the emergence of state capitalism, exemplified by the total centralization of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Today, there’s one hyper-power: the United States. In many ways, what exactly these changes mean for anti-imperialism remains unclear.
Turl: Marx argued it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. Our ideas are informed by the reality of our lives. This is true, yet this relation is also falsified in America: Propaganda is relentlessly pumped into this society to ensure the prevalence of ruling class ideology. Of course, such lies contradict people’s everyday experience. Some people start to see the growing contradiction between what they are told and what they experience. Going through a struggle, a strike or an anti-war movement, catalyzes this change in people’s ideas. A significant example of this process at work now can be seen in Venezuela.
In the 1990s we began to see a resurgence of the Left. Here in the U.S., we had the Ralph Nader campaign and the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. Towards the end of the decade labor activity increased, with the UPS strike marking the first clear labor victory for some time. But this leftward momentum was interrupted by the political fallout of September 11, which was not only a tragedy in itself, but a disaster for the Left. It gave Bush and the rest of the U.S. ruling class the opportunity to wage war. But this is all beginning to change. Millions of people are demanding their rights. As long as people are oppressed, they will fight back and challenge the system. The question now is how to organize that fight. In order to rebuild a Left, we need to oppose our government, the dominant imperial power on the planet, every time it invades, occupies, and murders.
Kreitman: The Left has been in decline for at least a generation, primarily because it has not offered compelling alternatives. In the 1980s, as factories in America closed, there was no Left articulating a new model of how to do things. Workers today are complicit in imperialism, even if it is not in their interest as workers, primarily because the Left really has not provided a compelling alternative politics.
Take the crisis in Darfur. There is mounting political pressure for the U.S. government to send in troops to prevent further genocide. That would be imperialist, in a sense, but the Left has not said what to do instead. So people begin to think it is a matter either of stopping genocide through U.S. military intervention or not stopping genocide, rather than seeing it as a question of how to stop genocide. We need a framework that remains critical of imperialism while also addressing the political issues of the day.
Cutrone: It is all well and good to invoke the slogan, “the main enemy is at home.” But what position should the Left take regarding reactionary forces outside the U.S.? There are falsifications in much of the talk about the violence in Iraq. No matter whose body count one uses, most of the death and destruction in Iraq has been wreaked by the (so-called) "resistance," not the United States. Starting in early 2005, the majority of deaths in Iraq have been due to either Al-Qaeda in Iraq blowing up Shi’a mosques, marketplaces, or (government) recruiting centers, or Shi'a militias carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against the Sunni. You will hear the statistic that 90 percent of the attacks in Iraq are on U.S. or coalition forces, but the phrase “coalition forces” includes the current Iraqi government, and sectarian violence represents the vast majority of the attacks against it. The Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with national self-determination, much less democracy. One has to be realistic about the goals and responsibilities of the United States. It is fair to hold the U.S. responsible for the security situation in Iraq, but it is certainly not the case that the U.S. is setting off bombs in crowded markets and mosques. Reactionary sectarian groups in Iraq are the ones doing that.
If we actually care about the democratic self-determination of people around the world, we cannot ignore the fact that in a place like Iraq the Left has no hope if the insurgency forces perpetrating most of the violence succeed in their aims. It is simply false to say that the U.S. has instigated or perpetuated most of the inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. has tacked back and forth between the Shi’a and the Sunni precisely in order to prevent one side from getting the upper hand and delivering greater violence upon the other. The Left must recognize reality if it wants to be able to change it. This is not to offer apologetics for the U.S. military, but to assert that we must oppose what the U.S. is actually doing, and cease deluding ourselves. To pretend America invaded Iraq just to kill Iraqis only serves to evade the greater political questions of our time. I do not support the United States; however, I strive to be as clear as possible about what I am opposing, and that I oppose it from the Left. |P
Transcribed by Brian C. Worley
. Susan Sontag, “What’s Happening in America?” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 2002), 203. Originally published 1966.
Platypus panel at the Left Forum 2010 in New York City, Pace University, March 20, 2010.
The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was, like the 1990-91 Gulf War, a turning point for the international Left, though few recognized this. While the Iraq war has been a rallying point for anti-hegemonic and anti-“imperialist” sentiments around the world, it did not provide for either theoretical or practical convergence for reinvigorating the Left, but rather revealed its fragmented and confused state. Though activism has been largely united in opposing the war, it failed to articulate a greater vision for how opposition to the war contributes to a greater program of social emancipation for the Left internationally. Indeed, the Iraq war tends to figure only in terms of particular U.S. policy. Many in mainstream U.S. politics -- the Democratic Party -- argued against the war as a foolhardy project of trying to bring democracy to Iraq. Some on the Left, in recognition of this problem, supported the U.S. militarily overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s Baathist state in Iraq. But which position was in fact more conservative, that is, Right-wing? This panel is organized around the question, how has the Left responded to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq? Why has the Iraq war proven such a stumbling block for the Left developing an adequate response? Who is capable of standing up for the Iraqis now? For what the Left owes to Iraq is the same as it owes to any “nation” -- freedom.
Laura Lee Schmidt (Chair) – Platypus Affiliated Society; History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture, MIT
Issam Shukri – Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI)
Ashley Smith - International Socialist Organization
Christopher Cutrone – Platypus Affiliated Society; University of Chicago
Book Review: Cottee, Simon and Thomas Cushman (eds.). Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
If it did not come to end in 1989, as conservative critic Francis Fukuyama expected, this is because, in Hegel's sense, as freedom's self-realization in time, History had already ceased. Long before the new geopolitical configurations and institutional forms of the post-Soviet world, a new and unprecedented, though scarcely recognized, political situation had taken shape: The last threads of continuity connecting the present with the long epoch of political emancipation were severed. In the second half of the 20th century the history that stretched back through modern socialism and the labor movement to the Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions that came before, became bunk. Yet, unlike Stalinism's well-publicized (if exaggerated) collapse, the passing of History and the death of the long-ailing Left in our time has passed almost wholly unnoticed and unmourned. One exception to this is found in the writings of journalist and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens, which, though they sometimes express it only unconsciously and symptomatically, nevertheless very often register awareness of the unprecedented circumstance that is the death of the Left.
When Hitchens publicly broke with the The Nation in the aftermath of 9/11, the break was based on chiefly moral grounds. The Left's anti-war arguments were, Hitchens argued, "contemptible" and in "bad faith"; its authors were corrupt "masochists" [104-8]. While Hitchens's defection was widely condemned by the Left, few attended closely to the moral form that it took, which is in many ways as revealing as the substance of the debates it occasioned. In Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left [hereafter CHHC], editors Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman provide a handy single-volume introduction to Hitchens's tussle with the Left during those years, supplying both an ample selection of Hitchens's writings and published interviews, as well as many criticisms by his erstwhile comrades. Through them we relive something of the disorientation and struggle for clarification on the Left that accompanied 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Though in some respects a replay of debates around western intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s, far more engaging is the near total discrediting of the existing Left that Hitchens has accomplished writing as a moralist since.
Enlightenment on the Left
A scourge of the establishment, Hitchens was one of the few journalists steeped in Marxism publishing in the mass circulation English press during the 1980s and 90s. Coming out of the International Socialist tendency of British Trotskyism, Hitchens did not simply admire Marx or sympathize with certain historical achievements of the socialist Left; rather, he brought to the pages of The New Statesman, Harper's and The Atlantic the unique resources of a sectarian Marxist political education. With the familiarity he possessed of its prevailing intellectual habits and dispositions and also of the actual composition of the various popular front organizations that sprung up to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens possessed unique resources to undertake a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary Left. It is the limitations of these same resources, however, that ultimately diminished the force of that critique. For while Hitchens was correct in his assessment of the conservative and one-sided character of the "leftist" critique of American hegemony, it was chimerical to imagine that one could both side with the Bush regime's war and, at the same time, retain critical independence from it.
Taking the last ten years together, Hitchens has been remarkably prolific, producing a steady output of books and articles. This impressive written output has gained Hitchens a mass audience, further expanded by the steady schedule he maintains of television and radio appearances, as well as high-profile public debates. Neither specialized scholar nor think-tank wonk, Hitchens is a rare breed: one who lives not simply by his writing, but by a sustained attempt to analyze the present. By concentrating on the years 2001-2005, Hitchens and His Critics offers a valuable selection of writings from the time when Hitchens began to do what he does entirely freeform, that is with total independence from party or clique.
To describe Hitchens's writings in CHHC as acts of "apostasy" from the Left is misleading. It is better to read them as authentic, if inadequate, responses to the intractability of contemporary circumstances. Out of their recognition of this, editors Cottee and Cushman locate Hitchens not among the God-that-failed liberals, but rather "in the tradition of Marx and the Frankfurt School." As they explain: "It is our belief that in Hitchens's recent political writings it is possible to discern one of the most powerful self-critiques of the Western Left today. Hitchens is. . . an essential reference point for the Left, and his criticisms demand to be engaged with" [3-4]. While one might balk at the phrase "Western Left" as foreign to Hitchens's internationalist disposition, Cottee and Cushman are undoubtedly correct in pointing out that Hitchens did not so much abandon the Left, as he was abandoned by it.
Still, Cottee and Cushman's introduction generates as much confusion as clarity respecting Hitchens's leftism. For while Hitchens cannot but mourn the collapse of the revolutionary Left, insofar as it stood for the abolition of capitalist social domination and the realization of human freedom, his editors lack this understanding of the Left's fundamental commitments. So, it is hard to see how they as non-Marxists can even comprehend Hitchens when he says, "there is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism - certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement. . . . [Still] I don't think that the contradictions, as we used to say, of the system are by any means all resolved" . The sense Hitchens expresses here of the collapse of the Left is true now in a way that was not the case even for those who survived into the 1940s. Though certainly the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists recognized that the rise and consolidation of Stalinism and fascism in Europe prepared the ground for it, the total extinction of the Left had to wait till the second half of the 20th century. With unmistakable melancholy if not nostalgia Hitchens says, "I am in a strong position to promise you. . . [that] all talk [of a Trotskyist revival] is idle. It's over" . Just as they can imagine Jürgen Habermas's liberalism to represent a continuation of the Frankfurt School's mid-century project, Cottee and Cushman treat "the Left" as if it were a stable political category. Hitchens, on the other hand, makes no claim that he represents an alternative form of Leftism. Instead, as he says, "call me a neo-conservative if you must: anything is preferable to the rotten unprincipled alliance between the former fans of the one-party state and the hysterical zealots of the one-god one" ["At Last Our Lefties See the Light" The Times of London online edition, 4/30/06].
Viewed in retrospect, Hitchens's break with the Left may be seen to have been foreshadowed by his 1990s tirades against Bill Clinton and his "lesser evilist" liberal supporters. In those polemics, Hitchens argued in effect that social democracy had utterly collapsed and, with it, so had the political salience of the distinction between the Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton presidency represented the triumph of fully managed, poll-driven, and lobbyist-directed politics. This failure of parliamentary democracy was accompanied by intellectual vulgarization and moral degradation. Changes such as these were not wholly explicable in their own terms, but were after effects of the Left's collapse. But this last point Hitchens never made explicit. For this reason the 90s writings fail to register fully his dawning sense that what had occurred was an epochal shift, though this can be seen in the gradual alteration of Hitchens's tone from that of political analysis proper to something more akin to 19th century moralism. Even prior to 9/11 Hitchens could remark, "I don't have allegiances. . . anymore" ; but, because of the indirection of targeting Clinton rather than his Left supporters, writings from this period are only a prelude to what would come later.
In the weeks and months following 9/11, Hitchens's criticism of what passes for the Left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in left-leaning organs such as The Nation and the Guardian or in more mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Independent, in article after article Hitchens drove the point home that the issue of "imperialism," as understood for decades on the Left, had ceased to be relevant. The enemies of American imperialism in no sense represented a more democratic future, nor would their victory be likely to indirectly produce politically desirable effects. Making the stakes plain, Hitchens asseverated, "capitalism, for all its contradictions, is superior to. . . what bin Laden and the Taliban stand for" . As for U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Hitchens supplements the arguments about al-Qaeda's Islamist fascism with arguments drawn from Iraqi Trotskyist Kanan Makiya to the effect that Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime was not merely tyrannical but represented a variety of modern-day "totalitarianism." Hitchens then adds to this the assertion that when, in the aftermath of the 1991 war, it left Saddam's opponents in the lurch, the U.S. saddled itself with a "responsibility" to the people of Iraq. He condemned as both untenable and ill-conceived the continued enforcement of no-fly zones and a crippling sanctions regime. These punished the population while allowing Hussein to maintain his hold on power. Of course, nothing could be more predictable than the U.S. Army "failing" to fight Hitchens's war in Iraq (nor could greater "pressure" from the Left have prompted it to do so). Still, the American military, as Hitchens pointed out in a debate with Tariq Ali, was "not militarily defeatable" in Iraq and "all moral and political conclusions to be drawn from that should be drawn" [http://www.democracynow.org/2004/10/12/]. Hitchens's support for the war was, of course, opportunistic. But, as CHHC demonstrates, it served an important purpose -- it distanced him once and for all from the pseudo-Left.
Taking up cudgels against the likes of Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, bell hooks, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Studs Terkel, and Howard Zinn, Hitchens recognized that Ba'athist Iraq's steady disintegration and the emergence into plain view of Islamist fascism posed for such "leftists" a dilemma they could not resolve. The War on Terror is not Vietnam II. The character of the enemy of American imperialism is utterly changed as is the geo-political environment within which the conflict takes place. Yet, despite this crucial recognition, Hitchens does not possess critical resources the others lack. For, contrary to what he suggests, Hitchens's support of America's invasion of Iraq is no straightforward act of solidarity with secular-socialist political parties inside Iraq, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani. Still, his repeated insistence on the plight of the Kurds under Saddam did serve to effectively dramatize the disappearance of Left internationalism. "When I first became a socialist," he writes,[...] the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not defining thing, whether the cause was popular or not. I haven't seen an anti-war meeting all this year  at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for "regime change" when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. 
Those on the Left who tacitly defended Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein did so because of an inherited moral and intellectual rot. A consequence of this was that "instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" , one manifestation of which was the anti-war movement's willingness to bracket out of consideration the fate of Iraqi Leftist or oppositionist parties and trade unions, if not to condemn them outright as U.S. "stooges." For their part, groups like the ISO and Spartacist League, by simply dusting off the slogans of earlier struggles, ignore the historical gulf that separates the current anti-war movement from, say, the movement that opposed the Vietnam War. The claims of such groups that, as they would put it, blows struck against American imperialism are blows in the interests of workers and the oppressed worldwide, have become unmeaning mantras by the muttering repetition of which such groups on the left withdraw into insensibility. Others on the Left are more vulgar, hoping that an Iraqi quagmire would allow for the emergence of Europe as a substantial counter-hegemonic force (as, for instance, in Habermas and Derrida's joint letter of May 31, 2003). Regarding such Leftism, Hitchens remarks, "I am very much put in mind of something from the opening of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It's not the sentence about the historical relation between tragedy and farce. It's the observation that when people are learning a new language, they habitually translate it back into the one they already know" . Unable to so much as describe the present, the Left has lost its currency for an entire generation. "Members of the Left, along with the far larger number of squishy 'progressives,' have grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think; rather, they are merely reacting, substituting tired slogans for thought" . Today's conservative leftism, with a long pedigree stretching back into the 1960s, first became dominant by couching itself in anti-imperialist language. But, as Hitchens comments, "My Marxist training tells me things don't remain the same. [These new, openly] reactionary-left positions won't hold for long. They will metamorphose into reactionary-right ones" ["'Don't Cross Over if You Have any Intention of Going Back'" Interview with Danny Postel The Common Review 4:1, 7]. The merits of this critique stand, regardless of Hitchens's position on the Iraq War.
Rejecting the consensus view that the 1960s New Left represents a high-water mark of radical politics, Hitchens argues that, in fact, the conservativism of today's pseudo-Left derives from precisely that period:
If you look back to the founding document of the 60's left, which was the Port Huron statement . . . you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto. It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity. It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and ''the idiocy of rural life.''
All that endures today on "the Left" is precisely this anti-modern strain of the 1960s. Describing the route from Port Huron to Seattle, Hitchens notes, "the anti-globalization movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance" ["Where Aquarius Went," New York Times (online edition) 12/19/04]. If we are in politically dire straits, this is not because the New Left betrayed the ideals of its youth, but because it upheld them. Hitchens captures the massive political and intellectual shift this has occasioned anecdotally: "Marx and Engels thought that America was the great country of freedom and revolution. . . [We] live in a culture where people's first instinct when you say [that] is to laugh or to look bewildered" [176-77]. After years of Pop-Front coziness with his "comrades" in "the movement," Hitchens finally broke rank. And yet, Hitchens's defeat of his "Left" opponents, of which CHHC leaves its reader no doubt, never translated into what we might call a genuine political victory.
The force of Hitchens's critique of the degenerate Left in the wake of 9/11 derives in large measure, as argued above, from his sectarian background which imparted to him a deep aversion to uncritical solidarity. It is this that lends his account its force. In other words, it is not simply a matter of familiarity breeding contempt, but of the precision that comes from long study of the enemy. And yet, the instincts that allow him to register his insights soon come up against their own limits. For the current crisis requires an active (and openly skeptical) re-engagement with the history of the Left and the theoretical categories of Marxism.
Hitchens's greatest shortcoming is not the position he has taken on Iraq, as this amounts chiefly to a confession of political futility. Nor is it his bullying and hectoring tone, which, though it occasionally rings false, is typically reserved for those who deserve it. Rather, his greatest shortcoming is in his sclerotic Marxism, which is very often conceptually under-specified and indistinguishable from ahistorical liberalism. For what Hitchens terms the "tenets of the Left" require us only to recognize the truth of certain propositions, such as "there are opposing class interests" and "monopoly capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market and that it has certain fatal tendencies" (Letters to a Young Contrarian [hereafter LYC], 102). But, there is nothing specifically Marxist about these or any such propositions outside of dialectical analysis.
Discussing the anti-Stalinist Marxists of the 1930s, Hitchens says "these heroes. . . were forced to rely as much on their own consciences, if not indeed more, as on any historical materialist canon" [LYC 98]. But the likes of C. L. R. James, Victor Serge, and Trotsky are not merely moral exemplars, and the "crimes" to which they bore witness were not simply criminal. Stalin's betrayals were political betrayals opposed politically by a Marxism rooted in a definite conception of capitalism as a form of social organization. Any full account must go beyond discussing the bravery of these tendencies to address that their emancipatory potential. Hitchens exhorts readers to question the obvious and the status quo, for which, he argues, intellectual honesty and a will to truth alone are required. While this is true as far as it goes, it only goes so far. Morality and "principles" alone, including "the conception of universal human rights" to which he points as guiding "the next phase or epoch" of Leftist politics are an inadequate basis on which to remount the sort of emancipatory politics to which Hitchens is unmistakably committed [LYC 136].
Hitchens's etiolated conception of Enlightenment (under which rubric he subsumes Marxist "historical materialism") causes him to fall below the level of his own insights. This can most readily be seen by a brief review of Hitchens's 2002 treatment of George Orwell, Why Orwell Matters [WOM]. This book's publication coincided with and may be seen as explicating much of the basis for his criticism of his former comrades. Hitchens's Orwell, it is safe to say, stands in for the Trotskyism that came so late to Britain, where most of those who would become the beacons of the New Left did not actually break with Stalinism in Trotsky's lifetime but much later, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union. Orwell was "in contact with the small and scattered forces of the independent international Left" and this fact, that he questioned Stalinism at a time in the history of the British Left when it was extremely unpopular to do so, is central to why Orwell matters to Christopher Hitchens [WOM, 62]. As a fellow traveler of "the International of persecuted oppositionists who withstood 'the midnight of the century' - the clasping of hands of Hitler and Stalin" [WOM, 63], Orwell was a confirmed leftist critic of the Left from at least the time of his fighting on behalf of the Spanish Republic, which he chronicled in his early work, Homage to Catalonia. Nor did Orwell ever discard the commitments and insights that crystallized for him while fighting in Spain, since in his late work Animal Farm "the aims and principles of the Russian revolution are given face-value credit throughout: this is a revolution betrayed, not a revolution that is monstrous from its inception" [WOM 187]. Thus, while "the edifice of [Orwell's] work. . . [is typically] identified with sturdy English virtues" [WOM, 63], it constitutes for Hitchens an internationalist legacy far more valuable than that of many figures more widely lionized on the British Left, where the New Left intellectuals' struggle to work through the fraught legacy of the past was hobbled by the relatively superficial de-Stalinization after 1956. Hitchens skewers Raymond William's hatchet job on Orwell as symptomatic of precisely an undigested Stalinism that then also affected the New Left Review's editors, who in their reverence toward Williams in the 1960s, failed to theoretically work through the struggles on the Left of the 1930s.
But Hitchens, too, fails to work through the history of the left. On the one hand, he is adamant that we regard as a victory for the anti-Stalinist New Left the Velvet Revolutions that brought to an end "actually existing socialism" in the former Warsaw Pact countries. On the other hand, he recognizes that "once the Cold War was over, there was a recrudescence of. . . totalitarianism and. . . authoritarianism" ["'Don't Cross Over if You have any Intention of Going Back,'" 7]. It is altogether unclear just how Hitchens can view the 1990s as simultaneously a culminating revolutionary moment and as a period of the revival of totalitarianism. Here is no dialectical antinomy, just a flat contradiction.
Retreat to moralism
The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and 40s in terms of "arrogance," "bullying," "greed," "wickedness," and "stupidity" [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism. Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone. While Hitchens's expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis. For such analysis requires a theoretical grasp of social and historical circumstances, the abstract character of which necessitates theory. As Hitchens himself acknowledges, "I became a socialist . . . [as an] outcome of studying history" . In other words, Marxian theory is necessary to actually grasp the ongoing transformation of society. The power of facing unpleasant facts that Hitchens associates with Orwell is scarcely sufficient if the aim is to elaborate a politics rooted in a critical grasp of the present. Hitchens knows full well that "a purely moral onslaught on capitalism and empire would be empty sermonizing" ["The Grub Street Years," The Guardian 6/16/07], and yet he seems to think an increasingly moral rhetoric to be adequate for contemporary critical purposes.
Stefan Collini (in a 2003 essay unfortunately omitted from the volume under review) is no doubt right to balk (or chuckle) at the machismo of the ostentatiously hard-drinking, chain-smoking, author of pieces like "Why Women Aren't Funny." But, what is curious is the evidence of Hitchens's masculinism that Collini adduces, namely his commitment to being "right about which way the world . . . is going, right about which policies will work and which regimes are wicked; right about the accuracy of one's facts and one's stories; and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong" [Stefan Collini, "'No Bullshit' Bullshit" London Review of Books 25:2 (1/23/03), online edition]. If Hitchens fails in his attempts to understand which way the world is going, it is scarcely because of the masculinist folly of the enterprise, nor, indeed, because of the limitations of his talent, intellect or instincts, but because the world itself has become opaque. This, and the impulse toward being right -- at least against the "Left" -- is what has led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers. The old habit of choosing sides betrays Hitchens when the task requires more than simply making compromises and choosing the lesser evil, but actually critically confronting a situation in which there is nothing to choose. While Collini's chastising as "masculinist" Hitchens's commitment to being right when so many others are politically wrong amounts to little more than the imposition of a thought-taboo, it is nevertheless undeniable that, for the present, the formulation of "a political line" is impossible. This is because of "the world's" incoherence when the Left is dead. Hitchens's polemics would seem to imply an independent position, but the impossibility of this is precisely where the contemporary circumstance of the death of the left must be registered.
Hitchens's "return" to moralism in the 1990s and 200s is coupled with a nascent sense of historical regression, which he understands as a return to the Enlightenment and a replay of bourgeois revolution. Thus Hitchens's most recent writings on the Enlightenment, American Revolution, and atheism stem from his sense of the need for a renewal of "the war for Enlightenment values" . As early as 2002 Hitchens wrote, "as the third millennium gets under way, and as the Russian and Chinese and Cuban revolutions drop below the horizon, it is possible to argue that the American revolution, with its promise of cosmopolitan democracy, is the only 'model' revolution that humanity has left to it" [WOM 105]. But, in the works that grew out of this conviction published after 2005, Hitchens flattens out much of what remained suggestive in the polemical writings contained in CHHC. For instance, in his recent non-fiction best-seller God is Not Great, Hitchens improbably portrays the struggle against contemporary religious fascisms as a mere continuation of the Enlightenment tussle with irrationality. As if al-Qaeada's "medievalism" were a relic of the unscientific feudal past! At this point, rationality surrenders to dogma in the name of the Enlightenment and Hitchens's recognition of political regression threatens to transform itself into the idée fixe of a crank who has forgotten that the argument with religion is the beginning, not the end, of the ruthless criticism of everything existing. Adopting a more sympathetic approach towards these more recent works requires reading them against the grain to argue not only that the self-described left today is entirely past saving and needs only to be retired, but also that the project of re-constituting the left today may be advanced more through an engagement with those drawn to (and encountering the limits of) liberalism than with the sleep-walkers that today pass for the Left. |P
Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
I was intrigued to find in The Platypus Review #7 a commentary by Chris Cutrone on the U.S. role in world politics. I found it more sophisticated and original than anything I had previously come across in the mainstream media either here or in Europe.
Before launching my machine, I would like to situate myself. I'm a foreigner, philosopher of sorts, and not a student any more (That means I'm old.). I have lived in the US for only two months. I come from Finland, a country which is in many senses the exact opposite of the U.S.: tiny, internationally insignificant, linguistically isolated, and culturally homogeneous. Our religious right-wing - indeed any extreme right wing - is trifling. In fact it would not be too great an exaggeration to claim that Finland has politically incarnated, for the last fifty years or so, the wet dream of U.S. left-of-center Democrats.
American patriots, both Republican and Democrat, tend to cherish the idea of the U.S. being the shining beacon of morals and democracy on Earth. I have yet to encounter a single soul outside the U.S. who would agree. Rather, the U.S. is considered an unequal, structurally racist and imperialist banana democracy with its too-short-a-step from slavery to the partial successes of the civil rights movement, the lack of equal general education, the lobbyist-controlled corrupt governing, the semi-open ballot sabotage, the state of exception-power of the executive branch, the reprehensible CIA-coups and the unilateral military interventions.
The idea of the U.S. being the ultimate power fighting for democracy on the global scene is doomed to sound obscene. If there were elections in Belarus an international delegation of electoral monitors would be sent. Why would the same not be done with regard to the U.S.? Just think about Florida in 2000 - and it is not the only possible example.
Last but not least, there has always been, from the European point of view , a lot more conservative whining about the excesses of the welfare state than genuine and stable welfare state structures in the U.S.
It must be underscored that this attitude does not stem from any irrational "anti-Americanism". Firstly, the harshness of the European criticism is the obverse of the fact that the U.S. is regarded as one of "us"; as a country from which we are supposed to expect more. Secondly, the rest of the world does appreciate America, only on different grounds than the U.S. patriots do, namely for "aesthetical" reasons.
What I have stated thus far compresses exactly the received Europeanish pseudo-progressive wisdom that Cutrone wants, in his article, to reject, or at least call into question. His point of view, certainly, is not that of an American patriot. Instead, Cutrone points out that the Left in general has been confused and self-contradictory in its opposition to U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, Cutrone emphasizes that Europeans in particular have been self-righteous, double-faced and irresponsible regarding the role of the U.S. in present-day global capitalism. As for the U.S., the anti-war rhetoric of the Democrats, claims Cutrone, has been unprincipled and opportunistic.
Cutrone asks, what and on what grounds does the anti-war movement actually oppose? Is it opposing any "imperialist" intervention whatsoever? Or any unilateral intervention by the U.S. ? Or any intervention that fails or is not efficient enough? And is the argument that the US should not "spread democracy" supposed to be a progressive or a conservative argument?
The real reason for the occupation in 2003, according to Cutrone, was that Iraq had become a failed state. Sooner or later, someone had to intervene. This is where the Bush administration comes in: in doing what someone would have had to do anyway, it ultimately acted "responsibly". U.S. companies surely have profited from the intervention but some capitalists would have profited anyway, so why bother? All the other options concerning Iraq would not have been less "imperialistic" or "capitalistic". And what if the Bush policy succeeds? Then what will the basis for opposition to U.S. "imperialism"? These are good questions, and all too easily ignored by the inverse self-aggrandizement of the Europeans.
Francis Fukuyama has formulated a critique of the Iraq war which is based on the notion of its "necessary" failure - necessary, because there was no plan for the day after.
Fukuyama labels the brand of neo-conservatism he does not want to subscribe to (any more) as "Wilsonianism minus international institutions." Invented by Reagan, this doctrine has undergone a revival in the Bush administration. Against this doctrine Fukuyama advocates "realistic Wilsonianism"; the notion that the spreading of democracy cannot rely on naked military force but has to take into account the local cultural factors, the specific history and the developmental phase of societal institutions of the country in question. Fukuyama 's argument is not opportunistic, although it is based on the Iraq war being a failure. He makes a systematic Straussian point.
I venture to outline a basic intuition behind a typical European counter-reaction to the Iraq war. It boils down to three points: firstly, the Reaganist-Bushian doctrine is not just unilateral but exceptionalistic; secondly it has a nationalistic agenda, which if necessary, is covered up by downright lies and finally it is counter-productive. These points are well-rehearsed, of course.
The doctrine is unilateral, because it disregards international law. As Fukuyama puts it: the Bush administration had made it clear that the U.S. would not be bound by what the Security Council did. Also, the notion of pre-emptive war is not only a fundamental revision of the Westphalian tradition of international law but also a tacit endorsement of U.S. exceptionalism. Many countries face terrorist threats - Russia, China and India, for example - but if any of these nations announced a general strategy of preventive war as a means to deal with terrorism the U.S. would undoubtedly be the first to object.
Still, the most glaring example of the U.S exceptionalism is not the case of Iraq. After demanding that the Serbian war criminals should be submitted to the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration demanded that the governments of the EU agree to a blanket exemption of all U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the very same court. How irritating can you get?
Against Cutrone's claim that the cause of the occupation was not oil, but the fact that Iraq was a failed state, I'm inclined to repeat the standard anti-war criticisms. What about the control of Iraq oil fields, taking Iraq out of OPEC, breaking the anti-Israeli Arab front, weakening the Saudi oil monarchy and attempting to provoke a regime change in Iran? How do these sound for reasons? And although it could be said that Iraq was a failed state from the beginning, it managed to create a series of relatively successful, though certainly authoritarian, regimes between 1958-1991. It was the Gulf War that ruined the state of Iraq. Again, the U.S. is cleaning up the mess it has itself created.
The original justifications (weapons of mass destruction, links to al-Qaeda) the Bush administration gave for the occupation evaporated. Bush himself gave them up and fell back to the general human rights-argument. Well, why not? The key question is, however: how are the potential object countries discursively hegemonized as the most urgent countries to be intervened in? When the world is being asked whether it endorses a particular intervention or not, the decisive justifying step for unilateral action has already been accomplished. When the question "would you endorse an intervention in Iraq?" is on the agenda everywhere, the intervention is already justified. "Saddam is a terrible dictator, so..." "Yes, but on the other hand..." Why just Iraq, out of all the undemocratic states in the world? Why not Columbia?
Now, do these points form a coherent whole? Well, yes. It is not contradictory or opportunistic to oppose exceptionalism and to claim that the interventions are by and large counterproductive as far as the first argument is regarded as the primary one.
But what have I been doing here? Arguing like the ultimate liberal democrat, presenting well-wishing arguments for international co-operation? Have I forgotten that the maintenance of order in global capitalism is and remains "a bloody business", as Cutrone puts it?
Well, maybe. But is this to say that nothing matters until the revolution comes?
I fully agree that the mainstream European critique is double-faced: the USA is doing the dirty job for the European states while they can retain the position of a Hegelian beautiful soul. And Cutrone may well remind me that he is not actively endorsing the role of the U.S. in the scene of international capitalism, he is just realistic. The Left should acknowledge the facts of the situation, make correct analysis and then conquer the situation, if possible.
But this is exactly where my (or Zizek's) central question regarding Cutrone's reasoning comes in. His basic presupposition is that the hegemonic position of the U.S. in global capitalism is a fact - a fact to be understood, analyzed and for the time being accepted, but definitely not whimpered about. But are the "undiminished capacities" of the U.S. really so indisputable?
I think Cutrone's argument testifies to his perverse Wilsonianism. What if the military tours de force of the U.S. are the obverse of its impotence? Has the U.S. not been, until the recent financial crisis, the ultimate consumer of the world economics? As its economics and financial institutions have been dependent upon being trusted by the rest of the world, maybe the overspending and growing indebtedness of the U.S. have made feats of strength a necessary prop for maintaining that trust? Perhaps we have been witnessing a series of ultimately fake military interventions by the U.S. against adversaries known to be weak in order to maintain its continuing financial credibility? Now that the bubble has burst, shouldn't we just face the fact that the era of the U.S. is just over?
As is well known, the U.S. is constantly fighting against the dangers it has itself created. The examples have been cited ad nauseam by the anti-war movement: the Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam etc. were all originally backed and financed by the U.S. Not to mention that the Iraq intervention has accelerated the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran and has made Iraq, instead of Afghanistan, the training ground and operational base for jihadist terrorists. What if all this has not just been unwise or contra-final but bears testimony to a certain Hegelian cunning of reason instead? Maybe the apparent counter-productivity of the US-interventions - the fact that they tend to strengthen and even constitute in the first place the very enemies supposed to be eliminated - tacitly serves as a guarantee that the military power of the U.S. will be needed forever?
I may be carrying my point about the non-intentional conspiracy too far here, but perhaps the conservatives did not even want (on the level of Rumsfeldian "unknown knowns") to win the recent presidential elections. I mean, what has the Republican strategy been after Reagan? To let the debt rise to the utmost and then send for the Democrats to deal with it. Enter Obama... |P
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
Barack Obama had, until recently, made his campaign for President of the United States a referendum on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the Democratic Party primaries, Obama attacked Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the invasion. Among Republican contenders, John McCain went out of his way to appear as the candidate most supportive of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Looking towards the general election, it is over Iraq that the candidates have been most clearly opposed: Obama has sought to distinguish himself most sharply from McCain on Iraq, emphasizing their differences in judgment. Prior to the recent financial melt-down on Wall Street, there was a consistency of emphasis on Iraq as a signal issue of the campaign. But with Iraq dramatically pacified in recent months, its political importance has diminished. Obama’s position on Iraq has, if anything, lost him traction as the McCain-supported Bush policy has succeeded.
Now might be a good time to step back and look at assumptions regarding the politics of the war, and assess their true nature and character, what they have meant for the mainstream as well as for the ostensible “Left.”
One major assumption that has persisted from the beginning of the anti-war movement and over the course of the two presidential terms of the Bush administration has been that the Iraq war was the result of a maverick policy, in which “neoconservative” ideologues hijacked the U.S. government in order to implement an extreme agenda. Recently, more astute observers of American politics such as Adolph Reed (in “Where Obamaism seems to be going,” Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at blackagendareport.com) have conceded the point that a war in Iraq could easily have been embraced even by a Democratic adminstration. Reed writes:
“Lesser evilists assert as indisputable fact that Gore, or even Kerry, wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Perhaps Gore wouldn’t have, but I can’t say that’s a sure thing. (And who was his running mate, by the way? [Joe Lieberman, who recently spoke in support of McCain at the Republican National Convention—CC.]) Moreover, we don’t know what other military adventurism that he —like Clinton— would have undertaken . . No, I’m not at all convinced that the Right wouldn’t have been able to hound either Gore into invading Iraq or Kerry into continuing the war indefinitely.”
This raises the issue of what “opposition” to the Iraq war policy of the Bush administration really amounts to. The Democrats’ jockeying for position is an excellent frame through which to examine the politics of the war. For the Democrats’ criticism of the Bush policy has been transparently opportunist, to seize upon the problems of the war for political gain against the Republicans. Opposition has come only to the extent that the war seemed to be a failed policy, something of which Obama has taken advantage because he was not in the U.S. Senate when the war authorization was voted, and so he has been able to escape culpability for this decision his fellow Democrats made when it was less opportune to oppose the war. (Recall that this fact was the occasion for Bill Clinton’s infamous remark that Obama’s supposed record of uncompromised opposition to the war was a “fairy tale,” for Clinton pointed out that Obama had admitted that he didn’t know how he would have voted had he been in the Senate at the time.) Furthermore, opposition to the war on the supposed “Left” has similarly focused on the Bush administration (for example in the very name of the anti-war coalition World Can’t Wait, i.e., until the next election, and their call to “Exorcise the Bush Regime”), thus playing directly into the politics of the Democratic Party, resulting now in either passive or active support of the Obama candidacy.
On Obama’s candidacy, Reed went on to say that
“Obama is on record as being prepared to expand the war [“on terror”] into Pakistan and maybe Iran . . He’s also made pretty clear that AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] has his ear, which does it for the Middle East, and I wouldn’t be shocked if his administration were to continue, or even step up, underwriting covert operations against Venezuela, Cuba (he’s already several times linked each of those two governments with North Korea and Iran) and maybe Ecuador or Bolivia. .This is where I don’t give two shits for the liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy: they don’t mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one. As Paul Street argues in Black Agenda Report, as well as in his forthcoming book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, an Obama presidency would further legitimize the imperialist orientation of US foreign policy by inscribing it as liberalism or the ‘new kind’ of progressivism. .[T]he bipartisan ‘support the troops’ rhetoric that has become a scaffold for discussing the war is a ruse for not addressing its foundation in a bellicose, imperialist foreign policy that makes the United States a scourge on the Earth. Obama, like other Dems, doesn’t want such a discussion any more than the Republicans do because they’re all committed to maintaining that foundation.”
In recognizing that the “liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy [doesn’t] mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one,” Reed and others’ arguments on the “Left” beg the question of U.S. “imperialism” and its place in the world. This is an unexamined inheritance from the Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s-70s that has become doxa on the “Left.” Put another way, it has been long since anyone questioned the meaning of “anti-imperialism”—asked, “as opposed to what?”
If, as Reed put it about Gore, Kerry, et al., that the “Right would have been able to hound” them into Iraq or other wars, this begs the question of why those on the “Left” would not regard Obama, Kerry, Gore, or (either) Clinton, not as beholden to the Right, but rather being themselves part of the Right, not “capitulating to” U.S. imperialism but part of its actual political foundation. There is an evident wish to avoid raising the question and problem of what is the actual nature and character of “U.S. imperialism” and its policies, what actually makes the U.S., as Reed put it, “a scourge on the Earth,” and what it means to oppose this from the “Left.” For it might indeed be the case that not only the Democrats don’t want such a discussion of the “foundation” of “U.S. imperialism” (“any more than the Republicans do”), but neither do those on the “Left.”
For Adolph Reed, as for any ostensible “Left,” the difficulty lies in the potential stakes of problematizing the role of U.S. power in the world. If the U.S. has proven to be, as Reed put it, a “scourge on the Earth,” the “Left” has consistently shied away from thinking about, or remained deeply confused and self-contradictory over the reasons for this—and what can and should be done about it.
Reed placed this problem in historical context by pointing out that:
“[E]very major party presidential candidate between 1956 and 1972—except one, Barry Goldwater, who ran partly on his willingness to blow up the world and was trounced for it—ran on a pledge to end the Vietnam War. Every one of them lied, except maybe Nixon the third time he made the pledge, but that time he had a lot of help from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.”
—But Nixon et al. would have gotten a lot more “help” living up to their pledges to end the U.S. war in Vietnam if the Communists had just laid down and died.
Was this the politics of the “big lie,” as Reed insists, echoing the criticisms of the Bush administration’s war policy, supposedly based on deceit, or is there a more simple and obvious explanation: that indeed, all American politicians were and remain committed to ending war, but only on their own, “U.S. imperial” terms? And why would anyone expect otherwise?
If this is the case, then, the difference between the Obama and McCain campaigns regarding U.S. “imperialism” would amount to no difference at all. Obama has pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, but only if the “security situation” allows this. McCain has pledged to remain in Iraq as long as it takes to “get the job done.” What’s the difference? Especially given that the Bush administration itself has begun troop reductions and has agreed in its negotiations with the government of Iraq to a “definite timetable” for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, as the Sunni insurgency has been quelled or co-opted into the political process and Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Brigade have not only laid down their arms but are presently disbanding entirely. No less than Bush and McCain, Obama, too, is getting what he wants in Iraq. Everyone can declare “victory.” And they are doing so. (Obama can claim vindication the degree to which the pacification of Iraq seems more due to the political process there—such as the “Anbar awakening” movement, etc.—than to U.S. military intervention.)
All the doomsday scenarios are blowing away like so many mirages in the sand, revealing that the only differences that ever existed among Republicans and Democrats amounted to posturing over matters of detail in policy implementation and not over fundamental “principles.” This despite the Obama campaign’s sophistic qualifiers on the evident victory of U.S. policy in Iraq being merely a “tactical success within a strategic blunder,” and their pointing out that the greater goals of effective “political reconciliation” among Iraqi factions remain yet to be achieved. What was once regarded in the cynically hyperbolic “anti-war” rhetoric of the Democrats as an unmitigated “disaster” in Iraq is turning out to be something that merely could have been done better. The “Left” has echoed the hollowness of such rhetoric. At base, this has been the result of a severely mistaken if not entirely delusional imagination of the war and its causes.
At base, the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq to steal its oil, or for any other venal or nefarious reason, but rather because the U.N.’s 12-year-old sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, which meant the compromise and undermining of effective Iraqi sovereignty (for instance in the carving of an autonomous Kurdish zone under U.N. and NATO military protection) was unraveling in the oil-for-food scandal etc., and Saddam, after the first grave mistake of invading Kuwait, made the further fateful errors of spiting the U.N. arms inspectors and counting on being able to balance the interests of the European and other powers in the U.N. against the U.S. threat of invasion and occupation. The errors of judgment and bad-faith opportunism of Saddam, the Europeans, and others were as much the cause for the war as any policy ambitions of the neocons in the Bush administration. Iraq was becoming a “failed state,” and not least because of the actions of its indisputably horrifically oppressive rulers. If Saddam could not help but to choose among such bad alternatives for Iraq, this stands as indictment of the Baathist regime, its unviable character in a changing world. The niche carved out by the combination of Cold War geopolitics and the international exploitation of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s for the Baathist shop of horrors was finally, mercifully, closing.
The unraveling of the U.N. sanctions regime prior to the 2003 invasion and occupation, enforced not only by the U.S. and Britain but by neighboring states and others, cannot be separated from the history of the disintegration of the Iraqi state. The armchair quarterbacking of “anti-war” politics was from the outset (and remains to this day) tacitly, shame-facedly, in favor of the status quo (and worse, today, must retrospectively try to distort and apologize for the history of Baathism). In comparison with such evasion of responsibility, the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was an eminently responsible act. They were willing to stake themselves in a way the Democrats and the Europeans and others were not—and the “Left” could not. The “success” of the Bush policy amounts to its ability to cast all alternatives into more or less impotent posturing. Attributing motives for the war to American profiteering is to mistake effect for cause. Complaining about the fact that American companies have profited from the war is to impotently protest against the world as it is, for someone was going to profit from it—would it be better if French, Japanese or Saudi firms did so?
That the U.S. government under Bush broke decorum and made the gesture of invading Iraq “unilaterally” without U.N. Security Council approval says nothing to the fact that Iraq was likely to be invaded and occupied (by “armed inspection teams” supported by tens of thousands of “international” troops, etc.) in any case. Did it really matter whether the U.S. had the U.N. fig leaf covering the ugliness of its military instrument? It was only a matter of when and how it was going to be put to use, in managing the international problem the Iraqi state had become. No one among the international powers-that-be, including the most “rogue” elements of the global order (Russia, China, Iran, et al.) had any firm interest in restoring to Saddam’s Baathists the status quo from before 1990 and, needless to say, not only the U.S. and Britain, but also Saudi Arabia and Iran, and most especially the Iraqi Kurds and Shia, were not about to let that happen. Saddam was on the way out. It was only a matter of how.
All the rhetoric about the “overreach” and “hubris” of U.S. policy in Iraq says nothing to the fact that a crossroads there was being reached—this was already true under Clinton. All the bombast about the “illegal”—or even “criminal”—character of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq neglects the simple fact that the U.S. occupation was authorized by the U.N. When Democrats impugn the “crusading” motives of the Bush administration with sophistry about the supposed folly of trying to spread “democracy” in Iraq and the greater Middle East, is this a “progressive” argument, or a conservative one?
Not only the Democrats’ but the “Left’s” opposition to the Iraq war has in fact been from the Right. This is revealed most perversely by the history of the Iraq policy recommendations of Joe Biden, who has been touted by the Obama campaign as bringing “foreign policy credentials” to their ticket as candidate for Vice President. Biden once advocated a break-up of Iraq into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states, during the height of the Sunni insurgency, which would have punished the Sunni by leaving them without access to Iraq’s oil wealth (which is concentrated in the Kurdish and Shiite areas of Kirkuk and Basra). Would pursuit of such an ethno-sectarian division of Iraq have been a “progressive” outcome for furthering the “democratic self-determination” of the peoples of Iraq?—In comparison with the 20% troop “surge” that has in fact, as even Obama has put it, “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Or might we see in such apparently “extreme” policy alternatives as Biden’s a deeper underlying fact, that from the standpoint of not only U.S. “imperial” interests but those of the global order, it doesn’t make much difference if Iraq remains a single or is broken up into multiple states, whether it is ruled by secular or theocratic regimes, or whether its government is “democratic” or dictatorial, whether its civil society is “liberal” or not. But, presumably, this matters a great deal to the Iraqis!
None of the posed alternatives regarding Iraq—not before, during or since the invasion and occupation—can be ascribed to being inherently in service of or opposed to the on-going realities of U.S. power (“imperialism”), or the interests of global capitalism, because all of them are compatible with these. Rather, the policy alternatives are all matters of opportunistic orientation to an underlying reality that is not being substantially challenged or even recognized politically by any of the actors involved, great or small, on the “Right” or “Left,” from al-Qaeda to the neoconservatives, or “libertarians” like Ron Paul, from Bush to the President of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ahmadinejad, and Republicans and Democrats from McCain to Obama, or “independents” and the Green Party’s candidates Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, to the far-“Left” of “anarchists” and other antinomians like writers for Counterpunch and the Chomskyans, et al. at Z magazine, or the “anti-war” protest coalitions led by “Marxist” groups such as the International Socialist Organization (United for Peace and Justice coalition, Campus Anti-war Network), Workers World Party (ANSWER coalition), or the Revolutionary Communist Party (World Can’t Wait coalition).
All of the supposed “anti-imperialists”—from Iraq policy dissident Republicans like Senator Chuck Hagel, to the most intransigent “Marxists” like the Spartacist League—have failed to be truly anti-“imperialist” in their approach to Iraq, nor could they be, for none could have possibly challenged the fundamental conditions of U.S. power in global capital. There is no politics of anti-imperialism, for no one asks politically whether and what it means to say that the U.S. could be more or less “imperialist,” whether the world order can do without the U.S. acting as global cop—asking, who, for instance, would play this nevertheless necessary role in the absence of the U.S.? For there is no one. And no purported “Left” should want “openings” for their own sake in the global order—as if any “cracks” in the “system” won’t be the holes into which the world’s most abject will be immediately swallowed, without in any way sparing the next batch of victims in the train-wreck of history.
The fundamental inability of anyone on the “Left” to take a meaningfully alternative position on Iraq, beyond hoping (vainly) for the “defeat” of or “resistance” to U.S. policy, and thus immediately joining the opportunism of the politics of the Democrats, dissident Republicans, and European and other statesmen, should serve as a warning about the dire political state of the world and its possibilities today. Accusations might fly about who may more or less tacitly “support” “U.S. imperialism,” but there is such a thing as protesting too much, especially when it must be admitted that nothing can be done right now to alter the given global political and social realities in a progressive-emancipatory manner. If, as Adolph Reed put it, the U.S. remains a “scourge on the Earth,” is the alternative only to impotently denounce this and not try to properly understand it—and understand what it would mean to prepare to begin to meaningfully challenge and overcome this?
As appalling as it might be to recognize, McCain in his Republican National Convention speech was actually more truthful and straightforward than Obama when he pointed out that he has stood consistently behind what has proved to be a successful policy in Iraq. Obama now must dissemble on the issue.
On the other hand, the essence of Obama’s candidacy can be seen in the figure of Samantha Power, who was sacked from his primary campaign after saying, correctly, that Hillary Clinton was a “monster” who would “say anything” to get elected. Power is a liberal promoter of “human rights” military interventionism, and began working as a senior advisor for Obama immediately after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Power is a representative of Obama’s version of the historical precedent of JFK’s team of “the best and the brightest” such as Robert McNamara. In fact, Obama’s candidacy has been in its origins much more about “foreign” than “domestic” policy, and more than will be apparent now that Iraq has been neutralized as the main issue in the election. Obama, no less than McCain, is campaigning for the office not only of the “top cop” of the U.S., but of the world. Obama’s campaign is over effective policy for this role, not the role itself.
The “Left” is now up in arms in the face of Obama’s candidacy because his campaign explicitly aims to refurbish the U.S. government’s capacity to play this role, and perhaps even in expanded ways, as U.S. power would be equipped to advance the liberal cause of “human rights” internationally more idealistically and less cynically than under Bush or Clinton.
But this raises the issue of how to understand the U.S.’s role in the world. Only at its peril does the Left treat the explicit Wilsonian doctrine that has essentially underwritten U.S. policy and power after the First World War as hypocritical or cynical, for the project of the U.S. as the central, without-peer hegemonic power of global capital is one in which all states internationally participate (through the U.N., the international treaty organization of U.S. power), only to a greater or lesser extent. Maintaining the “peaceful” conditions of capital has and will continue to prove a bloody business at global scale. As much as one might wish otherwise or simply regret the onus of U.S. power, reality must be faced.
The hyperbole around Iraq in mainstream politics is best illustrated by that favored word, “quagmire.” But behind this has been hysteria, not reason. Feeling in one’s step the pull of some gum on the pavement is not the threat of sinking into quicksand! The Iraqi “insurgents” knew better than their apologists and cynical anti-Bush well-wishers among the Democrats and European and other powers—and their open cheerleaders on the “Left” —that they were not so intransigent, not so willing to die to a last man in their “opposition” to the U.S. and its policies, but only wished to drive a harder bargain at the negotiating table with the U.S. and its allies in Iraq—and now they are themselves becoming allies of the Iraqi government and the U.S.
Currently, it might still remain unclear whether the combined actions and apparent attenuation of the Iraqi insurgents/militias and the struggle among the ruling and oppositional parties of the Iraqi government and, behind them, their foreign backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the apparent disarray of the regime of the Iranian Islamic Republic in its nuclear standoff with the U.S. and European powers, amount to a temporary situation borne of a shared wish to ride the Obama train (or merely the potential for change inherent in the election cycle) into a better bargaining position regarding U.S. policy and so not to spoil the U.S. election and bring the supposedly more bellicose John McCain to power through the fear of the American public, or whether they’ve given up the bloody game of jockeying for influence in Iraq because they’ve already spent what chips they had in the last 5 years.
In any case, as far as the election is concerned, Obama has played a strategy in his campaign from which any purported “Left” must learn politically: that it is not a good idea to bank ahead of time on the defeat of one’s opponents. Obama’s campaign is in more trouble than it might have been because it has lost its signal issue with which to prosecute the Republicans with the Bush administration, a “losing” war in Iraq. Obama can be elected despite this, and fudge the issue of the war and “opposition” to it as policy.
But the “Left” remains in a similar but in fact much worse predicament. The “Left” never asked the burning question: What if the Bush policy “succeeds?” Then what will be the basis for opposition to U.S. “imperialism?”
Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, despite the wishes of the “Left” to have history repeat itself. If Iraq does not , as it appears it will not, fall apart or drag on in endless slaughter, but continues to stabilize, and does not give up sovereignty over its oil resources, etc., but simply allows the U.S. some minimal military presence through its embassy there, and continues to work with the U.S. against groups like al-Qaeda, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, the Kurdish PKK guerillas in Turkey, and willingly sides with the U.S., as it will inevitably, in any potential future wars against Iran or Syria, etc., will this mean that the U.S. invasion and occupation diminished Iraqi “sovereignty” and so was a phenomenon of U.S. “imperialism?” What will be the account of Iraqi motives in the arrangement achieved by U.S. intervention, as mere stooges for the U.S.?
And won’t this mean taking a much coarser and narrower- minded view of the actual concrete politics of Iraq and the Middle East than those evinced by Obama, McCain and (even) Bush, so effectively disqualifying the “Left” as being in any way competent to comment, let alone critique or offer political alternatives?
What will remain the basis for the “Left’s” opposition to U.S. policy in a world McCain or Obama would make after Bush — after Blackwater, et al. quit the Iraqi scene, as they already are doing, and not through defeat but success, and not without some selective high-profile (if become less interesting) investigations and prosecutions of “war crimes” by Americans, now that the U.S. can afford them?
How will U.S. power in the world be understood, and what critique and vision of the future will be posed in the face of its undiminished capacities? |P
Platypus Review 3 | March 2008
Since the 1960s the saturation of brutality and violence in Iraq has caused considerable confusion among Leftists in regards to both its political meaning and causes. One cannot fully understand the character of Saddam Hussein’s Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party without taking into account that it achieved political power by systematically killing off the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and quelling other political dissent with acts of extreme cruelty. The eight year battle of attrition instigated by Hussein, known as the Iran-Iraq War, caused over half a million Iraqi deaths, and the ethnic cleansing campaigns directed against the Kurds resulted in countless more. It is estimated that during the 1988 Anfal Campaign alone over 100,000 Kurds were massacred. In addition to the many catastrophic events that mark the history of Ba’athist society, it is perfectly clear that Hussein’s one-party-state was maintained through the use of relentless day-to-day violence directed against its citizens.
Kanan Makiya’s groundbreaking study of Iraqi Ba’athism, Republic of Fear, documents instances of institutionalized violence used to terrorize Iraqi society. In the 1998 introduction, Makiya recounts a law passed in the chaotic aftermath of the first Gulf War mandating that the state brand the mark of an X on the forehead of repeat offenders of crimes such as theft and desertion; the first offense of such crimes was punished by amputation of the hand. When a doctor who performed amputations for the state was murdered by one his patients the medical community was outraged and called a strike. However, after the state threatened to cut off the ear of any doctor who refused to enforce the law, the protest was called off.
Iraqi Ba’athism, and the struggle against it, continues to confound today’s Anti-War movement. Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson and founder of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), exemplifies the problematic stances that the movement has assumed. In 2004 Clark volunteered to defend Hussein at his trial before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, speaking out against the unfairly “demonized Saddam Hussein.” The sight of a prominent opponent of the Iraq War publicly defending Hussein should have caused serious alarm among the Left for the obvious reason that it directly challenged solidarity between the Anti-War movement and the Iraqi Left, which struggled against dictatorship for three decades.
The ideological roots of Ba’athism were formulated by its founding leader Michel ‘Aflaq, who during his education at the Sorbonne, first developed his political eclecticism. His speeches and writings often contradict each other but the most pronounced feature of ‘Aflaq’s thinking is his appropriation of Johann von Herder’s notions of the “soul” or “spirit” of the Nation, which he imbued with Arab/Islamic chauvinism. This is coupled with a revision of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism in what has become a typical formulation since the period of de-colonization. ‘Aflaq writes, “contrary to what happened in the West, the revolt of the Eastern peoples carries in the first place a liberatory humanitarian character, because it is directed against Imperialism… and whereas oppression in the West falls only on classes, the East is made up of Nations that are oppressed.” ‘Aflaq carefully mitigates the issue of domestic class conflict; he accounts for internal strife by attributing its cause to an omnipotent external power. The notion of an uniquely “Arab socialism” coupled with nationalism also helped fuel powerful forms of racism, by galvanizing anti-Semitism and helping justify the campaigns against the Kurds. Anti-imperialism and anti- Zionism became common scapegoats for social ills often despite any logical relation to the problems in question. It should be noted that such theories created a clear divide between the Ba’athists and the Communist Parties, as the latter sought to base their politics in class struggle, domestic and international.
In the key moments after the 1958 revolution, when the ICP was at the height of its power, two paradigmatic conflicts between the Communists and the Nationalists greatly undermined the ICP’s potential as a progressive, unifying political force. Social animosities overflowed when the ICP sought to suppress a pan-Arab revolt in Mosel, in which political activity decayed into ethnic and civil violence. The Iraqi historian Hanna Batatu wrote that during the Mosel conflict, “It seemed as if all social cement dissolved and all political authority vanished. Individualism, breaking out, waxed into anarchy. The struggle between nationalists and communists had released age-old antagonism, investing them with an explosive force and carrying them to the point of civil war.” The outbreak of violence first in Mosel, then in Kirkut, where Kurdish members of the ICP lashed out against their traditional rivals the Turcomans, played an essential part in legitimizing the Ba’athists.
After these two events it was reported that communists had killed civilians and committed acts of torture. In a statement just after the Kirkut incident the ICP wrote:
In well-known articles published a long time ago we stressed that “the method is the touch-stone.” But is seems that there is a deliberate intent to confuse this correct and firm attitude… with the impetuosities of some simple nonparty masses…We utterly condemn any transgression against innocent people…. or the harming or torture even of traitors…. We condemn theses methods on principle….
Nevertheless the political regression was in full swing such that the ICP’s follies allowed the Ba’athists to capitalize on the populist violence and disarray. In February of 1963 the Ba’athists mounted their first coup (with smaller numbers than the ICP had in 1959), and launched an effort to liquidate the ICP. Reflecting on the forms of violence directed at the ICP in 1963 Batatu writes that,
It is, of course, possible that the reaction of the Ba’athists might not have been as fierce, had the Communists been “prudent” or, if one prefers, “timid,” and offered no resistance on the day of the coup. But in truth the violence of 1963 is largely explicable by the violence of 1959, which, on a close reading of history, certainly did not mark a new departure in the political life of Iraq....If one is inclined to attribute the violence, at least in part, to doctrinal influences, then one would have also to explain how these doctrines happened to arise, and why minds or masses of people came to be susceptible to them, in both the immediate Iraqi and the more distant and wider contexts.
The violent disarray and instability proved to be the optimal breeding ground for the Ba’ath Party. It is incumbent upon the Left today to understand the roots of such violence, and to look at how these doctrines arise and realize their political outcomes.
Furthermore, it is important to take a step back, and look at how the Left emerged in Iraq, because there is no doubt that the Left is in a period of rebuilding. Historically, the Iraqi Left emerged in last the years of World War I. At that time, Husain ar-Rahhal, known as the father of Iraqi Marxism, was studying at a German high school in Berlin. According to party lore, ar-Rahhal, sitting in a Berlin pastry shop, looked on as workers began to fill the streets during the Spartakist Uprising in January 1919. His fellow schoolmates and political radicals introduced him to Die Freiheit, one of the Social Democratic Party newspapers. When he returned to Iraq he began reading The Labor Monthly, which was published by Palme Dutt, an Indian born member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a fierce opponent of the British Empire. Ar-Rahhal enthusiasm for theory led him to start the first Marxist study circle in Iraq at the Baghdad School of Law.
Ar-Rahhal’s circle became one of a plethora of Iraqi groups that emerged in the 1920s. Some groups stemmed directly from the Second International, others from the Communist Committee of Syria and Lebanon. Two former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students founded another key circle. The various groups solidified during the boycott of the British owned Baghdad Electrical Light and Power Co. when they focused their energy towards reforming and reclaiming civil society.
The early catalysts of the Left, labor reform and theoretical fermentation, are the demands of our time. In the post-Saddam era it is absolutely essential that the Left discern between progressive and reactionary forms of political action, as well as anti-Americanism, in their call for immediate troop withdrawal. As the International Secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, Hadi Saleh said, “Extremists who target trade unionists kill them under the notion that they are collaborating with a state created by the Americans… It’s a risk for all civil society organizations.” The fate of Saleh, who was tortured and killed by reactionary-sectarian forces, shows how high the stakes are. Groups like US Labor Against the War, who have brought Iraqi labor organizers to America and fought to repeal the law against unions in Iraq, demonstrate that solidarity can be tangible and progressive. The anti-war movement desperately needs to hold fast to its self-proclaimed universal principles, acts of solidarity, demands for labor reform and calls for national reconciliation if it is to be a force for progressive politics. |P
. Republic of Fear (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), ix-xi.
. Quoted in Republic, 243.
. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A study of the Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (London: SAQI, 2004), 866.
. Quoted in The Old Social Classes, 921.
. The Old Social Classes, 993-4.
. Quoted in David Bacon, “Iraqi Unions Defy Privatization,” The Progressive, October 2005.
"The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!"
Platypus Review 1 | November 2007
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
— Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)
“The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.”
— Theodor W. Adorno, “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963)
ACCORDING TO LENIN, the greatest contribution of the German Marxist radical Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) to the fight for socialism was the statement that her Social Democratic Party of Germany had become a “stinking corpse” as a result of voting for war credits on August 4, 1914. Lenin wrote this about Luxemburg in 1922, at the close of the period of war, revolution, counterrevolution and reaction in which Luxemburg was murdered. Lenin remarked that Luxemburg would be remembered well for her incisive critique at a crucial moment of crisis in the movement to which she had dedicated and ultimately gave her life. Instead, ironically, Luxemburg has been remembered — for her occasional criticisms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks!
Two lessons can be drawn from this story: that the Left suffers, as a result of the accumulated wreckage of intervening defeats and failures, from a very partial and distorted memory of its own history; and that at crucial moments the best work on the Left is its own critique, motivated by the attempt to escape this history and its outcomes. At certain times, the most necessary contribution one can make is to declare that the Left is dead.
Hence, Platypus makes the proclamation, for our time: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” — We say this so that the future possibility of the Left might live.
Platypus began in December, 2004 as a project for an international journal of critical letters and emancipatory politics, envisioned by a core group of students of University of Chicago professor Moishe Postone, who has studied and written on Marx’s mature critical theory in the Grundrisse and Capital towards the imagination of postcapitalist society since the 1960s.
Platypus developed and grew in Spring 2006 into a reading group of our students interested in pursuing the continued purchase of Marxian critical theory. The Platypus Affiliated Society is a recently established (in December, 2006) political organization seeking to investigate possibilities for reconstituting a Marxian Left after the demise of the historical Marxist Left.
We take our namesake from the platypus, which suffered at its moment of zoological discovery from its unclassifiability according to prevailing science. We think that an authentic emancipatory Left today would suffer from a similar problem of (mis)recognition, in part because the tasks and project of social emancipation have disintegrated and so exist for us only in fragments and shards.
We have grown from at first about a dozen graduate students and teachers to over thirty undergraduate and graduate students and teachers and others from the greater Chicago community and beyond (for instance, developing corresponding members in New York and Toronto).
We have worked with various other groups on the Left in Chicago and beyond, for instance giving a workshop on the Iraqi Left for the new SDS conference on the Iraq occupation in Chicago in February. In January, we held the first of a series of Platypus public fora in Chicago, on the topic of “imperialism” and the Left, including panelists Kevin Anderson from News and Letters (Marxist Humanists), Nick Kreitman from the newly refounded Students for a Democratic Society, Danny Postel from OpenDemocracy.net, and Adam Turl from the International Socialist Organization.
We have organized our critical investigation of the history of the Left in order to help discern emancipatory social possibilities in the present, a present that has been determined by the history of defeat and failure on the Left. As seekers after a highly problematic legacy from which we are separated by a definite historical distance, we are dedicated to approaching the history of thought and action on the Left from which we must learn in a deliberately non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing as given.
Why Marx? Why now? We find Marx’s thought to be the focal point and vital nerve center for the fundamental critique of the modern world in which we still live that emerged in Marx’s time with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. We take Marx’s thought in relation both to the preceding history of critical social thought, including the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, as well as the work by those inspired later to follow Marx in the critique of social modernity, most prominently Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Hence, Platypus is committed to the reconsideration of the entire critical theoretical tradition spanning the 19th and 20th Centuries. As Leszek Kolakowski put it (in his 1968 essay “The Concept of the Left”) the Left must be defined ideologically and not sociologically; thought, not society, is divided into Right and Left: the Left is defined by its utopianism, the Right by its opportunism. — Or, as Robert Pippin has put it, the problem with critical theory today is that it is not critical (Critical Inquiry, 2003).
Platypus is dedicated to re-opening various historical questions of the Left in order to read that history “against the grain” (as Benjamin put it, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), attempting to grasp past moments of defeat and failure on the Left not as given but rather in their unfulfilled potential, regarding the present as the product not of historical necessity, but rather of what happened that need not have been. We struggle to escape the dead hand of at least two preceding generations of problematic action and thinking on the Left, the 1920s-30s and the 1960s-70s. More proximally, we suffer the effects of the depoliticization — the deliberate “postmodernist” abandonment of any “grand narratives” of social emancipation — on the Left in the 1980s-90s.
But the “tradition” of the “dead generation” that “weighs” most heavily as a “nightmare” on our minds is that of the 1960s New Left, especially in its history of anti-Bolshevism — expressed by both the complementary bad alternatives of Stalinophobic anti-Communism (of Cold War liberalism and social democracy) and Stalinophilic “militancy” (e.g., Maoism, Guevarism, etc.) — that led to the naturalization of the degeneration of the Left into resignation and abdication, originating in the inadequate response by the 1960s “New” Left to the problems of the post-1920s-30s “Old” Left. In our estimation, the 1960s New Left remained beholden to Stalinism — including the lie that Lenin led to Stalin — to the great detriment of possibilities for emancipatory politics up to today.
In attempting to read this history of the accelerated demise and self-liquidation of the Left after the 1960s “against the grain,” we face a problem discussed by Nietzsche in his essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1873):
“A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended.” [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/history.htm]
However, as Karl Korsch wrote, in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923):
“[Marx wrote that] ‘[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence’ [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.” [Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy (NLB: New York and London, 1970), 58]
As Adorno wrote, in Negative Dialectics (1966):
“The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”
[T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143-144]
Platypus is concerned with exploring the improbable but not impossible tasks and project of the reemergence of a critical Left with emancipatory social intent. We look forward to making a critical but vital contribution towards a possible “return to Marx” for the potential reinvigoration of the Left in coming years. We invite and welcome those who wish to share in and contribute to this project. |P
Interview with Tariq Ali on Iraq, the anti-war movement, and the state of the Left today.