On the Brink: US Politics and Weimar Germany

Few would dispute that 2020 has ushered in enough challenges to make 2016 look like “the good old days.” The one positive aspect for many will be the chance to vote out Donald Trump from the presidency in November. While no panacea, having someone competent and qualified would be preferable to the status quo. Of course, there are no illusions that Joe Biden will do anything but preserve the old order that brought us to the current crises, but for the sake of so many vulnerable groups already suffering, and given the limits of the two-party system, defeating Trump must be done.

True enough, but we must be aware of the inevitable right-wing backlash that could push the United States toward fascism or further into it. A useful exercise in doing so lies in comparing the modern U.S. to that of the Weimar Republic (the German state between the two World Wars). While pointing out the parallels between the two has become trite, I argue that it goes beyond genuflections on political polarization in the U.S. today but also into our social and economic lives. The U.S. is not just a nation divided by conflicting values; we are also witnessing major institutions fail in real time, causing  ordinary people to confront a clean break with the present and a severe lurch to the right or to the left, toward conservative counterrevolution or to radical progress.

United in Nationalism

The German Empire formed in 1871, unifying abundant autonomous minor princedoms in existence for centuries. While these small states had confederated in the past, there was no singular German identity connecting them until the 19th century, when romantic nationalism spawned Pan-Germanism, the dream of German-speaking people united in a sovereign state. This period also gave rise to the Sonderweg, meaning “special path.” At the time, German nationalists believed their nation had threaded the needle between retaining a centralized, traditionalist autocracy (as Britain and France had failed to do) while also quickly industrializing and reaching a high standard of living (unlike tsarist Russia). Thanks to these advantages, the nationalists argued, Germany would defeat her enemies, establish undisputed hegemony over Central Europe, and expand into the Slavic states to the east part of a Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East). Obviously, these ideas would influence Adolf Hitler and his later attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union during World War II. Nazi Germany would craft Generalplan Ost (the Master Plan for the East), calling for the ethnic cleansing of Slavs from captured territories and the “rebirth” of these areas via colonization by German settlers. From its inception German culture promoted the realization of destined superiority and dominance, and it was in the pursuit of this dream that Germany inflicted unprecedented horrors on the world.

The U.S. too has its “Manifest Destiny,” but its genocide is well in its past, in its origins. The forced relocation, deception, and massacre of Native American peoples by European settlers and later the U.S. government and its pioneers are a widely known aspect of our history, even if it does not feature widely in the public discourse. The Sonderweg has its U.S. twin in “American Exceptionalism,” the belief the we are unique among countries for our foundation on the principles of individual liberty, republican government, and diverse peoples assimilating into a single, superior culture (e pluribus unum). The ascension of the U.S. to the status of sole global superpower, the wealthiest and most powerful country in history, would support this view, much as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was validation of German transcendence over the hitherto dominant power on the European continent, France. The equivalent conflict in U.S. history would be the 1898 war with Spain, a campaign manufactured by the sensationalist U.S. media and designed to spread U.S. imperialism through the acquisition of Spanish territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific islands, establishing the U.S. as a true empire with foreign possessions it had no intentions of assimilating. This notion that greatness and glory were inevitable and somehow cosmically mandated set both Germany and the U.S. onto roads that became rails, leading to militarization, centralization, and long periods of dominance followed by abrupt collapse, the rise of totalitarianism, and total war.

“Stabbed in the Back”

In 1905 the Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II visited Morocco in a bid to dispute French dominance over Morocco. Germany had pursued the acquisition of overseas territories to rival the huge French and British empires, and while it did gain some colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, these were minor holdings compared to the sprawling and lucrative French and British possessions. At the 1906 Algeciras Conference a summit of European leaders affirmed French hegemony over Morocco, resulting in Germany losing prestige. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the Great War between Germany and the Allied Powers, humiliated Germany by imposing harsh reparations and disarmament, as well as stripping the country of its colonies. Additionally, Germany had to agree to a War Guilt clause that further sullied its reputation. Germany in the 1920s suffered not just from the ruin and ravages of war but also a national despair over their perceived disgrace. Rather than looking within themselves at their ideals and customs, Germans decided to blame their embarrassment on external enemies.

German nationalists refused to accept the defeat of the “superior” German military; its legacy was the famous military strength of 18th century Prussia. They asserted the German army was undefeated in the field. According to them, Germany lost because it was betrayed. This Dolchstoßlegende (stabbed-in-the-back) theory helped fuel the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, as Jews were among those groups blamed for sedition and treason. Other enemies included social democrats, communists, and anarchists who wanted to tear down much of what conservative Germans considered their proud heritage, including the figure of the Kaiser. While it was Hitler who would seize power, the restoration of Wilhelm II as an absolute monarch was the aspiration of many German conservatives in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not so much the man they wanted, but what he represented: a symbol of German excellence for Germans to rally behind. As fate would have it, Hitler stepped into that role instead, exploiting the national trauma to implement the extremely jingoistic and ethno-centric doctrine of National Socialism.

While Nazis have had a remarkable resurgence in U.S. politics, they remain marginal figures. Extreme jingoism and white supremacy, however, have been part of the U.S. identity since its establishment. The U.S. first made war on the indigenous population and later against its Latin neighbors. While World War I technically involved the U.S., it was World War II that produced the military-industrial complex that makes up such a substantial portion of the U.S. budget and economy. Since 1945 the U.S. has intervened militarily around the planet to reinforce its hegemony in increasingly unilateral wars, at the great expense of its international reputation. It was the Vietnam War where U.S. imperialism received its first real interrogation. U.S. nationalists, however, had their own version of the “stabbed-in-the-back” legend, with the military “prevented” from winning the war by weak Democrats and anti-authority social movements. More recently, Barack Obama was regularly criticized for his “apology tour” to Muslim countries, with the regular implication Obama himself was a covert Muslim and, by right-wing logic, not loyal to the U.S. Trump has furthered anti-Muslim discrimination with his attempts to ban travel from several Muslim countries, in addition to vilifying undocumented migrants from Central America (many fleeing countries destabilized by U.S. foreign policy) and rounding them up for inhumane detainment. Even though white Christians have constituted the U.S. ruling class throughout its history, this class has routinely blamed its shortcomings and ills on ethnic minorities and dissidents.

A Shock to the System

For a brief period in the 1920s, the Weimar Republic enjoyed prosperity, a time of jazz clubs and neon signs, dizzy intoxication to elude the freshly concluded nightmare. This golden age imploded with the stock market crash of 1929. Instead those boats once lifted by a rising tide wrecked on the shores of financial panic. Public trust in institutions—the government, big business, the media—plummeted across Germany. The people, especially the German middle class, gave up their newfound liberal republican ideals and chose National Socialism as a bold solution to their problems. In 1930, the Nazis saw their number of seats in the federal legislature increase from 12 to 107; in July 1932 they won 123 more seats, but still fell short of the 305 needed for a majority. Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany until 1933 but clearly most of the German populace had embraced Nazi values as their own well before that, with all this historically entails. The fact that they were seeking radical solutions to an unprecedented crisis does not mitigate what that generation of Germans must be held accountable for, but it places into context why Germans would be willing to support the aspirations of the Third Reich, even if there was initial hesitation as Hitler steered Germany to war. The early victories of the war brought with it not stoicism but wild celebration before Stalingrad preceded a reversal of fortunes. After the war, Germany as a unified state ceased to exist, a deliberate deprivation of sovereignty, to undermine German nationalism. This had a lasting impact on German culture, resulting in the suppression of nationalist sentiments (until recently, with the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party).

In the modern U.S., the government actively props up the economy, with the central bank now directly purchasing corporate debt in the form of bonds, thus preventing the need for “bailout” legislation. Wall Street is now subsidized without any regulation. This “welfare for the rich” does not trickle down to the middle and working classes, who face growing unemployment and institutions straining to meet the crises. Even with mortgage payments and student loan repayments suspended, even with the stimulus checks issued earlier in the year, the perils of joblessness are arriving for more people. In a country where not just employment but a living wage can be hard to come by, and where adequate health care is tied to having a job that provides it, the people will naturally feel aggrieved and dissatisfied. For those groups like Black Americans who were already suffering great repression, indeed since the inception of the U.S., it did not take them long to reach breaking point, as they frequently have before.

The failure of the U.S. to come to terms with its history of race relations is one cleavage that will worsen and erode national stability, as systematic racism looms large over our history in such complexity and depth, the “peculiar institution” so inimitable in the world and yet also so disregarded in the white consciousness. Joined now with this ticking time bomb is the deliberate mass dispossession and exploitation of the working class, their little labor protections increasingly undermined, their compensation ludicrous given the national wealth they produce. It would be remiss not to mention the victims of heteronormative masculinity, as well as those straight or queer Black and Brown women who must live at the intersection of patriarchal persecution and racial subjugation. Those who therefore only speak of a “Black uprising are omitting that schisms of social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions are now rising to the surface in U.S., with each crack widening with every tremor, tearing us apart.

The Death of Caesar

Monarchists and other reactionaries in Weimar Germany yearned for the restoration of the Kaiser, not out of affection for Wilhelm II, but instead for the symbolic power he characterized as the living manifestation of a single state authority. It is not truly Caesar himself that is important but the idea of Caesar, the all-conquering hero, the benevolent dictator, the director of national destiny. Hitler as Führer was not Hitler as Kaiser, then, but as a once-in-a-millennium genius, a nationalist Messiah figure. If reactionaries are unable to turn the clock back, to reestablish the symbolic Caesar, they will support a real one, who promises not restoration but revolution. For Germany, that revolution was Hitler’s Reich and its attempt to realize its “special path” via non-conservative means.

While often unexpressed in any meaningful way, many German elites in civilian life and in the military opposed Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy and his implementation of the Holocaust, but it should be pointed out that their misgivings stemmed from skepticism of priority or execution, not with the racist philosophy behind them both. Albert Speer and Heinz Guderian may have had their publicized differences with Hitler, but certainly not enough to absolve them for their culpability in crimes against humanity. They, as much as the most ardent Nazis and undisputed architects of the Holocaust, possessed a nationalist spirit that drove them to hate and murder. Knowledge alone, however, is cold comfort; a Caesar figure helps to absolve the guilt that follows from those crimes that come with empire-building. Nationalist chants of “For King and country!” and “God save the Emperor!” are mantras, declarations meant to inoculate or cure those who bloody their hands in their construction by destruction. The ends therefore justify the means. At the Nuremburg Trials, however, the defense by Nazi war criminals that they were “just following orders,” i.e. working toward a higher purpose by following Hitler as an absolute dictator, did not spare them from judgment, even if the shade of their skin color spared them from the hangman’s noose, unlike for their Japanese counterparts.

Trump is not Hitler, but he is a Caesar figure, and this is obvious in how many of his ardent supporters see him: brazen and outspoken, energetic and driven, unafraid of the elitist “liberals” and “globalists” threatening U.S. independence and our “way of life.” They hoped that his election would overthrow the “deep state,” the clandestine “shadow government” of bureaucrats who run the country and the world. This populist distrust of U.S. leaders, many of whom indeed come from an extremely privileged upper class, finds expression in the infamous Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories. If Trump loses in November, his followers will not see this as humbling, but as the martyrdom of their hero, the repudiation of their believed redemption. Trump’s defeat will not mean the demise of far-right politics, but instead the redirection of conservative passions away from the ballot box and to armed revolt. It is worth remembering that our first civil war started not with the U.S. expelling pro-slavery states from its ranks, but by those pro-slavery states opting for war instead of accepting an abolitionist U.S. president.

The second civil war may be sparked not because of the election of a new Lincoln but because of the repudiation of the worst U.S. president since Andrew Jackson. Trump himself is immaterial; he never had the ingredients to be a mediocre president, much less an exceptional one. His downfall, however, will signal to the right-wing elements in the U.S., already so terrified of the changing culture around them, that their days are indeed numbered. To expect them to go quietly into that good night is foolish. We must all recognize that defeating Trump is not the goal, but rather the defeat of the reactionary forces he represents, and the building of a new and better society.

Post-Bernie Socialism: Reform or Revolution?

bernie_sanders_284954058943229Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in Biden’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the presidential election last this year. This was a pretty remarkable development, not just because in 2016 Sanders only grudgingly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for the same nomination after a long, acrimonious primary battle that continued all the way to the Democratic convention and the fight over the content of the Democratic platform. In endorsing Biden, Sanders beat other progressive Democrats like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders even endorsed Biden before former President Barack Obama, Biden’s former running mate, did.

It seems outlandish given his well-established antagonism toward the Democratic establishment, but Sanders has a close friendship with Biden, which was on display during the video conference announcing the endorsement. Biden has been a U.S. Senator from Delaware since 1973, served as chair of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, and of course was Vice President of the U.S. from 2009 to 2017. He is as much part of the Democratic ruling class as Clinton, and like her, helped pass the 1994 Crime Bill (responsible for the mass incarceration in U.S. prisons, especially of people of color) and voted for the Iraq War in 2002. Also like Clinton, he has been more friend than foe to Wall Street, billionaire donors, and other private interests. Yet when Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and Sanders supporter, penned an op-ed calling out Biden for his “big corruption problem,” Sanders condemned the piece and apologized to Biden, saying it was not his opinion “that Joe is corrupt in any way.”

334px-joe_biden_-_world_economic_forum_annual_meeting_davos_2005_portraitIt was a bizarre statement to make, especially since Biden is well-known for championing a 2005 bankruptcy bill, legislation that made it much more difficult for debtors to file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that would wipe out most of their debts. Thanks in large part to Biden, the bill made bankruptcy too expensive for most ordinary people, with the average out-of-pocket cost increasing from $600 to $2,500. Why did Biden side with lenders over borrowers? It is no coincidence that Biden’s state, Delaware, has a history of courting banks and credit card companies with low corporate taxes and uncapped annual interest and late fees. Hence, Biden has been responsible for building, as journalist Tim Murphy put it, “a financial system that’s great for Delaware banks and terrible for the rest of us.”

Given the discrepancy in self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders backing Joe Biden, whose fingerprints are all over the embattled status quo that is failing so many, it is unsurprising that many Sanders supporters are indicating they will not support a Biden candidacy. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a long-time left-wing pressure group that surged with new members after Sanders’ 2016 insurgent campaign, has said it will not endorse Biden, as have many rank-and-file DSA chapters and members. It seems hardly remarkable that an organization explicitly dedicated to promoting anti-capitalist policies would decline to throw in behind in the capitalist, pro-business Biden.

320px-traditional_workers_may_day_rally_and_march_chicago_illinois_5-1-18_1290_282699088805729Sanders caught the public mood in 2016, tapping into a raft of popular grievances over rising economic inequality, the existential crisis posed by climate change, government gridlock and venality, and a general mistrust of major U.S. institutions. But while the Republican Party hooked its star to Donald Trump and his brand of bellicose right-wing populism, the Democratic establishment has largely resisted any major shifts to the left. Even now in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has revealed how fragile and broken the U.S. and its principal systems and processes really are, discussion of student loan forgiveness and more accessible higher education include conditionalities and caveats, such as means-testing—and that is before the inevitable compromise and amendments that will come when/if such legislation is hashed out in Congress, with a far-right Republican Party that will surely oppose any attempts to increase social spending. If history is any guide, the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill will spark bipartisan calls for “deficit reduction,” i.e. austerity. The stimulus bill passed to address the financial crisis of 2007-08 led to the Obama administration creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which called for huge spending cuts (including slashing Medicare and Medicaid plus raising the Social Security age). Biden, incidentally, backed the commission, appointing GOP deficit hawk Alan Simpson to it, as well as his own chief of staff, Bruce Reed. Reed wrote the 1996 welfare reform law, which made it more difficult for people in poverty to get the assistance they need.

Given all this, the DSA membership and other anti-capitalists devoted to overturning the status quo have every right to be skeptical of Biden and the Democratic elite he represents. This begs the question, however, of how U.S. socialism should proceed: continuing to work with the Democratic Party to somehow oversee a gradual, lawful transition to socialism, or to adopt the traditional violent, insurrectionist approach ultimately leading to substituting the bourgeois state with a dictatorship of the proletariat. The chief difficulty with the latter strategy is its unpopularity, especially given the “bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices” of the “backward masses,” as Lenin once put it. For obvious reasons, people are reluctant to engage in violence against the state, especially in situations where state power is strong and still widely seen as legitimate. In the advanced capitalist West particularly, where the standard of living is relatively high even for the working poor, scraping by in a daily struggle is preferable to being imprisoned or killed. There is also the historical context: communist revolution in Western countries was eminently more likely in the direct aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the inspiring establishment of the first ever socialist state, much more so than now, given the “victory” of neoliberal capitalism over the Soviet Union. While the Bolshevik example roused a revolutionary wave across Europe from 1917 to 1923, these proletarian insurgencies failed, prompting the Stalinist regime to adopt “socialism in one country,” i.e. focusing on domestic development over exporting revolution. By the 1930s, most European communist parties had adopted a strategy of forming “popular fronts” with non-communist parties against fascism. Spanish communists took part the Popular Front government elected in 1936. In 1951, with the blessing of Stalin, the Communist Party of Great Britain published The British Road to Socialism, a program arguing for implementing socialism through popular democratic alliances rather than revolution. The French Communist Party was the leading left-wing party in French national elections from 1945 to 1960 and entered into coalition governments three times between 1944 and 1997. Outside Europe, the pattern was much the same. Chilean communists participated in the Popular Unity political confederation that helped elect Salvador Allende in the 1970 presidential election.

s.allende_7_dias_ilustradosIn all these cases, communist parties had two things in common. The first is that they embraced the reformist attitude of attaining socialism by piecemeal, peaceful reform. The second thing they share is that they all failed. Spain fell into a bloody civil war in 1936 when right-wing forces launched a coup, leading to the widespread massacre of communists and their allies, something the country still struggles to acknowledge. The Communist Party of Great Britain lost much of its influence after the 1956 protests in Poznan, Poland, and the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. The French Communist Party never recovered after denouncing the civil unrest of May 1968, which involved student occupations and general strikes, an instance where communists sided with the state against popular revolt. In Chile, the military overthrew the elected Allende government and brutally repressed all left-wing dissidents, with the approval and assistance of the Nixon administration in the U.S. In recent decades, many Western countries, notably the United Kingdom and the U.S., have seen surges in electoral socialism (manifested by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively), but these surges failed to overcome opposition by centrists and private interests unwilling to loosen their grip on power. These defeats beg the question: is socialism via constitutional reformism even possible?

Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Anglesey North Castles Historic SitesThe answer is that it is not, for one simple reason: the power of the capitalist ruling class does not exist outside civil society, purely in the political and economic domains. Power in capitalist societies should not be represented as a central tower to be slowly besieged by an organized, agitated mass movement; it is instead a concentric castle with inner and outer wards, defenses within defenses. Even assuming there was a socialist majority in Congress with a sympathetic executive and Supreme Court, abolishing capitalism would be impossible by merely passing a law. Granted, it would be possible to increase the rate of corporate tax and taxes on wealth, to pass laws raising the minimum wage or breaking up monopolies (such as in the tech industry), and by extension weaken the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism. As history shows, however, the capitalist class does not take this sitting down; their responses are layoffs, cutting of benefits (particularly harsh in a system where health care is a “job perk,” not a human right), reduced wages, accelerated inflation, and so on. Like falling dominoes, economic destabilization leads to the fraying of social life, with spikes in homelessness, malnutrition, drug abuse, riots, etc. The capitalist relations of production are not a Jenga tower to be gently altered piece-by-piece; it must be dismantled in its entirety in one go, in a chaotic period of not just political upheaval but also turbulent socioeconomic crisis.

Lenin described these moments of crisis as “revolutionary situations,” and identified them according to their “three major symptoms,” which are as follows:

 

(1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

Reformism actually stultifies the creation of revolutionary situations by affording the status quo the very legitimacy it must lose for a revolution to occur. The strategy of influencing the Democratic Party to adopt socialist policies, for example, is only possible with the belief that it is, as advertised, a vehicle of popular demand. “Mass politics” becomes canvassing for candidates and “getting out the vote” instead of “independent historical action,” the overthrow of one ruling class for another. Certainly in populist times such as the present, it is true that the “lower classes do not want to” live in the old way, but as long as existing dominant institutions are treated as valid, it remains true that the “upper class” continues to live in the old way. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly adding to the “suffering and want” that already existed for most ordinary people around the world before the crisis began, but even as misery is multiplied, there can no revolutionary situation if the majority work within the system instead of outside it.

If socialism is to remain at all relevant in our politics, there must be a reckoning with this basic paradox of Western socialism: the common aversion to any strategy that is not reformist, and the futility of effectively carrying out any strategy that is. It is important to remember that it is not violence that most people disfavor (indeed, history shows us the opposite is true) so much as the hard work of building a new society, a messy class struggle across all parts of life. Without a willingness to engage in that struggle, to take that leap of faith that a better world will follow the destruction of the old one, that new world cannot be born. It is also important to remember that Lenin directed the seizure of power in April 1917 in the aptly named April Theses, and yet the revolution did not happen until Red October, and of course was followed by several years of gruesome civil war. It is no surprise that class war is more appealing in theory than in practice.

Simultaneously, however, we must confront the absence of any alternative, as well as the likelihood of the crisis deepening the longer the old discredited order persists past its time. There is also the risk of revolution of the right-wing variety; right-wing militias are ubiquitous in the U.S., and the military, despite its traditional respect for civilian government, is one of the most powerful, well-funded pillars of U.S. empire. The collapse of the old order will not wait on us, and were it to happen tomorrow, it is the forces of reaction that are poised to exploit its arrival. Whether that arrival is imminent remains to be seen; in the meantime, it is up to the radical left to resolve that age-old question that has followed Western socialists for centuries: reform or revolution?

US Imperialism Spreads to Outer Space

seal_of_the_united_states_space_forceOn December 20, 2019, the United States founded a new service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the U.S. Space Force (USSF). The expansion of U.S. military force into outer space created little fanfare in the media, save for social media mockery of the new branch’s camouflage uniform and an official Bible that will be used in the swearing-in of all USSF commanders. Perhaps the reason the creation of the USSF sparked so little public interest is that, currently, outer space is more interesting in the context of science fiction; science non-fiction is far less sensational. Yet the creation of the USSF should give us all pause, because it does indeed have a very specific and threatening purpose: to counter the burgeoning Chinese presence in space, poised to be a crucial part of a supposedly imminent U.S.-Chinese Cold War.

In December 2015, the People’s Republic of China created the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), of which a key component is the Space System Department, with authority over China’s military space-related assets. Earlier that year, the Chinese government had released an official document on military strategy that stated: “Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared.” On December 27, 2019, China successfully launched its Long March 5 rocket (capable of sending up to 25 tons of payload into low orbit) and plans to launch a Mars probe sometime in 2020. Although China does not rival the U.S. as a superpower, the parallels between this mounting competition and the historical “Space Race” between the U.S. and the Soviet seem obvious. Just as Moscow then then, Beijing is rapidly reforming and evolving its military capabilities, as both U.S. political parties have authorized huge increases in defense spending in the name of “national security.” This time, however, the race is to be the first nation to put human beings on Mars or to establish low-orbit space stations.

1280px-xu_and_gatesYet the idea that there is a new “Space Race” brewing rests on the presumption that the relationship between the U.S. and China resembles (or will resemble) that between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Certainly, there are “experts” who believe this must be the case. Speaking at a forum hosted by the influential Aspen Institute think tank in July 2019, John Rood, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said China was “the one country… with the ability to change our way of life in the United States, and change the global order, for good or ill.” Chris Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, warned about the designs Beijing had on the South China Sea. Presumably Brose did not address what right the U.S. had to designs on the South China Sea, where the U.S. military has strong land, air, and naval presences in the Philippines and Singapore. The U.S. has enjoyed a hegemonic position in Asia for a long time, having acquired the islands of the Philippines and Guam in 1898 from the Spanish Empire after the Spanish-American War. After the brief interruption of the war with Japan in the 1940s, the U.S. commanded unrivaled control over the region. The U.S. still has around 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and around 50,000 in Japan. Also headquartered in Japan is the U.S. 7th Fleet, the largest of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, with 60-70 ships, 300 aircraft, and 40,000 soldiers protecting U.S. interests.

Concern over the threat of China to U.S. control of Asia is nothing new in the Beltway. An element of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy was the “pivot to Asia,” which included the 2010 adoption of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine, centered on coordinating the Navy and Air Force in a possible violent confrontation with China. Meanwhile, the Obama administration pursued a trade deal that became known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), framing it as an effort to reduce Chinese influence in Asia and advance the economic status of the U.S. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, he abandoned the TPP but resumed a hostile position to China, starting a prolonged trade war, which Trump recently settled to avoid further humiliation. Besides creating the USSF to counter the PLASSF’s “space warfare” program, Trump’s $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act reinforced close security ties with Taiwan and banned government agencies and their contractors from using equipment sold by Huawei, a telecom company with connections to the Chinese government. It is worth remembering that in 2013 NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of PRISM, an NSA program where U.S. telecom companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others shared private Internet communications with the government. These companies were obviously never sanctioned, since the U.S. government does not object so surveillance of its citizens, but rather encourages it. What cannot be permitted is foreign governments accessing sensitive information about the U.S. government, which has perfected global espionage. An increasing amount of U.S. military action abroad takes the form of special forces raids, drone strikes, and proxy conflicts to supplement its overt military force.

330px-henry_a_kissinger_28cropped29Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. policy of hostile relations toward the Soviet Union were rationalized according to a school of international studies known as realism. The common thread running through realism and its variations is that states act according to self-interest, seeking to maximize their advantages by any means possible. Realists differ over whether this mentality is human nature or the default state of anarchy that exists in the absence of a higher power. In the end, the outcome is the same: competing states must place ideals secondary to the choices necessary for hegemony or survival. By this logic, the U.S. government spent millions of dollars constructing the largest, most sophisticated military in world history, backed up by enough nuclear weapons to end life on the entire planet. There were also countless other expenditures related to winning the Cold War, from cultural propaganda to placing a man on the lunar surface.

The irony of this stance was that the bombastic signals these actions sent to the Soviet Union only spread anti-U.S. sentiment around the world. Lacking the historical context, many people inside the U.S. did not realize it was filling the role of imperial powers when their government intervened in the former French colony of Vietnam, or on the side of white supremacist governments in apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While claiming to be a beacon of liberty and democracy, the U.S. government allied with some of the most despicable, repressive regimes in the world. The 1960 Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro were initially more nationalist in character than Marxist, but since the U.S. had supported the harsh Batista dictatorship, the Soviet Union made a natural ally. Likewise, guerilla armies who fought white-minority governments in southern Africa gravitated to Moscow less out of a passion for Marx and Lenin than the need for weapons and resources to fight right-wing white supremacist states with ties to the U.S. This is not to say ideology was meaningless; but the communist case for human liberation and ending exploitation resonated (with good reason) among the poor and oppressed of the U.S. world order. To this day, the still extant socialist states and most potent communist parties are outside the capitalist powers, in the periphery of the international political, economic, and cultural systems.

220px-socialtheoryofinternationalpoliticsIn 1992, the academic Alexander Wendt published an article titled “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” Wendt posited realism was wrong because it assumes states must act according to self-interest. Instead, realism was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; by investing so much in competing with other states, a state is naturally going to pursue conflict, especially when it enjoys superiority. The Cold War was not a natural, inevitable battle between two rival powers, but the result of policy choices that pushed both sides to conflict. As Wendt put it, “anarchy is what states make of it.” In other words, in the absence of a sovereign above them, states need not prepare for imminent war; in fact, by preparing for war, they are making war more likely. It is entirely possible for states to eschew the sort of force build-up and psychological warfare that characterized the Cold War at its darkest moments. At the very least, rival states could at least agree to a amicable agreement based on good will.

The reality that there was no inherent animus between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was on clear display during the extended period of détente in the 1960s and 1970s. Former anti-communist firebrand Richard Nixon sought a “peaceful coexistence” with Moscow while also thawing U.S. relations with Mao’s China. When Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power in the early 1980s, however, it once again became conventional wisdom there could be no cooperation or even conciliation with the Soviet Union. U.S. conservatives like to give credit to Reagan for “winning” the Cold War, but this is a myth. If anything, Reagan’s bellicose saber-rattling and military build-up strengthened Soviet hardliners who were being challenged by liberalizing reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. It was only when Gorbachev implemented his reforms that the Soviet Union imploded, as the release of public frustration ended party rule. Ultimately, for all its millions in defense spending, the U.S. did not need to fire a shot to attain worldwide supremacy. The Soviet Union, having bankrupted itself trying to compete with the U.S. and its allies, destroyed itself from within, its legitimacy withering away in the eyes of its citizens.

1024px-chinese_eva_spacesuit_28229It is therefore not a given that the U.S. needs to be a in a “space race” with China or preparing to defeat China in the South China Sea, or engage in any other behavior that positions China as an enemy or a rival. In fact, if anything, China is much more an ally of the U.S. than the Soviet Union ever was. Firstly, since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, China has jumped into its subordinate role in the global capitalist economy, adopting an export-oriented market trade policy, encouraging foreign investment, and providing cheap labor to manufacturing companies in the metropole countries. Remarkably, in its trade war with the U.S., “communist” China condemned protectionism and touted unrestricted free trade and globalization as desirable! To fuel its industrialization (as well as fill the rainy-day funds of party elites), China needs access to global markets, raw commodities, and the frontier technology of Silicon Valley. Unlike China, the Soviet Union had numerous allies and trading partners post-WWII so that it could operate separate from the capitalist powers, or at least to a much less degree than contemporary China. The Soviet Union failed to export goods outside Eastern Europe (the most successful export perhaps being the AK-47), whereas any random object sold in the U.S. likely bears the imprinting “Made in China.” At least as far as the government is concerned, China seems more inclined to maintain the status quo, reap the profits of the moment, and invest in development for the future. The idea that it is about to upturn the global order, much less engage in “space warfare,” is ridiculous, as China would lose.

The second reason China is unlike the Soviet Union is in their own promotion of communism, or at least in its partners “buying in” to certain systems, institutions, and policies. Soviet foreign policy revolved around the Communist International, which coordinated with communist parties in different countries to align themselves with Moscow. Military and economic aid were contingent on accepting a subordinate position to Soviet policy. The U.S. did much the same by attaching structural adjustment packages (containing neoliberal policy prescriptions and “good governance” frameworks) to financial assistance to underdeveloped countries via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Washington also puts immense value on its bases in foreign countries, even when locals denounce their presence. China, however, attaches few (if any) conditionalities to its aid. It has invested highly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but it is not funding guerilla movements or expecting governments to declare themselves communist. Instead, China is pursuing a foreign policy of “harmoniousness,” coexistence instead of competitiveness. If the Soviet Union was all about centering its ideological differences with the U.S., then contemporary China is setting aside ideological differences and concentrating 0n “win-win” results. It is the U.S. government that is being doctrinaire in its belief that there can only be one global superpower, and that it is the will of some higher power it be the United States.

Bumper stickers that read “Visualize World Peace” can sometimes be seen on U.S. roads, but it is time for people to visualize war in space. That is the direction we are heading unless it is understood that this collision course with China is happening, and that it is unnecessary. Rather than seeking to maintain unipolar U.S. hegemony from ocean to ocean, from cyberspace to outer space, we ourselves should become oriented to harmony rather than conflict. The U.S. and the planet at large barely survived one decades-long Cold War where humanity lived in the shadow of nuclear winter. We may well return to that shade if we cannot choose cooperation over conflict, peace over war.

 

Reactionary Sociologies: Cultural Hegemony of the Ruling Class

“The Left is rather prone to a perspective according to which the class struggle is something waged by the workers and the subordinate classes against the dominant ones.
It is of course that. But class struggle also means, and often means first of all, the struggle waged by the dominant class, and the state acting on its behalf, against the workers and the subordinate classes. By definition, struggle is not a one way process; but it is just as well to emphasize that it is actively waged by the dominant class or classes, and in many ways much more effectively waged by them than the struggle waged by the subordinate classes.”
Ralph Miliband, “The Coup in Chile” (1973)

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poliThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon ranks as perhaps Karl Marx’s greatest historical work. In the essay, he documents the events that culminated in the 1851 seizure of power in France by Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. His study of the French commercial bourgeoisie, the urban working class, and the “grotesque mediocrity” that was Louis Napoleon himself are descriptive only of a certain time and place, but the analysis of class struggle provides a useful inspiration Marxist scholars interpreting critical junctures past and present. For example, the rise of fascism in the West during the early 20th century played out in a manner comparative to the spread of liberal values in the late 19th century, just as the latter had a profound effect on the parameters set on the former. As the West enters another period of unrest, a similar class struggle is occurring. With neoliberalism under threat, elites are uniting with right-wing populists to frustrate and prevent popular challenges from the left.

The Past is Prologue

barricades_rue_saint-maur._avant_l27attaque2c_25_juin_1848._aprc3a8s_le28099attaque2c_26_juin_1848_28original29In 1848 liberal revolutions swept through western Europe, a sign that “rule by the sword and monk’s cowl” would no longer be accepted in the embrace of logic and reason post-Enlightenment. The turn to commercial agriculture had produced the bourgeoisie, who demanded greater freedoms and political participation. In France, the revolution started out peaceful a “matter of course,” with the “bourgeois monarchy” replaced with a “bourgeois republic” promoted by “the aristocracy of finance, the industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeois, the army, the lumpen proletariat…, the intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population.” Marx notes that this ruling class used force to put down a proletarian uprising in late June, in which thousands were killed, ending the “universal-brotherhood swindle.” Much more attention is passed to the following years, as Louis Napoleon is first elected president in December 1848, his struggle for power with various bourgeois factions, ending with the 1851 coup and the Napoleonic victory over the bourgeoisie. Replace Louis Napoleon with Hitler or Mussolini and we see parallels with moderate liberals underestimating megalomaniacal tyrants. In the modern age, we are still in the early days, but the prospect of democratic breakdown seems increasingly possible given dismal trust in major institutions, especially in political parties and governmental bodies. As before, there seems to be one element in common: liberal elites forming pacts with anti-democratic reactionaries in alliance against the working class, even at the (remarkably high) risk of right-wing betrayal.

In a series of articles detailing the class antagonisms of the 1848 revolution in France, Marx writes that it “was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them—the so-called financial aristocracy.” The downfall of the monarchy had as its chief objective “to complete the rule of the bourgeoisie by allowing, besides the finance aristocracy, all the propertied classes to enter the orbit of political power.” The bank is the “high church” to the financial aristocracy, and rather than letting the state fall into bankruptcy, the provisional bourgeois government seeks a “patriotic sacrifice” in a new tax on the peasantry. What is more, the bourgeois republic swiftly turned against the working class, with one minister remarking: “The question now is merely one of bringing labor back to its old conditions.” The proletarians of Paris revolted in the “June days,” which prompted a massacre of thousands. Across Europe, a similar pattern repeated as the continental bourgeoisie “league[d] itself openly with the feudal monarchy against the people,” with the bourgeoisie becoming victims themselves in the aftermath of the revolutionary era. Reactionary counterrevolutions were widespread and repressive, particularly in Russia. To the extent that western European states implemented liberal reforms in subsequent decades, it was not in response to revolution, but gradual reforms undertaken by bourgeois political parties in concert with the financial aristocracy and other elites from the old political order. These groups shared a common fear of the working class and organized labor, whom they proceeded to keep out of power.

Over time, the continued agitation of organized labor movements (including political parties affiliated with trade unions) as well as greater public awareness of extreme poverty, mass illiteracy, and high mortality among the working poor turned the “classical liberalism” of Adam Smith to the “social liberalism” of Leonard Hobhouse. Western European governments began introducing reform packages including old age pensions, free school meals, and national health insurance. In Germany, the conservative statesman Otto von Bismarck created the first modern welfare state in a successful bid to stave off competition from socialist rivals. These strategic concessions by elites inspired some on the political left to argue socialism could be implemented in a similar vein, through incremental legislative reforms. In the U.K., this school of thought was embodied by the Fabian Society, whose members included two co-founders of the London School of Economics, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, as well as the Irish playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw. In Germany, social democratic politician Eduard Bernstein served as principal theorist in articulating a modified version of Marxism, where socialism would not come through violent revolution but by peaceful, lawful means. Bernstein even cited the repression of the Parisian proletariat in 1848 as an example of why revolution was actually a path to reactionary victory, not socialism.

In response to Bernstein’s revisionism, the German communist Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet in 1899, Social Reform or Revolution?, arguing that accumulative state-sanctioned reform “is not a threat to capitalist exploitation, but simply the regulation of exploitation. …[I]n the best of labor protective laws, there is no more ‘socialism’ than in a municipal ordinance regulating the cleaning of streets or the lighting of streetlamps.” According to her, the political participation of the working class in democratic societies is ultimately fruitless because “class antagonisms and class domination are not done away with, but are, on the contrary, displayed in the open.” In other words, the parties vying for power in legislatures take on the class character of the constituencies: a Conservative Party for the traditional ruling class, a Liberal Party for the commercial bourgeoisie, a Labour Party for the working class, and so on. Yet capitalism is fundamentally about the economy and economic power, not politics or laws. For Luxemburg, just as it was for Marx, the route to proletarian liberation was not through parliaments, but through a dictatorship of the proletariat, with the absolute class dominance of the working class over others. Only through this complete reversal in class relations could the workers of the world seize the means of production and build real, lasting socialism. Even as Luxemburg later became a critic of the Bolsheviks for what she claimed were undemocratic practices, she never endorsed liberal democracy as a credible avenue for rescuing the working class from their oppressed, exploited state.

The Ruling Class and Fascism

In 1919, right-wing paramilitaries operating under orders from the social democratic German government murdered Luxemburg and tossed her body in a Berlin canal. That social democratic politicians, ostensibly dedicated to building socialism, would use such methods against the revolutionary communist opposition seemed to validate the criticisms by the communists that reform-minded social democrats would, in the end, align themselves with the ruling class instead of ordinary workers. This was borne out by other examples. In early 1929, the Berlin police, directed by the social democratic government, used vicious force to put down banned communist rallies on May Day. Dozens died, most of them innocent bystanders and not communists at all. In the U.K., the 1929 Great Depression led to first ever Labour Party election victory, but rather than pursue socialist policies, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a “National Government” with the Conservative and Liberal parties, betraying his left-wing blue-collar base. In France and the U.S., social liberals were able to placate anger and anxiety over the economic crisis by finally creating welfare states, including the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while maintaining capitalist economies.

Rede Adolf Hitlers zum ErmächtigungsgesetzIn Germany and Italy, however, resentments instilled by World War I and the effects of the Wall Street stock market crash left conservative and liberal politicians exposed to populist grievances. This led to a surge in popularity for the far left and the far right in both countries. Notably, neither Adolf Hitler in Germany nor Benito Mussolini in Italy came into government by force; rather, they were appointed by elder statesmen, Hitler by President Paul von Hindenburg, and Mussolini by King Victor Emmanuel III. Although both men later seized absolute power, they had the support of the upper and middle classes, especially the petty bourgeoisie. Democracy was destroyed, but in both cases, capitalism was maintained. Hitler collaborated with German industrialists, with private companies designing everything from Nazi uniforms (Hugo Boss) to aircraft engines (Daimler-Benz, owner of Mercedes-Benz). The Italian automobile manufacturer Fiat produced machinery for Mussolini’s armed forces as well. Just as today, war was good business, and companies were keen to profit from it. Meanwhile, trade unions were abolished, and labor issues became a matter for the state to regulate. Contemporary right-wingers in the West often attempt to portray Nazi Germany or fascist Italy as “socialist” or “communist” in ideology or character, but truthfully they shared an intense hatred for Marxism and the Soviet Union (along with Japan, the two future Axis powers were signatories to the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact, an informal alliance explicitly aimed at opposing Moscow and the spread of communism.

Domestically, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy rounded up political prisoners and placed them in jails or concentration camps, many of them from radical left-wing parties. In Italy, this included one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. An activist who organized industrial action at Fiat factories, Gramsci was also a Marxist theorist, his primary contribution being the idea of “cultural hegemony.” According to Gramsci, the ruling class no longer needs to rely on force or the threat of force to exercise social control. Instead, the subordinate classes adopt the norms, ideas, and values of the dominant group, internalizing them as their own. Civil society in capitalist societies create and consolidate this cultural hegemony through institutions separate from the state (schools, places of worship, even family units) that nevertheless encourage and reinforce acceptance of the status quo. The role of religion in bolstering those in power while also functioning as an “opiate of the masses” is well-known, but practices like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in a classroom or deferring to “father knows best” in family matters also develop submission to authority. Presenting the default quality of human nature to be self-interested and egocentric contributes to the perception of capitalism as normal, innate to humanity itself. In this way perspectives critical to maintaining and expanding capitalism and the power of the ruling class become “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” It becomes easier in the popular imagination to imagine the world endling than it does to imagine a world without the dominant economic and political systems. This is reflected in a slogan employed by Margaret Thatcher in her promotion of neoliberal economics: “There is no alternative.”

The Case of Spain: Sociological Francoism

344px-francisco_franco_1930In July 1936, civil war erupted in Spain between the popularly elected left-wing government and right-wing rebels, the latter eventually headed by General Francisco Franco. After the victory of the rebels in 1939, Franco became the dictator of Spain and would remain so until his death in 1975. While not explicitly fascist, the Franco regime was undeniably authoritarian-conservative, favoring militaristic nationalism and very traditional Roman Catholicism. Political opponents in Francoist Spain were brutally repressed by state law enforcement agencies, with death warrants personally signed by Franco himself. The government, however, also implemented was is now termed “sociological Francoism,” the internalization in the Spanish public of ideas and values that supported the dictatorship. The government only recognized Castilian Spanish as the “official language” of Spain, denying the reality that tens of thousands of Spanish citizens spoke other languages, such as the Catalan and Basque languages. The Catholic Church had authority over Spanish schools and teachers who were judged to be insufficiently pious were dismissed from their posts. The orphans of parents who had fought for or supported the left-wing government during the civil war were turned over to Catholic orphanages and taught that their parents had been terrible sinners. State propaganda substantiated patriarchal gender roles, with men encouraged to be proud, aggressive warriors and women to be obedient, unassuming mothers and housekeepers.

While politically illiberal, Francoist Spain embraced economic liberalism, attracting around $8 billion in foreign direct investment and a booming tourism business. Despite the obviously tyrannical nature of the government, corporations and bourgeois holiday-goers were keen to profit from opportunities available in the country. It was easier to ignore and welcome the harshness directed at left-wing dissidents than to take a principled stand, especially for those sectors of Spanish society that had no natural sympathy for the cultural minorities or the militant working class. Francoist Spain helped to demonstrate that economic prosperity and a relatively high standard of living can eclipse notions of political liberty and civil responsibility for a majority of social groups, contrary to what liberal idealists would claim. The growth of the Spanish economy for fifteen years, from $12 billion to $76 billion, kept Francoism secure.

When Franco died in 1975, a democratization process occurred in which political parties from the left and right forged an agreement called the “Pact of Forgetting.” There would be no formal reckoning with the human rights abuses and repression of dissent that had occurred during Francoist rule. Individuals and institutions who had blood on their hands were allowed to continue in public life. The Spanish 1977 Amnesty Law (still in force today) granted immunity to perpetrators of atrocities from any prosecution or punishment. This consensus to avoid dealing with the crimes of the past meant that Spanish society did not polarize in the aftermath of Francoism, ensuring a stable and sustainable transition to a peaceful democracy rather than chaos and division leading to another potential civil war. Justice was sacrificed for political order and national unity.

In 2007, a center-left government in Spain passed a law intended to overturn the “Pact of Forgetting” and to finally recognize the rights of victims who suffered during the civil war and the dictatorship by rehabilitating the reputation of political prisoners, identifying those killed in summary executions and buried in unmarked graves, and removing Francoist symbols from public life. In 2014 a report made by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights found that implementation of the law was “timid” and that only three regions had supplied any meaningful effort in trying to locate people who had gone missing during the Franco years. Today, the major center-right political party in Spain, the People’s Party, traces its origins to Manuel Fraga, a former Francoist minister who oversaw the gradual, highly compromised transition from dictatorship to democracy. The People’s Party strongly opposed the passage of the 2007 law to finally deal with the repression of the Franco era, claiming it was “an argument for political propaganda.” Many works of art censored under Franco are still published in their censored or expurgated forms. Most recently, the People’s Party has been losing ground politically to a far-right party, Vox, which in addition to being openly xenophobic and sexist also expresses unreserved nostalgia for the Franco regime. While Franco’s formal dictatorship no longer exists, the cultural hegemony it utilized is still in place, with generations of Spaniards past and present conditioned to view the dark years of Francoism as not only far and respectable but even desirable. Today some Spaniards still openly lament: “Con Franco vivíamos major” (“We lived better with Franco”).

The Cultural Hegemony of Today

tina-thatcher-e1450536813194Just as the unrest of 1848 and the 1920s were ultimately triumphs for reactionaries, it seems that the present global tension is boosting the extreme right. The rise of Vox in Spain has its parallels in the U.S. “alt-right,” the arch-Brexiteers in the U.K., far-right populists in Brazil, ad nauseum. A large reason for this trend is that, culturally, these movements have received greater tolerance and even acceptance in these countries than left-wing movements typically spearheaded and supported by the younger generation. In societies where repressive violence is widely considered incongruent with liberal values, left-wing challenges are instead frustrated through unfavorable media coverage and social bias against unconventional progressive proposals. For example, universal health care is generally regarded with disbelief and skepticism as a dangerous, extreme policy despite the fact that almost all industrialized countries have some form of it. Calls to abolish NATO, explicitly set up to combat the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, are dismissed as absurd despite the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe allies several decades ago. Meanwhile, appeals to the principles of the past, despite being steeped in prejudice and ignorance by modern standards, at least have the virtue of familiarity. In other words, in the minds of many people, it is safer to go back than forward, even if it is at the expense of marginalized, vulnerable communities who have only just received some modicum of social justice after decades of fierce struggle.

It is doubtful that the present social control protecting the ruling class and favoring reactionaries will falter until there is the development of what Gramsci described as “counterhegemonic culture.” For Gramsci, cultural hegemony is not monolithic; it is borne from social and class struggle that it, in turn, molds and influences. Cultural hegemony is therefore a contested and shifting set of ideas. In the U.S., it is notable that the predominant counterhegemonic critique is less radical than it is sometimes treated in the mainstream press; the “socialism” equated with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the embodiment of the left-wing attack on the status quo, is more evocative of the welfare state policies of the New Deal era or many modern European capitalist countries. Millennial Americans, while typically more empathetic and more tolerant than past generations, are also less militant than their historical counterparts when it comes to political action. Recent so-called flashpoints of left-wing opposition, such as the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and 2017 Women’s March, have had festival atmospheres rather than the rage-fueled confrontations with authorities that were characteristic of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt or the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations. Western counterculture is still defined by individuality and avant-garde attitudes, but now more than ever also takes place through professional commercial operations. Music festivals and events of “radical self-expression” like Burning Man are less threats to the status quo than sanctioned profit-making avenues for “sticking it to the man” without actually risking real consequences through acts of civil disobedience and resistance.

The answer for this absence of popular revolt and meaningful counterhegemonic culture may be our own sociological sickness, a nostalgia for the neoliberal golden age of the 1980s-1990s. Western liberal societies did not have the pseudo-fascist traits of Franco’s Spain, but there are parallels with a period of economic prosperity coupled with indirect state violence against social “undesirables” (the ignored AIDs epidemic and the vilification of black “welfare queens” in the U.S., the industrial decline and racial tensions of Thatcher’s Britain). Also, just as the Spanish Civil War and the right-wing victory destroyed a powerful left-wing movement in Spain, the failure of 1960s protest in the West to enact real reform led to the virtual demise of a significant organized left-wing mobilization for the rest of the 20th century. Spaniards who grew up in Franco’s Spain were conditioned to accept the regime and its values as “normal” and correct; so too did many Westerners grow up in an environment where counterculture was a fun outlet for the weekends rather than a long, drawn-out struggle. While Western left-wingers may chant “Another world is possible,” it must be asked whether they have either the imagination to picture such a world, or the discipline to ever realize it.

The Reactionary Wave: Grim Tidings for the Left

meeting_momentum_in_islington_284902864268729The polling booths had only just closed on Thursday, December 12, when exit polls indicated that the British Labour Party, guided by left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, had suffered a catastrophic loss to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, which secured a large parliamentary majority. Brexit, the secession of the United Kingdom from the European Union, was obviously a dominant issue, but so was Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda, which would have led to massive investment in social services, including the drained national health care and housing programs. Labour’s failure to secure a popular mandate was disappointing (although not surprising; Labour’s polling had it headed to a Conservative majority prior to the election) to the left-wing factions of Western political parties, especially the supporters of U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Taken in toto with the mediocre performance of other left-wing populist movements elsewhere in the global metropoles, there is reason for justified discouragement. These setbacks indicate the immense obstacles facing left-wing reform.

In the middle of the 21st century, political currents representing the radical left entered the mainstream in many Western states. It started with the eurozone crisis, specifically EU-mandated austerity measures on Greece that resulted in a humanitarian crisis. In 2015, Greek voters made international shockwaves by electing an explicitly anti-austerity, far-left coalition (known as Syriza). In Spain that year, the Podemos party became the third largest party in the Congress of Deputies with 65 out of 350 seats. In the 2015 Labour Party leadership election, Corbyn won a landslide dark horse victory, with almost 60 percent of the vote, and after beating back a right-wing leadership challenged, exceeded expectations in the 2017 U.K. general election. In the French presidential election that year, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came in fourth, followed by the Socialist Party, led by Benoît Hamon from the party’s left-wing faction. Meanwhile, Sanders pressured heavy favorite Clinton in his 2015-2016 primary campaign, sustaining momentum into the contest for the upcoming 2020 election.

emmanuel_macron_in_2019As the end of the decade approaches, a survey of these parties and personalities bring grim tidings. Nine months after securing their anti-austerity mandate, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras accepted an austerity package, a move that led to the party splitting, and in 2019 the party fell into opposition. After two general elections this year, Podemos is down to 35 seats, with the right-wing Vox party on the rise. Corbyn is now set to resign as Labour leader following his defeat. The dominant political forces in France continue to be President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! and the right-wing nationalist National Rally, formerly the Front National. In the U.S., despite the failure of Clinton to win against Donald Trump in the 2016 election, an establishment Democrat, Joe Biden, is the frontrunner for 2020. Sanders and Warren have polled consistently high in a crowded field, but so far have yet to pose a consistent threat to Biden.

Reform is the slow-paced alternative to revolution, and no doubt it would be premature to declare the death knell of left-wing politics in the West. Yet it should nevertheless be noted that left-wing parties and movements have failed to successfully channel common grievances against the political status quo into meaningful fruit. It is obvious that the masses are angry, and trust in major institutions is at an all-time low. As inequality grows between the haves and have-nots, it would seem natural that the political left would see an upsurge in support. Indeed it has, at least nominally. The left has not, however, induced major disruption in the neoliberal consensus, while far-right governments in the United States, Brazil, Italy, and Hungary have, at the very least, fulfilled their reactionary platforms, often with lethal consequences. The extreme right has historically outperformed the extreme left in Western democracies, and that trend does not seem to be abating despite an obvious demand for left-wing policies in politics.

jeremy_corbyn2c_leader_of_the_labour_party2c_uk_288292c_labour_roots_eventThere are two factors I believe explain this phenomenon. The first, and the one that I plan to explore in this space, is the cultural hegemony exercised by the ruling class in the modern era. During the British general election, for example, the media demonstrated bias in its treatment and coverage of Corbyn and Johnson. Corbyn was subjected to rigorous interviews, including those related to the handling of antisemitism within the party. Meanwhile, Johnson dodged participating in a similar interview, even hiding in a fridge at one point to avoid interacting with the media. When he was shown, it was smiling and eating a scone in a staged photo op. When images emerged of a child sleeping on coats piled on a floor due to a lack of available beds at a national hospital, journalists eagerly jumped onto claims on social media that it was a hoax. It was easily shown that these claims were coordinated across multiple accounts, revealing a systemic disinformation scheme. Notably, none of the prestigious broadsheet publications in the U.K. are historically affiliated with the Labour Party; that distinction alone belongs to the Daily Mirror, a tabloid aimed at working class readers. This illustrates the working-class past of the party, which was borne out of the British labor rights movement. In highly stratified British society, the media outlets remain the circulars of the ruling class and the commercial bourgeoisie. These groups stand to lose if the radical left was truly able to implement reforms that would redistribute wealth and power. It should not be surprising that the media mediating discourse for these groups would take critical stances in their coverage of the left, which is just what they in regard to Corbyn.

toffs_and_toughsThe second factor that must be acknowledged is the appeal of right-wing rhetoric to large elements of the working class. The British case is proof positive of this: Labour support evaporated in northern England, where largely working-class populations voted for Brexit. Something not discussed enough in the Western press is how Brexit is not just about subsidies and sovereignty, but also about a xenophobia as toxic as Trump’s U.S. version. Johnson’s Conservatives have promised greater restrictions on immigration, and migrants and asylum seekers have become the scapegoats of the right for social and economic ills. Islamophobia is a recurrent problem within the Tories, and this includes Johnson himself, who has also said and written racist and homophobic views. Johnson invokes a caricature of the close-minded, stuffy-but-vulgar English elite, a representation of the reactionary English id in the same way Trump manifests the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” of the U.S. It is not Caesarism per se, but in the cases of Trump and Johnson, they are unmistakably products of their respective national identities. They represent a popular backlash against a globalization that is leveling cultures and changing demographics. Whereas labor was once stationary, but capital mobile, the opposite is now true; a side effect of this global mobile labor force has meant changing demographics that now threaten the homogeneous identities of some countries. This “reactionary wave” of the 2010s is a mad scramble to preserve what are, at best, tarnished legacies, popular imaginings located in the past. Yet with this quixotic nostalgia come harmful, reactionary systems of thought and behavior.

This begs the question: Is it possible to awaken a more enlightened consciousness on racial justice to the masses while they remain so saturated in dominant media institutions? What is the effect (if any) of alternative media institutions in shaping mass consciousness? Since major demographic changes seem inevitable, is the end of white dominance in the West really something that can be put off? Does that mean parochial ethnocentrism will lose its appeal, or that will it become more acute, turning violent? It may seem naïve to think of humanity uniting as one shared family, yet the alternative appears to be cleavages that set people against one another on a basis purely of identity.

Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup

192px-morales_20060113_02To understand recent events in Bolivia, it is necessary to have historical context. No event occurs in isolation from the past. With such information we can interpret the present, especially when we should be critical of the representation of events featured in Western media. Armed with the history, we see the coup against Evo Morales not as a spontaneous revolt brought on by constitutional zeal, but the latest intervention against a socialist leader in the form of a U.S.-endorsed coup, with control over natural resources and geopolitics at the center of it all. Just as indigenous rebels were suppressed in the colonial past to guarantee the smooth flow of treasure from Latin America, so too has Morales and his supporters been toppled so gas and lithium could move cheaply into factories owned by Western multinational corporations. The mainstream political left has been slow to admit it, but even presidential candidates are calling it a coup.

180px-potosi_mines_287162578429From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Spanish Empire controlled most of the New World, with the wealth of Latin America enriching the monarchy in Madrid. Silver was one of the continent’s top exports, especially a huge deposit at Potosí in modern Bolivia. In a little over a century and a half, the silver stolen by Spain from Latin America totaled three times the total European reserves. Ultimately, most of the loot went to the empire’s creditors, the patrician moneylenders of the era. Today, Bolivia still has the resources, but none of the wealth. According to the 2018 Human Development Index, an annual report by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks Bolivia with Vietnam and Palestine in terms of life expectancy, education, and quality of life. Eduardo Galeano, in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America, quotes an old lady from Potosí: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least.”

To those who study development and underdevelopment, the idea of “rich countries with poor people” is nothing new. Hundreds of billions of dollars leave Sub-Saharan Africa every year, either through the repatriated profits of multinationals or illegal deposits in offshore tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, and yet the continent contains some of worst poverty and weakest institutions in the world. So too does Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the proportion of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty increased from 9.9 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent (62 million people) in 2017. Fundamental social protections and fair wealth distributions remain as elusive today as they did in the colonial period.

160px-pongo_0436bThis is especially true for the indigenous people of Latin America, who also have historically been excluded from political power since colonialism. As in the United States, social conflict exists along racial as well as class lines. The “indios” of Latin America are associated not just with poverty but also witchcraft, anathema to right-wing Latin Catholicism. Bolivia is unique among Latin American states in having around three dozen indigenous groups totaling around half the country’s population. White Bolivians make up just 14 percent of the population, centered in the commercial city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which produces approximately 35 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product. In the 1960s, the famous communist revolutionary Che Guevara felt inspired to fight in the mountains of Bolivia against the government of Rene Barrientos, a right-wing general who had seized power with CIA backing in 1964. By then, tin had supplanted silver as Bolivia’s prized export. Notably, Bolivia did not smelt the minerals it produced; this was done in the industrial heartlands of the Midwestern U.S. and northern England. By blatantly thieving the resources of poorer nations, the capitalist powers fueled their own post-war economic boom, with the surplus wealth shared with the U.S. or British worker. For the Bolivian working class and the indigenous population, there was no investment in social services or poverty reduction, just human suffering. The so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” for the West came at the expense of the continued exploitation of Latin resources and the repression of Latin peoples.

4531933336_6f38b13f24_bIt was not until 1982 that Bolivia knew something other than military dictatorships and coups, with civilian rule finally being restored. Bolivians, however, did not control their own economy; hyperinflation had reached elevated levels, scaring off foreign investors. As it so often did in the region, the World Bank stepped in, attaching preconditions to its economic assistance. Following a program of structural adjustment, Bolivia privatized its hydrocarbon industry, its telecommunications system, its railways, and its national airlines. In late 1999, riots broke out in the city of Cochabamba over the privatization of the water system. A consortium who took control of the system began charging $20 a month for access to water, ignorant that most Bolivians only earned around $100 a month. The “Cochabamba Water War” led to the privatization being reversed.

In 2003 similar protests over the privatization of hydrocarbons led to the fall of the pro-neoliberal government and, in 2005, the historic election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin American history. Morales was a former cocalero, a grower of the coca leaf, who entered political organization just as indigenous movements across the Andes were demanding greater representation. Ironically, it was the U.S. itself that fueled these movements with the forcible expansion of its “War on Drugs” into South America and the resulting criminalization of the coca plant. Elsewhere, in Peru, the right-wing, anti-communist Alberto Fujimori government oversaw the forced sterilization of around 300,000 poor, indigenous women, one of the largest such operations since the days of Nazi Germany. While rarely mentioned in the West, such a human tragedy provides a timely reminder how exclusion can so easily lead into ethnic cleansing and even systemic genocide of marginalized populations.

With mines closing and coca farming banned, indigenous Bolivians developed powerful grassroot networks for improved social and political inclusion. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia was one such network, and Morales used its popular strength to launch a series of reforms based around (1) taking natural resources into public ownership and (2) using the wealth to invest in education, health care, and other social programs. Indeed, whatever else one thinks of Morales, it is undisputed under his administration poverty was significantly reduced for the majority of Bolivians. Morales lowered poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

320px-evo_morales_chapareMorales was part of a “pink tide” sweeping through Latin America in the early 21st century. Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist like Morales, had also come to power via the ballot box in 1998 with a similar anti-U.S., anti-neoliberal agenda. Like Chavez, Morales was a charismatic figure with an anti-imperialist message who had to instantly contend with U.S.-backed reactionary elites. Unlike Chavez, Morales did not take the profits of the 2000s commodities boom and spend it lavishly, running budget deficits as Venezuela did. Instead, Bolivia had a budget surplus every year between 2006 and 2014. Morales embraced a “socialism lite” that saw much more gradual nationalizations and more market-friendly policies. Earlier in 2019, Nicolas Maduro barely hung onto power as another U.S.-backed coup attempt sparked and fizzled. Meanwhile, Evo Morales went into a presidential election to serve a fourth term as president of Bolivia.

Morales had won his two previous elections with majorities around 60 percent, but in 2019 the vote was much closer. Morales had tried and failed to get a referendum passed that would have enabled him to circumvent a constitutional term limit (written and ratified under Morales himself) but had decided to run again anyway. When opposition members disputed results that gave Morales the victory, the Organization of American States stepped in to investigate the integrity of the election. The O.A.S., under U.S. direction since the Cold War, had been a staunch critic of Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, albeit muted on the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. dictatorships. Now it added Morales’ Bolivia to its list of rogue Latin states. The message advanced by the opposition and repeated in the Western press was that Morales’ violation of the constitutional term limits had sparked a national revolution against tyranny.

juventud-sczIt seems a tall tale to think that ordinary Bolivians would care so much about term limits that they would send their country into anarchy and possible civil war. If there was such public indignation, it was not represented by the close result of the earlier referendum vote. What was actually represented during the post-election crisis was the anti-indigenous racism and class antagonism of the wealthy Santa Cruz elites. Luis Fernando Camacho, a leader of the Santa Cruz autonomy group, has ties to a far-right paramilitary group with a history of targeting indigenous Bolivians. These are not the masses, but the local commercial bourgeoisie, the white descendants of white colonizers. They would gladly foment civil war, as their Venezuelan counterparts have tried to do, if it would mean the chance to enhance their fortunes with the blessing of Washington behind them. The rich whites of Bolivia live the anxiety of rich whites in the U.S.: exploited non-whites organizing and agitating for immense political, social, and economic reform.

It is worth remembering to those who would paint Morales’ eventual resignation as an organic act of democratization that this only happened after the military intervened. Given the long record of military coups supported by the U.S. in Latin American against left-leaning governments (Paraguay 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976, etc.), it seems absurd that anyone would believe what happened in Bolivia was not a coup. More than that, it seems naïve in the extreme to believe that it was not a coup with support from the U.S. government with the goal of forcibly dismantling socialism.

320px-20170809_bolivia_1505_crop_uyuni_srgb_283798006393129Before the coup, Morales was in the process of industrializing lithium production in Bolivia. The country contains the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, believed to have 50 to 70 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium has become a valuable commodity with the development of lithium ion batteries and a greater global turn to renewable energy sources. Typically, valuable minerals like lithium are extracted in their crudest raw forms from underdeveloped countries to be processed in the developed Western hegemons, just as silver and tin ore was smelted in Pittsburgh and Liverpool. To prevent this, Morales began investing heavily in creating all the necessary industrial capacity within Bolivia to process lithium. Assuming Morales eventually brought the lithium industry into public ownership (which would be consistent with his socialist principles, plus the social movement that produced him), Bolivia would no longer be dependent on Western countries to sell lithium ion batteries (and other lithium products) directly in the international marketplace. With the money obtained from that, the country could further invest in other domestic industries, building them up to compete with the very same Western-based corporations that once looted them. Bolivia was trying to gain independence from the U.S.-dominated world economy and having more luck than Venezuela. The consequence was yet another coup in a part of the world where they occur all too commonly. To this day, there has not been a full reckoning with how the U.S. has and continues to actively hinder democratization in Latin America as well as benefits from and contributes to its underdevelopment.

So far, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has stood alone among Democratic candidates in not only addressing the situation in Bolivia but also for identifying Morales’ downfall as a coup. While we should have no illusions that we will see a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy resulting from this election or any near-future election, we should nevertheless embrace the opportunity to support a candidate who recognizes the anti-democratic character of recent events in Bolivia. Furthermore, we should pause and consider the likely many indigenous Bolivians who will suffer due to reprisals and further political violence once the far-right opposition consolidates its hold on power. We are already seeing signs that the current de facto government is drawing up lists of political enemies and courting Catholic extremists rather than extending the olive branch to trade unions and indigenous political groups. This is not a turn toward pluralism at all, but the restoration of a white Latin aristocracy whose anger is fully directed at native Bolivians.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free market-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.

Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.

The National Question, Revisited

In Spain, Catalonian nationalists advocating separation from Spain are likely to go ahead320px-20set_barcelona_14 with a symbolic referendum on independence. Madrid has threatened it will seize control of polling booths if the vote proceeds on October 1. These events come on the heels of a landslide referendum victory in Iraqi Kurdistan, where allegedly 93 percent of over three million voters expressed support for independence. This is indicative of a global trend of unrest often described as populist, but which is also commonly nationalist. Throughout Western Europe, these upstart parties and politicians have tended to be of the right-wing variety, arguing for policies of exclusion and discrimination against immigrants, especially followers of Islam. These two referendums, however, involve communities are seeking the creation of two states, not the preservation of traditional polities. Catalan separatism is rooted in Castilian supremacy in Spain, starkly characteristic of the 1936-1975 Franco dictatorship. Upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and its former Arab possessions divided up Kurdish territory and subsequently suppressed nationalist agitators (ironically, it was the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq and the following destabilization of the region that sowed the seeds for an autonomous Kurdish government and any possible state it forms).

An independent Catalonia or Kurdistan would indubitably frustrate the hegemony of the U.S. and its Western allies, showing once again their inability to maintain the status quo. The weakening of imperialism is clearly anti-imperialist, but is it left-wing? The standard answer is that any nationalism is inherently anti-Marxist, as The Communist Manifesto explicitly states: “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country.” In isolation, the second sentence could mean that workers have no stake in the bourgeois state, but the preceding one makes it clear that communists seek to eliminate nationality as an identifier. This makes logical sense, if one accepts that communism stems from a belief in the unity of humanity; it would do little good to obliterate distinctions of class and state power while retaining ethnic division, a keystone of discrimination through every epoch. The Marxist theorist who married Irish nationalism with socialism, James Connolly, put it so: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” Or, as paraphrased in, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley: national liberation not based on left-wing principles will change only “the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag.”

There are also contextual factors that guided the thinking of Marx and Engels. Both men came from Germany, a country borne from the confederation of smaller states, the opposite of nations seeking to separate from unwanted unions. Moreover, their version of socialism was scientific and anti-utopian. Nationalism is inherently emotional, a moral conception not easily operationalized. Of course, Marx considered issues of nationalism in the Poland and Czech cases, for example, but through what Rosa Luxemburg called a “sober realism, alien to all sentimentalism” fixated on individual cases, rather than some vague, generalized idea of the metaphysical “rights of nations.”

Marx and Engels became more sensitive to issues of imperialism due to the 1857 Indian320px-the_sepoy_revolt_at_meerut Rebellion, wherein Indians revolted against the British Empire over issues of taxation, land annexation, abuse, and general exploitation. Marx wrote that: “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys (Indian soldiers), it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed all organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself” (emphasis mine). This dialectical viewpoint reflects the notion that capitalism is the author of its own destruction; its contradictions cause its own collapse. He observed that the violence inherent in imperialism breeds violent uprisings in response. Neither Marx nor Engels may have had little time for patriotic fervor, but they understood anti-imperialist movements as forces for positive social progress.

In 1909, Luxemburg wrote The National Question, in which she sought to bring nationality “from the clouds of abstraction to the firm ground of concrete conditions.” She acknowledged that states should be able to choose their own paths, while asking:

“[W]ho is that ‘nation’ and who has the authority and the ‘right’ to speak for the ‘nation’ and express its will? How can we find out what the ‘nation’ actually wants? Does there exist even one political party which would not claim that it alone, among all others, truly expresses the will of the ‘nation,’ whereas all other parties give only perverted and false expressions of the national will? All the bourgeois, liberal parties consider themselves the incarnation of the will of the people and claim the exclusive monopoly to represent the ‘nation.’ But conservative and reactionary parties refer no less to the will and interests of the nation, and within certain limits, have no less of a right to do so.” To her, the pursuit of some ideal nationalist state is a farce and distraction of workers everywhere, while the capitalist empires benefit from their wasted efforts.

Lenin, writing a direct rejoinder in 1916 to Luxemburg, defended self-determination, which had become increasingly mainstream around World War I. He rejects Luxemburg’s claim that seeking statehood comes from moral rather than material motives, as separation from foreign control is required for the realization of conditions favorable to capitalism: common language and communal bonds lubricate all forms of commerce. They do this not to attain true sovereignty, as Luxembourg argues, which Lenin agrees is impossible; true economic independence is unobtainable in the capitalist world system. Nevertheless, some basic degree of autonomy is a prerequisite for any sort of fundamental economic development. Lenin argues against bourgeois arguments for national exclusiveness, advocating “the unity of the proletarian struggle” and the “international association” of all proletarian organizations, but remains firm in arguing that all states should enjoy an equality of rights, including the right of secession.

In a way, Lenin highlights the difference between hegemonic nationalism – embodied by 154px-bundesarchiv_bild_183-71043-00032c_wladimir_iljitsch_leninthe Great Russian nationalism of his time, which the House of Romanov had used for generations to justify its Imperial regime – and the emancipatory nationalism of dominated nations, be they the repressed states of the old Russian Empire or later colonial liberation movements. Lenin was acutely aware of the nationalist movements that had emerged in the declining Russian Empire as well as the draconian “Russification” policies pursued by the Romanovs to preserve their crumbling hold over the nations in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Unlike Polish nationalism, which sought to overturn the status quo, Russian patriotism threatened change and revolution, and thus Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were hostile to it after taking state power in 1917. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union followed a policy of korenization or “nativization,” using traditional indigenous symbols and alphabets and promoting local cadres within governments and the Communist Party. In the 1940s, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union led to nationalism becoming resurgent, as the state extolled its soldiers to defend the “Motherland.” While this is often portrayed as a unilateral decision by Stalin, in truth it reflected conditions beyond his control: Hitler had framed the German invasion as a showdown between Western Europe and the Slavs, while the liberals of Europe had insured Soviet internationalism had bred no other socialist states in the image of the Soviet Union, save Mongolia. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s showed that capitalist powers reacted better to nationalism than internationalism.

Lenin believed strongly in national self-determination, and in many ways the Russian Communist Party he established in 1918 was the first national communist party. This was reinforced after Josef Stalin adopted the “socialism in one country” policy. Yet this was not a policy of isolationism. The Soviet Union engaged in interventions suiting its own interests (such as in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia), but it also supported colonial liberation movements in Africa, especially in southern Sub-Saharan Africa and its long-standing white-ruled governments in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In Latin America, Moscow aligned with the Castro regime, and in the 1970s, both Soviet and Cuban support was critical to the victory of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Today, as the U.S. and its allies rush to place any number of new sanctions on nations deemed “rogue states,” there was much resistance even into the 1980s by that same West to sanction Rhodesia and South Africa. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a staunch conservative, introduced an amendment in 1971 that permitted the U.S. government to circumvent its own embargo of Rhodesia; trade necessary to defeat communism was more important than defeating racist regimes. Even the People’s Republic of China, before business interests replaced its ideological drive, financed African wars of national liberation. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party, it is now forgotten, once claimed Beijing as benefactors and followed Maoist dogma.

Marxist-Leninists are entirely justified in supporting the Catalonian and Kurdish pursuits of self-determination, because it is a matter of materialist reality. These nations do not advance nationalism as a panacea, but as a necessary condition for pursuing a sort of national sublimation. In the words of the Indian communist M.N. Roy: “We want freedom, not to save the world, but to save ourselves.” Nationalism is not held up as an end, but a means to an end. States that act according to socialist principles will transcend nationalism, as the Soviet Union and early PRC did. It remains to be seen whether socialist governments would or will emerge in independent Catalonia or Kurdistan, but that is of course a question for the peoples of those nations.

Oppression shackles the aggressor as well as the victim. As Lenin said, “Can a nation be kur2017rrrfree if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.” The U.S., along with its allies, refer to the Catalonian and Kurdish independence movements as “internal matters.” Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-communism trumped anti-racism, partnerships in Europe and the Middle East surpass a right to self-determination. The Catalonians are no stranger to this; Francoist Spain, which actively repressed Catalonian identity, received support precisely for its anti-communist credentials. The Kurds, meanwhile, need only look to occupied Palestine for any guidance on the limits of Western moral authority.

The violence on display in Spain shows the high cost if states seek to squash popular movements; unfortunately, the tacit approval granted by the Western community that more concrete consequences do not accompany such abstract loss of legitimacy. It behooves followers of Marx and Lenin to denounce such tyranny and our own governments’ passive acceptance of it. Only after those nations are free can we amplify and ally with the movements within them promoting class struggle.

The French Revolution: The Reign of Terror, 1793-1794

The trial and execution of Louis XVI had pushed revolutionary France into a new stage. The 168px-louis_xvi_-_executionurban poor and their leaders had rejected compromise with the old regime; the next step was to tear it down. In the National Convention, the radical republicans like the Robespierre-led Jacobins created bodies meant to turn the unleashing of social tensions into state-directed operations. In March 1793, the Convention established a Committee of Public Safety with a remit for guiding the persecution of political offenders. This occurred just as regular people (especially those in Paris) were becoming more militant. They were anxious about French defeats against Austria and Prussia as well as royalist rebellion elsewhere in the country. The Jacobins were at least taking concrete steps to save the Revolution, whereas the more moderate Girondins, although technically in the majority, had grown out of touch with the public sentiment. Given the stakes, there soon arose a broad coalition of forces eager to remove the Girondins from power and even punish them, as many had voted to spare King Louis from the death penalty for treason – an opening to a charge of clandestine loyalties to the unpopular monarchy.

The Fall of the Girondins

The press spread the charges that the Girondins were traitors. In response, the Girondins sought to use the Revolutionary Tribunal to silence the voices of radical journalists like Jean-Paul Marat and Jacques Hébert. Marat, who was arrested in April 1793, used his trial as a platform to express his views at greater elaboration, and due to his popularity, he was acquitted. From the grassroots, petitions poured in demanding a change in government. When asked to release the radical journalists, one Girondist leader threatened to burn down Paris – echoing a similar threat issued by the commander of the Austro-Prussian army marching on the capital. On May 31, a committee formed and, with the assistance of the National Guard, rose up in revolt and arrested many leading Girondists, including their most prominent name, Jacques Pierre Brissot. Robespierre and his ally Georges Danton had made their bid for power and won it, though less by their own agency than the alignment of their goals with the collective feeling. All their political opponents now removed, the most radical revolutionaries now held sole control over the government.

Danton, as the most charismatic and senior of the radical deputies, faced an excellent opportunity to take state power for himself. Instead, he shaped the Committee for Public Safety from its inception into a powerful body centered on him (to the point where it was known as the “Danton committee”) but recused himself from it shortly thereafter. He believed in the centralization of power that the Committee represented, but did not feel the need to be at its helm.

187px-death_of_marat_by_davidOn July 13, the Girdonists struck back. Charlotte Corday, a Girondist ally, assassinated Marat while he was working in his bathtub, as he often did to his poor dermatological condition. He became the ultimate martyr of the Revolution, at least since its radical turn, and when the revolutionary leaders sought to stamp out Catholicism in society, they often replaced crucifixes and statues of saints with busts of Marat. The famous painter (and friend of Robespierre) Jacques-Louis David left the most iconic image of Marat: a noticeably unblemished figure reclined in his tub, letter still in his hand, as if gone off to eternal sleep while in the midst of working for the Revolution. If the incident martyred Marat, it effectively confirmed all suspicions about the Girondists and thus, to militants, signaled the need for extreme measures in dealing with the Revolution’s foes.

Firstly, the Committee came up with its own constitution for the Republic, which granted universal male suffrage and even granted the vote to foreigners in good standing. It proclaimed popular sovereignty and declared that every Frenchman should be trained as a soldier to defend the nation. In effect, however, the rights conferred by the constitution had to be suspended until France was once more at peace. As long as the Revolution occupied precarious ground, final authority rested in the hands of the Committee. More immediately, the Convention repealed the old policy of requiring the peasantry to pay compensation to the nobility and clergy for the abolition of feudalism. The working classes were set free, but now working men had a right to political participation, and they were no longer still in financial bondage to the classes that had ruled over them in the past.

In July 1793, the leader of the militant Jacobins, Robespierre, was voted onto the Committee for Public Safety. He came to that body just as leaders of the wage-earning sans-culottes were once again demanding economic policies to keep down the price of bread. By September, the government had imposed a price “maximum” and was actively waging war against bondholders and grain hoarders. The Committee decreed the “Law of Suspects,” which permitted the arrest of anyone accused of “bad citizenship,” but was aimed at aristocrats, hoarders and agents of counterrevolution. Marie Antoinette would die in October, followed by around 20 Girondists, including Brissot. In total, approximately 40,000 people would die in the 15-month period commonly known as the Reign of Terror.

Understanding the Terror

The Terror must be understood in terms of social forces as well as ideological motivations. 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sThe Revolution had to this point witnessed explosions of popular anger, as evidenced by the storming of the Bastille and the royal palace. The sans-culottes had installed the Jacobins in power and were not afraid to thunder their way into the National Convention again. The Terror was as much an expression of their desires as the price controls on bread. The September Massacres of 1792 testifies to this. For decades, the working classes had been subjected to starvation and endless war on behalf of Bourbon claims. Those who profited from this vast inequality now conspired to restore the system that had produced their misery. There was, of course, the looming danger of counterrevolution. Although the execution of Louis XVI had damaged the royalist cause, the nobility could always comb the royal family for an heir. Marie Antoinette had to die too, and this meant there could never be any bargain with France’s German enemies, who had threatened to burn Paris and butcher its population. There was a strong preference for saving the Republic by triaging its most foreboding elements. Of course, given the chaotic situation, how would it be possible to determine a person’s quality of “citizenship,” a new and evolving concept? Not all counterrevolutionaries were arrested with weapons in their hands; to come under suspicion at all entailed death, and if it had not been by the guillotine, than possibly dismembered by a mob.

The Jacobins sought to execute their victims humanely with a legal basis. These were lawyers, after all, who believed in the supremacy of reason and educated justice. Even those who had their reservations about the Terror, like Danton, felt that it was unavoidable that some political prisoners were too dangerous to live. It was only a handful of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, who believed in the (oddly paradoxical) idea of using tyrannical measures to save liberty from tyranny, and that civic duty had to be enforced if it was not genuine. After all, the kings of old had used force to make lords and peasants submit if they would not give their obedience willingly. For example, the royal family had instigated the massacre of French Protestants in the 16th century in order to ensure Catholic supremacy. French colonization in the Americas, while not as ruthless as Spanish or English settlement, still depended on war against Native Americans and the exploitation of slaves. The bourgeois revolution of 1789 had ameliorated the condition of the budding middle class, resolving the contradiction of their political powerlessness with their economic strength. It was not until the 1793 insurrection that the Revolution allowed the working classes to express their grievances. The ongoing scarcity of bread and enormous security crises meant such injustices would be solved ferociously. Emotion was instrumental to the Terror; it was the expression of pent-up resentment for the wrongs of feudalism and anxiety over the future. Previous assemblies had suppressed emotion in politics, or tried to use it to their advantage; the Jacobins were the first politicians to implement official policies representative of the passionate emotions of the people, albeit filtered through state efficiency and bureaucratic planning.

182px-terreur_nantesThis is not to portray the Terror as a spontaneous outpouring of working class wrath. The sans-culottes supported it, mostly, but the Committee implemented it with its own zeal. Robespierre was the most eloquent defender of the Terror, but he was not its only perpetrator. Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, an actor turned politician, had more than 2,000 people killed in the city of Lyons, which had risen in revolt. In the Vendée region, the site of the largest royalist rebellion, the Committee supported the republican representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, and the mass execution by drowning of thousands of people. So heinous were their crimes that, even after Robespierre and his allies fell, their peers denounced them for their atrocities. Carrier was executed and Collot d’Herbois died in exile. Robespierre has become synonymous with the Terror because one of its aims was to centralize power in Paris and, for the duration of the war, in the Committee. As the spokesman for the Terror, Robespierre became indelibly associated with it. Yet, it was not just his brainchild; many of his peers also felt that dramatic steps were needed, and if the goal of the Terror was to suppress counterrevolution and win the wars, it succeeded. By 1795, revolutionary armies had pacified the civil war in the Vendée. French victories in Flanders marked a turning point in the fight against Austria and Prussia, driving them out of Belgium and the Netherlands. France even triumphed over a joint Spanish and Portuguese army in the Pyrenees. The Committee of Public Safety, a motley crew of radicals and bureaucrats, had overseen a total reversal of the Revolution’s dwindling fortunes.

Critics of the Terror frame it as a utopian project intended to use terror and intimidation to instill new moral (rather than material) incentives. The Terror, they argue, sought to create a new political culture by murdering anyone who resisted it. They describe the Jacobins as zealots deluded by dangerous philosophical doctrines. They treat the cold rationality of the Enlightenment or the romantic ideals of Rousseau as causal variables for the Terror. This is overstated. There were political conflicts stemming from philosophical debates. Some radical revolutionaries, like the journalist Jacques Hébert, wanted to eliminate Catholicism entirely from French society and replace it with system of organized atheism entitled the “Cult of Reason.” Robespierre, however, felt that people needed to look to a higher power, that their civic duty needed to come from virtue. He organized a “Cult of the Supreme Being” and worked to make it the new official faith. These ideological differences, however, did not propel the different factions involved in the Terror. As we shall see, they happened to coincide with the political interests of each group.

In March 1794, the Jacobins had first turned the Terror against their political enemies. Hébert and his followers had emerged as a left-wing opposition, speaking on behalf of the popular movement, with Hébert positioning himself as the heir to Marat. These Hébertistes were arrested went to the guillotine after a brief trial. Around the same time, Danton fell from power over allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds. This was the most difficult challenge for the Jacobins, as they feared Danton would use his charm to turn opinion in Paris to his side. They prevented his speaking in his own defense and sent him and his allies to death as soon as possible. The crisis of the war had permitted the Jacobins the authority to do all this, but it also left them politically secluded. Politicians outside Robespierre’s inner circle feared for their lives, and the friends of Danton and Hébert desired vengeance. Conspiracies formed against the Committee as the spring of 1794 gave way to summer. Ironically, some of the leading conspirators had participated actively in the Terror. Joseph Fouché, who would become minister of police under Napoleon, had overseen the Lyons executions alongside Collot d’Herbois. Jean-Lambert Tallien had instituted the Terror in Bordeaux.

On July 26, 1793, Robespierre attacked his enemies from the floor of the Convention. He 272px-execution_de_robespierre_fullwould not name his specific opponents, which helped galvanize other deputies to join the conspiracies against him rather than risk being suspected by him. The next day, called “Thermidor 9” in the new Jacobin calendar, Robespierre and other Committee members were arrested. Several of his compatriots killed themselves; Robespierre took a bullet to the jaw, but it is unclear whether this was self-inflicted. He went to the guillotine the next day. With his death, the Revolution would lessen in its intensity, drifting into indolence and complacency. Revolutionary France would last a few more years under the Directory, when a young military general named Napoleon Bonaparte would accumulate power before finally seizing it in a coup.

Assessment

Assessing the legacy of the Terror is difficult. It arose from a highly divided political environment and continues to be treated as such. Contemporary critics of the Jacobins described figures like Robespierre, Marat and so on as monstrous, inhuman creatures, and today even “objective” historians adhere to lurid descriptions of their personalities and behavior. What do we discern when comparing the Terror to the historical parallels with which it is most often linked? Most dramatically, the Terror is cited as an inspiration for Hitler’s Holocaust. While there is some overlap in terms of bureaucratic state terror, there is a major difference in motive. The Terror sought to combat an existential crisis with a basis in reality; royalism was not an abstract threat but a very real one, with uprisings and invading armies to prove it. The Holocaust, by contrast, was an ethnic cleansing from Germany and almost all of Europe of Jews, Roma and other groups who posed no danger to Nazi rule outside of Nazi ideology. The Jews were no more a threat to Germany in 1942 than they had been at any other point in history. What about Stalin’s purges in the 1930s? Again, the parallel falters because Stalin was removing potential rivals; his power as head of the Soviet state was essentially consolidated by the mid-1920s, after Lenin’s death. The charges against his fellow Old Bolsheviks had no basis in reality. The purges were meant to prevent a challenge, not as a reaction to one.

185px-labille-guiard_robespierreThe Terror, however, was very much a reaction to an imperiled revolution. Revolutionary France was in a state of civil war as well as at war with foreign powers. Perhaps the best comparisons are to be made with the Russian and Spanish civil wars in the 20th century. In all three cases, relatively moderate center-left governments became discredited, losing popular support, leading to more radical and centralized groups coming to power. The French Jacobins, the Russian Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communists backed by Moscow all rode the waves of undammed rage against the cruel, crumbling regimes they were replacing. In each instance ordinary people stabbed, shot and lynched representatives of the old order: priests, aristocrats, landlords, greedy merchants, and so on. In addition, in each instance, innocent people were caught up in the bloodshed. This is to neither absolve nor condemn the Terror or the Russian and Spanish “terrors,” but to understand such violence as not emerging from ideologues and dictatorships but from humanity itself. When ordinary people are starved and repressed for generations, they generally do not make for peaceful, tolerant citizens when freed.

It bears mentioning that there were “white” terrors in all these revolutions as well. The Spanish Nationalists massacred men, women and children at places like Badajoz and elsewhere. Civilians were bombed indiscriminately at Guernica. In Russia, the White soldiers targeted Jewish towns for pogroms, and the Jewish faith of Trotsky was singled out for propaganda purposes. In the next entry, we will discuss the extent of the reactionary terrorism following the Reign of Terror, including gangs of dandy fops roaming the streets of Paris and picking fights with now downfallen Jacobin supporters.

Interestingly, the three aforementioned cases had all very different outcomes. The Bolsheviks won their civil war and set up a lasting state. The left-wing Spanish Republicans lost their civil war, leading to a lasting pseudo-fascist state. The Jacobins, however, won the civil war but still fell from power shortly thereafter. In Spain’s case, the Republican side faced overwhelming odds because it was isolated, dependent on aid from the Soviet Union, and divided by sectarian differences politically. The Jacobins stamped out any challenges from the left and right and were able to hold onto power, and benefited from inheriting one of the best militaries in Europe (Republican Spain, however, had to fight the European superpower of its day, Germany). The lack of trained officers and proper supply hindered France, but in most other respects, its military remained a potent force. The Bolsheviks, in contrast, found themselves fighting the vestiges of the tsarist military in their civil war, but fortunately for them it was one of the worst fighting forces in Europe, having been decimated in World War I and a disastrous war with Japan. The Bolsheviks did not just outstrip the Jacobins in warfare, however; they were better politicians. The Bolsheviks slowly defanged and purged their rivals after seizing power in October 1917. Lenin even managed to thin the Bolshevik ranks themselves toward the end of the conflict with the Whites. Lenin believed in his cause, but he also possessed a keen sense of timing and management, as reflected by his ability to drag his followers, sometimes at their great objection, through the events that ultimately led to their triumph and the establishment of a socialist state that, ironically, Lenin died before he could truly lead.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had no similar political acumen. They were not, as the Bolsheviks, professional revolutionaries. They were, for the most part, bourgeois intellectuals who believed that the righteousness of their mission would be sufficient for them to see out the Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety was made up of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and playwrights who had, just years before, been on the outside the political system. They had no guides but their own ideas. They did not even have the advantage, as Lenin did, of having a historical, scientific political program like Marxism. They depended instead on the highly metaphysical musings of philosophers who pontificated about how the world ought to be (according to them) but with no practical understanding of how to get there. They therefore had no grand solution for uniting the bourgeoisie and the working classes other than the guillotine.

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