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.

What is Communist Internationalism?

marx_and_engelsCentral to communism is a sense of solidarity, a kinship based on humanity that knows no class distinctions. It is a radical form of the “fraternity” enshrined in the French Revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Writing in 1845, Friedrich Engels cast doubt on the ability of the bourgeoisie to form an international movement, given the bourgeoisie of any particular country would be too beholden to their own unique special interests. The masses who sell their labor, however, “have one and the same interest, one and the same enemy, and one and the same struggle” and therefore only they “can destroy nationality” and “bring about fraternization between the different nations” (The Festival of Nations in London). In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Engels and Karl Marx distinguish the communists in part by their emphasis on “the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (Chapter 2). Nevertheless, they noted that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie” (Chapter 1). Both supported the independence movements in Poland and Ireland at the time, believing autonomy essential for true solidarity.

198px-d092.d098.d09bd0b5d0bdd0b8d0bd._d09fd0b5d182d180d0bed0b3d180d0b0d0b42c_d18fd0bdd0b2d0b0d180d18c_1918_d0b3d0bed0b4d0b0Marx and Engels did not conceive of the First International as a means of promoting international communism, believing that “the simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and to hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues” (Engels 1885, On The History of the Communist League). The Second International collapsed into irrelevance in 1916 with the outbreak of World War I, as socialist parties tended to follow the nationalist groundswells in their respective countries. It was not until 1919, with the formation of the Third International—better known as the Communist International (Comintern)—by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued passionately for independence movements in the Russian Empire because the “fusion of nations” on a “truly democratic, truly internationalist basis” was impossible without the right to secede (1915, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination). At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, he called for a “union between revolutionary proletarians of the capitalist, advanced countries, and the revolutionary masses of those countries where there is no or hardly any proletariat, i.e., the oppressed masses of colonial, Eastern countries.” He observed that European imperialism had placed millions of people into bondage, exploiting them and their resources. He judged correct a modified slogan issued by the Communist International: “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!” (1920, Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of The Moscow Organization of the RCP(B)).

The high-water mark of international socialist solidarity occurred during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. This included not only Soviet military aid but a large number of foreign volunteers in the International Brigades, organized by the Communist International to help the democratically-elected Popular Front resist the nationalist, fascist rebellion assisted by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In the 1970s as well, the Soviet Union and Cuba intervened in Angola, providing critical support to a revolutionary government that had just won a war of independence against Portugal and faced opposition from apartheid South Africa and its ally, the United States. Other Soviet military interventions—such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, against anti-government protests—put into question the claim articulated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 that “socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies” (The Junius Pamphlet, Chapter 7). In addition to the usual reactionary chaos of voices, ready to repudiate communism as much for its successes as its failures, prominent left-wings critics within and without communist countries have sought to maintain a moral commitment against tyranny. All would agree, presuming their honesty, that the lives taken and resources plundered by the few communist states in history pale in contrast to the casualties and loot the advanced capitalist countries, in their respective imperial stages, can call claim to.

320px-occupy_may_day_2015_281712896148729Today the communist countries have either collapsed, retreated into isolationism, or liberalized economically and/or politically enough to smooth operation within the capitalist global economy. The idea of a global communist movement fell into torpor in the 1990s. With the gradual elimination of any state prone to development outside Western hegemony through a progress of regime change wars, it would be reasonable to assume any contemporary communist government is living on borrowed time. Yet, something remarkable is happening: for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century, the ideas of Marx and Engels are finding welcome audiences within the advanced capitalist countries. Deepening class stratification, stagnant wages, and vanishing job security have provoked class consciousness and an upsurge in social democratic politics once deemed too “radical.” It is dubious that such politics will be able to challenge the constellation of organized interests in the very heart of Western imperialism, especially in the absence of grassroots movements centered around labor issues, civil rights, and so on. Consequently, the populist clamor for change will turn more radical. Whether such energies are sufficiently marshaled into a relevant political force remains to be seen. The point is that the potential exists for radical left-wing movements to grow and overthrow the capitalist, white supremacist status quo.

But what happens the day after the revolution? Will the left-wing radicals of the core countries be satisfied with a sort of nationalist socialism, an egalitarian ideology qualified on patriotic fervor and identity? Nothing would be more cancerous to any attempt at building communism. Nationalism, after all, was the adhesive that held together the rotting, reactionary monarchies of Europe in World War I. It is the foundation for the infamous U.S. military-industrial complex predicated on a foreign policy of waging war instead of pursuing peace. It is the natural territory of the far-right, the means by Nazis as well as U.S. Republicans have directed working class people to go against their interests. It is nationalism that is inspiring disaffected, bitter white men to sublimate their insecurity and prejudices into bloody massacres. Any meaningful communist movement must take as one of its starting points and cardinal directions the elimination of distinctions based on race, ethnicity, or nationality in addition to class.

Controlling the Message, Controlling the World: From Vietnam to Venezuela

320px-protestas_en_venezuela_-_2_feb_2019_280429In 1973, the Chilean Armed Forces—with support from the U.S. government—overthrew the democratically elected left-wing Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) administration of President Salvador Allende. Now, in 2019, another U.S.-backed coup is taking place in Latin America, this time against President Nicolas Maduro and the Chavismo movement. We now know from declassified documents that U.S. involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup runs very deep indeed, not just regarding CIA covert operations but instructions from then-President Richard Nixon to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” and to isolate Allende’s government diplomatically. With the U.S. imposing new sanctions on Venezuela (essentially banning it from profiting from its one major export, oil) as well as recognizing National Assembly President Juan Guaido as “interim president” (Guaido swore himself in and has no constitutional claim to the office), it is plain to see history repeating itself, with the U.S. using the same dirty tactics as before.

299px-the_president27s_news_conference2c_23_march_1961Despite the parallels to Chile in 1973, it is also useful to look farther back to another episode of U.S. intervention, the Vietnam War. In 1949, the “loss of China” to the Chinese Communist Party created a great deal of concern in the core capitalist countries, especially the U.S. In the 19th century, China had gone from the largest economy in the world to being exploited by the major empires of the time (primarily by the British Empire, but later an Eight-Nation Alliance including the U.S.). In the Western mentality, then, China “belonged” to the West, and its declaration of independence from Western domination represented a significant, preventable “loss.” This was all the more poignant because the U.S. and its allies had just fought a war to defeat Japanese imperialism in East Asia so as to restore Western hegemony in the region. There emerged a fear that if several countries shook free from Western control that this would lead the entire region to do so: the so-called “domino theory.” Hence, the U.S. became increasingly more involved in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, fearful that the Vietnamese national independence movement, the Viet Minh, would take “French Indochina” out of the Western sphere of control and inspire similar efforts in other countries. (This contradicted the 1941 Atlantic Charter, drafted in part by the U.S., which had claimed self-determination and self-government were U.S. objectives.)

320px-27ranch_hand27_runThe Vietnamese War is often described as a North Vietnamese victory because it achieved Vietnamese reunification under a socialist government. In terms of viewing Vietnam as an alternative model for development outside U.S.-approved policy prescriptions, however, no one would describe Vietnam as a good one. Quite deliberately, the U.S. destroyed not just Vietnam but the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, leaving somewhere between 1 million and 4 million dead civilians. Over 40 years after the war, Agent Orange still permeates the local ecosystem, causing cancer, birth defects, and extreme neurological disorders among the region’s population (the U.S. sprayed more than 75 million liters of various herbicides over the three countries between 1961 and 1971). The countries of Indochina have yet to fully recover, but they were not economic powerhouses to begin with; again, the fear was that development outside U.S. hegemony would spread to more resource-rich countries like Burma, Malaysia, and especially Indonesia. In 1967, when the military dictator Suharto seized power in Indonesia and started massacring communists (described in the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing), the true “threat” to U.S. empire was largely removed.

320px-mpoty_2012_flag-draped_coffin_joint_base_pearl_harbor-hickamThe Vietnam War was only a failure for the U.S. government because of the substantial number of U.S. military personnel killed there, as well as its inability to regulate the mass media in its coverage of the war. Simultaneously, there was a great deal of unrest in Western societies over civil rights, economic justice, equality for women, and more. By 1968, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the senior military leaders who advise the U.S. government) were concerned about whether there were sufficient forces to address widespread “civil disorder” in the country. Therefore, the “Wise Men” who counseled President Lyndon Johnson urged him to start pulling out. (Notably, however, the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese by soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Division was covered not by the mainstream media, but by freelancer Seymour Hersh). Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. has generally avoided “putting boots on the ground” in its interventions; the image of flag-draped coffins or dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through streets has become a regular public relations nightmare for almost every U.S. president since. This has led to an increasing use of assassinations with drones combined with age-old tactics like sending “military advisers” to our proxies and allies.

320px-army.mil-2007-06-26-111327Most notable, however, is the uniformity with which the modern mass media covers U.S. foreign policy (or in other words, our wars). Starting with the first Gulf War, the Department of Defense began “embedding” journalists with U.S. forces so the military could better control what reporters saw, heard, and learned. As in politics, the media surrendered their impartiality and traded favorable coverage for access. Shots of bombs falling on Baghdad make for great ratings, but you can only get them if the Pentagon tells you when and where to point the camera. Finally, being shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary soldiers persuaded journalists to cover the military in good faith; if they did anything wrong, it must have been a few “bad apples,” not a product of official policy. Thus, the U.S. military personnel are represented as the protagonists, whereas the people of Iraq are either shadowy antagonists or, more often, bit players in a war for control of their own country. In John Pilger’s 2010 documentary film, The War You Don’t See, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather stated that the U.S. government made “stenographers out of [the media]” and that journalists dampened criticism to appear patriotic, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

320px-100_0074r_281741170481229The 9/11 attacks did create a spike in U.S. nationalism, but let us also remember the degree to which the U.S. entertainment industry has collaborated with the Pentagon to redeem militarism and national chauvinism after the Vietnam War. Such a relationship, of course, goes back to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight film series, commissioned by the U.S. government as World War II propaganda, and ha continued through the Vietnam War, with John Wayne’s 1968 movie, The Green Berets, the classic example of anti-communist pro-interventionist media evangelism. The Pentagon supplied everything from authentic uniforms to attack helicopters. Some recent examples of these are obvious, such as 2013’s Lone Survivor or 2014’s American Sniper (glorifying a U.S. Navy SEAL marksman). In 2017, however, it was learned over 1,1000 TV shows had some form of assistance from the U.S. armed forces in their production, from Ice Road Truckers to Army Wives (the CIA had collaborated in 60 film and TV shows since 1947, at least officially). Ironically, the popularity of the 2019 Russian WWII action movie T-34 has been described in the U.S. media as “propaganda” full of “big, dumb, computer-generated jingoism” that is differentiated from similar Hollywood films because, it is argued, the state-sponsorship is larger and more apparent. Another significant difference, omitted in U.S. reviews, is that T-34 dramatizes the existential struggle of the Soviet people for their own existence against Nazi Germany, whereas a film like American Sniper centers on the inner conflict reaped by Chris Kyle in his reaping of souls. We are meant to feel sympathetic for the invader and the aggressor, as is true even of ostensibly anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While it may be propaganda, T-34 at least celebrates the Soviet triumph after the brutal, genocidal war of annihilation launched on them by Hitler. Lone Survivor and American Sniper, however, seek to depoliticize U.S. invasions and focus on the courage and sacrifice of the U.S. soldier. In the same way that the German armed forces of WWII became disassociated from Hitler and the Nazi Party by Western military historians, the U.S. entertainment industry fuels militarism and jingoism outside the political sphere.

In this way the U.S. public (journalists included) are conditioned to depoliticize their coverage of conflicts and to especially gravitate to “human interest” stories from the armed forces. The stories of Afghani and Iraqi civilians, however, are not told, just as they were not told during the Vietnam War. Even more importantly, the conditions and conflicts in these regions of the world are never explained; it is simply taken for granted that the “ignorant masses” could not find these countries in an atlas, much less be interested in their history. The reality, however, is the public cannot know; the amount of information already freely available online is a hazard to elites. To disseminate the very information that could lead the people to develop nuanced views and opinions on foreign policy is simply not in elites’ interest. Thus, we are presented with a tight and simple narrative with “good guys,” “bad guys,” and then the U.S., always on the side of the “good guys.” Given the complexity and confusion of life in our own country, it is little wonder that our view of the world has all the intricacy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

In the case of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, and their movement are characterized as socialist demagogic authoritarians who have brought the country to economic disaster. There is no mention of the “Lost Decade” of the 1980s or the extensive corruption scandals of the 1990s, creating the very breakdown of the status quo that made the rise of Chavez possible. Pre-Chavez Venezuela is presented as stable and prosperous, and while it certainly was before the 19980s, like most capitalist countries in the underdeveloped world, the majority of its population lived in poverty, while only a privileged few enjoyed the benefits of the country’s oil riches. Chavez’s cardinal crime was to direct those riches toward helping the poor, which even his critics admit he did. Complaints about authoritarianism and the quashing of dissent ring hollow when the U.S. just conducted a major sales deal with Saudi Arabia, a repressive monarchy that only just months ago had one of its most prominent critics, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Turkey. It is also risible to expect either Chavez or Maduro to have diversified the economy, fulfilled their promises to help the poor, and heal the country’s social divisions while the Venezuelan opposition was simultaneously attempting to overthrow their democratically-elected governments (with not-so-clandestine U.S. support). Yet this is implied in U.S. media coverage as the path they should have taken, and no alternative view is investigated or offered. The question is never whether the U.S. intervention is just or unjust, but is only debated in pragmatic terms: Is it affordable? What is the exit strategy? How does it poll with the electorate?

In 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama proudly touted his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. His opposition, however, was not against military aggression per se but that the war was “rash” and “based not on reason but on passion.” He made a point of saying he was not opposed to wars, only “dumb wars.” In 1968, the idea of a “smart war” would have been contentious in the U.S. The most intelligent option, obviously, would be to avoid war altogether, especially given the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. Such a view threatened the very military-industrial complex that characterizes the U.S. economy; it would hardly make sense to construct and sell so many military jets if doing so was not seen as a national priority. In the 1980s, even as it entered terminal decline, the Soviet Union once more became the international bogeyman, rationalizing ever-increasing Pentagon budget increases. Nothing changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the supposed sophistication of underdeveloped countries and non-state actors meant that NATO, SETO, and the dozens of aircraft carriers had to stay. In fact, more were needed, as were military commands in Sub-Saharan Africa, etc., ad nauseum.

While having inexplicably giving intervention in Syria a pass, Trump has embraced playing “world police” in Venezuela. There is the obvious explanation that Venezuela is a major oil exporter while Syria is not, but it is also probable that Trump takes some delight in the ideological anti-communist nature of the coup attempt, given the most strident opposition to his far-right politics and the alt-right have come from the radical left. It is likely, however, that positioning himself as the alternative to socialism will do little other than validate the stark dichotomy of “socialism or barbarism” Rosa Luxemburg once put to her readers. Unfortunately, whatever the developments in U.S. politics, the real victims here are the ordinary people of Venezuela. Whether Maduro goes or stays, the classes at war within the country will not be pacified, especially with the U.S. stoking the fires until it gets the outcome it wants: a return to the plunder of Venezuelan resources to fuel U.S. industries while most Venezuelans wallow in misery.

 

 

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: Interpretations & Causes

We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and 320px-octobre_17932c_supplice_de_9_c3a9migrc3a9sfraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.

The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.

Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.

Interpreting the French Revolution

In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.

It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the 172px-cruikshank_-_the_radicals_armskilling fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism.  The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.

We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.

The Absolute Monarchy

In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.

It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal 290px-richelieu2c_por_philippe_de_champaigne_28detalle29Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.

The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie

The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it 197px-charles-alexandre_de_calonne_-_vigc3a9e-lebrun_1784was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.

The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.

As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and 472px-new-france1750commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.

The Enlightenment & Rousseau

Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included 299px-voltairecandidfrontis2bchap01-1762Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.

The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but 190px-rousseau_in_later_lifephilosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.

This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.

The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.

Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive 135px-rousseau_pirated_editioncommunism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.

The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry

Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.

In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, 176px-sans-culottethey are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.

Bread and Taxes

In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.

France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, 320px-surrender_of_general_burgoyneseeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.

To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.

A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – 320px-estatesgeneralthat is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.

Like the 320px-le_serment_du_jeu_de_paumeAmerican Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.

Storming the Bastille

In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.

Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois 320px-prise_de_la_bastilleleaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.

In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.

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