Category Archives: Socialism
Most of this post is an edited version of yesterday’s interview by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Juan González with Professor Dana Frank, who’s just published a book calledThe Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. But before I get to the interview, I want to give you a few facts about Honduras from Wikipedia: “Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate and high levels of sexual violence…
In the late 19th century, it granted land and substantial exemptions to several U.S.-based fruit companies, which built an enclave economy in northern Honduras, controlling infrastructure and creating self-sufficient, tax-exempt sectors that contributed relatively little to economic growth. American troops landed in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925. [Repression in aid of corporate interests?] In 1904, the writer O. Henry coined the term ‘banana republic’ to describe Honduras. According to a literary analyst writing for The Economist, ‘his phrase refers to the fruit companies from the United States that came to exert extraordinary influence over the politics of Honduras and its neighbors.’
During the early 1980s, the United States established a continuing military presence in Honduras to support the Contra guerrillas fighting the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua [can’t let any government devoted to meeting the needs of the people survive in “our” backyard]. Though spared the bloody civil wars wracking its neighbors, the Honduran army quietly waged campaigns against Marxist–Leninist militias such as the Cinchoneros Popular Liberation Movement, and against many non-militants as well. The operation included a CIA-backed campaign of extrajudicial killings by government-backed units [“death squads”].
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed 70% of the country’s crops and 70–80% of the transportation infrastructure, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads. Across Honduras 33,000 houses were destroyed, and an additional 50,000 damaged. Some 5,000 people killed, and 12,000 more injured. Total losses were estimated at $3 billion.
In 2007, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and George W. Bush began talks on U.S. assistance to Honduras to tackle the latter’s growing drug cartels, using U.S. Special Forces. This marked the beginning of a new foothold for the U.S. military’s continued presence in Central America.
In 2008, Honduras suffered severe floods, which damaged or destroyed around half of the roads.
In 2009, a constitutional crisis resulted when the head of the Honduran Congress took power from Zelaya, the democratically elected president. The Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Honduras because it didn’t feel its government was legitimate, but the U.S. supported the coup, condemned as such by countries around the world and the United Nations.
The U.S. maintains a small military presence at one Honduran base. The two countries conduct [rather unsuccessful] counter-narcotics and other exercises.
The United States is Honduras’ chief trading partner, with coffee and bananas as the main imports.
The nation’s per capita income sits at around $600, making it one of the lowest in the Americas. In 2010, 50% of the population were living below the poverty line, and this had increased to 66% by 2016. Estimates put unemployment at about 27.9%, which is more than 1.2 million Hondurans. Following the 2009 coup, trends of decreasing poverty and extreme poverty were reversed. The nation saw a poverty increase of 13.2% and an extreme poverty increase of 26.3% in just 3 years. Unemployment also increased dramatically. Levels of income inequality in Honduras are higher than in any other Latin American country. Unlike other Latin American countries, inequality steadily increased in Honduras between 1991 and 2005. Poverty is concentrated in southern, eastern, and western regions where rural and indigenous peoples live.
Sexual violence against women has caused many to migrate to the U.S. Femicide is widespread in Honduras. In 2014, 40% of unaccompanied refugee minors were female. Gangs are largely responsible for sexual violence against women as they often use sexual violence. Between 2005 and 2013 according to the UN Special Repporteur on Violence Against Women, violent deaths increased 263.4%. Impunity for sexual violence and femicide crimes was 95% in 2014. Additionally, many girls are forced into human trafficking and prostitution.
Official statistics from the Honduran Observatory on National Violence show that Honduras’ homicide rate was 60 per 100,000 in 2015, with the majority of homicide cases unprosecuted. Highway assaults and carjackings at roadblocks or checkpoints set up by criminals with police uniforms and equipment [police moonlighting?] occur frequently. Although reports of kidnappings of foreigners are not common, families of kidnapping victims often pay ransoms without reporting the crime to police out of fear of retribution, so kidnapping figures may be underreported.”
Dana Frank on how a U.S.-backed Coup in Honduras fueled the migrant crisis, Democracy Now!, 11-29-18
AMY GOODMAN: As the United States continues to face criticism for tear-gassing asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, we look at the crisis in Honduras and why so many Hondurans are fleeing their homeland. Honduras has become one of the most violent countries in the world because of its devastating drug war and a political crisis that stems in part from a U.S.-backed coup in 2009. We speak with Dana Frank, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could talk about the night of terror that’s descended on Honduras, especially following the 2009 coup against President Zelaya?
DANA FRANK: When you read the interviews or the mainstream news reports about why the migrants in the caravan are fleeing, they say they’re “fleeing gangs and violence and poverty.” True, but what’s missing from that narrative is where the gangs, violence, and poverty come from. It’s not a natural disaster, but the result of the deliberate policies of the governments that came to power in the aftermath of the coup, most recently the illegal government of Juan Orlando Hernández.
The violence and the gang terror come from the almost complete destruction of the rule of law. The coup, itself a criminal act, opened the door for every kind of conceivable criminal activity. Gangs and drug trafficking proliferated, infiltrating throughout the police and military. The government itself is implicated in the gangs and that people are fleeing. So it’s not just random violence – it’s a U.S.-backed regime that’s in cahoots with it. A lot of people are fleeing gangs because their small businesses are being destroyed by gang taxes. And the police cooperate with the gangs in extracting these taxes.
The second factor here is poverty, because people are very much fleeing poverty, but their poverty again is the direct result of post-coup policies. First of all, the state itself has been destroyed by the neoliberal policies of multilateral development banks like the International Monetary Fund. State services have also been destroyed because the elites that run the government are robbing it blind. For example, the president and his party stole as many as $90 million from the health service in 2013 to pay for their campaigns, and now the national health service doesn’t function. The sectors of the economy that are supposed to be the growth sectors are also destroying livelihoods. For example, palm oil production is being imposed at the point of a gun, with campesinos trying to defend other forms of agriculture being killed. Extractive mining projects and hydroelectric dams are forcing indigenous peoples off their land, and that’s why Berta Cáceres, the environmental activist leader, was killed in 2016. Tourism is forcing the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people off their land at the point of a gun. The only other functional sectors are agriculture and the maquiladora sector, which is apparel and electronics factories for the export market. And those are very, very destructive of people’s bodies under really repressive working conditions. So, when we hear about economic development in Honduras, it’s actually accelerating this destruction, along with the gang activity that’s destroying small businesses.
Those who are trying to have an alternative economic future for Honduras through Libre, the opposition party, through social movements at the base, are the people getting tear-gassed just like at the U.S. border. These are the people that are getting assassinated. The journalists that report on this alternative vision and the people who would like some kind of democratic alternative are being repressed.
JG: I wanted to ask you about the repression in the countryside, because I thought that was some of the most graphic material that you have in your book about the escalation of the repression in 2011 after Manuel Zelaya came back as a result of a brokered agreement. In places like the Aguán Valley, the campesinos were subjected to mass repression.
DF: Some of that is because the campesinos, who had these collectives that had been in place for a long time and were being forced off their land, started re-occupying land that they’d been forced off of by neoliberal policies pushed by members of the elite, especially Miguel Facussé and his Dinant corporation. They were killed off one by one, two by two, in what we could call a slow-moving massacre. As many as 150 campesinoshave been assassinated in the Aguán Valley since 2010.
AG: I want to go back to 2009 when there was a coup in Honduras and the democratically elected leader, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, spoke on Democracy Now! about what happened to him.
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] They attacked my house at 5:30 in the morning. A group of at least 200 to 250 armed soldiers with hoods and bulletproof vests and rifles aimed their guns at me, fired shots, used machine guns, kicked down the doors. And just as I was, in pajamas, they put me on a plane and flew me to Costa Rica. This all happened in less than 45 minutes.
AG: That was Manuel Zelaya. Democracy Now! followed him back to Honduras after the brokered agreement – we flew on the plane with him from Nicaragua to Honduras. But then a new regime was put in place, the coup regime of Porfirio Lobo, whose son has now been sentenced to well over 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. Juan, when you interviewed Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, you asked her about her support, U.S. support for the coup when she was Secretary of State. Dana, can you talk about the extent of this support and why you see it linked to what we’re seeing with the migrants today? As you say, these are refugees from U.S. policy.
DF: Well, we don’t have a smoking gun that shows the U.S. backed the coup from before it happened, but all of the evidence is very clear that it wanted the coup to stabilize after it took place, that it recognized the bogus election of November 2009 that brought Porfirio Lobo to power, and that it’s continued to recognize the leaders of the ongoing coup regime, especially Juan Orlando Hernández, even though he has probably stole an election in 2013. He also ran for president last year in violation of the Honduran constitution, which bans reelection, and stole it from the united opposition which very clearly won. So it’s not just a question of the U.S. supporting the 2009 coup itself. It could have recognized Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, when she won the election in 2013. It could have protested when Juan Orlando Hernández overthrew the Supreme Court in 2012 when he was president of Congress. It could have protested when he ran for reelection. And of course, it could have called for a new election last winter, or recognized the real winner. The U.S. has given this post-coup regime green light after green light after green light. It’s an ongoing policy.
AG: Now we have a situation where thousands of Hondurans are fleeing to the U.S. border. Your response to the tear-gassing of the migrants? And also Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, not the government of Peña Nieto but the government of AMLO, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, saying that they’ll allow the migrants to wait on Mexican soil, but that in return, the U.S. government should pay at least $20 billion for Marshall Plan-style programming to develop the economies of Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
DF: Obviously the use of the tear gas fired into a foreign country against people exercising their legal rights is terrifying, as is the presence of the U.S. military at the border in violation of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. This militarized response to the refugees is morally disturbing, to say the least. Since 2014, the U.S.-funded and trained Honduran military has also actively stopped people from leaving their country. And the same tear gas, which is often manufactured in the United States, has been used against peaceful protesters and bystanders in Honduras for years. It was used last week against protests on the anniversary of the stolen election.
As far as the $20 billion Marshall Plan goes, people might remember that after the so-called crisis on unaccompanied children coming to the U.S. in 2014, the Obama administration’s response was something called the Biden Plan, promoted by Vice President Joe Biden, that wanted to give $1 billion to the governments of the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in order to stop migration and address root causes. And if you look at that, $750 million of which was eventually funded by Congress, it’s pouring precisely into the same security forces and sectors of the economy that are causing the very repression, the very destruction of the economy that people are fleeing.
Of course we’re all watching to see what López Obrador is going to do in Mexico, and of course the Honduran economy needs to be rebuilt, but not according to a model run by the current U.S. government and the repressive regime of Juan Orlando Hernández and the Honduran elites. That’s what’s so terrifying here – pouring money into the same model, when you’re just handing money over to the elites to steal and use it to terrorize their people over and over again at higher and higher levels. [That’s what it’s all about: elite control, preferably white and male, everywhere.]
JG: Dana, one of the most interesting parts of your book is your portrayal of the enormous and widespread popular movement that developed after the coup against Zelaya. You say that back in the 1980s, Honduras was a relatively quiet place, while El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were all embroiled in major civil conflicts – uprisings and government repression. But I remember being in Honduras in 1990, and it was then a terrorized state – there were military all over the place – but there wasn’t the kind of popular movement that somehow developed after the coup against Zelaya. Could you talk about that?
DF: There was an active left in Honduras in the ’80’s, but on a much smaller scale than in the other countries, and tremendously repressed by some of the figures that are popping up again since the coup. The Honduran resistance was and still is a tremendously beautiful thing that was a great surprise, though in retrospect, you could see the social movements that were building at the grassroots in the women’s movement, the campesino movement, the indigenous movement, the Afro-Indigenous movement, and human rights defenders.
When the coup happened, people poured into the streets and formed this tremendous coalition called the National Front of Popular Resistance, known as the Frente or the Resistencia, which was an amazing coalition, not just of the folks I just named but of the labor movement, the LGBT movement, and people committed to the constitutional rule of law. It wasn’t about so-called Zelaya supporters as it was often framed, but people who were committed to a positive transformation of Honduras. That resistance was a beautiful thing, and in the first chapter of my book, I wanted the reader to feel the joy of it — the terror and the joy, the creativity, the music, the humor, the bravery, the graffiti, and the way it changed Honduran culture and made people proud of their resistance and helped them discover ties across different social movements in a massive coalition of the kind that we fantasize about in the United States today. Unfortunately, that resistance has been repressed over and over again, and a lot of its key figures are now in exile. People have been killed, and journalists that covered it have been killed or are in exile. It’s been terrifying to watch that repression, but Hondurans have it in their hearts that they know what they can do and they can feel a beautiful sense of solidarity.
The United States has gone so far to the right politically in the past 40 or 50 years that, except for its foreign policy, FDR’s administration – that went left to save capitalism and its ruling class – is still more radical than anything on offer today. And Bernie Sanders and up-and-coming members of the Democratic Socialists, who are reformists rather than seeking an entirely new system, are considered radical socialists.
True socialism is international, with workers of all countries working together to overthrow the rule of the capitalist bosses and refusing to fight each other in nationalist wars. Read your history to see how truly radical socialist and anarchist workers’ movements in the United States and Germany were suppressed and coopted prior to World War I. The mirror image of this was the 1917 Bolshevik revolution toward the end of that war that turned imperial Russia into the Soviet Union. Lenin used Marx’s supposedly temporary “dictatorship of the proletariat” to initiate a complete suppression of the worker democracy of the soviets, a dictatorship that Stalin made permanent.
True socialism has never been fully implemented on a country-wide scale, except perhaps in Spain in the 1930s – Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba all became dictatorships, partly because of the fierce opposition of capitalists within and globally. That doesn’t mean, however, that Marxism and socialism have nothing to offer in turning our emphasis from individualism to cooperation and looking at the importance of collective ownership of the means of production. All of this is being obscured, often intentionally, by the current powers-that-be and by the average American’s ignorance of history and social and political analysis (it isn’t taught in our schools or promoted by our media – you have to go looking for it).
One of the many places I look for it is the World Socialist website, wsws.org, where I found an article posted today by Joseph Kishore entitled “Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders praise McCain: An object lesson in the politics of the pseudo-left.” I preface the following quotes taken from this article by saying that, especially compared to Trump, I respected Republican senator John McCain, who died Saturday, as an honest and principled man, even though I disagreed with his politics and actions. The article says that amid “the outpouring of praise from all sections of the political establishment for McCain, two statements stand out. The first was from Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who tweeted: ‘John McCain was an American hero, a man of decency and honor and a friend of mine. He will be missed not just in the US Senate but by all Americans who respect integrity and independence.’ The second was from Democratic Socialists of America member and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted, in part: ‘John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.’ Ocasio-Cortez posted with her tweet the editorial from the Washington Post on McCain’s death, which praised him for his work on ‘national defense and deterrence of foreign aggression’ and for ‘[rising] above party politics to pursue what he honestly saw as the national interest.’
What, one is compelled to ask, are these two individuals, who present themselves as figures of the left and even socialists, talking about? What is McCain’s legacy of ‘human decency and American service?’ What made him an ‘American hero?’
Was his human decency on display when he was dropping bombs on the Vietnamese people, or when he was acting as one of the earliest supporters of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the deaths of one million people? Was his heroism expressed in his call for the bombing of Iran, his visit with Islamic fundamentalist organizations spearheading the CIA-backed civil war in Syria, or his demands, up to his last day, for stepped-up aggression against Russia? The list of countries McCain advocated bombing is a long one, and there was no war launched by the US that he didn’t support. Political positions have consequences, and McCain had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands.”
Kishore believes “the praise for McCain by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders is a calculated political decision that reveals the politics of the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ declaration of solidarity with McCain is in line with his Democratic Party election campaign in 2016, in which he supported the foreign policy of the Obama administration, including its wars in the Middle East, and said that a Sanders administration would utilize Special Forces and drone strikes – ‘all that and more.’ After losing the primaries, Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, seeking to channel the social opposition reflected in support for his campaign behind the candidate of the military-intelligence establishment.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, in just two months since she defeated the incumbent Democrat in the primary election for the 14th Congressional District of New York, she’s distanced herself from any association with socialism, backtracked on her previous criticisms of Israel, pledged her support for ‘border security,’ stood beside Sanders as the latter endorsed the Democrats’ anti-Russia campaign, and now heaps praise on one of the biggest warmongers in American politics. At the time of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, the World Socialist Web Site wrote that ‘anyone who suggests that her victory marks a shift to the left in the Democratic Party should be told, in no uncertain terms: Curb your enthusiasm! The DSA isn’t fighting for socialism, but to strengthen the Democratic Party, one of the two main capitalist parties in the United States.’ Those who may have been attracted to the DSA based on the impression that it’s a socialist or anti-war organization should draw the necessary conclusions.
The Democratic Party is engaged in a ferociously right-wing campaign in its conflict with the Trump administration. Its focus isn’t on Trump’s fascistic policies or warmongering, but on the claim that he’s insufficiently committed to war in the Middle East and aggression against Russia. The Democrats have used the death of McCain as part of a calculated strategy, elevating him – along with figures such as former CIA Director John Brennan – as political heroes. They, along with the corporate media and the Republican Party establishment, are seeking to use McCain’s death as an opportunity to shift public opinion in favor of war and political reaction.
In the 2018 midterm elections, as the WSWS has documented, the Democrats are running an unprecedented number of former intelligence and military operatives as candidates. The promotion of groups such as the DSA is an integral part of this strategy. ‘The politics of the “CIA Democrats,”’ the Socialist Equality Party noted in the resolution passed at its Congress last month, ‘is not in conflict with, but rather corresponds to, the pseudo-left politics of the upper-middle class, as expressed in organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO).’ The role of Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, the DSA, and the ISO, is to give a ‘socialist’ label to politics entirely in line with the right-wing, militarist, and imperialist character of the Democratic Party.
The elevation of the DSA doesn’t represent a movement toward socialism, but rather a defensive reaction by the ruling class against what it perceives as an existential danger. The corporate-financial elite is well aware of polls that show growing support for socialism and opposition to capitalism among workers and particularly among young people. The DSA is therefore promoted by the media (the New York Times published yet another prominent article on Sunday boosting Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA) even as genuine left-wing and anti-war publications face ever more direct forms of internet censorship.
The politics of the DSA and the broader pseudo-left has far more in common with the politics of McCain than it does with genuine socialism. There can be no question as to what role these organizations would play if brought into positions of power. A similar path has already been trod by the Left Party in Germany, which has implemented austerity measures and promoted the anti-immigrant policies of the far-right AfD, and Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, which since coming to power in 2015 has implemented the brutal austerity measures demanded by the European banks.
The Socialist Equality Party is fighting to organize workers and youth on the basis of a socialist program. This means not mild and insincere reformist demands to provide cover for the right-wing, militarist Democratic Party, but the mobilization of the working class, in the United States and internationally, for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The building of such a movement must be based on the exposure of and struggle against figures such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders and the treacherous politics they espouse.”
Wikipedia says, “According to the party’s website [socialequality.com], the SEP “seeks not to reform capitalism, but to create a socialist, democratic, and egalitarian society through the establishment of a workers’ government and the revolutionary transformation of the world economy. We seek to unify workers in the United States and internationally in the common struggle for socialism – that is, for equality and the rational and democratic utilization of the wealth of the planet. The Socialist Equality Party fights for the unity of the working class and opposes ‘identity politics.’ According to the party, the ‘shift from class to identity has been at the expense of an understanding of the real causes, rooted in the capitalist system, of the hardships that confront all working people. At its worst, it’s promoted competition among different “identities” for access to educational institutions, jobs and other “opportunities” which, in a socialist society, would be freely available to all people without such demeaning, dehumanizing and arbitrary distinctions… The Socialist Equality Party fights for the unity of the working class and opposes “identity politics”. According to the party, the “shift from class to identity has been at the expense of an understanding of the real causes, rooted in the capitalist system, of the hardships that confront all working people. At its worst, it has promoted a competition among different “identities” for access to educational institutions, jobs and other “opportunities” which, in a socialist society, would be freely available to all people without such demeaning, dehumanizing and arbitrary distinctions.’ The party opposes all forms of discrimination and asserts that only a politically unified working class, composed of all races, religions and sexual orientations, can bring forth a free society…
Political equality is impossible without economic equality.’
The Socialist Equality Party asserts that capitalism leads inevitably to war as imperialist states seek geo-political dominance, spheres of influence, markets, control of vital resources, and access to cheap labor.”
Are you having trouble understanding what’s happening in Syria and the Middle East? You’re not alone – it’s complicated. I found a good analysis in an interview Ashley Smith of the Internationalist Socialist Review, did with Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the University of London (published in the Review’s Winter 2016-17 issue). Achcar is the author of numerous books including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2006); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and, most recently, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016). Smith asked him about the left’s understanding of, and approach to, Islamic fundamentalism.
Smith: One of the key developments in the Middle East over the last three decades has been the rise of what commentators variously call political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism. Why do you argue that this political current is better called Islamic fundamentalism?
Achcar: The term one uses is related, of course, to assessment and political judgment, each term having different implications. People use the term “Islamism” to refer to political movements that regard Islam as their fundamental ideology and program. But the term has also been used in the past to refer to Islam itself, so it gets mixed up with Islam as a religion in the minds of most people who hear it. And because “Islamism” has become almost synonymous with terrorism, it leads people to confuse terrorism and Islam per se, feeding already widespread Islamophobic bigotry.
The term “Islamic fundamentalism,” has two advantages. The most important is that there is fundamentalism in all religions. The second is that the notion of fundamentalism helps in fine-tuning the distinction between different currents and groups that give Islam a central place in their ideological identity. While the goal of an “Islamic state” based on sharia is, to various degrees, common to all the groups in the category of Islamic fundamentalism, these groups pursue different strategies and tactics. Thus, there are moderate fundamentalists who have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others, like ISIS, resort to terrorism or state implementation by force. They’re all dogmatic and reactionary.
S: What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East? How and why did it arise as a political force?
A: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, born in the 1920s, was the first modern political organization based on an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. That was also the time when the theorization of the Islamic state, the core Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, took its modern shape, also in Egypt. There were, of course, earlier brands of fundamentalism and various sorts of puritan sects in the history of Islam like in other monotheistic religions, but the Brotherhood pioneered a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that was adapted to contemporary society in the form of a political movement.
The Brotherhood emerged at the conjunction of a number of events. The first was the proclamation of a secular Turkish republic and the abolition of the caliphate after the end of World War I. This came as a shock for those who rejected the separation of Islam and government. It was also contemporaneous with the foundation of the Saudi kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula, a state based on an Islamic fundamentalist premise, albeit one of an archaic tribal character.
Egypt at that time was ripe for revolution with an accumulation of social problems, terrible poverty in the countryside, a rotten monarchy, leaders despised or hated by the people, and British domination. The Egyptian left was weak, and the workers’ movement had come under repression in the 1920s. So you had a conjunction of factors, which enabled the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement capitalizing on popular discontent.
From a historical materialist perspective, Islamic fundamentalism is a striking illustration of what Marx and Engels identified in their Communist Manifesto as one of the ideological orientations among the traditional middle classes. A fraction of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and the small and middle peasantry suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism, which develops at their expense turning a big section of them into proletariat, compelling them to shift from a status of small producers or merchants into one of wage earners obliged to sell their labor power in order to make their living. A fraction of these petty propertied classes oppose capitalist development by wanting to “turn back the wheel of history.” Modern Islamic fundamentalism stems from a revolt against the consequences of capitalist development fostered by foreign domination, wanting to go back to a mythical Islamic golden age.
S: What’s the relationship of Islamic fundamentalism to imperialism? Is it in opposition to it or in collusion with it?
A: Both, I would say. The troops of Islamic fundamentalism are people reacting in a reactionary manner to the consequences of capitalism as well as to imperialist domination and imperialist wars. Faced with capitalism and imperialism, they could opt for a progressive struggle, aiming at replacing unregulated capitalism with a socially just egalitarian society. [That’s considered Western, however, and many, at least in Egypt and Syria, think it was tried – and failed – with the Middle Eastern “socialism” of Nasser and Baathism. Both of those efforts centered around dictatorships, however.]
Since it is a reactionary response, Islamic fundamentalism ended up being used by all sorts of reactionary forces, including imperialism itself. From the time it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood built a close connection with what was and still is the most reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on earth, the Saudi kingdom. They established this link because of the affinity between their own perspective and what’s usually called Wahhabism, the ideology of the tribal force that founded the Saudi kingdom.
The Muslim Brotherhood worked in close alliance with the Saudi kingdom from its foundation until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the first US war on Iraq. Till then, the Brotherhood was a major ally of the Saudi kingdom and of the United States, the kingdom’s overlord. Both used them in the fight against left-wing nationalism, particularly against Nasser in Egypt (1952–70), but also against the Communist movement and the Soviet Union’s influence in Muslim-majority countries. This unholy alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Islamic fundamentalist movements was reactionary through and through.
The Saudis broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because the latter didn’t follow the kingdom in supporting the 1991 US onslaught on Iraq. That was because they found it difficult ideologically to condone a Western intervention against a Muslim country from the territory where Islam’s holy places are located. They also had to take into consideration the fact that their constituencies were very much opposed to that aggression, as was the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Arab countries. So, most regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the US onslaught, leading the Saudi kingdom to break with them. They therefore sought out and found another sponsor: the emirate of Qatar, which has been their chief supporter ever since. Qatar, of course, is another close ally of the United States in the region, hosting the forward headquarters of the US military Central Command (CENTCOM), the most important platform for US air wars from Syria to Afghanistan.
When the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt during the presidency of their member Mohamed Morsi, they earned the praise of Washington. Other more “radical” brands of Islamic fundamentalism have also collaborated in the past with the United States. Al-Qaeda, for example, originated in joining the US-Saudi-Pakistani-backed guerillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before turning into violent foes of the United States and the Saudi royal family after 1990, for a reason similar to that which led to the Brotherhood’s break with the kingdom.
S: Has the class character of Islamic fundamentalism changed with the development of these state sponsors? Is it still the case that it’s an expression of the petty bourgeoisie or has it become “bourgeoisified?”
A: First of all, Islamic fundamentalism is not restricted to one movement. It’s a broad spectrum of forces and groups, as I emphasized, from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists to totalitarian fanatics like ISIS. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional and global organization whose strategies and tactics vary from place to place. If we focus solely on Egypt, however, there has indeed been “bourgeoisification.” After Nasser repressed them, many of their members and leaders ended up in exile in the Saudi kingdom. Several of them became businessmen there and profited from the oil boom of the 1970s. The connection with the Saudi state and Gulf capital played an important role in developing a layer of “devout bourgeoisie” in Egypt – a section playing an increasingly important role inside the Brotherhood.
While this capitalist fraction grew considerably in importance within the Brotherhood, the bulk of its rank and file, its troops, remain among the petty bourgeoisie and poorer layers of society. The Brotherhood was never anti-capitalist anyway, beyond the general calling for social equity that you hear from even the most conservative parties. The Brotherhood talks about caring for the poor, in order to say that Islam provides the solution and that Islamic charity will alleviate poverty. All of this fits neatly with a neoliberal perspective that supports privatization of social care and its delegation to private charities. Unsurprisingly, when the Brotherhood came to power recently in Tunisia and Egypt, they continued the economic policies of the previous regimes. They adhered to IMF stipulations and did everything they could to please the capitalist class, including the old regime’s crony capitalists in both countries.
S: Why did Islamic fundamentalism become such a strong political trend in the Middle East? This is surprising given the rich history of secular nationalism and Communist organization in the region.
A: This is a very important issue. An impressionistic view prevails today, as a result of the media’s continuous reports on various strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, that religion, in general, and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, has always dominated politics in the region. But that isn’t true. Except for Egypt, left-leaning secular nationalists and Communists were prevalent in the Middle East during the 1940s, and things began to change in Egypt with the Nasser’s 1952 coup. His regime passed land reform, nationalized foreign properties, including the Suez Canal in 1956, and Egyptian private assets. The leftwing radicalization of these nationalists – with the towering figure of Nasser central to the process – made them tremendously popular, not only in Egypt but in the whole region and in all the Third World. That was because of their social reforms and their opposition to imperialism and Zionism, which echoed the aspirations of the masses. Early on, after a brief period of cooperation, they clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood and repressed them. From then on, the Brothers became the bitterest enemies of the nationalists, and the Saudis and Washington used them as a weapon against Nasser. They’d lost their appeal, however, having no solutions to offer to the real social problems of the masses, whereas the nationalists addressed these issues in part.
The turnaround came with Israel’s 1967 victory over Nasserist Egypt and Baathist Syria. Like Egypt, Syria had undergone a leftwing nationalist radicalization led by a group that Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1970 to 2000, would topple soon after. With the 1967 defeat, followed in 1970 by the crushing of the Palestinian guerillas in Jordan, Nasser’s death, and the overthrow of the leftwing faction of the Baath, radical Arab nationalism suffered a massive setback, which opened a space for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comeback.
Nasser’s successor, Sadat, reversed all the progressive policies of the Nasser era – agrarian, industrial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist. He released the Muslim Brotherhood from jail and opened the door for its members in exile to return, needing them as allies in his reactionary enterprise. They happily played that role, becoming the shock troops of an anti-left backlash. Sadat allowed them to rebuild their organization into a mass movement, provided they didn’t challenge his rule, and they maintained this relationship with his successor, Mubarak. In the context of a weak organized left, whose most visible section was involved in a similarly ambiguous relation with the regime, the Brotherhood filled a vacuum, attracting disgruntled sections of the population. With funds brought by the new capitalists in their ranks and provided by their Saudi sponsor, the Brotherhood managed grew spectacularly. With their newfound power came ambitions of playing more of a political role than the regime would allow, leading at times to periods of temporary repression.
History shows that when there is a progressive current with some credibility, it can counter fundamentalism. In the Middle East, the left faces Islamic fundamentalism as one of two main poles of reactionary politics, the regimes constituting the other. The progressive forces expressing the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising soon tumbled against the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions to the regimes on the other hand, both equally opposed to the aspirations of the revolutionary wave and, in some countries of the region, directly collaborating in thwarting its radicalization.
S: How should the left position itself in relation to Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting imperialism or Zionism? For example, how should the left approach Hamas and Hezbollah?
A: The left has developed a rich tradition that we should draw on in approaching this question. This consists in supporting just struggles against colonialism and imperialism, regardless of who is waging them, without turning this into uncritical support of those waging the struggles. For instance, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it made complete sense for any anti-imperialist to oppose the invasion, even though Ethiopia was ruled by the extremely reactionary regime of Haile Selassie, who wasn’t supported uncritically. The same approach should be followed today. Hamas and Hezbollah have been engaged in struggles against Israeli occupation and aggression, and we support them in this. But Hamas isn’t the only group fighting Israel; there are other groups on the Palestinian scene, and we need to determine within that range of anti-Zionist groups which are closer to our political perspective. The same goes for Lebanon.
Hamas grew at the expense of the Palestinian left. At the time of the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, the left was the leading force in the 1967-occupied territories. But its groups ended up directly or indirectly condoning Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to the US and Israel, opening the door to Hamas. Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine, which until then had been actually favored by the Israeli occupation as an antidote to the PLO.
Hezbollah emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it was the Communist Party and leftwing nationalist forces that initiated the resistance to the invasion, drawing on a tradition of struggle against repeated Israeli invasions. Hezbollah built itself at the expense of these forces, especially the Communist Party. The latter had a strong influence in Shia-majority regions in Lebanon and was therefore seen as a major competitor by Hezbollah, which went so far as to assassinate prominent Shia figures in the Party. Although it became the dominant force in a just fight – the struggle against the Israeli occupation – it isn’t progressive force. It achieved its status while repressing and squeezing out progressive forces waging that same struggle. It’s dependent on Iran, and has gone along with the neoliberal reconstruction of Lebanon.
Similarly, if the US or Israel launched an attack on Iran, we wouldn’t hesitate in supporting that country, even though its ruling regime is reactionary, repressive, and capitalist – an enemy of the social cause for which we fight. This is important to grasp because, in recent years, Iran and Hezbollah have come to the rescue of the counterrevolutionary regime in Syria, supplying it with key shock troops that have joined its onslaught on the popular democratic movement.
In the Middle East in general, tragically, we’ve seen progressive forces align themselves with Islamic fundamentalists against the regimes – as happened in the first stages of the uprising in many countries, and is still happening in the Syria – while other sections of the left lined up with the regimes against the Islamic fundamentalists. It’s crucial for progressives to assert a third revolutionary pole, equally opposed to both counterrevolutionary poles now dominating the scene, if they are, at some point, to embody again the aspirations that inspired the Arab Spring in 2011. Short of that, we’ll see more of the ongoing disaster with the region overwhelmed by the clash between the two counterrevolutionary poles. The best scenario in the short term is a coalition between the two reactionary poles, as happened in Tunisia where the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a governmental coalition with the old regime forces, or in Morocco where the king coopted the local equivalent into government. Washington and its European allies are very much pushing for this scenario almost everywhere in the region. Such reconciliation would be beneficial from a progressive perspective, because it would compel progressive forces to oppose both counterrevolutionary poles and facilitate their emergence as the alternative to both of them. The future of the left in the Middle East hangs on getting this orientation right.
Writing on January 6th, the editors of “Salvage” magazine (salvage.zone) blame “the Trumpocene” on “an accumulation of dysfunctions and pathologies long brewing within the carapace of a liberal world order. In a new era of global capitalist crisis, the Washington Consensus is buckling, and the political parties upholding it across Europe and North America are hollowing out. America’s supremacy by dollar and bullet in the Middle East has been under strain, creating a space for recrudescent Russian imperialism. The deployment of Islamophobia to organize war and repression and coordinate anti-welfare policies in the preceding era has birthed a vicious new radical right. All this in the context of accelerating climate catastrophe so precipitous that the question is not how to ‘avoid’ it, but how to fight for a world in which it is a given, worsening reality. How do we on the Left occupy any of the spaces created by these dysfunctions, and put them to work for our own purposes? Can we break the reactionary wedge?
There is an urgent need for coalitions to face down the radical right, but not on the terms of an establishment center the strategies and rhetoric of which have been found repeatedly wanting. The very underlying social reality which demands alliances – the fragmentation of political identities, the weakness of the renascent left, and the tactical conservatism of an emaciated trade-union movement – has been brought about with no small amount of help from the decaying center that now demands the right to fix it.
The infrastructure against social misery has yet to be built. The associations needed to replace the lost cultures of trade unionism and cooperativism, not to mention communism, have to be constructed almost out of new materials. The progressive alliance we need is not primarily of the parliamentary type.”
Salvage is a British quarterly, and its editorial quite naturally focuses on British politics, the details of which I’m omitting here, except for the following points:
- “Our position is simple – it’s that of Eugene Debs, namely that a patriot is an international scab. Our commitment to those aspects of British society and history that we value – and there are many – has everything to do with what they are in themselves, their concrete content, and nothing to do with the fact that they are ‘British.’”
- “On the two key specifics – single-market membership and free movement – Salvage is militantly committed to the latter, and deeply suspicious of the former, given the strong tendency in the European mechanisms to prioritize neoliberal structures, and to EU rules promoting ‘liberalization’ (that could, for example, undermine attempts to renationalize British railways).
One must bear with the tragedy as it unfolds, with rapt attention, waiting for the moment at which one can best act. It is not to advocate quietism to insist that the task is long, that we must, as the saying goes, be willing to gather our fruits in season. Otherwise, we will harvest dirt and ashes.”
Depressing, but probably accurate. The question in my mind is: how do we find and engage with enough ordinary people to create a ‘critical mass’ more or less on the same page? My feeling of urgency is warring with the need for thoughtfulness and patience.
Anarchists imagine and are attempting to create a society based on three principles: freedom, equality, and solidarity. They believe that freedom in a society based on voluntary association rather than coercion is essential for the full flowering of human intelligence, creativity, and dignity.
If freedom is essential for the fullest development of individuality, equality is necessary for genuine freedom to exist. There can be no real freedom in a class-stratified, hierarchical society riddled with gross inequalities of power, wealth, and privilege. In such a society, only a few – those at the top of the hierarchy – are relatively free; the rest are semi-slaves. “Equality of opportunity” under capitalism is meaningless, since there can be no real equality of opportunity for the children of a millionaire and those of a minimum-wage worker.
The final essential is solidarity, which for anarchists means mutual aid: working voluntarily and cooperatively with others who share the same goals and interests. Solidarity and cooperation means treating each other as equals, refusing to treat others as means to an end, and creating relationships that support freedom for all. To practice solidarity means that we recognize, as in the slogan of the Industrial Workers of the World, that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” We sink or swim together, and by standing together, we can increase our strength and attain our goals.
For anarchists, freedom is individuals pursuing their own good in their own way, making decisions for and about themselves and their lives, and being responsible for those decisions. As Rudolf Rocker wrote, freedom doesn’t exist because of something “granted” or “set down on a piece of paper, but only when it’s become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair it will meet with the violent resistance of the populace.” Anarchists support the tactic of “direct action,” for, as Emma Goldman argued, we have “as much liberty as we are willing to take.”
An anarchist society will be non-coercive – violence or the threat of violence won’t be used to “convince” individuals to do anything. It will be non-hierarchical. And it will be self-governed by confederations of decentralized, grassroots organizations operated by direct democracy rather than the delegation of power to “representatives.”
Contrary to popular belief, anarchists aren’t opposed to structure or organization; they simply want to abolish hierarchical structure and avoid situations in which “leaders” or “representatives” have more power than others. Anarchist organizations build in accountability, diffusion of power among the maximum number of persons, task rotation, skill-sharing, the spread of accurate information and the sharing of resources. For most of human existence, people have engaged in self-directed organization – cooperative forms of economic activity involving mutual aid, free access to productive resources, and a sharing of the products of communal labor according to need. Anarchists don’t advocate going “back to the Stone Age;” they just note that since the hierarchical-authoritarian mode of organization is a relatively recent development in the course of human social evolution, there’s no reason to suppose that it’s somehow fated to be permanent. Similarly, anarchists don’t think human beings are genetically programmed for authoritarian, competitive, and aggressive behavior. On the contrary, such behavior is socially conditioned, or learned, and as such, can be unlearned.
Anarchist organization is based on direct democracy (self-management) and federalism (confederation). These forms of organization ensure that decisions flow from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. We can start to create an anarchist society by the way we act here and now, building alternative institutions and relationships. When there’s a need to put someone in charge of a project, the group can tell him or her how they want it done, so that nothings gets done without everyone’s decision. Delegates acting against their mandate or starting to make policy decisions on their own would be instantly recalled. Thus, in a confederation of communities, the community assemblies’ decisions would determine policy at local, regional, national, and international conferences. Any compromises made by a delegate during negotiations would go back to his or her general assembly for ratification. Assemblies would also be able to call confederal conferences to discuss new developments and inform action committees about changing wishes and instructions. Finally, the basic community assemblies could overturn any decisions reached by the conferences and withdraw from any confederation.
Only this form of organization can replace government (the initiative and empowerment of the few) with anarchy (leaderlessness: the initiative and empowerment of all). Free agreement, confederation and the power of recall, fixed mandates, and limited tenure are mechanisms by which power is removed from the hands of governments and placed in the hands of those directly affected by decisions taken. That this kind of organization can work was demonstrated during the 1930s by the Spanish anarchist movement.
A true anarchist society would be based on free experimentation, with different individuals and groups picking the way of life that best suits them. Those who seek less technological ways of living will be free to do so as will those who want to apply the benefits of technologies they see as appropriate. Similarly, those who want to live in a money-less society in which resources are shared according to need can do so, while those who want to exchange goods market-style can live that way. (Truly free markets don’t exist under the government-supported system of capitalism.)
Our current governments support nation-states and wars, failing completely to include citizens in most life-and-death decision-making and forbidding them from coming together to create needed global policies.
On the question of violence, most anarchists support it only in defense of life and freedom. Although the violent acts of individuals and terrorist groups receive the most publicity, states and governments are by far the major perpetrators of mass terrorism and violence.
For more, see “Anarchism” under the Possibilities heading.
(Note: Some of the above was taken from the infoshop.org website.)