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Monday, October 17, 2011


The State of the Occupation 
of Wall Street
By Pham Binh
October 13, 2011

When activists began to occupy Wall Street, the corporate media and parts of the progressive community castigated them for not having demands. I believed that it would be necessary to settle on concrete demands at some point if the protest was to expand beyond the hundreds they attracted in the occupation’s first week.
The growth problem was solved by the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) crackdown and the determination of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists to continue on despite repression. Their actions electrified the country and won the movement mass support.

A union-sponsored march to join OWS called a few days after the NYPD lured 700 activists onto the Brooklyn Bridge for mass arrests drew 20,000-30,000. Usually union marches are publicized months in advance and most of the people on them are union members. They come, listen to speeches, wave union-printed placards, go home after a few hours, and the status quo continues undisturbed the day after.
Not this time.

Most of the marchers did not appear to be union members, judging by their homemade signs and lack of union shirts. They had a spirit of defiance about them. They were energized by the militancy of OWS activists, outraged by the NYPD’s tactics, and felt safe to march because the unions secured permits.

As the masses poured into the Financial District that evening, 1,000-2,000 protesters held a mass meeting and decided via consensus to push through the police barricades at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway in front of TD Bank in an attempt to march on the New York Stock Exchange one block away. They were repelled twice by the NYPD’s night sticks and pepper spray, and scattered skirmishes occurred thereafter. At one point cops on motorcycles rammed protesters. Over two dozen were arrested.

OWS's heroism in the face of repression has ignited a mass movement. Occupations and marches have taken place in 250 cities and towns across America: thousands in Los Angeles, California, 500 in New Orleans, Louisiana, 5,000 in Portland, Oregon, 1,000 in Tampa, Florida, dozens in Des Moines, Iowa, 150 in Nashville, Tennessee, 50 in Mobile, Alabama. All of them are led by determined, mostly young people who are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. All of them see reclaiming public space and the right to protest as being just as important as the underlying economic and political problems that drove them to the streets in the first place.
The sweep of the Occupy movement is as wide as it is deep. Everyone in America is mad as hell at Wall Street for nearly destroying the world economy, handing taxpayers the bill, and awarding themselves even bigger bonuses than before even though the economy is on life support. Wall Street and Corporate America did everything in their power to turn the 99% against them and the Occupy movement has succeeded beyond even the wildest dreams of OWS’s initiators.

This is a mass, grassroots movement, one that does not have leaders or leadership in the conventional sense. The people leading this movement are the people participating in it. It is direct democracy, unmediated by unions, non-governmental organizations, non-profits, political parties or organizations.

At Liberty Plaza, OWS can only be described as a self-organized mass of humanity, a combination Woodstock, Berkeley Free Speech movement, Bonus Army, and anarchist commune all rolled into one.

During week one, there were about 100 overnight occupiers in Liberty Plaza; during week two, it grew to over 200; now, there are over 600. After work hours, the number of people at the encampment grows into the low thousands. When you approach the area, you hear the low hum of thousands of unending conversations, some political, some not, with various drummer groups pounding away, their rhythms echoing off of office buildings containing the 1%. The scene gives new meaning to the term “concrete jungle,” and it sits just hundreds of feet away from the nerve center of world capitalism, the New York and Nasdaq stock exchanges.

OWS’s working groups deal with food, sanitation, medical, security, media, outreach to other activist groups, transparency, facilitating meetings, and meeting a variety of other needs of the hundreds-strong collective (last week they had a makeshift barbershop and gave people free haircuts). Many of the working groups are divided into subgroups due to the complex nature of the tasks they are responsible for. All working groups report to the General Assembly (G.A), an open mass meeting that operates using modified consensus, meaning almost everyone must agree for decisions to be made.

Although the Occupy movement is going from strength to strength, there are problems brewing beneath the surface of OWS’s success.

There is an intense level of frustration among occupiers with the G.A. process and the dysfunctional nature of some working groups. This has given rise to talk of creating a spokescouncil, a body composed of the working groups that would more efficiently deal with mundane, practical matters, allowing the G.A. to be more focused and productive. Some people in working groups skip the G.A. altogether because they feel it is a waste of time. One woman in the sanitation working group spends 20 hours a day cleaning the plaza and has no time or energy left to participate in the political process.

Bobby, a self-described anarchist who is part of three different working groups, complained at a discussion about the proposed spokescouncil that the G.A. was often held hostage by the “tyranny of the minority.” (A minority can block decisions from being passed in a system based on consensus; conversely, the pressure to agree unanimously to get something done led to ugly racial tensions after people of color repeatedly blocked the G.A. from incorporating the absurd claim that racial divisions no longer existed in the text of OWS’s first official declaration.)

Bobby also complained that decisions passed by the G.A. were often impractical, such as the G.A.’s approval of the sanitation working group’s request to buy trash bins to help clean Liberty Plaza. The G.A.’s approval came with conditions: they had to be “fair trade” trash bins and the sanitation group had to look on Craigslist first for the best price. This hampered execution of the decision and made meeting a vital need of the occupiers very difficult.

The simple, horizontal structure originally created around a G.A. using modified consensus has become a barrier to practical and political work getting done now that over 600 occupiers and an even greater number of people (workers, students) are involved through working groups. What was once an asset has now become an impediment.

There is even more tension surrounding the issue of money. At least $40,000 has been donated to OWS mostly via the internet, and OWS has yet to figure how to account for and control spending. The G.A. process is too inefficient and arbitrary to be responsible for deciding this question on its own. For example, the G.A. voted to give $200 to one of the protest organizers after he said he lost his phone and needed to buy a new one. He was not forced to buy a “free trade” phone or look for the best price on Craigslist.
The biggest challenge facing OWS is not the lack of formal demands. As someone in the OWS media group put it, “we’ll settle on those once the movement stops growing.” Not having demands allows the movement’s message to be shaped by rank-and-file participants; this all-inclusive openness, combined with the heroic determination to march on Wall Street no matter what, is the key to the Occupy uprising’s fast and furious growth.
Demands are not decisive. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott was declared before a formal list of demands was adopted at a mass meeting. The boycott led to the complete end of segregation on the bus lines, a far more radical outcome than the boycott’s modest demand that seated blacks not be forced to give up their seats for standing whites on segregated buses.
Historical experience shows that the fate of movements and the course of history are not determined by lists of demands but by mass action.
The biggest challenge facing OWS is sustaining the movement for the long haul because the dramatic regulatory, economic, and political changes we want are not on the cards in the near future. It is going to take even more protest than we have seen thus far to win things like a tax on all financial transactions or the separation of commercial and investment banking, which would mean splitting up “too big to fail” institutions in an operation dwarfing the division of “Ma Bell” into four smaller telecom companies in the 1980s.
However, there are many things on the local and state level that are within reach: reversing the Bush-style tax cut for millionaires championed by New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, raising New York City’s local income tax rate for the 1%, getting banks or states Attorneys General to halt foreclosures and fraudclosures are a few examples.
Anything that alleviates the suffering of the 99% is worth fighting for.
Creating a sustainable movement also means building or modifying our infrastructure of protest and organization to be more responsive to our needs, more democratic, and more open to mass participation beyond the core of people who can “all day, all week, occupy Wall Street.” Properly staffed and well-run working groups would take the burden off of the very committed occupiers who are members of multiple groups and are working so hard they do not or cannot participate in the time-consuming decision-making process.
OWS is the vanguard of the Occupy movement, and what happens at Liberty Plaza will play a disproportionate role in shaping the future of the biggest rebellion to rock this country since the 1960s. OWS has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations thus far, and we need to be clear and honest about what can be done better if we hope to build on this success and reign in the most greedy, powerful, and ruthless 1% the world has ever known.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times OnlineZnetCounterpunch, and The Indypendent. All of his writings on Occupy Wall Street and other topics can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

Friday, August 26, 2011


The Bolshevik Experience and the "Leninist" Model: 
reply to PLB's "Marxism and Organisation"

by Pham Binh

Although the following is written in response to Paul Le Blanc's "Marxism and Organisation" essay, it is not a line-for-line response, nor do I believe that he personally subscribes to all of the positions I attribute to "Leninists" in general. I have nothing but respect for him and his life's work (changing the world for the better); I have re-read his "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" many times and referenced it occasionally as I wrote the following response. My hope is that it leads to comradely but sharp debate, something that is sorely lacking on the far left where insults, epithets, and name-calling are all too common.

"Leninists" project their conceptions of organization back in time onto the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party to the point that the actual historical development of the RSDLP becomes incomprehensible. There is a tendency to see the ultimate outcomes of the RSDLP's disputes as foredained and inevitable; this mistake is compounded when revolutionaries believe that we must form our own organizations based on those outcomes. What Lenin did or pushed for at any given time was determined not only by his own political preferences, but also by the actions of his opponents. For example, it was the refusal of the Mensheviks to abide by majority votes they lost on at the 1903 congress even though Lenin dutifully yielded on issues he lost votes on that compelled him to call for a third party congress.

Both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik wings of the RSDLP supported the same "revolutionary Marxist program" up until spring of 1917: overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy. Their differences concerned strategy, which, of course, had organizational ramifications (Lenin later correctly characterized the 1903 split as "an anticipation"). What divided the two factions? The Bolsheviks believed the working class should play the leading role in overthrowing the Tsar and establishing a capitalist democracy; the Mensheviks argued (logically) that only the capitalist class could play the leading role in establishing their rule via a capitalist democracy (the Bolshevik idea of a worker-led revolution voluntarily handing power to their exploiters and enemies didn't make any sense to them).

The point is that the "revolutionary Marxist program" did not separate the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks for most of the RSDLP's history. What separated them was the actual class struggle and their practical orientation to it. When the program they shared with the Mensheviks became an impediment to fighting for the interests of the working class, the Bolsheviks modified it.

This brings me to my second point.

"Democratic centralism" is not a special principle/mechanism practiced by the Bolsheviks. Lenin believed in organizing the party in a thoroughly democratic way. That, more than anything else, is what motivated Lenin in his struggle against the Mensheviks in 1903/1904. The Mensheviks expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to respect the decisions of the party congress that they disagreed with; at the same time, the Mensheviks flouted the congress decisions they disagreed with politically. For Lenin, this was an intolerable situation that made a mockery of the very idea of a party, much less one where majority rule prevailed.

Lenin's commitment to democratic organizing meant that the central committees of both the RSDLP and of the Bolshevik faction were elected as individuals by secret ballot, not the slate system (that was introduced in 1921 at the 10th party congress where they banned factions ending the democratic norms that characterized the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks) that to my knowledge all "Leninist" groups use today.

Electing the central committee in this way did something important. Party members elected and were led by the party's most outstanding and popular leaders, making it far more likely members would voluntarily implement decisions by their leaders. As individuals, these leaders had different approaches, different experiences, and different temperaments; this heterogeneity gave rise to sharp debates and clear differences of opinion that taught the entire organization how to work through them in a comradely, productive, and practical way. It created a culture of debate, dissension, majority voting, and collective implementation to resolve contentious issues, many of which did not have a clear-cut "right" answer. This culture came straight from the top of the organization and filtered down into every branch, every cell, and involved every member. 

A slate system, by contrast, encourages political conformity at the top (only "team players" need apply), which filters downward, robbing the party of its dynamism. "Leadership" becomes based on who is the loudest/most enthusiastic proponent of the line coming from the top, rather than a process of initiative, trial, error, learning, reassessment, and moving forward. Discipline ends up being a question of rote, obedience, and passive-but-non-believing submission; where those fail, administrative measures are applied. All of these are mental and moral poisons for revolutionaries; no organization can flourish in the long run in this manner.

Furthermore, if you can elect a slate of 12 Lenins prior to a revolution, great; but what if you elect 12 Zinovievs? Then what?

The thoroughly democratic practices and habits of the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP were decisive in 1917. It was only on the basis of this thorough democracy that the erroneous parts of the party's strategy could be modified and an outsider like Trotsky elected to the party's highest body, despite Lenin's uninterrupted political attacks on him for almost a decade and a half prior. An organization without democracy can't fix its program or be changed from below. Even if said organization's program is 110% correct, it is doomed to fail the test of revolution because only by fully airing differences within its ranks can it have a chance (not a guarantee) of coming to the right decision about what to do in the heat of the moment.

An organization with a faulty program that has the capacity to change and learn from its mistakes is in a much better position than one that has the right program but no capacity for critical self-reflection. I keep returning to this point because one of the single most damaging problems within the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement post-1917 has been an obsession with "defending the program." This obsession has led to ferreting out "renegades" i.e. dissidents and elevating secondary political issues or tactical disagreements into all-out wars to "defend the revolutionary Marxist program." This is especially absurd when tiny, uninfluential socialist organizations in one country split over strategy and tactics adopted by socialists in another country.

If we are going to be "obsessed" with anything, it should be with leading our side to victory in struggles, big and small, by any means necessary. Our measure of success should be the gains and reforms won by our initiatives, however small or fleeting. Only by accumulating those victories will our side rebuild its confidence, providing the basis for a revolution.

So if democracy and not a formally correct program is key, what about the Mensheviks? Why couldn't they just modify their program and march lockstep with Lenin and Trotsky to October?

By the time of the 1917 revolution, their faction had ossified around their orientation towards pressuring/encouraging/cheerleading Russia's capitalists to play a stronger role in the fight to overthrow Tsarism. This was particularly true after the defeat of the 1905 revolution (during 1905 the two wings of the RSDLP nearly united, giving lie to the notion that Lenin made up his mind to not unite with the Mensheviks prior to 1912 as part of his life's mission to create a "party of a new type"). Menshevik organizers tended to be middle class intellectuals or older, more conservative workers who renounced the "foolishness" of their 1905 days in favor of "realism". Bolshevik organizers tended to be younger and involved with militant actions (illegal strikes, underground organization) because their faction stressed that the working class could only get anything by its own strength and organization, whereas the Menshevik faction tended to downplay militant worker activism since it would scare big business into deserting the revolutionary cause.

The Bolshevik party emerged as an organic part of Russia's workers' movement and had a role in a huge array of workers' activities -- strikes, protests, demonstrations, social insurance societies, unions, student organizations, war industry committees (despite their hostility to WWI), and managed to win seats in Russia's sham legislature despite unfavorable electoral laws; it was part of the class from the party's inception; its program was derived from and a response to Russian conditions and problems; when conditions changed, so did the party's program. It succeeded as a revolutionary workers' party because it was rooted in the class it sought to lead and thoroughly democratic from top to bottom.

This is the key to understanding why the attempt to export conclusions drawn after almost two decades of trial and error in Russia in the early 20th century and impose them "from above" or a priori in the West via the Third/Fourth Internationals has led to complete failure on the part of all "Leninist" groups to lead working-class revolutions.

The early Comintern is often hailed as the high point in the international revolutionary workers' movement, and it was, but the reality is that the Comintern's practical influence on the course of the class struggle in other countries was decidedly, almost totally, negative during its "golden years". The KPD's policies, actions, and slogans became subject to the decisions of an executive thousands of miles away from the front lines; that's putting aside the unprincipled, apolitical, and bureaucratic nonsense that went on before anybody knew who Stalin was.
Why anyone would look to a model that put the communist movement's Zinovievs and Bela Kuns in charge of mass workers parties that were being ably led by experienced revolutionaries of the caliber of Rosa Luxemburg (RIP), Paul Levi, Clara Zetkin, Antonio Gramsci, and Angelo Tasca is really beyond me. Louis Proyect wrote a piece that should be read carefully and absorbed by everyone who is a Marxist and wants a workers' revolution: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/comintern_and_germany.htm

Is it any wonder the KPD leadership failed to learn how to think for itself and became ever-more dependent on  Moscow's directives when the Comintern's executive continually decapitated the KPD leadership? This occurred at least three times before Lenin's death: Paul Levi was expelled in 1921 (with Lenin's approval), leaving the party in the hands of the ultra-lefts who were partly responsible for the "March Action"; Reuter-Friesland was expelled in 1922 for protesting against mistaken Comintern directives concerning Germany's union movement; and Brandler was removed from the KPD's leadership in 1923 after he failed to conjure up a German October at Moscow's behest.

These expulsions, coming on the heels of the murders of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknict, and Eugen Levine, meant that the KPD was finished as an independent force able to draw conclusions from its own experience and to respond with quick changes to its political "line" necessitated by rapid shifts in the balance of class forces. By 1923, the KPD was led by the leftovers of leftovers of leftovers; this was the fault of the Comintern and no one else. The development of self-confident national parties was crippled by the Comintern experiment, which deepened Russia's isolation. Trying to replicate this flawed model is the height of folly.

So what does all of the above mean? Is there nothing we can learn from the experience of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) or the early Comintern?

It means a few things:

1) We have to analyze the Bolshevik party historically rather than project our (mis)conceptions about "Leninism" backwards in time by reading into debates that took place in 1903-1917 things that became clear later and after much struggle, the outcomes of which were not inevitable. Trying to implement Comintern resolutions from 1919-1921 (or worse yet, Lenin's prescriptions from 1902/1903) instead of finding our own path will only create sects, not a party of working class fighters and organizers capable of winning socialism. "Leninism" and "party-building" have been tried in dozens of countries in many, many different circumstances for the last 90 years, and not once has there been a success! Refusing to acknowledge the inherent flaws of the model we've inherited as the last/first word in how to organize and what to do by continually blaming unfavorable "objective conditions" isn't going to help.

2) There are no cut-and-dried organizational/practical schemas that can serve as templates how revolutionaries should organize, everywhere and always.

What has come to be known as "Leninism" -- setting up a disciplined "democratic centralist" organization with a "revolutionary Marxist program," a newspaper modeled on and motivated by Lenin's 1902 article "Where to Begin?" and his 1903 book "What Is To Be Done?", an excessive focus on selling said paper (the result of elevating the newspaper to a matter of principle and revolutionary duty rather than using it as one expedient among many), and creating a miniature caricature of the Bolshevik party, complete with a dozen full-time salaried central committee members, many of whom occupy the same posts for decades(!), all in anticipation of a revolution even though working-class militancy has been at historic lows for two or three decades now -- needs to be discarded.

3) Our reality and modern-day conditions have to be our starting point for any discussion of how to organize and where/how to "draw boundaries." We are materialists, after all. We need to figure out the way forward for our class without relying (mechanically) on what Lenin and his contemporaries said and did. There's no use importing solutions from a bygone era when we are operating in a radically different context. We should use what we find useful in the experience of others but not copy anything wholesale. Above all else, we have to find ways to be rooted in the class struggle today, such as it exists, if we hope to actually influence its direction, rather than comment/lament on it from the outside.

4) "Party line" newspapers written by toy Leninist groups never have and never will command more than passing attention from workers, although they have managed to absorb a disproportionate amount of the time, energy, and attention of each generation of revolutionaries in the 90 years since the Russian revolution.

The American working class has a long history and tradition of humor, songs, icons, and much more we should be drawing from in our own media (see the disgruntled Whole Foods employee's farewell letter, for example). In our day and age, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inform people's politics a lot more than "old" forms of propaganda like newspapers and pamphlets. We should be discussing how to best utilize the mediums people actually use to influence them politically, rather than figure out how to get them to conform to our preconceptions, especially when those preconceptions are largely erroneous or based on a flawed reading of history in the first place. The more we harp on Russia and the universality of Lenin's glorious struggle against liquidators, economists, oztovists, and Mensheviks, the more remote we become from the concerns, interests, and lives of workers in the here and now who are desperate for a party that won't sell them out or screw them over.

To sum up, we need to be flexible tactically and organizationally while remaining steadfast on our goals. Just as the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP developed answers and prescriptions to problems that arose in the course of leading workers in struggle, we must do the same. We would would do well to emulate the approach of Malcolm X who continually reinvented himself in the struggle to win black liberation, and shed the Nation of Islam's conservative sectarianism in the process. If the socialist movement could do the same, we'd be in a much better position.

If this conclusion is vague and unsatisfying, we can always turn back to the sect with its ready-made and unchanging answers to all problems. Personally, I'd rather not.


Qaddafi’s Overthrow: a “Blow to the Arab Spring”?
By Pham Binh
August 25, 2011
Not since the European revolutions of 1848 have revolutions spread with such speed and force. The Arab Spring brought more change to the Middle East and North Africa in less than a year than occurred there over several decades. Brutal dictators who seemed invincible were toppled in a matter of weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, protracted civil wars erupted in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and the monarchy in Bahrain managed to survive only thanks to the political and material support it received from the Saudi monarchy and the U.S. government.
Muammar Qaddafi has joined the ranks of ousted dictators Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but not in the same way. In the case of Libya, the U.S. government and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies became intimately involved in toppling his tyrannical regime after some hesitation.

Some on the left who initially supported the Libyan rebellion argued that the involvement of the U.S. and NATO in Qaddafi’s ouster makes them the real winners in Libya, not the Libyan people. In doing so, they have come perilously close to the positions of groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) who were “skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the popular challenge to the Qaddafi regime that began with mass protests” as the International Socialist Review put it.

recent editorial in the U.S. Socialist Worker newspaper described Qaddafi’s downfall in the context of NATO’s military intervention as a “blow to the Arab Spring” and argued that: “[t]he new government that will come to power in Libya won't answer to the people of Libya and their desire for democracy and justice. It will answer to imperialism – and that is a blow to the Arab Spring, which this year showed the world the hope of an alternative to oppression, violence and tyranny.” 

These truisms apply equally to the post-Mubarak government in Egypt, which is a military dictatorship that uses force against protestors, outlaws strikes, continues its cozy relationship with Israel, and receives billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid. Clearly, the military junta running Egypt “answers to imperialism” and not the people, nor does it care about their desire for democracy and justice (in fact, it fears that desire). As with Libya, the U.S. became intimately involved in trying to get Mubarak out of office, albeit in a different form. 

Even if Mubarak had stepped down under U.S. pressure instead of pressure from striking workers, no one would conclude that his overthrow was a “blow” to the Arab Spring.

Socialist Worker’s line of reasoning involves two errors: one is a failure to understand the Arab Spring and the other is a flawed view of the revolutionary process in the context of a world dominated by imperial powers like the U.S., China, Russia, Germany, Britain, France, and other nations.

The Arab Spring is a dynamic process of mobilization from below, counter mobilization from above, and political radicalization on a mass scale. This process is driven by material conditions, namely, the tremendous gap in wealth between the elites of the Arab and North African states and their populations on the one hand and the autocratic, repressive measures these states use to keep their populations in line on the other. It is not primarily a process driven by opposition to U.S. imperialism. This is why the uprisings did not stop at the borders of Libya, Syria, or Iran whose regimes were not friendly to the U.S. government but were just as economically polarized, brutal, and corrupt as their pro-U.S. neighbors. 

The main loser of the Arab Spring process has been the U.S. government for the simple reason that there were far more pro- U.S. regimes in North Africa and the Middle East than anti-U.S. regimes. The U.S. lost close allies in Egypt and Tunisia, is opposed to the “wrong side” winning the civil war in Yemen, would welcome the end of Assad regime in Syria, and managed to turn the Libyan revolution to its advantage, but not exclusively so. As Richard Seymour who writes the Lenin’s Tomb blog noted: “[t]he government that now follows will be less oppressive and more democratic than the one it ousted.”

In other words, toppling Qaddafi was a step forward for Libya’s workers, students, and oppressed groups like the Berbers. They now have more space to organize unions, political associations, and struggles for what they need than they did under the decrepit Qaddafi dictatorship. This is a good thing and it should be celebrated, Socialist Worker’s admonitions notwithstanding. 

If it wasn’t for the ongoing revolt, Qaddafi would still be in power today. NATO’s military might prevented the Libyan revolution’s physical destruction at Bengazi, played a decisive role in paving the way for its ultimate triumph in Tripoli, and corrupted the “normal” Arab Spring dynamic of mobilization, counter mobilization, and mass radicalization. That the U.S. government would manipulate and try to control a struggle against an adversary is unsurprising. What is surprising is socialists disowning a struggle because the U.S. moved to shape it or because the struggle’s leaders made political choices we find abhorrent.

The combination of a democratic revolution and imperialist intervention in conjunction with that revolution against their common enemy caused tremendous confusion on the left internationally: Marxist academic Gilbert Achcar initially supported U.S. military attacks on Libya; PSL denounced the rebellion and supported Qaddafi’s repression; Socialist Worker supported the rebellion prior to the intervention of NATO. Needless to say, this brief survey does not cover the range or nuances of positions expressed by various left currents, but it does show concretely how living revolutions pose new and challenging questions for us that make textbook responses inadequate at best.

The involvement of the U.S. military in Qaddafi’s ouster is both a symptom and a cause of tremendous problems for the Arab Spring process generally and for the people of Libya specifically. In Egypt, the military stood squarely behind Mubarak until general strikes by workers erupted in every industry and every town; this has not been repeated elsewhere. In Libya, the rebel leadership’s failure to mobilize the masses, particularly the workers involved with oil production and distribution in oil fields and at ports and sea terminals, meant that the struggle against Qaddafi was not a social struggle but a military one where he had the advantage, provided that outside powers did not step in. They did. He lost.

The question now is will Syria’s revolutionaries call for U.S. military intervention as their counterparts in Libya did instead of relying on mobilizing the social power of the working class as was done in Egypt? Will the U.S. exploit the difficulties of Syria’s revolutionaries to turn their democratic revolution into a win for itself, bolstering its domination of the oil-rich Middle East? Now that Qaddafi is gone, will the Libyan people force their new rulers to give them a greater share of the country’s tremendous oil wealth and democratic rights? How will they react to the integration of their country into the world capitalist system’s global race to the bottom for workers, a race that is rapidly hollowing out what is left of the American dream?

How these questions are answered by the tens of millions awakened by the Arab Spring remains to be seen. We in the West need to do what we can to keep the hands of our rulers off of other people’s revolutions, which means taking a stand against imperialist intervention even when it is disguised as aid to a beleaguered rebellion (John Reed was absolutely right when he said Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing). We also have to realistically appraise the mistakes and successes of the Arab Spring instead of disowning them totally when imperialist powers try to use them for their own advantage, something that is inevitably in an increasingly multipolar world.
Above all, the best thing we can is focus on organizing our own workers, students, and oppressed people to win whatever small gains we can. The accumulation of concrete victories, however small, is the only thing that can lead to our own desperately needed spring.
Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

MEMORY AND RESISTANCE: the story of Shane Bauer

MEMORY AND RESISTANCE: the story of Shane Bauer
by Rachael Moshman

Shane Bauer is one of the three American travelers arrested by Iranian authorities on July 31, 2009 while hiking in eastern Iraq, near the Iranian border. Accused of espionage against the Iranian government, the three friends were placed in Evin Prison to await trial. While the only woman of the three, Shane's fiancée Sarah Shourd, was released in September 2010 for humanitarian reasons, Shane and Josh Fattal continue to sit in a small cell in Tehran.

I met Shane Bauer in November of 2001 in Peja, Kosovo when we were both volunteers for a small-non profit organization called Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). Balkan Sunflowers' main office then, as now, was in Prishtina Kosovo, and it had projects throughout the Balkans. I applied to volunteer for BSF while traveling through Eastern Europe after college. Shane had also been traveling, and after meeting an American, David, on the road, they traveled together into Skopje, Macedonia. After meeting some local volunteers at the BSF office in Skopje, they started volunteering themselves. After some time, looking for an opportunity to explore Kosovo, a region still recovering from the 1999 ethnic conflict, Shane and David traveled from Skopje to Prishtina one day, and made their way to visit the BSF operation in Peja.

In Skopje, BSF had two different projects Shane was volunteering for. Each involved small Roma communities within the city -- neighborhoods of homes built up out of scraps of metal and cardboard. Momon Potok was tucked away in a spare lot, and Klanica sprawled along the banks of the Vardar river, which flows through Skopje. Each community had a number of children ranging from toddlers to budding adults for which BSF was providing educational services. Shane and other volunteers - local and international - would visit each community several days a week, spreading a tarp on the open ground or under a bridge over the Vardar, or huddling into someone's home and squatting on scraps of swept carpet for lessons as the temperature got colder, to teach the children math and the Cyrillic alphabet and play energetic games together.

I don't know how many months Shane had spent in Skopje, but after visiting the house in Peja, he was ready to move there and try volunteering for one of BSF’s other projects. At the time, the Peja house was full of volunteers from England, Holland, and the United States. We were generally happy to welcome another volunteer to the house, though we hesitated at his age. Shane was only 19 then! But he proved to be a very mature roommate, and a great help when it came to tasks like splitting wood for the stove (our only source of heat) or teaching me how to drive stick in our 1983 VW bus - a skill I continue to have reason to silently thank Shane for. Shane also led the house that winter in fasting for Ramadan, showing respect and a cultural curiosity for the Muslim faith of the local people. We discovered loaves of bread in a nearby bakery, made especially for Ramadan, and sold so that they were still hot when sundown came. We ate them slathered in butter or ajvar (roasted red pepper spread) or peanut butter as the closest mosque would signal the end of the day's fast.

In Peja, BSF volunteers lived together on the top two floors of a tall house, and ran several projects in and around the community. The community was mostly composed of ethnic Albanians and a Roma minority . There was a Serbian enclave within driving distance, protected by NATO soldiers and barbwire. When Shane moved to Peja, he joined the project run by myself and a Dutch volunteer, Miriam. We lead psycho-social games programs with ethnic Albanian children - all of whom had lived through the conflict, many of whom had fled from Kosovo to refugee camps with their parents - and Roma children, who may or may not have fled, but were living on society's edge after the conflict as they had before the conflict. The purpose of the games and activities was 1) to enable children to be accepting of themselves and other children, 2) explore their feelings in an appropriate and child-friendly way, and 3) give majority and minority kids a chance to be kids together. After helping me finish up a ten-week program I lead and seeking out another community of children, Shane began leading his own set of workshops. Working with the kids was rewarding in many ways, but frustrating when you thought of the children's prospects in a country with a devastated economy and continued heightened ethnic tension. (Thank goodness, things are much better in Kosovo today in terms of ethnic tension though unemployment is still around 50%). Shane showed us his journalistic leanings then with inquisitive questions and an interest in observing and understanding both sides of a story.

Those last few months of 2001 in Peja were cold ones. The electricty was on for fewer and fewer hours each day and there was no hot water for bathing, but we still enjoyed each other's company and the experience of getting out in the community. One of the nicest experiences was getting to sit barefooted in the living room of a neighbor or the family of one our students, making small talk through our translator and sipping Turkish coffee and orange soda. Soon the New Year was looming, however, and different volunteers began to make plans to move on. I decided to move to the Balkan Sunflowers program in Skopje, where I spent the next nine months. Shane traveled next to Albania, and soon went on to travel through the Middle East, continuously feeding a curiosity for other cultures and genuine interest in meeting their peoples. In the next decade he would study Arabic in Yemen and Syria, and become a published journalist and photojournalist, presenting the Arab world to American viewers with beautiful photos and honest reporting.

Newsclips of Shane and Josh at their just-ended trial in front of Tehran's Islamic Revolution Court  show Shane is still as thin as he was when he was 19, though I can see he has aged and can only imagine the wear that two years in a small jail cell has taken on him. I believe that Shane and I were in the Balkans in 2001 for some of the same reasons. We wanted the experience of traveling and living in another culture, and we wanted to have a positive impact on the community we were living in. Our experience in the Balkans provided these things, and we both left that winter headed on new paths that would always be touched by that time. I trust that the experiences and lessons we learned in Peja follow Shane in his work as a journalist, a traveler, and a stranger in a strange land, as they do in mine as an attorney, community activist and friend.

Free Shane Bauer! While we wait in anticipation of a hopeful release in the next few days, add your voice to mine, and the other friends and family members of Shane, Josh, and Sarah. Help Shane by building popular support for his release, and please sign the petition to Free All Three at http://freethehikers.org/take-action/sign-the-petition/ , check out the website www.freethehikers.org , or look for the facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=119471126959 for upcoming solidarity actions in your area.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Indigenous Groups Challenge Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination
Friday 22 July 2011
by: Jason Coppola, Truthout | News Analysis
Ask of Me and I shall Give to thee the Heathen as Thine Inheritance and the Uttermost parts of the Earth for Thy Possession. -Psalms 2:8
Margarita Gutierrez Romero is the president of the State Coordinator of Indigenous Women Organizations in Chiapas, Mexico. In New York City to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Romero told us, "Indigenous peoples are being permanently alienated from our being. We are being stripped, ripped off, and plundered of our values, our spirituality, our spirits, even of our gods," she said.
During the two weeks of the annual May forum, indigenous peoples and nations from every corner of the globe converge on the original Lenape island of Manhattan in order to have their voices heard by the world body concerning the violations of their rights, environmental destruction, rising suicide rates, water contamination, as well the effects of climate change.
Romero was speaking at a side event about the root of the problems affecting her people - the dehumanization caused by the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery."
The "doctrine," which will be the theme of next year's highly anticipated UNPFII, would have sounded like conspiracy not too long ago.
Today, thanks to exhaustive research by indigenous scholars and law researchers, the doctrine has been brought front and center.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, of the Onondaga Nation, is an attorney and president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance. In 2009, Frichner, who was then North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum, was appointed special rapporteur to conduct a preliminary study of the impact on indigenous peoples of the international legal construct known as the "Doctrine of Discovery." She submitted that study to the Permanent Forum in 2010.
Speaking at the same recent side event, Frichner revealed, "What we found is that the doctrine of discovery has been institutionalized in the laws and policies on the national and international level and lies at the roots of the violations of the indigenous people's human rights, both individual and collective."
This institutionalization took time. About 500 years.
Steven Newcomb (Lenape/Shawnee) is the author of the book "Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery" <http://www.amazon.com/Pagans-Promised-Land-Christian-Discovery/dp/1555916422 >and has redefined the way the doctrine is discussed today. Newcomb explained the doctrine to Truthout, "The Doctrine of Christian Discovery was a claim that the first Christian monarch or people to locate lands inhabited by non-Christians had the right to assume a right of domination over those lands simply because the original nations were not Christians."
This claim was expressed in Roman Catholic papal edicts "dum Diversas" in 1452 and "Romanus Pontifex" in 1455 issued by Pope Nicholas V.
These edicts granted Portugal, as Newcomb quotes them, "the right 'to invade, capture, vanquish and subdue' all non-Christians, 'to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,' and to 'take away all their possessions and property.'"
This gave Portugal its justification to invade the west coast of Africa and essentially ignite the global slave trade.
Later, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI followed the tradition of his predecessors by issuing the document "Inter Caetera," which continued the claim for Spain following the voyage of Columbus.
In the race for global dominance, King Henry VII of England was not to be outdone. The king granted a commission to explorer John Cabot, adopting similar language in 1495 to claim for the crown the lands of heathens and infidels not yet discovered by "any Christian people" such as Spain or Portugal.
In 1823, it was this commission that served as the foundation of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the landmark case of Johnson v. M'Intosh. The court cited the Cabot charter and eight other such documents to justify its decision on the basis of Christian discovery.
The Johnson ruling then became the legal precedent for future court decisions on US dominion and Indian land policy, cementing the doctrine of Christian discovery in US law.
Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided over and wrote the Johnson v. M'Intosh decision, explained in his 1824 "History of the American Colonies" that King Henry VII, "granted a commission to John Cabot in order to discover countries unoccupied by any christian state and take possession of them in his [the king's] name."
According to Henry Wheaton, the Supreme Court reporter during the trial, "It thus became a maxim of policy and of law that the right of the native Indians was subordinate to that of the first christian discoverer, whose paramount claim excluded that of every other civilized nation and gradually extinguished that of the natives."
Wheaton added, "According to the European ideas of that age, the heathen nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors."
The preliminary study submitted by Frichner has documented "that for more than 500 years the Doctrine of Discovery has been global in scope and application. At least two Governments other than the United States, Canada and Australia, have cited the Johnson v. M'Intosh ruling to enforce the Doctrine of Discovery."
In summation of the doctrine's theory, Newcomb told Truthout, "This thinking provided the rationale for claiming the right to invade and assume a sovereign right of conquest and domination over non-Christian lands, territories and resources, anywhere on the planet."
The results of which are very much felt today as Romero told us, "this concept of discovery wants to convince Indigenous Peoples that we are inferior beings, that we don't have souls or spirits and they use that premise to enslave us, to build their churches, to labor on their farms and plantations and to justify raping us as women. We carry this historic burden, this intergenerational sorrow ... which defines us as stupid Indians and savages."
A Framework of Dominance
The language of empire is at the heart of Newcomb's studies. He gave Truthout an example of its importance in understanding what indigenous peoples are really up against. "In the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493, issued by Pope Alexander VI, a sentence reads in English: 'We trust in Him from whom empires, governments and all good things proceed.' In the original version of the sentence the Latin word for governments is 'dominationes.' Thus, the Latin word for a single government is, 'domination.' For indigenous nations this has a particular poignancy because their experiences of overbearing "government" policies is an experience of domination and its twin, dehumanization," Newcomb explains.
Romero summed this up eloquently, "I wonder why if we still have our language and our traditional dress and our traditional food we aren't happy? It's almost as if we have to ask permission of these foreign laws and frameworks to be happy." She adds, "I've found that there are peoples who've been stripped even of their smiles. So I've concluded that being happy is like part of our exercise of our right to self determination."
The alternative to this construct, says Newcomb, is "models of healing and renewal. I argue that those models are to be found in the traditional knowledge and wisdom systems of Indigenous Peoples. It is now time to actively turn toward and advocate in behalf of those models in this time of intense upheaval and transition."
"The preliminary study," according to Newcomb, "used the 'framework of dominance' to pinpoint the issues of domination and dehumanization that indigenous peoples continue to face on a daily basis everywhere on the planet. Some people, in an effort to legitimize domination, typically call that framework 'conquest.' Our opinion is that 'domination' is not the same as 'conquest' because domination can and must be resisted and eventually overcome. The Recommendation to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is this, 'End the Domination.'"

This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
Jason Coppola is the director and producer of the documentary film "Justify My War," which explores the rationalization of war in American culture, highlighting the siege of Fallujah and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Coppola has worked unembedded in Iraq as well as on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

MALAWI ON THE BRINK: the july 20th movement

the july 20th movement

By PT Zeleza
The Zeleza Post

July 21, 2011

Yesterday, July 20, Malawi was engulfed by protests and riots against President Bingu wa Mutharika's increasingly bankrupt regime, which left several people dead and many others injured. There was also widespread destruction of property across the country's major cities. The immediate causes of the growing popular disaffection include deepening authoritarianism and arbitrary power reflected in the passage of draconian laws against civil liberties; worsening economic mismanagement as manifested in shortages of fuel and foreign exchange, power outages, rising unemployment and inflation; the dangerous mobilization of ethnicity as evident in the redistribution of jobs in the public sector to favor people from the president's ethnic group; and desperate attempts to manipulate the president's succession for his brother, a former law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
The protests and riots of July 20 are fundamentally about governance and development, the enduring desire among Malawians for the establishment of a sustainable democratic developmental state. It underscores the fact that economic growth without development is not enough. Over the last five years Malawi's growth has averaged 7%, peaking at 9.8% in 2008. But the benefits have gone to a few as poverty remains rampant. Also, this growth hardly put a dent in the country's reliance on foreign aid, which accounts for up to 40% of the national budget. As Dambisa Moyo has demonstrated in her controversial book, Dead Aid, aid has certainly not provided a reliable recipe for sustainable development in Malawi.

Contrary to stereotypes about the docility and peaceful nature of Malawians, Malawi has a long history of mass protests going back to the colonial era including the struggles against the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that saw the demise of the federation and the country's independence in 1964. In the early 1990s, mass protests culminated in the collapse of President Banda's iron-fisted dictatorship in the multi-party elections of 1994. As with the "first independence" from colonialism, the heady hopes of progressive transformation hit against the sturdy structural blockages of the postcolonial order rooted in the deeply entrenched deformities of the colonial state.

The next ten years were marked by fitful advances and setbacks under President Muluzi's lackluster regime. As in much of Africa undergoing democratic transitions it became increasingly clear that the road to democratic consolidation and development would be long and bumpy. Africa's wily dictators and unimaginative political class seemed keen to frustrate popular demands and hopes for the "second independence" from postcolonial authoritarianism and stagnation. After failing to extend his rule for an unconstitutional third term, President Muluzi thrust the relatively unknown international technocrat Bingu wa Mutharika upon the nation as his successor. Predictably, the two men fell out as President Mutharika sought to consolidate his power. He bolted from the United Democratic Party still chaired by former President Muluzi and formed his own party, the Democratic People's Party.

During President Mutharika's first term, a strong opposition prevented this political comedy turning tragic. Held in check by the opposition and surrounded by some competent ministers, the country registered remarkable economic growth and made noticeable democratic advances. In the 2009 elections, the DPP was rewarded with an overwhelming victory. That is when the problems started and the political gloves were removed to expose the entrenched structural instabilities of Malawi's political order and the deep insecurities of the president himself. Malawi, like many postcolonial African countries, suffers from ageold processes and patterns of uneven development that intersect with wide regional, class, gender, and generational disparities, which politicians are adept at mobilizing and exploiting.

Above all, as Frantz Fanon noted in his searing indictment of the postcolonial elite in The Wretched of the Earth, the commitments of Malawi's craven political class is more towards 'primitive accumulation' than a national project of broad-based development and democracy. President Mutharika embodies the contradictions of Malawi's political system and the crassness of Malawi's political class. Like so many other so-called 'peaceful' African states, such as Senegal, the country has yet to make a generational transition in its top leadership. Thus, while many sectors are dominated by the post-independence generation, the president is an octogenarian autocratic who should have long retired from public life as he clearly is out of tune with the aspirations of his relatively young nation.

President Mutharika, 77, belongs to the nationalist generation that brought the "first independence" while the vast majority of the population was born after 1964 indeed 45% of the country's 15.2 million people are below the age of 15. To them the president's nationalist anxieties and preoccupations with colonialism and admonition of Britain, the former colonial power, whose ambassador was expelled from Malawi several months ago for referring to him in a leaked embassy cable as "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism", are outdated and irrelevant.

Added to this is the president's apparent megalomania evident in his love for titles including unearned academic titles. For someone who never received a PhD from an accredited institution and never taught at a university he insists on being called His Excellence Ngwazi Dr. Professor Bingu wa Mutharika. He fancies himself an economist and mister-know-it-all. He has removed competent people from key economic ministries and institutions. He increasingly bases economic policy on his misguided understanding of Malawian, let alone African, economic and political history as is clear from his ill-written 700 page book, The African Dream: From Poverty to Posterity, published by his daughter and launched to great fanfare earlier this year.

It is the president's outdated fidelity to the nationalist politics of the 1960s that partly explains his myopic admiration for Malawi's founding president, whose policies and even dress he tries hard to emulate. The two presidents also share another commonality: they came back to rule after decades spent in exile and exhibit deep disdain for their people. They represent the ugly face of diaspora politics, its modernist conceits, its superiority complexes. President Mutharika's contempt for Malawians is evident in his condescending speeches and his shock that the people of Malawi are not grateful for his leadership. In a bizarre juxtaposition on July 20, while people were demonstrating around the country, the president was giving a rambling "public lecture" on the country's political independence, sovereignty, good governance and the economy. The gods showed their wrath and ironic humor when power went off for thirty minutes as the professor president was pontificating.

Like President Banda, whose thirty year dictatorship came to an ignoble end, President Mutharika is assured of being cut to size by the people he despises and has come to take for granted. Indeed, of Malawi's three presidents to date, he is arguably the worst. He combines President Banda's authoritarianism without the competence of his government, and President Muluzi's corruption without his government's tolerance for democracy. The way President Mutharika has bungled the country's economy and politics boggles the mind. He badly mishandled the July 20 protests, first banning them and making threats, then allowing them to go ahead, before orchestrating a court injunction to stop them on the night of July 19, which only inflamed the crowds that gathered the next morning and ensured the violence that ensued. Perhaps the worst mistake he has made is deploying the military to patrol the streets and reestablish order. African history shows that governments that come to rely on the military to maintain civil order create the very conditions for their ouster by the military.

President Mutharika has unleashed a beast that will consume his regime. The longer the impasse continues, the more both the military and masses will feel emboldened. The danger lies in the military taking matters into its own hands. The best scenario would be for the military to step back and allow the political process to take its course as they did in the aftermath of the 1992 referendum that introduced multi-party democracy. Having overthrown President Banda's dictatorship, the people of Malawi can take care of President Mutharika's bankrupt regime by themselves sooner or later.
The regional and international community can assist them by isolating the regime. This might include imposing targeted sanctions at the president and his coterie of key advisors and beneficiaries. In the meantime, human rights activists must keep score of the state perpetrators of violence against peaceful demonstrators and opponents of the regime for eventual legal accountability whether in the country's courts or even the International Criminal Court.

At the time of this writing, the international media is reporting that at least 18 people have been killed by trigger-happy police and some thuggish elements from President Mutharika's ruling party who were instigated and called upon prior to the demonstrations to "deal with" anyone demonstrating against the government. President Mutharika's moral bankruptcy and failure of political leadership has been revealed in his reaction to this tragic turn of events. In a brief, rumbling address to the nation delivered on state controlled radio and television, he failed to show any real understanding of the root causes of the problems that have brought ordinary Malawian citizens to the streets. Instead, all he could offer by way of explanation is the bizarre claim that the demonstrators are enemies of the country who have been instigated or are led by Satan. More tragically, in his speech President Mutharika failed to do what any decent political leader would do in such a situation: the basic act of offering condolences to the families of the 18 individuals killed over the last twenty-four hours. He simply failed to acknowledge or mention these innocent deaths. Malawi, or indeed any other country, does not deserve such leadership.

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