NUCOMINTERN is a website dedicated to the renewal of revolutionary politics, social justice activism, and grassroots organizing. We publish topical reporting, revolutionary theoretical analysis, and commentary on the arts and popular culture. If you would like to contribute to NUCOMINTERN... please email david.thurston78@gmail.com... all contributions are welcome! PEACE.LOVE.REVOLUTION @NUCOMINTERN

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.