Zimbabwe: how Mugabe and ZANU rose to power

November 16, 2017 at 1:56 pm (africa, history, Human rights, liberation, Marxism, national liberation, nationalism, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", war)

Above “Comrade” Mugabe in characteristic pose

A useful and well-researched background article by Stephen O’Brien (first published in Links, 2008)

His Excellency Comrade Robert: How Mugabe’s ZANU clique rose to power

Towards the end of 1975 a movement of young radicals organised in the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) took charge of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. ZIPA’s fusion of inclusive politics, transformational vision and military aggression dealt crippling blows to the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith. However, it’s success also paved the way for a faction of conservative nationalists led by Robert Mugabe to wrest control of the liberation movement for themselves.

The fact that Mugabe, a former rural school teacher, and his cronies would become the ruling capitalist elite of Zimbabwe by crushing a movement of young Chavista-style revolutionaries doesn’t sit well with their anti-imperialist self-image.

The ZIPA cadre emerged from the wave of young people who, experiencing oppression and discrimination in Rhodesia, decided to become liberation fighters in early 1970s. Unlike many of the first generation of fighters, they volunteered to join the respective military wings of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)[i]

In 1975, key nationalist leaders — such as Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabiginini Sithole, Jason Moyo, Herbert Chitepo, Abel Muzorewa, James Chikerema and Josiah Tongogara — had become entangled in factional rivalry and long-running and fruitless peace talks with the Smith regime. The young recruits who would shortly form ZIPA sought to reinvigorate the struggle as the war stalled and as the old leaders became marginalised.

A group of ZANU officers based at training camps in Tanzania consulted widely among the liberation forces. They approached President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Samora Machel, soon to be president of newly liberated and independent Mozambique, for support to restart the war against Smith. Both Machel and Nyerere had initially supported peace negotiations and the resulting ceasefire with Rhodesia, but by October 1975 had lost patience with the whole process, and listened with sympathy to the ideas of the young officers.

ZIPA formed

The ZANU officers also sought unity with ZAPU, the long-standing rival organisation from which ZANU had split in 1963. ZAPU agreed and in November 1975 ZIPA was formed with a combined High Command composed of equal numbers from both ZAPU and ZANU. The alliance with ZAPU disintegrated after a few months partly because ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo had continued to negotiate with Smith. Nevertheless, it was an important attempt at unity which defied the prevailing trend of division.

ZIPA’s nominal head was Rex Nhongo (later known as Solomon Mujuru he would become head of the Zimbabwe Army under Mugabe), but strategic and tactical leadership came to be held by his young deputy, Wilfred Mhanda.

Wilfred Mhanda

Mhanda had been a typical recruit to ZANU and its military wing, the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA). He had been involved in school protests and on leaving his studies helped form a ZANU support group. Like many who were to become part of ZIPA, Mhanda had been influenced by the youth radicalisation of the 1960s. In 1971, with the special branch in pursuit, Mhanda’s group skipped the border into Botswana and joined ZANLA. He took the war name of Dzinashe Machingura. He was later sent for training in China and progressed through the ranks to became a military instructor, political commissar, commander of the Mgagao camp in Tanzania and then member of the High Command.[ii]

ZIPA theory, tactics

Theory influenced ZIPA’s tactics. Its fighters were not regarded as cannon fodder, lines of retreat and supply were secured, counter-offensives anticipated and strategic reserves made ready. Senior ZIPA commanders visited the front. ZIPA’s aims went beyond winning democracy, to the revolutionary transformation of Rhodesia’s social and economic relations. The previous conception of the old-guard nationalists had tended to regard armed struggle as a means to apply pressure for external intervention to end White minority rule.

The Zimbabwe People’s Army relocated its troops from Tanzania to Mozambique and in January 1976, 1000 guerrillas crossed into Rhodesia. The entire eastern border of Rhodesia became a war zone as the guerillas launched coordinated and well-planned attacks on mines, farms and communication routes, such as the new railway line to South Africa.

ZIPA established Wampoa College to help institute its vision and ran Marxist-inspired courses in military instruction and mass mobilisation for its fighters. It educated its cadre against the sexual abuse of women and sought to win the support of the Zimbabwean peasantry through persuasion rather than coercion.

Historian David Moore’s study of ZIPA notes: “The students made their political education directly relevant to the struggle, so that Marxism could better direct the war of liberation.’’[iii] ZIPA’s political approach lead to it becoming known as the Vashandi, a word which means worker in the Shona language, but which, according to Mhanda, took on a broader meaning as the revolutionary front of workers, students and peasants.

Smith’s regime reeled under the offensive. Repression was intensified, “psychopathic’’ counter-insurgency units such as the Selous Scouts were deployed, so called “protected villages’’ intensified control over the population and raids were launched against refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Rhodesia was forced to borrow 26 helicopters from apartheid South Africa, and in order to deploy 60% more troops, increased the military call-up for whites. In his memoirs, Ken Flower, head of the Central Intelligence Organisation under Smith (and later under Mugabe), recalls that by July 1976 “Rhodesia was beginning to lose the war.[iv] Read the rest of this entry »

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Were the Mensheviks a real alternative?

November 15, 2017 at 12:07 pm (democracy, Eric Lee, history, imperialism, Marxism, national liberation, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, trotskyism, USSR, war)

Eric Lee is a journalist and historian who has spent over thirty years researching independent Georgia, and has himself been active in trade union and political struggles in both the US and UK. His previous works include Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with Israel’s Vietnam Veterans (1993) and Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order (2016).

Paul Vernadsky reviews The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21 by Eric Lee; followed by a response from Eric (the review first appeared in the AWL’s paper Solidarity, which will also carry Eric’s reply)


Eric Lee’s mischievous new book, argues that the Georgian Menshevik republic was an alternative to the Bolshevik-led workers’ government, which came to power in October 1917.

This is absolute fantasy, which confuses discussion of working-class politics at the time and the importance of the Russian revolution for today’s class struggles.

Russia annexed Georgia in 1798 and the Transcaucasia region remained a largely underdeveloped part of the tsarist empire until the discovery of oil in the late nineteenth century. In 1892, Noe Zhordania founded the first Georgian Marxist circle, the “third group”. It played a key supporting role in the Gurian peasant uprising between 1902 and 1906. Lee’s book explains the origins of the revolt over grazing rights, as well as its limits (its courts dwelt heavily on punishing adultery). Zhordania’s social democrats won a wide base of support during the struggle.

In 1903, Zhordania took part in the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, joining the Menshevik faction against the Bolsheviks. Georgian social democrats backed the central tenet of Menshevism: that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois and the socialists’ primary task was to promote a bourgeois republic. In Georgia, the Mensheviks won landslide victories in elections to the tsarist Duma. Most of the prominent Menshevik leaders became Duma members, including Zhordania, Irakli Tsereteli and Noe Ramishvili. Zhordania led the social democratic faction in the short-lived First Duma, while Tsereteli headed the much larger united social democratic faction in the Second Duma.

Lee’s book is strangely reticent about the First World War.

He says that a number of Georgian Mensheviks including Zhordania were sympathetic to the Allied cause. However the picture was worse than that. Tsereteli and other Mensheviks took a more internationalist position — at least until the tsar was overthrown. Zhordania fought for a “defencist” position and even wanted the Menshevik Duma fraction to vote for war credits.

Lee’s book also brushes over the importance of Georgian involvement in the events of 1917. Tsereteli was freed by the February revolution and went to Petrograd, where he was the architect of Menshevik participation in the provisional government (he became a minister) and support for the war, known as “revolutionary defencism”. Carlo Chkheidze promoted the same politics as chair of the Petrograd Soviet until September. As such they were responsible for the disastrous Menshevik orientation during the revolution.

Lee reports that in Tiflis after the February revolution, the local tsarist official Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich announced that he would be leaving, but expressed confidence that Zhordania and other social democrats could be trusted with power. As he put it, they were “on the side of order”. On 16 March 1917, the Tiflis Soviet was established. Zhordania was elected chair and promoted class collaboration.

The Georgian Mensheviks were united in their opposition to the Bolshevik-led seizure of power in October 1917. It was their visceral hostility to the Russian socialist revolution that dictated their course in the years afterwards. Lee admits that Georgia’s separation from Russia was not part of socialist agitation before 1917. The rejection of separatism was so strong that Georgian social democrat speeches would end with “Down with Georgia! Long live the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party!” Nevertheless, Zhordania and the Mensheviks embraced separatism.

On 22 April 1918, Georgian, Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed their independence, forming the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia. It dissolved five weeks later and the National Council of Georgia, chaired by Zhordania, made its declaration of independence on 26 May 1918. Immediately faced with attacks by Turkey, the new Georgian government turned to Imperial Germany for support. Lee argues that Georgia had no choice, because “small nations can only defend themselves if they have strong allies”. But Georgia could have remained part of Soviet Russia, rather than run into the arms of the imperialist powers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Hal Draper: an eye witness account of the Russian Revolution

November 7, 2017 at 4:17 pm (history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, socialism, war)

The following discussion by the American Marxist scholar Hal Draper is of a book written by a non-Bolshevik member of the government that took power in October 1917, I N Steinberg. Steinberg was a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, of the faction known as the Left S-Rs, who were in coalition with the Bolsheviks for a few months after October 1917, from soon after the establishment of the Soviet Government.

Steinberg’s book, In the Workshop of the Revolution, was published in 1954 long after he left Russia. Despite the Left S-Rs’ split from the Bolshevik-led Soviet Government, Steinberg tells the truth about the Bolshevik seizure of power and about the early months of Soviet Government.

Even when he subscribes to anti-Bolshevik propaganda about the period after the S-R-Bolshevik coalition broke up, he does it in such a way that the truth, as Hal Draper demonstrates in the following article (Labor Action, 14 and 21 June 1954), is still visible.


In the “Workshop of the Revolution”, Steinberg presents the 1917 upheaval not as a conspiracy but as a real people’s revolution. And he is very inconsiderate of the myths about the “democratic” Kerensky regime which the bad Bolsheviks overthrew, as well as the Menshevik and Right Socialist Revolutionary allies of Kerensky.

Actually Steinberg’s language about the “moderate socialist parties” (Menshevik and Right SRs) is very mild, but the outline of the picture he pains is damning enough. That picture is of an elemental revolutionary upsurge of the masses from blow, determined to throw off all oppression and equally determined to end the war, which the rights and moderates tried to oppose, and which the Bolsheviks (and left SRs) supported. This was the simple difference between the historic reality and the anti-Bolshevik myth of a “conspiracy”.

Of the right wing socialists, Steinberg writes that they believed “that the necessary conditions were not yet in evidence to realise the programme of the people. They conceived it impossible to end the war without the co-operation of the Allied powers. They thought it utopian to transfer political power to the working classes since, in their view the capitalist order in Russia was inevitable. Their interpretation of the revolution as only a democratic bourgeois succession to Tsarism, demanded, of course, a corresponding strategy — the strategy of class compromise and political compliance. This strategy put the moderate two parties (Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries) halfway between the bourgeois and the working-class programmes, gave their activities an air of vacillation and, in fact, fortified the position of the bourgeois camp.”

Now to be sure, the anti-Bolsheviks argue strenuously that anything beyond a bourgeois revolution was indeed impossible, but what Steinberg point up sharply is that this line meant that the right-wingers had to set themselves against and get ready to suppress the revolutionary dynamism of the people. It is because the anti-Bolsheviks have to get around this inconvenient fact that the myth of a “conspiracy” was born.

By the time of the new Kerensky government of 10 July, Steinberg relates, “Kerensky had lost hold of the ties of confidence which once had bound him to the people.” Discreditment rebounded not only against Kerensky but also against the Menshevik and Right SR ministers who joined his cabinet.

“The main speaker for an exponent of this rootless coalition”, writes Steinberg “was the Social-Democrat (Menshevik) Tseretelli. As minister of the interior, he dispatched a circular to the whole country designed to redouble the power of the government commissars against the active local soviets. He ordered these commissars to block the ‘illegal distribution of landed properties,’ the ‘appropriation, ploughing and sowing of other people’s lands.’ He thus sustained the policy of his predecessor, Prince Lvov. Every circular of this kind was like a match thrown into the powder keg of the revolution.”

Being highly concerned with the democratic forms of the revolution, Steinberg especially emphasises the transformation of the Kerensky regime into a “quasi-dictatorship” — with the consent and support of the very democratic Mensheviks and S-Rs who were later to issue howling blasts of anguish at every step the Soviet government took even to defend itself against armed insurrection.
Steinberg’s general sketch of the whole development, of course, contributes nothing new to historical knowledge, its main interest lying the character of the narrator. There are vignette touches here and there. Read the rest of this entry »

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Catalonia, the ‘Norwegian way’ and Lenin

November 3, 2017 at 10:09 am (civil rights, class, history, internationalism, Lenin, Marxism, national liberation, nationalism, posted by JD, solidarity, spain)

Catalonia general strike

By Martin Thomas (this article also appears on the Workers Liberty website)

“It is the bounden duty”, wrote Lenin, “of class-conscious workers to conduct systematic propaganda and prepare the ground for the settlement of conflicts that may arise over the secession of nations, not in the ‘Russian way’, but only in the way they were settled in 1905 between Norway and Sweden.

“This is exactly what is meant by the demand in the program for the recognition of the right of nations to self-determination”.

The “Russian way” meant the way national conflicts were settled under the Tsar (and would be settled again under Stalin). Oppressed nations were told to shut up and submit.

Lenin argued that capitalism simultaneously generated democratic impulses and openings, and tended to undermine them, empty them out, block them. Socialists could and should take up battles for democracy even within capitalism; we could win them; that would be of value even within capitalism.

This was the Norway-Sweden model which Lenin cited: Read the rest of this entry »

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The problem with identity politics

October 23, 2017 at 6:57 pm (Anti-Racism, Feminism, identity politics, LGBT, Marxism, posted by JD)

By Louise O’Shea in the Australian socialist paper Red Flag:

Theory & History

The label “identity politics” is applied to a range of positions and practices, the key unifying features of which are sectional approaches to challenging oppression and the prioritisation of subjective experience.

These can be highly theorised or simply reflect a common sense based on what seem like readily observable truths: that the world is divided between people who suffer oppression and those who do not, and that group interests flow from multiple sectional divides. For example, the fact women are oppressed makes men at best constitutionally disinterested in women’s liberation or at worst culpable in their oppression. So it goes for other forms of oppression.

The way in which identity politics is expressed changes over time. In the 1960s separatism was a key manifestation, in particular among women and, later, lesbian women. Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African movement, which encouraged Blacks in the US to return to Africa to be free of racism, was an earlier example of a similar political outlook.

Today, separatism doesn’t attract much support. Much more widespread is a form of identity politics in which experience (often emphasised with the entirely superfluous adjective “lived”) is accorded primacy, endowing an unquestionable validity upon the subjects and their analytical and strategic approach to oppression.

Two recent examples demonstrate this point of view.

One is a statement released by the refugee advocacy group Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees (known as RISE) in the lead-up to the Palm Sunday march, traditionally the largest pro-refugee demonstration of the year. As part of a demand for greater RISE representation on the speaking platform, the group argued:

“RISE is the only organisation within Australia that is entirely governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees. The work that we do is underpinned by our belief in the power and necessity of self-determination. It is integral that the voices of those with lived experiences are amplified, leading the conversation on all matters pertaining to refugees … It is a movement like RISE that should be placed at the fore of the refugee advocacy space.”

An article supportive of this statement, published in Community Four, further elaborates this position:

“Over time these communities have taught us that effective and sustainable change for the oppressed only truly comes when they themselves take control of their own movement. This is because they are the ones that live with the daily reality of oppression and are the ones that will have to live with any change that is achieved (unlike those of us who can switch the lights off and go home at the end of the day as truly free citizens). It is their diverse voices that we need to listen to before taking another step forward.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna and Hornung on Lenin and the Russian Revolution

October 16, 2017 at 7:59 pm (AWL, class, From the archives, history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia)

Above: the young Lenin’s police mugshot when arrested in 1895.

By Sean Matgamna and Andrew Hornung (adapted from a series of articles first published in Workers’ Fight in 1974).

Read online (below), or download pdf

Who was Lenin? He led the workers of the Tsarist Russian Empire to make the most profound revolution in history in 1917. He was the leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, without which the workers would have been defeated.

Of Karl Marx’s fate at the hands of his alleged followers in the early socialist movement, Lenin wrote that it was often the fate of revolutionaries that after their deaths their names were made into legends to console the oppressed, while their ideas — their real politics, what they had stood for in life — were thrown out and replaced by something else. Something very like that happened to Lenin himself. It happened to him almost immediately after his death. The bureaucracy which ruled the USSR mummified his poor physical remnants, built a great ‘Lenin Mausoleum’ and created an obscene national shrine around the mummy.

Lenin had stood for maximum working class democracy. The rulers who made him — and Marx — into a holy icon of their pidgin-Marxist state religion, proceeded in the decades after his death to build an anti-socialist totalitarian state on the groaning backs of the people of the USSR. Lenin had liberated the many oppressed nationalities of the Tsarist empire: Stalin put them back under the control of Great Russian chauvinist jailers and oppressors. Lenin had stood for the international socialist revolution. Stalin tried to build ‘socialism’ in backward Russia, substituting “socialism in one country” for Lenin’s programme of international socialism. Lenin had defended the right of independent trade unions to exist in the USSR: everywhere Stalinists ruled and rule, such organisations of the working class are systematically and brutally rooted out.

At every important point the Stalinists, who lyingly call themselves Leninists, radically cut away what Lenin had really stood for and adopted anti-working-class policies — the very opposite of those which Lenin spent his life fighting for. Now that Stalinism has fallen in the USSR and Eastern Europe, we have the inverse process. Lenin, who spent his last crippled years fighting incipient Stalinism, is scapegoated for the discredited despotic system which rose up on the defeat of Lenin’s last struggle, continued after Lenin’s death by Trotsky and others.

This pamphlet is offered to the reader as an introduction to what Lenin — the man who led the greatest working class revolution so far — really did in his life, what he said and what he fought for and against.

The contents were published as a pamphlet in 1987, based on articles in the weekly Socialist Organiser in 1982 (nos. 108-113). They have been slightly edited for this reprinting. The 1982 text was adapted from a series of articles in the paper Workers’ Fight in 1974.

The beginning of Bolshevism

Born in the provincial town of Simbirsk, into the family of a schools administrator, Lenin was no stranger to revolutionary ideas other than Marxism. His brother Alexander had been hanged in 1887 for planning the assassination of the Tsar. Alexander had been a member of the populist, agrarian socialist Narodnik organisation. But if the execution of his brother sharpened Lenin’s sense of injustice, it was not the views or the methods of the Narodniks that influenced him, but those of Marx, Engels and Plekhanov. By the time he was 19 Lenin had already read Marx’s Capital and begun to ground himself seriously in its scientific method. Read the rest of this entry »

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Trans activists versus radical feminists: abandonment of freedom for ‘ressentiment’

September 28, 2017 at 7:46 pm (Feminism, Free Speech, gay, homophobia, Human rights, identity politics, LGBT, liberation, Marxism, philosophy, posted by JD)

Comrade Camila Bassi on a dispute that has recently emerged:

The following is a full recording of and written extracts from my book chapter, “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation”, in Nocella and Juergensmeyer (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education (Peter Lang Publishing).

My chapter and its podcast examine a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. I argue that it is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, which has played out on social media and across university campuses.

Freedom has become dangerously lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:

“politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.”

Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment to explain how the desired impulse of politicized identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt).” (Brown, 1995: 68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment.

The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics considered and critiqued in my chapter and its podcast.

Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this happen, we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction,” thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).

(See also my earlier blog post, The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’)

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Climate chaos and capitalism

September 17, 2017 at 6:50 pm (capitalism, climate change, Marxism, posted by JD, science, United States)

Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida as a Category 4 hurricane after leaving a trail of destruction on islands and island chains in the Atlantic. Less than two weeks before, Harvey caused a catastrophe in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In both cases, it’s obvious how the priorities of capitalism made these natural disasters so much worse. But what can be done about it? Below is a speech, edited for publication, by Paul Fleckenstein given before Irma reached Florida–at a meeting of an International Socialist Organization chapter at the University of Vermont. The transcript was first published on the (US) socialistworker.org website:

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite imageHurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite image

WE ALL witnessed two catastrophic storm events in the past two weeks, and a third, Hurricane Irma, is heading through the Caribbean toward southwestern Florida, where I used to live.

The weather catastrophe that got the least attention in the U.S. was the extreme rainfall in South Asia over the last several weeks as a result of the worst monsoons in decades. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are over 1,400 reported deaths in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. And this is just the beginning. Millions face a longer-term crisis of hunger and lack of access to drinkable water.

In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey produced record rainfall in Houston (50 inches), caused more than 60 deaths, flooded 100,000 homes and forced 100,000s of people to flee floodwaters.

As Houston resident and SW contributor Folko Mueller wrote, “It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes.”

The Houston area is home to 30 percent of the oil refinery capacity in U.S., along with a heavy concentration of chemical plants. There were massive toxic releases from industrial plants into air and water–even by the standards of industry self-reporting, which means systematic underreporting.

Explosions rocked the Arkema plant in the Houston suburbs that produces stock chemicals for manufacturing. It will be many years before we know the full magnitude and effects of this and other releases that took place during the disaster.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TO UNDERSTAND and learn from this crisis in Houston, we need to begin with the fact that Houston is a prime example of capitalism in the 21st century.

It’s a city, like others, built around extreme wealth disparities–with immigrants, people of color and the working class as a whole often relegated to the most environmentally dangerous areas. It has its own cancer alley along the Houston Ship Channel, which was, of course, swamped by Harvey.

The area is home to oil refineries owned by all the giant energy firms, from ExxonMobil, Shell and Marathon on down. Houston was the global capital of the oil industry in the 20th century and is still that, which means its elite had an outsized responsibility for global warming.

A city without zoning, Houston has been left to real-estate capital as a super-profit center. Because of the unrestricted development, wetlands and prairie that provide natural storm buffers were paved over with impermeable surfaces. Quick profits were made from building in low-lying areas.

A similar dynamic took place in South Asia with “land reclamations”–filling in wetlands to build mega-cities. As SW contributor Navine Murshid pointed out, the word itself “speaks to the entitlement that capitalist developers feel with respect to the earth.”

Houston had an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers running key sectors of the city’s economy before Harvey, and immigrant labor will be critical to rebuilding. Yet Texas’ anti-immigrant law SB 4, which deputizes state, county, city and campus law enforcement officers as immigration agents, was supposed kick in during the middle of the disaster, scaring many immigrants away from seeking aid.

The city has been devastated by hurricanes before. A ProPublica article published last year found that it was a matter of time before disaster struck–meanwhile, 80 percent of homes flooded by Harvey don’t have flood insurance.

Even for capitalists, there is a carelessness about the making of Houston that is remarkable. One-third of U.S. oil-refining capacity was shut down during the Harvey crisis, and half of all capacity is located in this region that is vulnerable to storms. These are the plants and facilities that send fracked natural gas and refined oil products around the U.S. and the world.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE PHYSICS of severe weather today is pretty simple. A warmer atmosphere holds more water and more energy, providing the fuel for bigger and more intense storms. More severe storms are a certainty as a result of man-made climate change.

And the trend of superstorms, extreme heat events and droughts–of extreme weather events in general–is going in the wrong direction, toward greater instability and extremes. Harvey, therefore, gives us a sobering glimpse of the future.

Naomi Klein, the left-wing author, is right that now is the time to talk about climate change–and after Harvey and Houston, it is necessarily a time to talk about capitalism.

I want to sketch out a basic Marxist understanding of the capitalist roots of the climate crisis. For everyone dedicated to fighting against climate change, Marxism is a great starting point, beginning with the contributions of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century.

As Marx observed in the mid-19th century: “Man lives on nature–means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Marx and Engels noted that this unity with nature is ripped apart by capitalism through a “metabolic rift”–a separation that deepened and further developed under capitalism, where a small minority of the population controls all major aspects of the economy.

Capitalists are driven by competition to single-mindedly seek more profits. The free market imposes the drive to accumulate on individual capitalists, which results in a focus on short-term gains that ignores long-term effects of production. As Engels wrote:

As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers…

The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

At the heart of capitalism is wage labor. Workers are compelled by the need for work to survive to carry out the labor that drives the system–including its most destructive operations, like the drilling platforms or the chemical factories.

In fact, the workers who do this particular work often best recognize the ecological consequences involved–and, unfortunately, experience many of the most dangerous ones. It makes perfect sense that the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union spawned a radical labor leader like the late Tony Mazzocchi.

For Marx, the alternative to capitalism’s destructive system was a democratically planned economy: socialism–by which he meant “the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

Capitalism is driven by the perpetual need to produce more profit, or it snowballs into recession and crisis. So it isn’t enough for scientists to develop new technologies that could create a sustainable world. They have to be put to use, and under capitalism, they won’t be unless it is profitable to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IF WE need a radical reorganization of society, then environmentalists must set their sights not just on changes within the capitalist system, but ultimately on the abolition of capitalism itself. To avoid ecological catastrophe, we need a society based not on competition and undirected growth, but on cooperation, economic democracy and long-term sustainability.

Marx offers a compelling vision of such a society in the final pages of his three volume work Capital: “Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

Is it possible to reform the current system to achieve this goal? Why can’t oil and chemical corporations at least be regulated so they are not toxic polluters? They should be regulated–but environmentalist and author Fred Magdoff explained why we can’t count on this under the existing system in an interview with SW:

The companies fight against regulations, and if they see that they’re going to pass, they try to get them watered down. And then, if they actually go into effect, the companies try to make sure they aren’t very well enforced. So even if the regulations exist and are meaningful–which is rare–the industry finds ways to get around them.

Often, the fines for violations aren’t very much. You could have a good regulation, and a company violates the regulation, and they pay a thousand-dollar fine or a ten-thousand-dollar fine. For them, what’s the difference?

This is part of why reforms can’t be counted on to save the planet: At the end of the day, capitalist corporations and the pro-business parties running the government will prioritize profits over anything that would reduce them, even by a small amount.

This isn’t only true about the U.S. government under Trump. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 promising radical steps to address climate change. Instead, under his presidency, the U.S. ramped up fossil fuel extraction and processing to deliver cheap energy to U.S. manufacturing so it could better compete globally–and to turn the U.S. into a net oil and gas exporter.

Obama helped undermined the Copenhagen climate change summit less than a year into office, ran cover for BP after the company’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and bragged to oil company executives about laying enough pipelines to ring the planet.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR SOCIALISTS, there are at least two sides of this fight that we have to take up.

One is the struggle for justice in the aftermath of “natural” disasters. The establishment will take advantage of every crisis to further its agenda of privatization, accumulation and gentrification, furthering the oppression of people of color and the working class.

Naomi Klein called this the “Shock Doctrine,” and it played out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with mass permanent displacement of African American workers–many of whom ended up in Houston–privatization of the schools and the abolition of the teachers union, although unions are reorganizing today.

We want rebuilding to guard against future floods and disasters–and to take place on the basis of racial justice and equal rights for all, including for all immigrants, regardless of legal status.

Second, we have to fight against fossil fuel extraction and for renewable energy alternatives–which means both protesting pipeline construction and joining with struggles that improve and expand public transportation.

But as we struggle for these short-term measures now, we have to raise the question of capitalism and need for socialism at the same time with everyone we organize with. Our project is for reform and revolution.

If we are organizing with institutions and people where raising the need for a socialist alternative can’t be done, then we are probably organizing in the wrong place–and likely an ineffective place as well.

Meetings and campaigns involving Democratic Party politicians are a prime example. Another is the behind-the-scenes strategies to persuade university committees that claim to be considering fossil-fuel divestment. Their loyalty, at the end of the day, is to business interests–unless they feel the pressure of a struggle that will expose them.

There is certainly no simple answer here. But a socialist strategy that prioritizes mass, democratic organizing; free and open discussion and debate on the way forward; and dedicated struggle for immediate gains, without sacrificing a commitment to the bigger goals, has the most promise.

And if we can build up the politics of socialism and socialist organization among wider layers of people involved in these struggles, that will open the possibility of the system change that we need to find our way out of climate disasters.

There is widespread understanding of the urgency for action now to stop climate change. We don’t have endless generations. CO2 levels will continue to climb despite the scientific consensus that this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

But the technology does exist to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as does the science that can be put to use in mitigating the impacts of past carbon emissions–if the system’s priorities were radically changed.

Anyone who thinks we need system change needs to be dedicated to all the struggles for change today–and to arm themselves with the contributions of Marxism toward understanding the roots of the crisis and the alternative to it.

Our struggle for socialism is literally a struggle for the future of the planet.

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The global banking crisis – ten years on

August 9, 2017 at 8:25 am (banks, capitalism, capitalist crisis, economics, history, Marxism)

Ten years ago, the worst global financial crisis financial crisis since the 1930’s began. Major companies went bankrupt, people lost their homes on both side of the Atlantic, and the banks that were too big to fail, did fail – only to be rescued with taxpayers’ money.

Governments and their financial regulators were completely wrong-footed and found themselves lacking the regulatory framework to mitigate the crisis and to prevent it from spreading.

Martin Thomas surveys the path, the causes and the sequels of the crisis.


The story started in finance. In June 2005 mortgage interest rates in the USA started rising sharply. They levelled off and declined after July 2006, but in the meantime house prices had reversed their giddy rise of previous years. House prices would continue to fall until January 2012, when they would be on average 33% down on their May 2006 peak. From mid-2006 the proportion of deliquent mortgagees (those with payments seriously overdue) rose, and it would keep rising until early 2010.

By late 2015 around six million households would have their homes foreclosed (CoreLogic 2015). Unlike, for example, the UK house-price crash of 1989-92 (in which about 188,000 homes were repossessed), the US mortgage crash fed into a financial, industrial, and international crash. It revealed that “the bond bubble [had been] by no means limited to mortgages. It was ubiquitous”. Building on the mortgage bubble, “risk spreads were irrationally small”, i.e. small extra revenues had been needed to attract buyers to risky securities, and so once financiers realised those securities were risky, their prices were likely to drop sharply. (Blinder 2013, p.45-6, 90-1).

On 9 August 2007, a French bank, BNP, told holders of stakes in three of its investment funds that they could not have their money back. The bank held mortgage-backed securities — bits of paper which entitled holders to a slice of the income from payments on mortgages made in the USA — and now, as one financier put it, those “securities… simply [could]n’t be priced because there [was] no trading in them. There [were] no bids for them. Asset-backed securities, mortgage loans, especially subprime loans, [did]n’t have any buyers” (Bloomberg 2007). The freezing of credit flows between banks escalated.

On 14 September 2007 queues of people fearing collapse and wanting to get their money out formed at the branches of a British bank, Northern Rock; the British government nationalised the bank in February 2008. Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna’s picture of the revolutionary left in disarray

July 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm (AWL, left, liberation, Marxism, political groups, posted by JD, publications, reactionay "anti-imperialism", revolution, Shachtman, socialism, stalinism, trotskyism)

Paul Hampton of the AWL reviews The Left in Disarray by Sean Matgamna

Why is the revolutionary left in such a mess today, despite the economic problems of the last decade, the crises of many neoliberal states, the enormous size of the global waged working class, the potential power of the trade union movement and the signs of revival in left politics? The answers to why the Marxist left is in such a state are comprehensively hammered home in this collection of essays. The book is a tour de force history of the revolutionary left over the past one hundred years. The short answer is: Stalinism.

But the syphilis of Stalinism is not only about the states that were or still are ruled by Stalinists. It is also about how the ideology of Stalinism has taken root even among the anti-Stalinist and social democratic left. Sloughing off this Stalinism is an essential prerequisite for reviving the authentic Marxist left.

Why disarray? Matgamna tells the story of the degeneration of the revolutionary left with great verve. The revolutionary left that emerged from the 1917 Russian revolution was essentially healthy. It had opposed the First World War and arose triumphant to lead the Russian workers to power. These revolutionaries formed the Communist International, a school of revolutionary strategy that by the early 1920s had built mass communist parties made up of the finest working class militants internationally.

The principal blow came with the isolation of the Russian workers’ state, already depleted by three years of bitter civil war and compounded by the backwardness of the inherited Russian social formation. Concomitantly, no communist party was able to lead the workers to power outside Russia.

The result was the bureaucratisation of the Russian workers’ state. The bureaucratic tentacles strangled the organs of soviet democracy, the trade unions and finally the Bolshevik party — the last living mechanism through which the Russian workers could exercise their rule. The Stalinists “revolution from above” defeated the Left Opposition, imposed forced industrialisation and collectivisation, and destroyed democratic, national and civil rights. After 1928 the new bureaucratic ruling class held the levers of control over the surplus product and inaugurated a totalitarian semi-slave state. After that, the Communist Parties acted as the overseas agents of Russian foreign policy, as well as incipient bureaucratic ruling classes in places where they got a foothold.

The monstrous form of the Stalinist counter-revolution threw most of the revolutionary left back to a state of reactionary anti-capitalism, shorn of working class agency and of the consistently democratic programme they had once espoused. The tiny forces that coalesced around Trotsky put up a spirited rearguard action, keeping alive the flame of authentic Marxism during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Trotskyist movement itself was wrecked on the cusp of the Second World War, its main forces unable to explain the expansion of Stalinism outside of the USSR and later to understand the revival of capitalism in the post-war epoch. Most of the post-Trotsky Trotskyists embraced the Stalinist advance into Eastern Europe, China and beyond as somehow creating “workers’ states” (without the active intervention of workers), or painted despotic post-colonial regimes as somehow the embodiment of permanent revolution.

Matgamna itemises the bitter array of failures in the years after the Second World War. Among the litany of terrible errors were: • Support for North Korea’s war in 1950 • Failure to support the East German workers uprising in 1953 • Uncritical support for the Vietnamese Stalinists • Uncritical support for the Castro Stalinists in Cuba after 1960 • Soft backing for Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution • Opposition to Israel’s right to exist after the 1967 war • Backing Catholic chauvinism in Northern Ireland • Opposition to the UK joining the European Union from 1971 • Fantasies about the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia • Support for clerical-fascist theocracy in Iran from 1979 • Support for Russia’s murderous war in Afghanistan in 1980 • Support for Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 • Backing Iran against Iraq in their sub-imperial conflict during the 1980s • Siding with Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait 1990-91 • Support for Serbia’s assault on the Kosovars in 1999 • Softness and refusing to condemn Al Qaeda in 2001 • Support for Saddam in the 2003 war • Uncritical backing of Islamist Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, even as they slaughtered workers.

Matgamna eviscerates the justifications used by sections of the left for these stances. He is scathing about the “anti-imperialism of fools”, a species of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” that leads to support for despotism under the cover of anti-Americanism. He also denounces “left antisemitism”, defined as the exceptional denial of fundamental national rights to Jewish people (including the right to their own state) and demonisation of all Jewish people for the crimes of the Israeli state.

Sloughing off these rationalisations for reactionary politics is essential for renewing the revolutionary left. Matgamna’s descriptions of the practices and ideologies of the post-Stalinist left are often thought-provoking. The left Stalinist embalming of Lenin is described as the work of a “Leninolator” and of “Lenin-olatry”. The Stalinist picture of the world is “totalitarian utopianism” and the former Trotskyists who capitulated to Stalin “self-depoliticised ex-Bolshevik social engineers”. Liberal interventionist are dubbed “mañana third campists”, their “socialism” always for the distant tomorrow.

The text also has engaging cultural references — tales of Prester John, Kim Philby, slaves crucified on the Appian Way, Marlon Brando and others. Avid followers of the left will enjoy Matgamna’s pen portraits of the principal leaders of the post-war Trotskyist groups in Britain.

Gerry Healy led the SLL and WRP until it exploded after his sexual abuse of members was made public in 1985. By then Healy had sold the organisation to the Libyan, Iraqi, and other Arab states, as an agency to spy on the left and refugees. The Healyites were characterised by their millenarian catastrophism, their frozen words of Trotsky used to justify political lurches, and by gangster politics.

Ernest Mandel was the principal theoretician of the post-Trotsky Fourth International, responsible for rationalising its adaptation to the Stalinist “workers’ states” in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam. Mandel died in 1995, a few years after the collapse of Stalinism had destroyed his theoretical edifice, leaving a movement clinging to a venerable name while desperately wondering where the “revolutionary process” had gone.

Ted Grant spawned the current Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. He redefined socialism as “nationalise the top 200 monopolies” and an enabling act. He peddled the fantasies of “proletarian Bonapartism”, the military substitutes for working-class agency under Stalinism, but also in Syria, Portugal and latterly Venezuela. Grant’s supporters eulogise the capitulation of Liverpool city council while evading concrete political questions with fantasy sloganeering. Grant did not teach his followers to think, but to do political parrot work.

Tony Cliff was a purveyor of toy-town Bolshevism, a man who bent the stick so far on the revolutionary party that the SWP came to represent a parody of third period Stalinist mono-factions. Cliff joked about trying to find your way around the London Underground with a map of the Paris metro, but the legacy he left was more akin to a map of the Moscow sewers. For the SWP, nothing is forbidden in pursuit of organisational advantage. This makes for an increasingly incoherent group that is now a galaxy away from the Marxism of its origins.

If the history of the left is so miserable, what examples of hope are there? There is much to learn from the small third camp Trotskyist tradition around Max Shachtman and Hal Draper which survived during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the left have sobered up over Syria, where few socialists could support the Daesh terror even by implication, and where most recoiled from any support for the barbarous Assad regime. Similarly, the Brexit vote saw sections of the left abandon their previous nationalist positions. There is something of a revival in social democratic reformist projects.

The bigger picture includes some disarray among our main enemies, the ruling classes, as illustrated by Trump and May. Most of all, the politics of the AWL provides the most important embodiment of hope.

The AWL has forged a living tradition of rational Marxist politics, with realistic assessments of the great global events of the last half century and a series of interventionist political conclusions aimed at mobilising the working class and transforming the labour movement.

The AWL has renewed the great Marxist tradition from a century ago. We do not start from scratch. All is not lost. Much of the left may be in disarray, but the forces of independent, third camp Marxism are alive. With our help, the new generation of socialists will make this politics their watchword.

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