Fifty years ago in China one of the bloodiest episodes in recorded human history began, in which as many as two million people died.
What followed was an unprecedented period of upheaval, bloodshed and economic stagnation that only ended with Mao’s death, in September 1976.
The so-called People’s Republic of China had been declared in 1949 and began the history of China as a one-party totalitarian nation-state, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
During the 1950s, the conditions of existence in the countryside (where the majority of the population resided) and in the cities were transformed by the CCP, in an effort to economically develop and exert political control within all arenas of everyday life (from work to leisure to home). Agricultural land in the countryside was bloodily “redistributed” to cooperatives and collectives, and cities were ordered into work units and neighbourhood units. The state owned everything. Layers of Communist Party bureaucracy proliferated and corruption thrived.
“Enemies Without Guns” was an early Party propaganda campaign that illustrates the pervasive affect the bureaucratic state was able to exert on its population: breeding distrust amongst neighbours, and breaking down camaraderie among the working class and peasant masses.
The Party encouraged the population to anonymously submit the names of those who they suspected were linked to, for example, money, foreign devils and/or the rival Nationalist Party, into designated post boxes.
Alongside early rural land reforms and urban industrial projects, which sought to launch China (then home to one in four of the world’s population) into a global superpower, was the omnipresence of the state. Effort towards economic modernisation would go hand-in-hand with political repression – the defining feature of China’s political economy.
The 1930s and 40s were shaped by a struggle between the Nationalist Party, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan when Mao took power in 1949. Taiwan has since benefited from US military aid, which is an ongoing source of annoyance for the CCP. Moves by the Chinese state to act on its claim that Taiwan is part of China have long threatened to draw the United States into war.
Tibet is another major geopolitical tension and conflict. The CCP launched a military offensive on the region of Tibet in 1950, claiming the area was a part of China mainland. A Tibetan uprising to CCP rule in 1959 was brutally crushed. The Dalai Lama calls for political autonomy for Tibet, not a separate nation-state. The CCP refuses to negotiate.
While most intellectual life was controlled by the CCP, a momentary opening was created by Mao Zedong’s instruction in 1956 for the country’s citizens and intellectuals to constructively criticise the Party, known as “A Hundred Flowers to Bloom in the Arts and a Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend in Science”. What it released was a huge wave of criticism against Party bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Walls of universities were plastered with such criticism.
In 1957 Mao declared those he had encouraged previously to criticise the Party as “Enemies and Rightists”, and he appointed Deng Xiaoping to head the subsequent “Anti-Rightist Movement”. This effectively silenced China’s key intellectuals for decades.
When I have visited China in the years 2007-2013, various of my contacts (working in the fields of academia, teaching, and business) have observed that Chinese students and graduates struggle with a sense of critique, i.e., of questioning things. Without doubt, the silencing of the country’s intellectuals decades previously has left a legacy on education, where only a few brave teachers and students dare to question.
The launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 signified Mao’s ambition to equal the West in industrial output within fifteen years. Actually it was a huge propaganda campaign with ludicrous and counterproductive initiatives and targets that, in combination with natural disaster, literally starved to death millions.
People were told to convert scrap iron and steel into pots, and so the countryside was marked by rows of giant furnaces that made piles of pots which were useless and cracked easily. And yet it went on. To meet targets, Party bureaucrats inflated the figures for the actual production of grain. Too much grain left the countryside, generating a food crisis while grain lay stored in excess in the cities. One propaganda slogan, “The corn will grow higher the more you desire”, accentuates the farce.
There was little to no questioning of the Great Leap Forward as a consequence of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement.
Historian Frank Dikötter, in Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, argues that the Great Leap Forward, with a death toll of 45 million, “ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over”.
By 1964 the infamous “Little Red Book”, a book of Mao quotes, had been produced and widely distributed. Its reach cannot be underestimated, both within China and globally. And what it came to symbolise was the cult of Mao, that is, his status as a living god and the irrational fervour that went along with that. In this climate, Mao decided that he needed to call on new forces to boost his hegemony in the Party. In May 1966 he launched a campaign that called on the youth to attack the Party and steer it onto the path of true “revolutionary politics”. The “Cultural Revolution” was born.
In April 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched, under the direction of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and Kang Sheng. Mao’s personality cult reached fever pitch — the Little Red Book was recited daily and 4.8 billion Mao badges and 1.2 billion Mao portraits were produced. China was turned into a cultural desert — schools were closed for a year and Red Guard groups (led by the children of high officials) assailed teachers, writers and artists, and participated in state plunder.
Red Guards were given licence to attack virtually anything from “Hong Kong haircuts” to the “bourgeois-feudal reactionary music of Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich.” The regime issued spine-chilling edicts, condemning: “workers concerned only with love and romance, pandering to low tastes, claiming that ‘love’ and ‘death’ are eternal themes. All such bourgeois revisionist trash must be resolutely opposed.”
But the Cultural Revolution threatened to escape Mao’s control. Proletarian and peasant masses went out on unprecedented strikes and fought pitched battles against Red Guards. A notice in Fuzhou warned that: “A handful of freaks and monsters have cheated the misled members of the worker Red Guard units and some worker masses to put forward many wage, welfare and other economic demands to the leadership and administrative departments of the units.”
There was a significant rebellion in Wuhan, followed by bloody faction fighting. Mao solved the crisis by rusticating the youth and instituting state terror. He purged the top leadership of his regime — Liu Shao-chi and Deng Xiaoping were denounced as “capitalist roaders”, and the purged positions were replaced by appointees drawn from the army.
As Raya Dunayevskaya noted, Maoism was the application of the theory of “socialism in one country” to a technologically backward country in a world divided between two industrialised superpowers. Because of this situation, and because the regime had “no perspective of world revolution ‘in our time’, [it felt] compelled to drive the masses all the harder. Under private capitalism this was known as primitive accumulation; under state capitalism, calling itself Communism, it is called, internally, ‘fighting self-interest’, and, externally, ‘Mao Tse-tung’s Thought Lights Up the Whole World.’”
As such, Maoism belongs to humanity’s reactionary past, not its socialist future.
The fever-ridden young Red Guards were instructed to destroy the “Four Olds”: “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits”.
The very cultural and historical fabric of Chinese society was devastated — museums, libraries, temples, street signs, and so on. By 1967 the Cultural Revolution descended into factional warfare, with a splinter from the Red Guards forming, known as the Rebels (supported by Mao). By the summer China was in civil war.
It is estimated that thirty six million people were harassed during the Cultural Revolution and up to one million killed (Branigan, 2013).
There is no doubt that the post-Mao Chinese government pursued a series of reforms. But today, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the economic forces that were really transforming the Chinese economy in the first decade of reform were private farming, township and village enterprises, private business in cities, and the Special Economic Zones. None of them was initiated from Beijing. They were marginal players operating outside the boundary of “socialism”. For these marginal forces, the Chinese government was happy to leave them alone as long as they did not threaten the state sector or challenge the Party’s political power. This created a room for what we called the “marginal revolutions” that brought entrepreneurship and market forces back to China during the first decade of reform. Today, China is a major capitalist power, likely to overhaul the US economy in the present century, but still lacking in bourgeoisie democratic rights and free trade unions.
I am Dr Hatem, the director of the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo.
Last night, 27 staff and patients were killed in an airstrike on Al Quds Hospital nearby. My friend Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz (pictured), the city’s most qualified paediatrician, was killed in the attack.
He used to work at our Children’s Hospital during the day and then he’d go to Al Quds Hospital to attend to emergencies overnight.
Dr Maaz and I used to spend six hours a day together. He was friendly, kind and he used to joke a lot with the whole staff. He was the loveliest doctor in our hospital.
I’m in Turkey now, and he was supposed to visit his family here after I returned to Aleppo. He hadn’t seen them in four months.
Dr Maaz stayed in Aleppo, the most dangerous city in the world, because of his devotion to his patients. Hospitals are often targeted by government and Russian air forces.
Days before Dr Maaz’s life was taken, an airstrike hit only 200 metres away from our hospital. When the bombing intensifies, the medical staff run down to the ground floor of the hospital carrying the babies’ incubators in order to protect them.
Like so many others, Dr Maaz was killed for saving lives. Today we remember Dr Maaz’s humanity and his bravery. Please share his story so others may know what medics in Aleppo and across Syria are facing.
The situation today is critical – Aleppo may soon come under siege. We need the world to be watching.
Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts,
March With Medics Under Fire
Saturday 7th May at 2pm, Trafalgar Square, London.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the explosion, saying it was targeted at Christians celebrating Easter. A spokesman for the group, Ehsanullah Ehsan, told the Guardian: “We have carried out this attack to target the Christians who were celebrating Easter. Also this is a message to the Pakistani prime minister that we have arrived in Punjab [the ruling party’s home province].”
In Pakistan, 1.5% of the population are Christian. Pakistani law mandates that “blasphemies” of the Qur’an are to be met with punishment. At least a dozen Christians have been given death sentences, and half a dozen murdered after being accused of violating blasphemy laws. In 2005, 80 Christians were behind bars due to these laws.
Ayub Masih, a Christian, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 1998. He was accused by a neighbor of stating that he supported British writer Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. Lower appeals courts upheld the conviction. However, before the Pakistan Supreme Court, his lawyer was able to prove that the accuser had used the conviction to force Masih’s family off their land and then acquired control of the property. Masih has been released.
In October 2001, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a Protestant congregation in the Punjab, killing 18 people. The identities of the gunmen are unknown. Officials think it might be a banned Islamic group.
In March 2002, five people were killed in an attack on a church in Islamabad, including an American schoolgirl and her mother.
In August 2002, masked gunmen stormed a Christian missionary school for foreigners in Islamabad; six people were killed and three injured. None of those killed were children of foreign missionaries.
In August 2002, grenades were thrown at a church in the grounds of a Christian hospital in north-west Pakistan, near Islamabad, killing three nurses.
On 25 September 2002, two terrorists entered the “Peace and Justice Institute”, Karachi, where they separated Muslims from the Christians, and then murdered seven Christians by shooting them in the head. All of the victims were Pakistani Christians. Karachi police chief Tariq Jamil said the victims had their hands tied and their mouths had been covered with tape.
In December 2002, three young girls were killed when a hand grenade was thrown into a church near Lahore on Christmas Day.
In November 2005, 3,000 militant Islamists attacked Christians in Sangla Hill in Pakistan and destroyed Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches. The attack was over allegations of violation of blasphemy laws by a Pakistani Christian named Yousaf Masih. The attacks were widely condemned by some political parties in Pakistan.
On 5 June 2006, a Pakistani Christian, Nasir Ashraf, was assaulted for the “sin” of using public drinking water facilities near Lahore.
One year later, in August 2007, a Christian missionary couple, Rev. Arif and Kathleen Khan, were gunned down by militant Islamists in Islamabad. Pakistani police believed that the murders was committed by a member of Khan’s parish over alleged sexual harassment by Khan. This assertion is widely doubted by Khan’s family as well as by Pakistani Christians.
In August 2009, six Christians, including four women and a child, were burnt alive by Muslim militants and a church set ablaze in Gojra, Pakistan when violence broke out after alleged desecration of a Qur’an in a wedding ceremony by Christians.
On 8 November 2010, a Christian woman from Punjab Province, Asia Noreen Bibi, was sentenced to death by hanging for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The accusation stemmed from a 2009 incident in which Bibi became involved in a religious argument after offering water to thirsty Muslim farm workers. The workers later claimed that she had blasphemed the Muhammed. As of 8 April 2011, Bibi is in solitary confinement. Her family has fled. No one in Pakistan convicted of blasphemy has ever been executed. A cleric has offered $5,800 to anyone who kills her.
On 2 March 2011, the only Christian minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead. Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities, was in his car along with his niece. Around 50 bullets struck the car. Over 10 bullets hit Bhatti. Before his death, he had publicly stated that he was not afraid of the Taliban’s threats and was willing to die for his faith and beliefs. He was targeted for opposing the anti-free speech “blasphemy” law, which punishes insulting Islam or its Prophet. A fundamentalist Muslim group claimed responsibility.
British expats living on the continent called Nigel Farage ‘shameless Brexit scum’ for retweeting a post that rabid anti-EU Torygraph columnist Allison Pearson had posted immediately news of the Brussels massacre began to emerge.
The Brexiters’ only ally with any credibility in security matters, former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove has argued that leaving the EU probably won’t make any difference to security, but even he does not seriously suggest that there would be any overall security gain from leaving the EU. In fact, his argument (that EU counter-terrorism arrangements are largely ineffectual) logically should lead to a call for greater European co-operation and integration, not Brexit.
From the far-right, UKIP, to a host of others, there has been a call to bring in tough border controls and halt migration.
Marine Le Pen has called for an immediate crack down Islamic fundamentalism and on areas where she considered it flourished.
Dans l’urgence, et pour la sécurité de tous, il est impératif de procéder à la fermeture immédiate de la frontière franco-belge, fermeture réelle et non pas fictive comme depuis plusieurs semaines, et au rétablissement de contrôles sur l’ensemble des frontières nationales de notre pays.
In this emergency, for the security of everybody, it is imperative to immediately close the French-Belgian frontier, a real shut down and not a gestural one that’s been in place for the last few weeks, and reestablish controls over all our national borders
Le Pen repeated this saying on France-Info, “”Il faut arrêter Schenguen.” – we have to end the Schengen agreement on free movement within (continental) Europe.
Meanwhile, the increasingly eccentric George Galloway (like Farage, a Putin-admirer) took another step towards a common front with the far-right in announcing (on Putin’s RT),
Free movement between European states should have been abandoned after the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) attacks in Paris last November, former MP George Galloway said in the wake of Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels.
The Respect Party’s candidate for mayor of London argued that suspending the right to free movement could have prevented attacks on European soil.
So the Brexiters are not just morally shameless scum: they’re also dangerous fanatics, happy to put their nationalist and racist obsessions ahead of the security and solidarity of ordinary people. They are, in fact, dancing to the terrorists’ tune: I don’t always see eye to eye with Owen Jones, but he hits the nail of the head in an excellent piece in today’s Guardian, which concludes with this wise observation:
“My fear is that Isis is winning, that it is succeeding in its aim to spread fear and hatred around the globe. It is threatening to cause chaos and fundamentally change our way of life – but whether we let Isis do that is our choice. At the very least, in the context of the EU debate, Isis should not be allowed the role of a political player. If we leave the EU, then so be it. But let it not be because Isis drove us to it.”
In France the film, Les Salafistes, has created intense controversy. At one point it seemed as if it might be banned. Now the documentary has been released, with a certificate than denies cinema entry to under-18s. In Saturday’s Guardian Natalie Nougayréde discusses the picture, which includes videos from Daesh (Islamic State – IS, also ISIS) and al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique (AQMI), with interviews with Salafists (rigorist Islamists) and jihadi leaders (Les Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.)
She states, “The most gruelling moment comes when an Isis propaganda films shows a line of captured men walking towards the banks of a river; jihadi militants then shoot them in the head, one by one. The waters of the river start flowing with blood. And we see the pleading, panic-stricken faces of Isis’s victims, filmed close-up just before they are killed.”
Nougayréde considers that Les Salafistes “opens our eyes to a fanatical world”, that we “need to understand that ideology, however twisted and repulsive” Claude Lanzmann – the director the monumental film on the Holocaust, Shoah, she notes, has defended the film and asked for the age limit to be withdrawn. The screen shows better than any book the reality of the most fanatical form of Islamism. Lemine Ould M. Salem et François Margolin, have created a “chef d’oeuvre”. Its formal beauty brings into sharp relief the brutality of the Islamists, and “everyday life under the Sharia in Timbuktu, Mauritania, in Mali, Tunisia (in areas which have been under AQMI occupation or influence), and in Iraq. The age restriction on entry should go. (Fleur Pellerin, ne privez pas les jeunes du film, Salafistes! Le Monde 29.1.16.)
Lanzmann also argues (which the Guardian columnist does not cite) that Les Salafistes shows that “any hope of change, any improvement, any understanding” with the violent Islamists it portrays, is “futile and illusory”.
In yesterday’s Le Monde (30. 1.16) there is a fuller account of Les Salafistes and the controversies surrounding it, as well as on Made in France a thriller that imagined a jihadist cell preparing an attack on Paris. With a planned release in November, as the Paris slaughters took place, it was withdrawn and now will be available only on VOD (View on Demand).
Timbuktu not les Salafistes.
Saturday’s Le Monde Editorial recommends seeing the 2014 fiction Timbuktu rather than Les Salafistes. The Islamic State has already paraded its murders and tortures before the world. Its “exhibitionnisme de l’horreur” poses a serious challenge to societies that value freedom of expression. In the past crimes against humanity, by Stain, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Pol Pot or Pinochet, were carried out in secret. The Nazis or the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda was designed to hide the reality of genocide; Daesh’s videos are explicit and open, produced to terrorise their enemies and to rouse the spirits of their supporters. Margolin and Salem’s film does not, the Editorial argues, offer a sufficiently clear critical approach for a non-specialist audience. The victims only speak under the eyes of their butchers. The drama Timbuktu, where ordinary people in the city of that name are shown grappling with the everyday despotism of AQIM occupation – the rigorous application of the Islamists’ version of the Sharia, is a better way of thinking through the phenomenon of Jihadism. Its quiet and subversive message, the simple acts of playing prohibited music and smoking (banned), many would agree, unravels the absurdity and cruelty – the callous stoning of an ‘adulterous’ couple – of Islamism on a human scale.
Le Monde’s account of the controversy (La Terreur passe mal sur grand ecran) also observes that books about the Islamic State have reached a wide audience. They offer a better way, less influenced by the emotions that the cinema screen arouses, to understand Jihadism. It is equally the case that, through the Web, a substantial number of people have already seen the kind of horrific scenes Les Salafistes brings to the big screen.
The Empire of Fear.
Empire of Fear. Inside the Islamic State(2015) by the BBC correspondent Andrew Hosken is one of many accessible studies that have reached a wide audience. It is a thorough account of Daesh’s origins in the Al-Qaeda milieu and how it came to – separate – prominence in the aftermath of the US-led Coalition’s invasion of Iraq. Hosken has an eye for detail, tracing out the careers of key Daesh figures such as Zarqawi and Baghdadi. He challenges for example the widely claim that Islamic State leader Baghadadi and ‘Caliph’ was “radicalised” in a US prison in Southern Iraq in 2004. In fact “hardening evidence” indicates, “Baghdadi may have started his career as a jihadist fighter in Afghanistan and may even have known Zarqawi there.” (Page 126)
The failure of the occupation to establish a viable state in Iraq, the absence – to say the least – of the rule of law, and the importance of Shia mass sectarian killings of Sunnis in the Islamic State’s appearance. The inability of the Iraqi army to confront them, culminating in the fall of Mosul, were conditions for its spreading power, consolidation in the Caliphate, in both Iraq AND Syria, and international appeal.
Empire of Fear is valuable not only as history. Hosken states that by 2014 it was estimated that there were between five to seven million people living under Islamic State rule. “The caliphate has not delivered security, human dignity, happiness and the promise of eventual pace, let alone basic serves, but it has produced piles of corpses and promise to produce piles more.” (Page 200) He states that the “violent Islam-based takfirism” – the practice of declaring opponents ‘apostates’ worthy of death – has taken its methods from former Ba’athist recruits, always ready to slaughter opponents.
The suffering of those under the rule of Daesh is immense. “Men and children have been crucified and beheaded, homosexuals thrown to their deaths from high building and women stoned to death in main squares.” (Page 228) The Lion Cubs of the Khalfia, an army of children, are trained for battle. Even some Salafists initially allied with Daesh – with counterparts in Europe still offering succour to the dreams of returning to the golden days of the prophet, have begun to recoil. Hosken observes “..they have ended up with Baghdadi and his vision of an Islamic state with its systemic rapes, its slaves and concubines, child soldiers, murder, torture and genocide.” (Page 236)
The Islamic States efforts to capture more territory and people will continue with or without Baghadadi. The film title Salafistes reminds us that the Islamic State’s totalitarian Islamism is not isolated. It is connected to a broader collection of groups preaching rigorist – Salafist – Islamism, not all users of extreme violence, still less the public glorification of murder. The creation of all-embracing State disciplinary machines to mould their subjects to Islamic observance is a common objective of political Islam, from the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia to Daesh’s mortal enemies in Iran. The religious cleansing of religious minorities, Yazidis and Middle Eastern Christians continues under a variety of Islamic forces. Yet the degree of oppression and genocide marks the Islamic State out.
The recent Channel Four Documentary The Jihadis Next Door indicated that there is a European audience, however small, for Daesh’s genocidal propaganda. In Britain alone up to 700 people have been attracted enough by Islamic State death videos to go and join their ranks. One can imagine that amongst them some will be capable of watching Les Salfistes in a spirit far from the critical intentions of the film’s directors. It is to be doubted that they would have been reached by the scorn for Islamist rule and the resilience of humanity displayed in Timbuktu.
Hosken concludes, the “group may end up destroying itself or being destroyed by its many enemies. However, whatever happens, its virulent ideology looks likely to survive in a Middle East now riven by sectarian division, injustice, war and authoritarianism,” (Page 257)
The British left, with no government at its command, is not in a position to negotiate in efforts that try to bring “security, justice dignity and peace to a deeply troubled region”. We have little leverage over Bashar Assad’s own despotism in Syria. But we may be able to help Syrian democrats, and those fighting the Islamic State, to give our support to those fighting for dear life for freedom – from the Kurds to Arab and Turkish democrats – by ensuring that there is no quarter given to Daesh’s Salafist allies in Europe and totalitarian Islamists of any kind, independently and against those who see the Syrian Ba’athists as an ultimate rampart against IS.
To defend human rights we need to align with the staunchest adversaries of all forms of oppression, the secularists, the humanists, the democratic left, and, above all, our Kurdish and Arab sisters and brothers who, with great courage, face Daesh every day on the battle field.
Watch this before your next theoretical discussion about whether or not Daesh are fascists, whether or not any form of military action should be taken against them … and whether or not we’re doing enough for refugees fleeing them:
This article appears on Eric Lee’s blog and the present issue of Solidarity. Please feel free to post comments there as well as below the line here.
By Eric Lee
There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.
In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class.
And while Trotsky’s deconstruction of the Stalinist argument was brilliant, like most socialists of his time, he understood fascism as a form of bourgeois society, one in which one section of the ruling class crushed all others. The classical Marxist understanding of fascism, however, could not explain, and sometimes did not even try to explain, the tremendous appeal of fascism to the working class itself.
Which brings us to the brilliant Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was one of Freud’s outstanding disciples, but in the 1920s he moved increasingly to the left, eventually joining the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There he engaged in theoretical work in an attempt to bridge the gap between Marxism and Freudianism. By 1929, he was able to get the official KPD journal, Under the Banner of Marxism, to publish his essay “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.”
Reich also moved beyond theory with field work in working class communities, setting up clinics, carrying out sex education, and on, in the course of which he created a mass movement of young people engaged in a new politics of sexual liberation.
Reich grasped that fascism had its basis not only in the economic contradictions of a decaying, over-ripe capitalism, but also in the psychology of the masses.
His 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was an attempt to find out what made millions of workers who should have been a bulwark against fascism into its most fanatical supporters. Reich’s book was so outrageously controversial that it led to his expulsion from the KPD. A year later, he was kicked out of the International Psychoanalytical Association as well. It goes without saying that the Nazis too banned the book.
So what explained the appeal of fascism to people who would be its victims? Reich looked for what could make a child “apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense” and he found it in the family.
In particular, Reich linked the development of this kind of personality to the “suppression of the natural sexuality in the child”. He explained the lack of rebelliousness in such children – and later in adult life – by this. Sexual repression, he believed, “paralyses the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties.”
“In brief,” he wrote, “the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”
This was the basis for authoritarian society. “At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family,” he wrote, and “this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Reich’s expulsion from both the Communist and Psychoanalytical movements left him isolated, and over the remaining two decades of his life he drifted far away from both the Marxism and Freudianism which he had worked so hard to bridge.
But his work over the course of a decade made a real and enduring contribution to a socialist understanding of fascism and how to fight it. That contribution can teach us much about the sources of Islamo-fascism today and how to defeat it.
Vulgar Marxists (and Trotsky was not one of those) are quick to point to simplistic class analyses to explain the rise of groups like Islamic State. Imperialism and colonialism left a legacy of poverty and inequality, and it was from a sense of powerlessness and despair that Islamism arose. This argument has been somewhat undermined by the fact that so many of the more prominent terrorists (such as the 9/11 murderers) were educated, middle class Muslims who lived in the West. Even today, there is no evidence linking young Muslims who run off to Syria to join IS with a personal experience of poverty or even oppression.
Wilhelm Reich’s description of the patriarchal, authoritarian family as the incubator of fascism was correct in Germany in 1933 and it is correct today. There can be little doubt that the suppression of “sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child” is part of the reactionary character of most Muslim societies.
Muslim societies are obviously not the only sexually repressive societies in the world, which is why fascism can find roots in other places as well. But Islamism is today a particularly aggressive and expansionist variant of fascism, one which threatens the entire world.
If Reich’s analysis is correct, what can socialists do to defeat fascism? Obviously, it is not enough to simply propose “class against class” as the answer. This was the view of the German Communists and it failed miserably as millions of ordinary Germans either supported the Nazis or accepted their rule with barely a murmur of protest.
Instead, the Left should directly confront the sexually repressive character of Islamo-fascism and prioritise the fight on that level. That means that it should no longer be possible to say that our first task is building support for, say, workers organisations in Iran and that support for gay rights in that country is secondary.
Gay rights, women’s liberation, and sexual freedom are not by-products of the revolution that is coming to that part of the world – they are the revolution.
Because of Reich’s later decline, a result in part of his expulsion from the both the Left and the psychoanalytical movement, his works have been largely forgotten and ignored, certainly by socialists. This is unfortunate, because a book like The Mass Psychology of Fascism can contribute so much to our understanding of Islamism and how it will be defeated in the end.
I think the reason Hilary Benn’s speech was so effective is not because he had anything to say to respond to Corbyn’s position put forward earlier that day, but because he correctly identified Corbyn’s and much of the entire left’s political weakness over the last 25 years:
– its softness or even support (ie SWP, Counterfire, etc) for fascism and medievalist reaction as long as it comes in some anti western form.
– that even after the fall of the Soviet Union the same old apologist shit still remains strong on the left and particularly the Labour left and the people around the Morning Star: they’re against human rights abuses and “imperialism” except when it’s by Russia and its allies, in which case they use all sorts of relativist arguments to support/excuse it.
– that via Stop The War’s popular front with the right, the left has adopted the old right’s isolationism: the idea that it has “nothing to do with us”.
– the much older Labour Pacifist tradition that Corbyn is steeped in. Despite some notable personal bravery in World War One and in the fight against nuclear weapons, this tradition rejects class struggle or anti-fascist struggle, in favour of impotent, pacifist saintliness.
So this meant even when Corbyn was making the better internationalist arguments against this specific bombing campaign, people knew his and the Stop The War/SWP (etc) left’s record with regard to groups like Daesh is poor.
We should be plain with people on the left that this debate should have been won. The right could play on peoples desire to do something to oppose Daesh and the better suggestions of the left to do this (support / arm the Kurds, end Assad’s bombing, stop the alliances with Turkey and Saudi) were not credible given the left’s history and the nature of some of our ‘comrades’ on the left opposition to bombing.
See also: Comrade Coatsey on the same subject, here
Statement issued today by the Alliance for Workers Liberty:
The House of Commons will shortly vote on proposals to extend UK air strikes to Syria. As Jeremy Corbyn has given Labour MPs a free vote, Cameron is likely to have a majority for extending the bombing.
The government says the renewed military campaign, now including UK, US, France, Turkey and the Gulf States, will be aimed at pushing back Daesh (Islamic State). But it is unlikely to make a decisive impact on Daesh’s position. It is more likely to perpetuate the current stalemate between all the military-political forces in Syria. That is, in fact, the preferred option of the military-political alliance the UK is joining. They want containment of the conflict until a deal on the future of Syria can be agreed.
At the very best the bombing may push back Daesh… in favour of some other Sunni-sectarian Islamist militia. 14 years of US bombing in Afghanistan have left the Taliban and jihadi-terrorism more widely stronger, not weaker, than at the end of 2001.
Cameron’s stance is political, not humanitarian. This is not an attempt to secure security for the ordinary people affected by Daesh’s recent atrocities in Paris or Beirut or over Sinai. It will not create peace in Syria or stem to the flow of refugees fleeing that country. There is no plan to destroy Daesh or end the Syrian civil war.
Cameron wants to look like a statesman in the eyes of the UK’s allies, and have a seat in US world-policy circles.
Meanwhile the Russian state continues to pursue its own political aims, bombing targets in Syria that are of most threat to the Assad regime. That regime has killed and displaced more people in Syria than any other single force fighting there. The primary target of Russian bombing is groups under the “Free Syrian Army”, the same forces which the US, France et al now refer to.
David Cameron claims there are 70,000 FSA fighters in Syria ready to be mobilised in a fight against Daesh. In fact the FSA is only an umbrella term for various forms of political Islamist, from relatively moderate to more hard line. Their main concern is to fight Assad, not Daesh. They are often intensely Sunni-sectarian. They offer no hope of a progressive outcome. Socialists cannot support them and, in fact, the US and UK and France have no plans to endorse them either.
Corbyn’s decision to allow Labour MPs to have a free vote is a big political mistake and will neither heal the deep divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party nor close the gulf between Labour members, who are mostly against bombing in Syria, and the PLP. In fact it will galvanise Corbyn’s enemies.
We support Jeremy Corbyn and others in the Labour Party and labour movement in their opposition to the bombing and regret they haven’t been strong enough to make the Labour MPs stick by the Labour conference decision against bombing.
In doing so we in no way follow the pro-Assad and phoney anti-imperialist line of the Stop the War Coalition, who have continually refused to condemn the murderous regime of Assad. That regime has killed and displaced millions of people within Syria and caused millions more to flee the country. Our opposition to Western bombing endorses neither Assad nor his allies in Lebanon, Russia and Iran.
The Syrian Solidarity Campaign has rightly criticised the Stop the War Coalition saying, “If Stop the War’s slogan ‘Don’t bomb Syria’ is to have any meaning, let them demand the end of the regime whose bombs have killed so many.
“If Stop the War oppose imperialism let them demonstrate their sincerity outside the Russian Embassy. Let them demonstrate with placards calling for Russia to stop bombing Syrian hospitals.”
Unfortunately the SSC downplay the number of people killed by Daesh and other Islamist forces. Mass graves have been found in the wake of Daesh. They may not have killed hundreds of thousands, as Assad has, but they have butchered many more than we yet know about.
We reject the notion that Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks in France or against Russia, are “blowback” against military action.
Daesh’s actions are not rooted in a knee-jerk response to western imperialism. Daesh has its own interpretation of and programme for the world. It is a far right political-religious movement, and we are fundamentally opposed to it, just as we are to every other far right and fascistic movement. It is in fact Eurocentric to characterise the actions of Daesh in Paris, Beirut and Sinai as just reactions to the foreign policy of the European powers or the USA.
We do not oppose the bombing of Syria because it will make people in “Britain less safe” (i.e. “provoke” Daesh into further atrocities as many on the left we argue), but because the bombing is fundamentally not aimed towards an end to the ongoing and vicious sectarian conflict, and will not bring that end closer. It will serve only to keep the UK, France, and the USA “in the game” — a bloody and reactionary game.
Solidarity with the Kurds!
After the Gulf states, the US and UK’s strongest ally in the region is Turkey.
Turkey has the deepest involvement with some of the anti-Assad forces, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh itself. Much of Daesh’s oil is transported out of Syria via Turkey.
Turkey is also engaged in fighting the force most able to push back Daesh and Assad in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria — the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). These Kurdish forces represent a predominantly secular and largely non-sectarian force in the bloodbath of Syria.
While the Kurds have come under sustained attack from Daesh, Turkey has intervened directly against the Kurds, including attacking YPG supporters and affiliates in Northern Iraq, closing the border to Kurds wishing to join the fighting, repressing Kurdish activists within Turkey.
The UK government’s response to Turkey, its NATO ally, has been to tolerate repression.
The FSA has also taken an Arab chauvinist position against the Kurds, for example excluding them from negotiation.
While not endorsing the politics of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, the group behind the YPG), we unequivocally back the right of the Kurds to military aid and assistance including their demand for arms.
• They should be able to accept military aid from wherever it can be obtained in order to secure their fight against Daesh, Assad and where necessary the Turkish state.
• The PKK should be removed from the EU and US lists of terrorist organisations.
• If the Kurds demand a “no-fly”, or more accurately a “no-bombing” zone, in order to improve their military position, — an option which is unlikely to be included in the current plans of major imperialist powers, as long as Turkey is hostile to the Kurds — we should not oppose this as we would big-power bombing.