The Red-Brown “zombie plague” PART THREE

This is the final part of a major article by DAPHNE LAWLESS to appear in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Part one is here, part two is here. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

III._Weg_b
Placard from a German Red-Brown party, Der III. Weg (“The Third Way”). The slogan reads: “For a German socialism!”

The Germs of Red-Brown Politics

Germ 1: Political confusion and despair

I now wish to return to the question of the agent of the Red-Brown zombie plague, that is: what are the political weaknesses of the existing Left which led to them being drawn into this modern Querfront?

Part of the answer is a misrecognition ofthe situation. Red-brown politics is sometimes called “confusionism”, as it relies on a consciously anti-fascist Left being confused about what a fascist or reactionary movement means in practice. As I said in the previous article, fascism acts like a social parasite, blending into its host to exploit it. The activist Left has spent the past 30-40 years fighting neoliberal globalism, which seeks to abolish not only any borders to capital and trade, but also the welfare state as we used to know it. As I said in “Against Conservative Leftism”, this long-running defensive battle has meant that much of the Left cannot see a socialist horizon beyond a return to 1960s-style social democracy (hence, the giddy, uncritical support for popular proponents of such politics like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn).

As to “fascism”, the term has become loosely used to describe the authoritarian wing of neoliberalism – the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, or the Right-wing neoliberal success of the likes of Thatcher and Reagan. So when the smarter modern fascists emphasise their opposition to “free trade” and “globalism” and talk about “supporting sovereign states against foreign intervention”, it is not surprising that many of the current activist-Left fail to recognize that these are our worst enemies. It’s worth quoting from my “Against Conservative Leftism” on this issue:

We do not argue that conservative leftism is the same as “red-brown” politics. What we argue is that it offers no intellectual defence against it. The argument is that “red-brown” politics (and its cousin, outright fascism) have increasingly gotten a foothold in activist movements worldwide precisely because conservative leftism has no way of arguing against it. For example, conservative leftists in Aotearoa/New Zealand happily publish memes originating from far-right factions in the United States or Britain, because they have no way to tell the difference between radical and reactionary anti-globalisation.

On the international scale, red-browns and conservative leftists join together in cheerleading the Russian bombing of Syria and the strangling of its revolution in the name of “fighting Islamist terror”, and the belief that Russian bombs are somehow better than American bombs. Similarly, conservative leftist Islamophobia (including, sadly, the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt) supported General al-Sisi’s military coup against the democratically elected Islamist-backed Morsi government in Egypt in 2012. (WiCL, pp. 18-19)

Another possible factor in the Leftist embrace of geopolitics as a guiding principle is despair at the impotence of actually-existing working-class or revolutionary forces, and thus a vicarious identification with any force which seems capable of offering any kind of an alternative to neoliberal globalisation. Moishe Postone described a similar phenomenon of a previous generation of activists:

the new glorification of violence of the late 1960s was caused by a severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it expressed an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, violence both expressed the rage of helplessness and helped suppress such feelings of helplessness. It became an act of self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation…

The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted or of the politics of the resistance involved — that is, the character of determinate forms of critique, opposition, rebellion, and “revolution.” The notion of resistance frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency.

This quote – written before the invasion of Iraq – seems to perfectly describe the current period, where the religious totalitarian leaders of Iran describe their support for the secular totalitarian dictatorship in Syria as part of an “Axis of Resistance” – and many Western activists and writers on the Left are prepared to take this self-description of oppressive regimes seriously, as if Assad or the Iranian mullahs spoke for their people rather than exploiting and victimising them.

A third factor is perhaps the simplest – the tiny size of the activist Left, and its isolation from the communities it theoretically speaks on behalf of, leads not only to the pressures of “groupthink” (an unwillingness to stand apart from majority opinion), but of a kind of “nihilism” where the most popular narratives are those which tell the community what it wants to hear, accuracy or even truth be damned. This is, of course, a miniature version of the business model of FOX News. American journalist Charles Davis comments:

Little white lies don’t serve grand ends when the means are perceived as an expression of one’s true politics. When delivered with smug flair, they do keep those who aren’t alienated in high spirits, however, and the clicks on news that is fake, left media criticism teaches us, always exceed clicks on the (enemy) analysis that corrects. That ensures a steady stream of digital red meat, misleading content and algorithmic takes garnering more donations to the Patreon in the bio and so on and so forth until we all log off for the very last time.

This brings to mind Jodi Dean’s comment in Crowds and Party that, in the fragmented Left social-media scene of the 21st century, the ostracism and persecution of dissenting views and the willingness to put ideology in front of the facts are sometimes worse than the obedience within a monolithic old-style Stalinist party (p. 219 – see my review) .

A final factor may be an “optimistic” appetite to paint any popular groundswell against the neoliberal centre as being progressive in origin; from this point of view, to suggest that racist, misogynist or even fascist ideas might be popular with (particularly white) voters is interpreted as an unacceptable slander against the working class. This can probably most justly be put in the category of “wishful thinking”.

Germ 2: “Proletarian nations” – the ML/fascist convergence

Some argue that the real problem is the influence of “Stalinist”, “Marxist-Leninist” or “tankie” politics – that is, nostalgia for the Soviet Union and defence of contemporary states such as North Korea, Cuba and sometimes even China. Obviously, historically the Stalinised Communist Parties of the West had heavy influence on social democratic and liberal opinion, pulling them towards at least a “lesser-evil” position on such states. English socialist Ben Watson writes concerning British left politics during the Cold War:

The idea that Russian state capitalism was qualitatively different from Western capitalism led to an abstract politics that passed over the atrocities of Russian military imperialism and its atom bomb; in Britain, it encouraged a reformism that abandoned class struggle in favour of Labour Party electoralism and the promises of nationalisation (Art, Class and Cleavage, p. 67)

The parallels to the “revolutionary socialists” who have become uncritical supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party should be obvious. But how does this politics have any relevance to the Russia/Syria situation? Russia is clearly now a capitalist state, run by a right-wing strongman with extremely strong ties to billionaire oligarchs and organised crime, whose only link to the state founded built by Joseph Stalin is nostalgia for superpower status. In Syria, it’s true that Hafez al-Assad nationalised a lot of the Syrian economy, but then he started privatising it again in the 1990s, and his son Bashar has followed suit. What could be persuading Marxist-Leninists – who did not support authoritarian nationalist regimes such as Assad’s in the 1980s – to do so now? And what about the influence on – for example – the British SWP and splits from it such as Counterfire, who once proudly declared “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” in the Cold War and refused to defend any authoritarian regime?

A recent article by a US activist group calling itself the “Left Wind Collective” suggests that it’s not as simple as blaming “Stalinism”. They identify two groups as the backbone of what is called “ML” politics in the United States today:

  • Groups tracing their heritage back to the “New Communist Movement” of the 1970s, who were more or less critical supporters of Mao Zedong in China (such as Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party);
  • Groups tracing their heritage back to Sam Marcy, who led a split from the Trotskyist US Socialist Workers’ Party, over the US-SWP’s opposition to the Russian invasion of Hungary. The “Marcyists” later formed the Workers’ World Party (WWP) from which later split the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSL). It is crucial to note that WWP and PSL activists are extremely central to anti-war politics in the United States (through the coalition ANSWER); and have been the most forthright with a pro-Assad, pro-Russia position on the Syrian conflict.

The fact that one of the US’s major “Marxist-Leninist” trends in fact comes from the Trotskyist position complicates the idea that the issue here is the same as 1980s and 1990s style sectarian struggles. In fact, what holds the two factions – which we might call “post-Mao” and “Marcyist” trends – together is the very attitude to imperialism which we examined above. Writing in 1966, British socialist Nigel Harris describes Soviet geopolitics under Stalin as follows:

What class struggle remained prominent was transferred from the domestic to the international scene where it became identified with a nationalist struggle. Class was then attributed to groups or individuals according to their international position, or, more specifically, their attitude to the Soviet Union… Ultimately, the struggle was said to take place between ‘proletarian nations’ and ‘bourgeois nations’ which, in practice, signified nothing about those countries’ domestic class structure for ‘proletarian’ meant only poor, predominantly peasant (not at all ‘proletarian’) countries driven explicitly by nationalistic revulsion from imperial exploitation, and ‘bourgeois’ meant only anti-Soviet rich countries…

Li Dazhao [an early Chinese communist who died in 1927] who was similarly disinterested in the dynamic role of domestic Chinese classes, placing complete emphasis on the anti-foreigner, anti-imperialist struggle; he also identified China as a whole as a ‘proletarian nation’ and the white races as the world ruling class.

Accordingly, the American RCP used the concept in 1973 to describe African-Americans as “a nation made up mainly of workers: a proletarian nation”. Compare this with Left Wind’s description of the Marcyist concept of “Global Class War”:

In this formulation, the world is increasingly polarized into two “class camps”: one of the imperialist bourgeoisie and the other of the global working class, the socialist countries, and the national liberation movements.

Thus, Sam Marcy, coming from a Trotskyist position that Stalin’s repressive bureaucratic leadership had betrayed the Revolution, ended up supporting Russian tanks crushing the workers’ uprising in Hungary in 1956. The strength of the Soviet-led military bloc was more important than the class struggle of Hungarian workers against their local Communist Party bureaucracy. It only remains to add that the idea of a “proletarian nation” struggling against “bourgeois” ones was also embraced by Fascist movements. It actually originated in the writing of Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini and was later adopted by Mussolini himself, to argue that Italian imperialism in North Africa was justified and morally superior to the imperialism of the “Plutocratic Nations” such as Britain or France.

I believe that this idea of “proletarian and bourgeois nations” – subordinating or even eliminating the class struggle or democratic movements within countries – is the essential programmatic agreement between Fascists andtankies[iii]. The arguments used by the Italian “proletarian nationalists” about their country are mimicked by those on both Left and Right who bemoan the historical “humiliation” (i.e. fall from superpower status) of Russia, to defend its right to intervene in Ukraine and Syria and to annex Crimea. The difference between “Left” and “Right” versions of this narrative would be the difference between describing Russia as an “exploited, non-imperialist” or even “proletarian” nation, standing strong against US / Western European hegemony, and describing Russia as the embodiment of Christian traditionalism, standing strong against both Islam and secular globalism. They both end up in the same place.

This analysis of the standard “anti-imperialist” argument as “Red-brown” – in the precise sense as being indistinguishable from a Fascist argument based on the rights of national sovereignty – is echoed by many others on the Left. As if to confirm this analysis, the “Investigation into Red-Brown Alliances” blog post quoted above documents the WWP’s alliances with explicitly Red-Brown parties in the former Soviet Union, such as the Russian Communist Workers’ Party or Borotba in Ukraine.

In the words of one Twitter critic:

most of what passes for leftist “anti-war” reasoning today resembles what had been a rightist critique of hegemony and unwittingly carries on the forgotten tradition of fascist anti-imperialism

And another:

When ML Twitter talks about imperialism, it sounds less like structural analysis of imperialism based on Marxist-Leninist theory and more like they copied the script of the folks who believe there are ‘globalist’ conspiracies everywhere

If this were confined only to self-described “Marxist-Leninists” -or to Twitter – it would be a curiosity of interest only to students of the Left-wing subculture. But as I explained in a previous section, this “common sense” idea of imperialism as being identical to “US-EU hegemony” is replicated by mainstream Left voices, and increasingly, by the leadership of the British Labour Party in which so many Leftists have placed their hopes. This is the real problem.

Germ 3: Islamophobia and West-centrism

Veteran US Marxist Louis Proyect suggests, at least as far as Syria and Libya are concerned, that another factor involves:

…deep-seated Islamophobia that is rooted in 9/11. Back then, Christopher Hitchens earned the contempt for most of us on the left for his close ties to the Bush administration. Even if it was becoming obvious that the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was based on a mountain of lies, Hitchens gave the Bush administration a free pass because he saw al-Qaeda as the greatest threat to “Western Civilization” since Adolph Hitler.

Today, there is a virtual army of journalists who combine the shoddy journalism of Judith Miller and the virulent Islamophobia of Christopher Hitchens on behalf of a new crusade against the “Salafist menace”. But instead of serving as the lapdog of George W. Bush, they operate as cogs in the propaganda machine for the Kremlin and the Baathist [Syrian] state. Their hatred for “jihadism” runs so deep that they justify the bombing of hospitals in Idlib because [the former Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda] has a foothold there. The ability of many leftists to lament the war crimes in Yemen and now in Afrin while cheering on Russian and Syrian mass murder is a defect in the kind of movement we have become, showing the same kind of cynical “ends justify the means” mindset that destroyed the Stalinized Communist Party.

In the Iraq War period, the Left completely rejected “War on Terror” rhetoric when it came from George W. Bush and Tony Blair in 2003. We rejected the idea that bombs, occupation and invasion were the correct response to small networks of Islamist nihilists who had adopted the tactic of attacks against Western civilian populations. However, when very similar rhetoric comes from Vladimir Putin concerning Syria (and, for that matter, Chechnya), much of the Left is happy to accept it – even to the barbaric point where even chlorine gas bombing against civilian targets can be accepted if those civilians can be made out to be “Islamists” or “Salafists”.

The Left-Islamophobic undercurrent of this pointed out by Australian academic Ghassan Hage:

An Assadist is someone who believes in the ‘dictatorship of the seculariat’. They think that the ‘secular’ bit in the concept of ‘secular dictatorship’ far outweighs in importance the ‘dictatorship’ bit.

The history of the relationship between socialist and Islamist currents is a long and complicated one which this article cannot go into in detail (although one slightly outdated attempt from 1994 may be useful to some readers). This history is a deeply contradictory one, but an adequate rule of thumb would be to say that – much like political activism motivated by Christianity – “Islamism” may take on democratic or authoritarian, progressive or reactionary forms. To instinctively take the side of “the secularists” in any such conflict is a gross form of Orientalism which excuses Western leftists from actually understanding struggles in a non-Western society. Scottish-Egyptian journalist Sam Charles Hamad sums it up thus:

The fundamental point is not that we skate over the parts of the politics of ostensibly Islamist or Islamist-rooted forces that we disagree with, but to recognise that in liberation struggles against secular tyrannies or oppressors, Islamism is a major expression of the opposition to this whether we like it or not, with a popular base rooted in the same demands for liberty that shape these revolutions themselves.  This is as true in Syria and Egypt as it is in Palestine.

In fact, one of the great ironies of the reaction of the left to the Syrian revolution is the contrast in the way it relates to the Palestinian struggle.  While the fact that the only active resistance groups to Israel are all Islamist, with the largest, Hamas, being Ikhwani Islamists, committed initially to Islamic democracy but forced to suspend democracy after almost immediately being attacked by Fatah, backed by Israel, the US and UK.  Then you have the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, originally set up as the Palestinian branch of the Salafist Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but now much more akin to Hamas in terms of ideology – Islamism intertwined with Palestinian nationalism.

To some degree, this Islamophobia is a disguised form of Ayoub’s “essentialist anti-imperialism” as described above– the Western Left putting its parochial concerns and priorities over the needs and the experience of foreign people who don’t speak our language. As one Twitter commentator noted: “By centering all conflicts around the West, these “activists” strip second and third world (particularly brown folks) of all moral agency.” Robin Yassin-Kassab agrees:

This habit of thought – whereby the real torments of far away people are dwarfed in significance and impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, the American one – is depressingly common…Strange and part-way racist, as if white people’s words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably to determine brown people’s history for years to come. The writings, protests and battles of Syrians mean nothing in comparison.

As does his co-writer, Leila al-Shami:

This pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin. It combines identity politics with egoism. Everything that happens is viewed through the prism of what it means for westerners – only white men have the power to make history.

We therefore have a combination of Islamophobia with “alt-imperialism” and extremely one-sided anti-neoliberalism. For Trump’s US forces to carpet-bomb “Islamic State” targets with Russian backing is seen as no big deal, whereas Obama and Clinton’s miserly support for Syria’s democratic movements (some of whom might have been Islamists) was seen as a provocation to nuclear war. This is the point where the fascist and near-fascist Right finds unity with much of the existing Left, whether of Marxist, social-democratic or anarchist background.

What is to be done?

Robin Yassin-Kassab, whom we have repeatedly quoted, gives his own suggestion in a recent blog post:

If people who consider themselves leftists want to have any positive influence whatsoever in the future, they need to drive genocide deniers (and the conspiracy theory mindset which replaces facts with convenient myths, analysis with demonology, and human compassion with racism) out of their movement completely.

The failure to distinguish between truth and lies is a prerequisite for fascism. Just as Stalin and Hitler had their shills, so today British priests, … journalists like Fisk, and rightist and leftist conspiracy theorists are busy parroting victim-blaming fascist narratives.

I think most people (not just leftists) think my position is too extreme. If that’s you, well, let’s wait for the coming years and decades and see. Syrians are targeted by these lies today, Bosnian Muslims yesterday. In the future it could be any other group, including ‘leftists’ and even priests. Once you accept the notion that ‘the narrative’ is sexier than the reality, you don’t get to choose which narratives gain most traction.

From a revolutionary Marxist point of view, of course, the idea of “driving out” people who’re expressing Assadist or other red-brown ideas from our already tiny, beleaguered and isolated movement is extremely hard to swallow. Some critics have even accused Fightback of reviving the old Stalinist “social fascism” hypothesis (see article in this issue) – with Western Assadists, in this metaphor, being driven out of the movement by unjust accusations of fascism. This reminds us of nothing else than Donald Trump calling the continuing investigation into his links with Russia a “witch hunt”. It’s only a witch-hunt if there are no witches. As I suggested above, the great weakness of the contemporary activist Left is defined by its drawing a simplistic boundary around “opposition to neoliberal globalisation”. Without further precision, that includes fascists. Perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s, some might have been excused for not understanding the consequences of accepting ethno-nationalists, whose contempt for democracy and social equality is barely disguised, as allies of socialism. There can be no such excuse today.

Another variation of this argument has been expressed to us as “why is Syria the hill you’re willing to die on? Isn’t this cranky and sectarian?” As I hope we have explained in this article, Syria is not so much as a “hill” as the tip of the iceberg of a whole series of ideas pointing towards a Fascist view of the world. In the famous metaphor of Leon Trotsky, a scratch may develop into gangrene if the necessary medical attention is not given. A contradiction between working-class solidarity when it comes to local politics, and support for oppressive State brutality overseas (even denialism of the worst acts of such brutality) must be resolved in one direction or another sooner or later. Ignoring when a comrade is expressing ideas which put them in the camp of global reaction is not only not comradely, it is criminally irresponsible in an era when the Right is on the rise – putting our friendships and working relationships ahead of calling out horrible politics when we see them is, to coin a phrase, how Trump got elected.

Canadian socialist “Lucy Antigone” gave testimony of the dangers of blurring between Leftist and nationalist-Right discourse in a recent Facebook comment:

Honestly it’s alarming the extent to which conservatives, conspiracy theorists, prominent leftists on my feed share the same articles, premises, slogans. And more so that this is done it seems unwittingly by the left, more tactically on the right, so that we now have a Trumpist-Conservative running in a high-profile provincial election on the Corbynist platform of “For the many, not the few,” and no one bats an eye at the mention of the Rothschilds vis western imperialism and Syria. Okay, not *no one* – but almost that many.

Further, for the accusation of “sectarianism” to stick, it must be expanded to mean any political debate within the Left. Fightback makes no excuse for our platform of no platform for fascism, and no tolerance for Red-Brown convergence of ideas. We will confront these ideas where-ever they are raised, and whoever raises them – even if the person raising them is a popular activist with an admirable track record of struggle. Of course, most activists on the Left who hold these ideas are not consciously fascists. If they were, we would not bother debating them – we should shun and isolate them, as we do to all fascists.

We take Robin Yassin-Kassab seriously when he says that a Western left that fails to stand in solidarity with all the oppressed of the world (because of a Red-Brown notion of “geopolitics”) has no hope at all of being part of a global revolution. Fightback’s strategy is to form a pole of opposition against these ideas where-ever they appear on the Aotearoa or Australian left. We are aware of other comrades in Britain, the United States and elsewhere who are waging a similar struggle on the Left. We also stand in solidarity for everyone who stands up for the oppressed and murdered in Syria, who are mostly not socialist Leftists themselves – and why would they be, given what they’ve seen from the socialist Left on this issue?

The bottom lines for such a global realignment of the Left that we suggest are:

  • Popular internationalism; solidarity with all exploited and oppressed people, globally; solidarity directed towards peoples in struggle, not towards nation-states or their governments.
  • Cognitive openness: the old slogan of “scientific socialism” in this era cannot mean the dogmatic, mechanistic schemas of the past, but on the contrary a socialist/working-class movement which embraces the cutting-edge of scientific thought and theory, no matter its source; this against the “echo chamber” mentality when only voices who are already “within our movement” are heard or, even worse, only those which agree with our prejudices. Remember what a cunning mimic fascism is.
  • A radical, sustainable, forward-looking programme for social equality; nostalgia and traditionalism are debilitating illnesses for those who really wish to change the future.

We encourage all who feel the same way to join Fightback or to support our publications and our work, and either way to get in touch.


[iii]  Note here that I wish to use “tankie” in its correct historical sense – not to describe all Marxist-Leninists or Stalinists, but precisely those who justify and support imperialist attacks by those nations seen as opposed to the West. A “tankie” would mean one who supported the Russian tanks rolling into Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan – and now their bombs levelling most of Syria – while decrying all Western imperialist interventions. These are the people who can argue with a straight face that “Russia was invited into Syria”, while somehow not thinking the US presence in Vietnam was a good thing even though it was requested by the Saigon government of the time.
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Comments

  1. For what it’s worth, I’ve just finished a defence of this series against a not-very-convincing, supposedly anarchist criticism: https://nothingiseverlost.wordpress.com/2018/06/20/in-defence-of-anarchism-and-antifascism-a-reply-to-the-winter-oak/ – I say criticism, but actually the Winter Oak writer mostly just established that you like Leila Al-Shami and Moshe Postone and don’t like Vanessa Beeley, which I think is all true enough, but they seem to have missed the part where that adds up to an actual criticism.

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