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Friday, 26 October 2012

Chomsky on Cambodia.



In the late 1970s Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman were following the Western reception of atrocities in Cambodia alongside the case of East Timor. The figure of 2 million killed was repeatedly deployed in US media, it originated in a book review by Jean Lacouture of Ponchaud's work Cambodia: Year Zero which was published in 1978. Lacouture said that the Khmer Rouge boasted of killing 2 million people, yet it was not in Ponchaud's writing which claimed 800,000 people died in the US bombing from 1970 to 1975. Since the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, amidst the devastation of the bombing, an additional 1.2 million had died according to the US embassy in Bangkok. When Chomsky pointed this out to Lacouture he soon published corrections in which he conceded that the killings may have been in the thousands rather than in the millions. American intelligence confirms that the slaughter was in the tens of thousands and may well have ran into the hundreds of thousands. But it was too late and the figure of 2 million remains stuck in the minds of many even three decades later.

Ever since then Chomsky has been tarred as a defender of Pol Pot's atrocities. The charge has become a favourite tool on the Right who have regularly deployed it to bash Chomsky. Yet it was Noam Chomsky who points to the 1978 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam as perhaps only one of two instances of '
humanitarian interventionism' since the Second World War. The other example he highlighted was in 1971 when India invaded East Pakistan, ending a massive slaughter and did so out of less than benign self-interest. Likewise, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia came just as Pol Pot's crimes were really picking up. By 1979 the capital of the country was in Vietnamese hands and the Khmer Rouge had fled to the Thai border. The Vietnamese would be condemned internationally as "outlaws" and "gangsters" for this invasion, the United Nations would support the Khmer Rouge in its claim to govern Cambodia while the US would lead the international effort to starve Cambodia as long as the Vietnamese occupied the country. Later William Shawcross would bemoan the silence over Pol Pot's crimes, that he imagined, pinning the blame on the scepticism of the Left.

The point that Chomsky made was that the West has never concerned itself with questions of human rights, only when it is convenient to do so. The crimes committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia constitute 'nefarious bloodbaths', which are condemned in the strongest terms because they are committed by the enemy, whereas the crimes of the Indonesians in East Timor were 'constructive bloodbaths' and therefore worth our support and our silence. The US, Canada, Britain and Holland supported the Indonesians all the way, while the West continued to pose as
humanitarians over the atrocities in Cambodia. Suharto had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia in the 1960s, but the US supported him because he was open to American influence and investment. This helps to illuminate the "dramatic shift" away from condemnation to outright support of Pol Pot during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. As the Khmer Rouge became a force of opposition to the occupation, thereby becoming an opponent of Russian influence, the US shifted its support as part of its new-found alliance with China.

Near the end of her reign, Margaret Thatcher said in an interview "Most people agree that Pol Pot himself could not go back, nor some of his supporters who were very active in some of the terrible things that happened. Some of the Khmer Rouge, of course, are very different. I think there are probably two parts to the Khmer Rouge, those who supported Pol Pot and then there is a much much more reasonable grouping within the Khmer Rouge." The Iron Lady went on to qualify her statement, that this is what the experts on Cambodia have told her. She didn't go as far as to admit that the British government had been training the Khmer Rouge through the SAS for several years. That would come out in 1991. All of this was later confirmed on the Cambodian side by Ta Mok when he was arrested in 2000. Yet the Right still have the audacity to accuse Noam Chomsky of taking the side of Pol Pot in the midst of 'Year Zero'. It remains the favourite means of vilification for the neoconservatives who describe themselves as "revolutionaries" while they are nothing less than chickenhawks.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

For a Few Rice Bowls More.

 

During the appalling crimes of the Khmer Rouge the US remained vocally critical, but effectively stood back in as part of the push to open up China. The subject of human rights was never an issue of policy, not that it has ever been since. Washington postured over Pol Pot and the media moralised, there was a whitewash for who was funding Suharto's genocide in East Timor. It's impossible to understand these events without keeping in mind the American war on Vietnam. Originally the US waged war on South Vietnam after its proxy terror-state slaughtered 70,000 people and aroused an uncontainable resistance. The liberal administration in Washington arranged a "seat change" for President Diem, a man they had put in power, and just before JFK was assassinated Diem was promptly executed. The pretext for all of this was to contain China and the absurdity of this justification didn't become apparent until Nixon went to China years later. Nixon embraced Mao as US planes were dropping the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on Cambodia.
 
 
The US continued to block all attempts at peaceful settlement until 1975, by which time Cambodia and Vietnam had almost been bombed back into the stone age. Washington had failed to achieve its maximal objectives, a ravaged Indochina would live on, but its main objectives were actually fulfilled by 1965 - when the US installed Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia. By then Vietnam was devastated, estimates of the Vietnamese dead ranged from 3 to 4 million. The war had been continued for the sake of US prestige. The aim had been to kill the "virus" of independence in Vietnam, the fear was that the rot might spread to Indonesia and eventually Japan. That would mean the US would lose everything it had fought for in WW2. The common perception of American defeat in Vietnam is not unfounded. This reading lacks subtlety in terms of analysis and exhibits imperial self-pity in conclusion. In short, the US secured its regional objectives though Vietnam survived the onslaught as a outpost of Soviet power in the Far East.

 
The US establishment was left profoundly bitter and sick over Vietnam and remains so to this day. So when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia the US led the chorus of condemnation, even though the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge. In fact, the US and its allies went as far as to support the Khmer Rouge as a government-in-exile of which Sihanouk became a representative. The Khmer Rouge were allowed to hold onto their seat in the UN as the legitimate representatives of Cambodia. And as a guerrilla force against the Vietnamese occupation the Khmer Rouge received training from the SAS, which the British lied about until 1991. Until then Western governments withheld a great deal of aid to starving Cambodia. The argument was that the Vietnamese would not allow food to reach everyone that it should, namely the Khmer Rouge - who were holding 45,000 people hostage at the Thai border with the protection of the UN. In spite of its battle to rebuild itself Vietnam sent over 25,000 tonnes of food aid across the border to feed civilians.
 
 
Upon the invasion Sihanouk was deployed to make a speech damning Vietnam's aggression at the UN, after which he sought refuge in China. He was later anointed as President of the coalition in waiting. As the respectable face of a government, which included many mass-murderers, Sihanouk thanked the US for passing on lists of Cambodian "traitors". In this grubby partnership Sihanouk was constantly aware that his life was in the hands of hardcore Khmer Rouge in his own entourage. In the meantime the Khmer Rouge decided to wage a guerrilla war and wait for the Vietnamese to be driven out of Cambodia as a force condemned as "outlaws" by the international community. The move would then be a forceful takeover of the country and a return to the barbarism of the 1970s. The Vietnamese occupation was not undeserving of criticism given its brutal repression of dissent and racist policies against minorities. In the end Vietnam left the country in the hands of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge who had defected to Vietnam, who continues to dominate Cambodia.
 
 
With the end of the Vietnamese occupation the transition to a liberal democratic capitalist state began. Yet it was only a formal shift to a multiparty system of representation as Hun Sen remains in power to this day in a sort of dictatorship lite. The old command economy has been blown apart to make way for markets and the forces of capital. Sihanouk was reinstated as King while the Khmer Rouge stood at a far and tried to appear as a modern force by embracing market liberalism. The power-sharing arrangement was between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh and thankfully not Pol Pot. Once again the conservatives banded around the royal family began to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge. In response Hun Sen orchestrated a coup and purged around 40 royalists. By now King Sihanouk was fixing pardons to rehabilitate the old men who had led the Khmer Rouge in its heyday. It would be another decade until a handfull of these aging killers would even see an indictment.

Who was Sihanouk?

 

Norodom Sihanouk, the self-styled King-Father of Cambodia, has died at the age of 89 in circumstances far more pleasant than the many Cambodians he outlived. He spent his last years in North Korea and China, the appropriate compatriots of a man who took the side of the Khmer Rouge out of his own opportunism. It's true that Sihanouk was just another man clutching at straws in the chaos of the American war on Indochina. He was both a hostage of and accomplice to the Khmer Rouge. Just as Sihanouk had juggled the various powers in the Vietnam war to maintain Cambodia's "neutrality" and hold onto the thrown, the demagogue went on to stand as a voice of opposition during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. To this end Sihanouk took the side of the Khmer Rouge in those years as the respectable face to the international community. And yet Sihanouk began his reign as a playboy and demagogue, it seems he learned quick how to dance to the tune of foreign powers.

That was the case with the French until the old empire was on its last legs. Sihanouk moved to establish an independent state in 1953 and reinvented himself as the father of the nation. Yet the young King continued the alliance with France even after independence. In 1955 Sihanouk stepped down as King, letting his father take his place, only to lead the country on a populist appeal to cultural conservatism, revolutionary nationalism and Buddhist socialism. Though Sihanouk later took up the powers of King as a Prince when his father died. It was a balancing act, Sihanouk was keen to keep Cambodia out of the Indochinese conflict and played leftists against rightists. In the end, his former deputy, Lon Nol seized power in a putsch in 1970 with the approval of the CIA. It was then that Sihanouk forged a coalition with Pol Pot. Meanwhile the reactionary nationalist Lon Nol supported the US campaign to repeatedly bomb Cambodia thereby laying the road to Phnom Penh for the jungle-dwelling guerrillas.

As the Khmer Republic crumbled in 1975 Lon Nol opted for a last stand - it came straight out of Buddhist mysticism - and when the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital the Marshall had a ring of consecrated sand spread around the entire city. The sand couldn't save Cambodia from what happened next. At first the mood was one of celebration as the youthful troops draped in black and red garb marched into town. The mood soon changed when the thugs started to evacuate the city, dumping the old and the infirmed at the side of the road to die. The rest of the people were marched into the jungle at gun-point. During all of this Sihanouk spent his time between Beijing and Pyongyang, upon his return to Cambodia he would serve briefly as a mascot monarch of the Angkar. He gave a lie-riddled speech at the UN defending Pol Pot, though Sihanouk was just a pawn in a game this was no trivial game. The Chinese supported Pol Pot in order to colonise Cambodia and counter the shift of power as Vietnam realigned itself with the Soviet Union.

For more on this period of Cambodia's history see my latest article.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Who is the Enemy?


 
You may have heard that Malala Yousafzai has been flown into Britain to receive medical treatment. On October 9th Malala Yousafzai was gunned down on the bus home from school after taking an exam, her friends Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Ahmed were injured in the shooting. There wasn't any doubt as to why Malala had been attacked. Soon after a spokesperson for the Taliban claimed "She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban." Naturally, Malala has become a symbol of the struggle for women's rights in Pakistan which has been an espcially uphill struggle, to say the least, since the radicalisation of Pakistani society beginning in the late 1970s and carried through under a military dictatorship in the 80s. A very unwelcome development as Pakistan became a nuclear power over the same period of time. It's easy to see this incident framed within the paradigm of the 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West.

Not that any of this was opposed by the United States, which has long taken Pakistan as a major strategic ally. The struggle for women's rights is not unique to Pakistan, we shouldn't overlook the women in Saudi Arabia have been protesting just to drive their own cars. And that's really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the trampling of basic freedoms in that oily Kingdom. We also shouldn't assume we're so much more advanced in the West because we pledged to establish pay equality (and have yet to deliver). The right to choose is still under threat in the US, where the state of Georgia has opted for a bill which obliges women to carry still-born fetuses to full-term because cows and pigs do. It's demonstrably clear that the fight of feminists has yet to win out even in the 21st Century on many fronts. The outrage provoked by the attack has nothing to do with a concern for women's rights, it's primarily about the political significance of the shooting. This is why we need to think seriously about Huntington's famous paradigm.

The suggestion of a cultural clash between Islam and the West is dubious for the main reason that these suggestions only emerged after the Berlin Wall crumbled. Until then chaps like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis had been more preoccupied with cheerleading the Cold War, Israel's expansion and denying the Armenian genocide. It's worth noting that the most extreme incarnation of political Islam in the world remains to be Saudi Arabia, the oldest ally of the US in the region and a long-time favourite of many other European governments. Are we talking about bombing Saudi Arabia? No, but we talk about bombing Iran on a regular basis. It's never about human rights or cultural differences, even if Iran had an immaculate human rights record it would be damned constantly for taking a line independent of American hegemony. Right now, by comparison, Pakistan is an increasingly dysfunctional client-state of the United States in its domestic and foreign affairs. Of course the country's turmoil comes up only when it is problematic for particular interests.

Even still Pakistan remains on the forefront of the 'War on Terror' in the minds of Western policy-makers. It was only last year that Osama bin Laden was assassinated in a compound surrounded by Pakistan's military elite. This is the same military which has lost all credibility in the country as it can't even defend the country's sovereignty. Demonstrably so, as Pakistan has been repeatedly struck by US drones and we pay no attention to the dozens of teenage girls killed in those strikes. The ongoing war in Pakistan is what led to the brief peaceful arrangement in the Swat valley, allowing the Taliban to wage its campaign to close all the girls schools in the area. It's worth noting that the Pakistani government came to this settlement after thousands had been killed and a couple of million people had been displaced in the valley. This is where Malala lived at the time and became involved in activism for women's education at just eleven - she even took up blogging for the BBC.

It's not to invalidate Malala's important work to acknowledge that there are cynical reasons behind the media reaction to the case. The Pakistani government and prominent clerics have condemned the assassination attempt, have they condemned the constant bombing by US drones? Imran Khan, cricketer-cum-politician, has taken a strange stand recently after leading a march against the drone strikes and just after the shooting. He claimed that "It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad… The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad." It could well be a goofy swing from a populist who is still much more liberal than the people who fired into a school bus to kill the young activist. All of this just seems symptomatic of the incessant turmoil which has wracked Pakistani society over the decades. The ruling-class of Pakistan presides over obscene corruption and stoops to new lows of incompetence on a regular basis. It's a situation which would prompt disenchantment from any culture.

When we try to think about how to make progress in the Middle East it's important never to overlook the devastated political sphere that has created a void for radical Islamism to fill. Of course, there are those who argue that to offer a rationalisation of Islamist terrorism is to excuse the culprits of their crimes. Yet it's funny that no one would ever suggest that an investigation into the historical conditions that led to Nazism excuse Hitler of his crimes. The first steps towards positive change in the Middle East will be in the crafting of a new politics, that's why the Arab Spring is such a vital series of events. The simplistic position that holds "Islam is the enemy" fails to even recognise that the Islamic extremists are the enemy of most Muslims in the world. And that is what the shooting has shown more definitively than the discourse on the subject in the past decade. The future of the Middle East is not in theopolitics. It's a political struggle within the region, not a war of regions defined by homogenous cultural blocs.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Pissing off the Muslims, again.


So there have been protests across the Middle East in reaction to Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic film that pokes fun at the Prophet Muhammad. The most noteworthy being the protest in Libya which culminated in the burning of the American embassy and the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens. The American Right have resorted to claiming it was an act of "terrorism" and accusing Obama of covering up al-Qaeda involvement in his death. On an interesting side-note, it seems all too convenient that al-Qaeda is everywhere and nowhere at once. Of course, the reaction has been mostly dull and predictable. The neoconservative Douglas Murray has found the time to moralise about the fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo last year and the appalling behaviour of Hillary Clinton. Even though Murray finds the invasion of Iraq - a war crime that has left 5 million children orphaned - the most beautiful testament to the liberal ideals of democracy and freedom. The reactionaries always have the time for the liberation of women and homosexuals if that means they can bash Muslims.

You don't need me to tell you about the reactions the protests have drawn from such reactionary hysterics as Glenn Beck and Melanie Philips, but what about the enlightened liberals? In response to the protests Richard Dawkins tweeted ‘Koran discovered with coffee cup stain on the front cover, US marines deployed to all Starbucks franchises.’ The secularist brigade has moved to damn the protests with the garden-variety brand of middle-class outrage. The timeout from the important task of banning circumcision and public funding for Christmas trees gives anti-theists a moment to posture over the sight of Muslims burning Israeli and American flags. Pat Condell has taken to calling Islam the ‘religion of permanent offence’ before commenting on Islam's unwelcome status in the world and the literacy rates among the rioters. He describes Islam doubles as an ideology equal to Nazism. Once again the commonsense critics of religion find it persuasive and progressive to pick fun at the already furious masses of the Middle East.

Okay, enough about the New Atheists - I've wasted too much ink on them already! It has to be acknowledged that there is room for criticism of the violent protests insofar as these events are destructive to the perception of Muslims in the West. No one condones the death of an American ambassador, but we have to consider the wider impact of this on religious and ethnic minorities in the West. The violence falls right into the hands of those engaged in campaigns of hatred against Muslims in Europe and elsewhere. This is no laughing matter as we've seen the veil banned in France, minarets banned in Switzerland and circumcision banned in Cologne. There remain many calls for even more bans, even on halal meat. French fascists have been setting up soup kitchens which only serve pork based soup in a deliberate strike at homeless Muslims. Events such as the violence and protests around the Muhammad cartoons just pour fuel on the fire.

If we're going to be serious about racism in Europe and the long-term safety of Western Muslims then we need to acknowledge this. That isn't to say there aren't important questions to be asked about the film itself. But there's no contradiction between criticising the violence and criticising the provocation. We can still debate whether or not people should be producing philistinous films caricaturing Muhammad to bait Muslims. It appears that the person behind the film was a Coptic Christian, who tried to deflect the blame onto a non-existent Israeli realtor. It's good reason to suspect that the film was produced to whip up a frenzy of Muslim anger. It may be possible that the film itself was a work of religious sectarianism. This may be speculative at this point but I see good reason to suspect that this film was about provocation and nothing more. Some of the actors weren't even aware that they were participating in an anti-Islamic film and were duped into the project. That's not to say it should be censored for it caused offence, there is no right not to be offended.

Furthermore, there can never be such a right as one can be offended about anything, just as a belief shouldn't be bestowed privilege simply because it is believed. This is where it is important to distinguish between what is constructive criticism, especially when it comes to the debate over theological questions, and when it is cretinous intolerant garbage. In other words, in case you're Pat Condell, there's a difference between a historical documentary on Islam's emergence and the mobs that have formed outside Mosques under the chant "Allah is a paedo!" We can make moral statements about that which ought to be unacceptable in society and this is a different discussion to calls for censorship. It's about what should be said, not what has been said. The position that the video shouldn't have been made, given the motivation behind it, really falls before it was published. After it has been published it doesn't do much good removing it, it's best to be pragmatic about this. But that's a different statement to defending its specific content.

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Tragedy, Not a Statistic.


The reaction to Hobsbawm's death ranges from modest applause in the liberal press to the usual paranoid anti-Communist hysteria of rightist news outlets. The Daily Mail engaged in the usual prattle about Hobsbawm's years spent in the Communist Party even during the exposure of Stalin's crimes. Even though while young Eric was embedded in anti-Fascist politics Lord Rothermere (owner of the Mail) was shamelessly climbing into bed with Adolf Hitler. The Evening Standard even went as strange as to stress Hobsbawm's later associations with Tony Blair and Ed Miliband, as if the Labour Party had been infected by the nonagenarian Marxist even when the Party was sliding further and further to the Right. Then again, this shouldn't surprise anyone as foaming at the mouth McCarthyites have never been subtle! On the upside, if the old man's passing was met with unadulterated adulation from the mass-media we would have to ask ourselves if he was really any good at all. Some people you would never want nor expect praise from.

Fortunately some on the Right weren't so pettily obsessed with Hobsbawm's past to concede his work was worthy of praise. The right-wing historian Niall Ferguson wrote "Hobsbawm the historian was never a slave to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. His best work was characterised by a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, elegant analytical clarity, empty with the 'little man' and a love of the telling detail. He and I shared the belief that it was economic change, above all, that shaped the modern era." Ferguson went on to note wisely "The fact that he sided with the workers and peasants, while I side with the bourgeoisie, was no obstacle to friendship." The historian recommends Hobsbawm's tetralogy to the reader - The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Industry (1975), The Age of Empire (1987) and The Age of Extremes (1994) - going as far as to call this body of work "the best introduction to modern world history in the English language." As much as this should give one good reason to read Hobsbawm, it reflects rather well on Ferguson.

I have nothing to add to the praise for Hobsbawm's historical writings, though I will recommend Terry Eagleton's review of his last book if you want to dip into the great man's work. This isn't to say that the right-wing hysterics penned nothing worth of reflection about Hobsbawm, as Ferguson demonstrates so well himself. According to Robert Conquest, Hobsbawm was asked by Michael Ignatieff in 1994 "What (your view) comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?" Apparently Hobsbawm's only response was "Yes." No doubt Conquest has his own reasons for emphasising this, I suspect Hobsbawm had much more to say than simply an emphatic endorsement of unimaginable slaughter. But we should for a moment consider the question in terms of the dialectical materialist conception of history. It's certain that the Stalinists of this world have viewed their actions in terms of a service to the Revolution and, ultimately, to historical progress in a certain guise.


If we take history to be a succession of exploitative modes of production with its present culmination in global capitalism, then we could well view history as an appalling and seemingly unending tale of horrifying bloodshed as well as a tale of progress. It was through the tremendous suffering of millions in past centuries that the material resources and conditions to build capitalism, and further advance its productive capacities, were refined and accumulated. The immense injustice and unfreedom of this process cannot be separated from the accumulative development of capitalism, which almost mirrors a natural organism. In turn this mode of exploitation propels itself forward, only to create the proper economic and political conditions for socialism to be built in its place. We find then that in its beginning socialism is inseparable from capitalism in the same sense that capitalism is to slavery and feudalism. The link is in the material conditions fostered by each system. This is roughly the Marxist view, if a tad hastily sketched out as only it can in so few words.

Furthermore, the birth of socialism is not immaculate rather it is born out of the squalor of the capitalist system. The socialist movement could be seen as a project redemptive of capitalism, a view taken by Communists in Beijing today, in that the ultimate collapse of the system in crisis and revolution would give way to a new egalitarian world where the endured inequalities would be undone. The temptation to posit the vindication of capitalism in the advent of socialism should be resisted. Not just because of capitalism with Asian values, but because if you take socialism as simply redemptive of the generations who were worked to death in capitalism then it's tempting to say "What does it matter if a few more go?" It's all too tempting to say that the ends justify the means. This is the reason that many attribute to wily Stalin the notorious line "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic." The big question dangling before us is: will all this misery be worth it if we build a better world? And that's a major debate to be had.

The more nuanced Marxist might concede that the socialist movement may be incapable of making up for the enormous suffering of what has gone on for far too long. Even if socialism cannot compensate for the injustices of capitalism it is the better system. By analogy, the reparations for slavery can and should be made, not because we can really make up for the harm done to Africa but because it's right to try and establish a much more just society. Similarly to the climate change deniers we can retort: even if climate change is a natural phenomenon not to be feared, we're right to reorientate our entire society because it would still be better than what we have. Socialism may be the best that we can do to attempt to make up for all the women and men shredded in the economic propellers of history. Though it may well be utopian to claim that it could do so in its entirety, it is not wrong to attempt at this task. We on the Left are not clutching at straws in a world of chaos in the midst of our own inexorable decline, rather we belong to a tragic tradition.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Loving the Bomb!


The Cuban revolution of 1959 was met with a three-pronged assault from the colossus less than 100 miles north. A campaign of assassination attempts against the leadership combined with economic strangulation and terrorist attacks. It was in 1961 that Fidel Castro finally declared Cuba to be in the grips of a socialist revolution worth defending with rifles. This was just after the US had bombed two Cuban airports. It wasn't over yet, the Bay of Pigs came soon after and it was over in about 72 hours. The Americans were humiliated and the Cubans quickly exchanged the people they had captured for food and medicine. It wasn't forgotten. After that the Commandante climbed into bed with the Russian politburo and reluctantly agreed to park nuclear weapons on the island as a deterrent to another US invasion. The governing party became the Cuban Communist Party within a few years and the regime began to follow the Soviet model of really existing socialism.

Fidel Castro had reluctantly accepted nuclear weapons from Russia in order to secure Cuba from another invasion and to strengthen the socialist camp. In his typical flamboyance Fidel would have preferred a triumphant display, perhaps a parade of his newfound nuclear might through the streets of Havana. Instead the CIA discovered the weapons from the air and the world was soon on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. This is no exaggeration, as we now know; it was the most dangerous moment in history for our species. The bureaucrats were well aware that this was the case at the time. If it wasn’t for a Russian submarine commander who countered the orders of two other commanders then nuclear-tipped warheads would have been fired at the US. Two of them had made the decision under the assumption that a war had begun, they were under attack from a US destroyer at the time. Thankfully the decision was overruled by Vasili Arkhipov. That could have been the end.

If the Russians had let-off the warheads it would have provoked a full nuclear response from the US. Moscow would have been taken out and then London would have been taken out in retaliation, it would have escalated from there. Near total annihilation in a matter of minutes. This case demonstrates the incredible danger of living in a world of nuclear weapons, we're not as in control of these radioactive toys as we like to think. By and large it is automated systems which have the power to land a mushroom cloud on the horizon. There have been many times where we have come close to the edge, but there has always been someone around to step in. Sooner or later there isn't going to be a human intervention to save the day. It may only be a matter of time as Chomsky reminds us. Disarmament isn't just the moral action at this point, it's vital for the chances of human survival in the long-term. There's no point making sure that we destroy what's left after a nuclear strike takes us out.


A deal was soon cut, the yanks shipped out the nukes they had in Turkey and the ruskies did the same in Cuba in return for a promise that the US would never invade Cuba again. JFK wanted to look hard and refused, but secretly had the missiles in Turkey removed. Of course, he was aware that the missiles were actually obsolete and were about to be replaced by Polaris in the Mediterranean. Cuba was just another square on the chessboard in these manoeuvres and the Commandante wasn’t consulted in any of this. But neither were the people living in Russia or the United States for that matter. With all this in mind Lee Harvey Oswald decided to take-out Kennedy in order to take the heat off of Cuba. Before the year was out Oswald had pulled the trigger and saved the Kennedy legacy in doing so. It saved his criminal Presidency, secured the myth of a vanquished hero and wiped away everything he had done. The internet is stuffed with garbage theories about the man’s death, a lot less is focused on the numerous conspiracies to kill Fidel Castro.

It wasn't over between the US and Cuba, but the attempts to destroy the regime in Havana haven't come close to a nuclear holocaust since 1962. Instead there have been 638 known attempts to murder Fidel Castro, as of 2006 anyway, with the last attempts being made after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The CIA has yet to get their man, clearly they're much better at running drugs. That being said the CIA did manage to put to death Che Guevara in a most cowardly fashion. But that wasn't enough, was it? What would be enough? Only the return of Cuba into the hands of the American ruling-class and underworld. Anything less is an insult. So the Cuban economy had to be strangled with an embargo which is still going strong today. The Cubans turned to Russia and then they had to go it alone after the Soviet Union fell apart like the house of cards it was. Remarkably the Castro regime has survived and the major achievements of the Cuban revolution have been safeguarded.

The command model of the economy has been abandoned to some extent and we may well see a Chinese style of capitalism emerge on the island. There has yet to be a free election on the island, a free press has not been allowed to spring up and the Castro brothers have run the show for over 50 years. This isn't to say that the country should be ripped open to American power once again. The US government keeps more political prisoners in Cuba than the Castro regime actually does. There aren't thousands and thousands of homeless people roaming the streets, nor do millions go hungry every year. That's thanks to the efforts of the Cuban government to localise the production of food. Since the collapse of really existing socialism there has been a return to corruption and prostitution has re-emerged. But it has to be said that there aren't any drug cartels in Cuba and the island is certainly no abattoir unlike Colombia and Mexico.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Sectarianism be Praised!


The Left has long been prone to sectarianism, and famously so, due to its fissiparous condition and natural inclination to the narcissism of fine distinctions - to borrow Freud's words. Socialism comes in about a thousand different shades of red. The same can be said of anarchism, communism and feminism. It's probable that the sectarian tendency will never be overcome, partly this is because there has to be disagreement and debate. Dissensus rather than consensus. It's clear that there is a need for discussion over serious issues in practice as well as theory. This is true of morality as well as the organisation of government. In such areas there is a need for a lot more dissensus and not less. The same can be said of the refinement of principle and development of theory itself. This isn't to endorse the destructive strain of sectarianism which tears apart groups and grinds away at mass-popular movements. It's this which has helped to further the Left's decline around the world since the end of the Cold War. We can't blame it all on the CIA, I must concede. But it's important to always insist on a subtle distinction.

It's the problem is the shift to an intolerant variety of sectarianism which is so troubling, and with good reason too. The point at which the disagreement becomes a hindrance to a social movement. To borrow the words of the late Alexander Cockburn "The Left's idea of a meeting is to form a circle, point the guns inward and then fire." This is exactly the kind of sectarianism that the majority of people find problematic. It can drive a wedge right into a movement, first causing friction and then leading to schismatic bursts that threaten the whole thrust of the organised efforts. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the successes of a movement in its commitment to a cause often in turn produce greater unity and solidarity. The sectarian elements are usually marginalised in this way, as it becomes more important to unify around a cause which is more important than our petty differences of theory. The victories of a movement are self-propelling in this way. This could go against Gramscian sequential schemas about the primacy of politics, in that the material conditions may come before the political - likewise, theory very often struggles to keep up with practice.

Sadly it's also true that the destructive sectarian streak of the Left is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Very often the Left is in a state of paralysis thanks to its own bitter squabbles and petty infighting, which would embarrass the Church of England - it truly does come down to a narcissism of fine distinctions! The inability of some to build alliances within the Left has even been matched by those who find it easier to coalesce with the Right. Alexander Cockburn received no end of criticism for consorting with Pat Buchanan over the Iraq war, yet it was a pragmatic move of a committed anti-imperialist. Though it's worth saying that the left-wing worry of a descent into a state of affairs where we take the side of anyone who is critical of US foreign policy is not an confused one. Many conservatives saw Fascism as a "lesser evil" to socialism, even libertarians thought Mussolini was a "moderate" who had saved private property from the red plague. No such calculation would go uncriticised on the Left. One of the reasons why the Right is not as sectarian, and not in the same way, as the Left is that leftists are better than rightists. It's about questions of action.

The rigorous assessment of principle and practice among leftists is not a reason for despair in every instance. The Left ought to be sectarian in this sense, in its commitment to outmatch liberals and conservatives when it comes to democracy, equality and liberty, as well as art, culture and even tradition. This requires a certain refinement and maintenance of principle. It is often overlooked that the conservative claim to a monopoly over culture and tradition is as ludicrous as the suggestion of a liberal monopoly over freedom. Notably it was Leon Trotsky who said "We Marxists have always lived in tradition." He wasn't speaking as a conservative, because there is an alternative conception of tradition to be found in radicalism. It is a cultural body which is constantly remade, as well as opening itself to the participation of ordinary people. At the same time it's not just conservatives who want to preserve the great canon of literature, whereas radicals are about accessibility and dissensus. But it's a fetishistic tendency of conservatives to take something as good just because it stood the test of time. Quality control is something the Left does better.