Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Arguing about Iran's nuke programme

The argument about Iran's right to a nuclear programme rumbles on at indymedia, while a new poll conducted independently of the government in Tehran finds that 85% of Iranians give the programme the thumbs up.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A smaller splash

Portraits of the Beatles, beautifully inscrutable abstract canvases, Pop Art soup cans, Che Guevara posters, photos of anti-Vietnam protests and Aldermaston marches (I couldn't spot EP Thompson!), 'self-destructing poems' by Bob Cobbing: the Auckland Art Gallery's Art and the 60s exhibition has something for everybody, which makes it difficult to describe in five minutes. I'll stick to remembering my surprise at entering one of the gallery rooms finding myself suddenly in the presence of David Hockney's painting A Bigger Splash, which I seem to have seen a thousand times in art textbooks and on posters.

Surprise soon gave way to a strange sort of disappointment, however: Hockney's canvas seemed somehow less lustrous 'in the flesh' than it had on glossy pages. Perhaps it's one of those rare artworks that looks better in reproduction than on the wall. Go and have a look for yourself and let me know what you think. Even if Hockney disappoints there'll be plenty of other stuff that takes your fancy. Be warned, though: the bastards will make you pay through the nose ($12, $10 concessions) to get through the door.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Kremlin mountaineer

Tim Whewell of the BBC has written a fascinating if depressing article on the way that Stalin's reputation is undergoing a revival in Russia, fifty years after Nikita Krushchev denounced him in the famous closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party.

Here are the words that earned Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, his place on the honour roll of Stalin's victims:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,

The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs

And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer

And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders - fawning half-men for him to play with

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung

Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat

For the broad-chested Ossete.

Mandelstam whispered that one in Boris Pasternak's ear on one of their walks around Moscow; Pasternak turned to Mandelstam and hissed 'You didn't say that and I didn't hear that'. The phrase 'Kremlin mountaineer' is thought to refer to Stalin's origins in mountainous Georgia.

You can read thirteen of Mandelstam's poems in translation here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Who's top of the revolution pops?

Over at his Adventures in Histomat blog Snowball has made a list of his 'top ten revolutions'. It's not clear what the criteria for inclusion in the list are, but what strikes me is the way that eight of Snowball's revolutions took place in European countries. I wouldn't want to question the heroism and importance of the Spanish revolution of the 30s or the Hungarian rising of 1956, but isn't it a fact that, in the last century at least, the vast majority of popular uprisings have taken place outside of Europe, in the colonies and (in economic terms) semi-colonies of the Third World?

It's also notable that many of the modern revolutions on Snowball's list are heroic failures, like the Spanish and Hungarian risings. Apart from the Russian revolution, Snowball ignores the great revolutions that defeated imperialism in the semi-colonial world during the twentieth century. The exclusion of the Chinese, Korean, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions from Snowball's list may reflect the fact that these revolutions created contradictory societies, with a mixture of progressive, egalitarian and regressive, authoritarian features - but couldn't the same be said of the Russian revolution? And, more importantly, can't we recognise the genuinely popular and revolutionary features of a revolution which is some respects hostage to a bureaucratic leadership? Snowball has pleaded the importance of EP Thompson's notion of 'history from below' : what about the 'history from below' of revolutions made under authoritarian leadership? In 1957, a year after leaving the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest at the suppression of the Hungarian revolution, Thompson could warn that:

'Those who allow disgust with the illiberal and authoritarian features of orthodox Communism to dominate their outlook, only too often end up by damming up within themselves the profound and active sympathy called forth by those epics of human achievement in our time: the march of the Chinese 8th Route Army: the Yugoslav war of resistance: repeated feats of conscious social endurance and constructive labour: the real onslaught against illiteracy and superstition: the first steps in the regeneration of peoples oppressed and annonymous through centuries'

(from 'Socialism and the Intellectuals', Universities and Left Review #1)

As I suggested in an earlier response to Snowball, Thompson never achieved a really clear understanding of the nature of Stalinism, but this failure doesn't invalidate the points he is making here.

I've made an off-the-cuff list of what I think are the ten most important progressive revolutions of the past hundred years.

Russia 1917 - The biggie. No need to argue with Snowball here.

The Chinese revolution 1926-49 - After the failure of the European revolutions of the late teens and early twenties revolution in China represented the last hope to prevent the encirclement and degeneration of revolutionary Russia. Stalin's insistence that the Chinese Communist Party form an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists led to disastrous defeat, and set the scene for Mao's remoulding of the Party on a rural, peasant-focused basis. The revolution that eventuated in 1949 consequently lacked a basis in the urban working class, and allowed Mao and others at the top of the Party to set up a bureaucratic, deformed workers' state rather than a healthy socialist state. Nevertheless, the Chinese revolution created huge benefits for hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants, liberating them from semi-feudal tutelage to landlords. The breaking up of collective farms and reemergence of a class of landless peasants is one of the most tragic results of the restoration of capitalism that has taken place in China since the 1980s.

Yugoslavia 1943-45 - Tito's partisans had an unusually strong base in the working class, and they proved intent on revolutionising social relations in the Balkans well before the Nazi occupiers had been defeated. Under pressure from his own working class, which had launched a huge factory occupations movement, Tito refused Stalin's orders to make an alliance with the Yugoslav bourgeoisie and to refrain from collectivising land and property. His intransigence would lead to the first open fissure in the 'Eastern bloc' Stalin had established, and provoke splits in many Western Communist Parties.

Korea 1945-53 - Many people imagine that the bizarre figure of Kim Il-Sung was the dominant figure in revolutionary Korea right up until his death in the early 90s. In fact, the Korean Workers' Party was riddled with factions until the early 1950s, when Kim and his followers gained control and purged their rivals. Kim's authority was also challenged by the spontaneous movements of the Korean peasantry and working class, who established their own liberated zones and popular committees in many parts of the country after the departure of the Japanese at the end of World War Two. On Cheju Island in the far south of Korea, a popular committee held power for a year before being crushed by the US's puppet government. Grassroots organisations reappeared after the North Koreans and their allies turned the tide of the Korean War and liberated most of the south of the peninsula in early 1951. Popular influence on the government of North Korea was reflected in the country's undertaking what has been described as the fastest and most comprehensive land reform programme in history. The rise of Kim and his clique to unchallenged power reflected the failure to permanently liberate the south of Korea, and the devastation of the north and its organised working class by US bombing.

Bolivia - 1952 - The Bolivian revolution is notable for its positive achievements as well as its unfulfilled potential. The great achievement of the revolution, which was led by a coalition of the radical petty bourgeois nationalists of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and the Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Workers Party (POR), was thoroughgoing land reform. Without this reform, the power wielded today by the small coca growers led by Evo Morales would be unimaginable. But the Bolivian revolution failed to develop into a full-blown socialist revolution: rather than smash the old state and put their own armed followers in its place, the POR-supported MNR government nursed the old army and police forces back into shape, to the pont where they were able to quash moves by workers, and especially miners, to collectivise the commanding heights of the economy.

Cuba - 1959 - 61 - The petty bourgeois nationalists of Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement overthrew Cuba's rotting Batista government with astonishing ease, but encountered huge obstacles as soon as they took power. Faced with a revolt by foreign capital and war from the United States, Castro turned leftwards, enlisted the support of the Soviet Union, and acceded to worker and peasant demands for the nationalisation of the economy. Castro was able to put a lid on the revolutionary process, and protect his own authority from the ravages that workers' democracy would have brought, because of the relative weakness of the organisations of the Cuban working class, and the Stalinism of the country's Communist Party. The survival of revolutionary Cuba has been an inspiration to millions of Latin Americans, and the establishment of workers' and peasants' democracy to match the country's collectivised economy probably depends on the fortunes of revolutionary movements outside the country, and in particular in Venezuela. The increased openess to political debate that has emerged in recent years - an openess that now extends even to the ideas of Trotsky - is encouraging.

Algeria 1954-65 - The Algerian independence movement triumphed against the might of an unbelievably brutal French military, and in the early 60s the newly liberated country looked on course for social revolution, as Ben Bella's government pronounced itself socialist and allowed the nationalisation under workers' control of hundreds of businesses. Sadly, it was not to be - Bella was deposed, the Marxists who had supported him were criticised for their naivety, and a conservative clique closely linked to the new state's military began to reverse the gains of the revolution. What could not be reversed was the blow to French imperialism that inspired liberation movements in scores of other oppressed nations.

Vietnam 1945-75 - When the Japanese occupation of Vietnam began to collapse near the end of World War Two the country's liberation movement was split by the question of what attitude to take to the country's old colonial power France. On the one hand, the Moscow-backed 'orthodox' Communists favoured allowing the French back into the country, in return for the promise of decolonisation. On the other hand, the Trotskyists, who had mass support in a number of the cities, favoured fighting a revolutionary war of independence against the French. The Stalinists allied with the French and used force to win the argument against the Trotskyists, only to have their own hopes betrayed by the colonial power. Like Mao almost two decades earlier, Ho Chi Minh was forced to resort to a rural guerilla war to try to defeat the imperalism of France and then the imperialism of the US. The story of that epic struggle is well-known, the defeat that it eventually brought to the US still haunts the wargamers of the Pentagon. The pity is that the outcome of the struggles of the 40s made a protracted war of independence necessary, and allowed Ho and his clique to cement their control of the Vietnamese revolution.

Iran - 1979 - Today many people associate the Iranian revolution with a few mad mullahs, but Ayatollah Khoemini's ascencion to power was achieved only after a desperate struggle between his movement and the left-wing working class forces that had established workers' councils in many places, including the strategically vital oil industry. A civil war raged in parts of Iran through the early 80s, but eventually Saddam's US-sponsored invasion of the country allowed the clerics to rally the population behind them and marginalise their enemies. Earlier, President Carter had wanted to use force to keep the Shah in power, but had been dissuaded by the threat of Soviet intervention. The US's desperation to reverse the Iranian revolution, even after its socialistic features had disappeared, reflects the strategic importance of the country, and the realignment of power the fall of the Shah caused in the Middle East. Today Iran continues to grow into a major regional power, to the point where the US is once again considering war to reverse the legacy of 1979. For the left, the bitter defeats in the years after the ousting of the Shah have set a pattern which has seen Islamist forces displacing secular socialists in the vanguard of the anti-imperialist movements of the Middle East.

Venezuela 2002 - Although Hugo Chavez was elected at the end of 1998, the Bolivarian revolution only really kicked off in 2002, when the beleagured President was forced to mobilise his working class and peasant base to fight a revolt by a Venezuelan ruling class alarmed by his relatively moderate reform programme. The coup and lockout of 2002 were defeated by mass mobilisation, and passive electoral support for a populist leader with a minimal reform programme has turned into a revolution powered by the interaction of grassroots mobilisation and the state. Huge areas of farmland have been redistributed, a number of factories have been nationalised under workers' control, a new welfare state is being constructed, and radical experiments in the decentalisation of power to Communal Councils are underway. The Bolivarian revolution is a work in progress, with many unresolved contradictions, but its mere existence is important, because it disproves the fatuous myths of the 'end of history' and the 'triumph of capitalism' we were fed in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The land that time forgot, and other romantic cliches

This is a satellite photograph of North Sentinel Island, one of the northernmost outposts of the Indian-owned Andaman archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. North Sentinel is seventy-two square kilometres in size (that's a little over half the size of Waiheke Island), and can be reached in a few hours by boats leaving from Port Blair, the administrative centre of the Andamans. Container ships and fishing boats regularly pass its shores.

Despite its relative proximity to 'civilisation', North Sentinel Island harbours what is possibly the last group of isolated Stone Age people on the planet. The 'Sentinelese' (there are believed to be several hundred of them, though no one has ever done a count; nobody knows what they call themselves, either) are probably descendants of some of the first human beings to leave Africa for Asia; like the other indigenous people of the Andaman Islands, they are short in stature with black skin and frizzy hair. According to Robin McKie, writing in The Guardian, the Sentinelese '[H]unt wild pigs and fish with arrows, believe that birds talk to spirits, and lack both the skills to make fire and a word to describe a number greater than two.'

The Sentinelese are making news around the world because of a recent incident in which two drunken Indian poachers landed their boat on North Sentinel Island, only to be set upon and hacked to death by two locals wielding axes. To the anger of some of the Indian inhabitants of the Andamans, the Indian authorities have been reluctant to investigate the deaths of the poachers, suggesting that the hostility of the Sentinelese and the need to preserve the isolation of North Sentinel Island preclude any serious attempt to bring prosecutions.

The widespread media coverage that the slaying of the poachers has received suggests a fascination with the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. What fascinates me is the very finite, specific location of the Sentinelese - not in some vaguely-defined portion of the rainforest of Brazil or New Guinea, but on an island which anyone can locate on a good map - and their relative proximity to the world of the twenty-first century. There must be many parts of New Zealand which are remote from 'civilisation' than North Sentinel Island.

In his essay 'The Last Island of the Savages' Adam Goodheart examines the reasons for the apparently miraculous survival of the Sentinelese, and records his own somewhat quixotic attempts to pay a visit to them. Goodheart's prose is as entertaining as the stories he tells, as he probes the connections between the First and Third Worlds, and the porous borders between the realms of 'civilisation' and 'wilderness':

I came across North Sentinel Island late one night on the other side of the world. Browsing through an online database, I found it mentioned in an article in a small scholarly journal, with an almost offhand reference describing it as the scene of what was probably the last "first friendly encounter" in history...

Intrigued, I searched the Web some more, and found almost nothing: a few sketchy wire-service reports about the grounding of the Primrose, and the home page of an evangelical organization in California that listed the inhabitants of North Sentinel (along with Buddhists, Jews, and "Gays in San Francisco") in its database of 1,573 "unreached peoples." I remember how unreal the place seemed, that night in my fluorescent-lit office, as I surfed on the oceans of information, the island emerging and then submerging again.

Goodheart meets TN Pandit, the Indian anthropologist credited with orchestrating the first, tentative 'friendly encounters' with the Sentinelese fifteen years ago (the Indian government later decided to end these encounters). Pandit does not try to disguise his mixed feelings about his achievement:

"That they voluntarily came forward to meet us - it was unbelievable," he told me, the last time we met at my hotel in New Delhi. "They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. " "But there was this feeling of sadness also - I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield. It's like an era in history gone. The islands have gone. Until the other day, the Sentinelese were holding the flag, unknown to themselves. They were being heroes. But they have also given up.

"They would not have survived forever - that, I can reason out. On a scientific basis, we can say that this population might have lived for another hundred years, but eventually. . . Even destruction takes place in the natural course of things; no one can help it, it happens. But here we have been doing it in a very conscious way, knowing full well what the consequences could be. What would be and what could be are the same."

Pandit's sentiments are shared by Miriam Ross, of the Survival International organisation. Ross argues that North Sentinel Island's inhabitants should not be brought to justice for the recent killings:

'These murders were tragic but they happened because the laws of the area were not upheld. In the Andamans the law strictly states that people should be kept away from Sentinel Island as any contact with the outside world is potentially deadly for the Sentinelese. For a start they are incredibly susceptible to common diseases to which they have no immunity.

'We need to look at the wider picture here. Some of the neighbouring tribes to the Sentinelese have been assimilated into our world and paid a terrible price. Fifty years ago the Great Andamanese tribe were 5,000 in number; today, as the modern world has encroached on them, there are now only 41, most of them alcoholics. These tribals are not carrying out murder with impunity as some people might think, they were simply defending their lives.'

It's hard to disagree with Ross, but I wonder how much of the desire to see the Sentinelese way of life preserved is motivated by the same sort of romanticism and exoticism that saw so many indigenous people being exploited by European explorers, ethnographers and artists. Is there not a sort of strange comfort that we in the 'civilised' world derive, from knowing that at least a small group of human beings exist outside of our world, in a land that time forgot? Do we want to use Sentinel Island to create a sort of refuge from the real world in our imaginations, an Eden of the mind? In the nineteenth century, the English displayed some 'friendly' Andamese Islanders in Calcutta's zoo. Today we shudder at the memory of such a practice, but do we not want to make a sort of zoo of North Sentinel Island?

As a friend said to me in an e mail I received today:

"Pretty weird, but cool that there's still a group of people isolated enough for this to happen (as long as it isn't me getting killed of course)"

Monday, February 20, 2006

The end of the line?

Take a look here, if you dare.

Finishing the job?

How likely is a US invasion of Iran? Here are some thoughts Dave Brownz put on indymedia in reponse to an article by Stan Goff, followed by a couple of my comments:

No-one expects the US to 'invade' Iran. But what about bombing nuclear plants? I don't think Goff's case is convincing. Goff makes the case that the invasion of Iraq has been counter-productive for the US, and that it will end in military defeat. And that an invasion of Iran would be an even bigger mistake. Goff seems to be adopting a fairly standard Marxist view of the US economy as weak, subject of crises of falling profits, and driven to expansion (primitive accumulation of booty) to boost its profits.

Against this, he estimates that the cost of Iraq has been counterprodutive since the amount of booty to boost profits (oil, and prospective oil from the region and central Asia) has been more than offset by the costly drain on profits. But this cost benefit analysis does not go into sufficient detail and is a bit shortsighted in my opinion. Let's look at Vietnam. The conventional wisdom coming out of Vietnam was that the US had lost the war, militarily certainly, politically maybe, but economically in the long run Vietnam was pretty much smashed and the US has now gone back into Vietnam to recolonise it. That's why the radical Chomsky says that the US won the war.The long-run benefits for US imperialism of invading Iraq can't be checked off against short term costs.

The US set a precedent for 'preventive war' and got UN backing (i.e. its imperialist rivals buckled and came on board). It outbid the EU in the middle east oil stakes and re-asserted the world money role of the dollar against the Euro. The 'demonstration effect' that Goff likes to point to was obvious in the threats to any former client state trying to do a Saddam and buck US hegemony. The US can do an Israel any day, and target an air strike on any country in the region as it did weeks ago in Pakistan, its ally. The Middle East masses understand this when they see Israel as the model for the US invasion. What's more the US and its subdued imperialist rivals (see how Chirac sucks up to the US) have all launched domestic attacks on their working class in the name of anti-terror laws. This means that any resistance to the cost of the war on terror being imposed on workers in these countries can be supressed in the name of counter-terrorism.

Not that much suppression has been needed as the anti-war movement is still in marching mode and hasnt got to the point of seriously trying to stop the war. Chirac's use of a state of emergency in France to suppress rebellions youth who threatened to make Paris a Baghdad, demonstrates this. The pathetic opposition of the left to Chirac, calling on local body politicians to restore social order, shows that even the far left is now acting in fear of the anti-terror laws. The reality is that whatever the messy situation today in Iraq, and however long it takes to find a new stooge (its a matter of trading off conflicting interests) to run the show, the US will retain bases in Iraq as part of its global network to oversee the pumping of the oil.So what makes Goff think that the cost of a few missiles and bombs on nuclear targets puts Iran off the radar? The reaction of China and Muslims internationally? Well hasnt China proven pretty amenable and backed down to the US when directly insulted like when its Embassy was bombed in Belgrade in the Balkan wars? China would still get its oil from Iran, or in an emergency, Venezuela. And hasnt the 'free world' been wound up since 9/11 by Islamophobia to see any US attack on 'terror' cells as legitimate.

Iranians calling for the death of Israel and the infidel cartoonists confirms in the minds of many the stereotypes of Islamic hate propaganda. What could be more legitimate than attacking the ultimate means of 'terror' - nuclear bombs in the hands of 'fundamentalists' in Iran. The US should know, it used them deliberately to terrorise Japan into a quick surrender in the Second World War. Finally, whatever the logic of the 'war on terror' it is not something that emerges from the stupidity of a rightwing neo-con US ruling class faction or a President who 'can't find his ass'.A stupid person is a real thing, but capital is not a thing, it's a social relation which dominates us all stupid or not. The logic of capital, not the illogic of Bush is what forces the US into increasingly risky actions to foreclose on its imperialist rivals, and to prevent any future anti-US bloc from forming, especially one with nuclear weapons. The US may not bomb Iran in March 2006, and it surely will not invade it in the near future, but keeping the options open is sufficient reason for the workers of the world to prepare for an attack and to mount a response that goes beyond marching and praying.

Dave's comments seem to me to focus too much on economic necessity and not enough on political irrationality. In particular, Dave leaves out mentioning that it is the invasion of Iraq which has so strengthened Iran's hand in the Middle East that it can take a much more confrontational attitude to the US and hope to get away with it. Iran has huge leverage in Iraq because of its very close ties to the forces that dominate the government there. How do the wargamers designing scenarios for an attack on Iran think that the Shia population of Iraqis likely to respond to such an action? The US is going to have to put up with the fact that Iran has become a regional power, rivalled only by Israel, largely as a result of US actions in Iraq.

I see the idea as the work of people frustrated by the failure of the US to take control ofthe situation in the Middle East in the past fewyears. The situation in Iraq has spun well out of control, imperilling rather cementing US hegemony in the region. War on new enemies becomes a sort of silver bullet for the more or less intractable problems inIraq. There are intriguing similarities with the US focus on Cambodia as the 'solution' to the crisis in Vietnam in the early 70s. An attack on Iran now would be as irrational and counterproductive as the invasion of Cambodia was back then. It's probably just as likely.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Comrade Mao: necessary, evil, or a necessary evil?

Mao is the latest 'dead male' to get a going-over at indymedia, courtesy of Dean Parker's curious mixture of anecdote and lofty condesencion. The Chang-Halliday biography Parker reviewed for The Listener enjoyed a blaze of publicity in the media immediately after its publication, but has since attracted the ire of a number of academic comentators. Of course, the pointy-heads take longer to chew over the evidence than the feature writers of the mass media, and their verdicts tend to be more cautious, and less easily coralled by sub-editors into sensational headlines. It'll be no surprise, then, if the more extraordinary claims of Chang and Halliday stick in the public mind.

Perhaps more important than the debate over the details of Mao's political career is the debate over how to define the society he created. In the comments boxes at indymedia Dave Brownz has done the great service of presenting Peter Taafe's orthodox Trotskyist analysis of Mao's China. Dave notes that:

"[I]t matters a lot whether Mao was a crazy capitalist, or a ruthless bureaucrat. If the former view is correct t leads to the conclusion that Mao's rule was nothing but an exercise in primitive accumulation, in preparation for a full-blown market capitalism. If Taafe is right, then despite Mao's dictatorship China was a degenerated workers' state that had gone beyond capitalism and created a planned economy as the basis for a healthy workers' state...[therefore socialists] would fight for the overthrow of the bureaucracy and the defence of state property against those who wanted to restore capitalism..."

What Dave brings out is the fatalism of the view that Mao was some sort of inevitable stage in Chinese history. Read Peter Taafe's article and decide for yourself. I'm off to buy some golden roast potatoes...

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Iran's right to nukes: a MAD idea?

Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty notes the way that the Iranian nuclear crisis has produced the rare spectacle of a rational debate on indymedia, but takes issue with my support for the right of Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Maia is not alone in taking this stance: at least half a dozen commenters at indymedia have made the same argument, though I hesitate to call it an argument, because typically the statement that no country has the right to nukes is not buttressed by any supporting statements, let alone evidence: it is allowed to sit in splendid isolation, as a self-sufficient moral law. It is as if a proscription on nuclear weapons had been set down in stone, in the mists of time, by some farsighted liberal God, and anybody who dares question it is a heretic, or worse.

But is it really impossible to think of a situation where the development of nuclear weapons would be permissible? Let us imagine that an asteroid was discovered travelling on an orbit that made it due to collide with the earth in 2023, and that the only way this devastating collision could be prevented was the creation of a supernuclear device that could be fired into space to deflect the asteroid onto a new orbit. Could any rational person oppose the creation of this nuclear device, when the alternative would be the destruction of most life on earth? That is, of course, an extreme, hypothetical example, but it should at least disabuse us of the notion that the 'argument' against nuclear weapons has some untouchable, universal status, and does not need to be considered in terms of a dialectic between means and ends.

How about a less hypothetical example, then? What about a US President who is asked by the head of his army for permission to explode 30 atom bombs along the border of a small country, in an effort to end the resistance this country is putting up against US troops and conventional arms? If the only factor that would make the President in question refuse his C in C's request was the possibility of nuclear retaliation, who would not wish that the potential for this retaliation existed?

Luckily, it did, and in 1950 President Harry Truman was forced reluctantly to turn down the demands of General MacArhtur for a massive nuclear attack on North Korea. The Soviet nuclear programme and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction had saved North Korea from annihilation, and in the coming decades it would save the world from US hegemony. Without the Soviet nuclear stockpile not only Korea but Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Algeria, Mozambique, Iran, and countless other countries would have been doomed to indefinite colonial or neo-colonial status, as the US and its NATO allies used nuclear weapons or the threat of nuclear weapons to contain progressive and anti-imperialist movements. As Don Franks put it, during the debate on indymedia:

[E]motional rejection of "all nuclear weapons" will not cut it here.The imperialist powers in possesion of nuclear arsenals will do anything to retain their monopoly of nuclear weapons and thereby strengthen their military domniance over the globe. Monopoly is no guarantee the things won't be used - the only time they were was when the US had a monopoly.

Who can blame Iranians for wanting nuclear weapons today? Many commentators say that support for the country's nuclear programme is widespread, cutting across social and political barriers. Here is the Washington Post's man in Tehran:

"Ordinary Iranians overwhelmingly favor their country's nuclear ambitions, interviews and surveys show. The support runs deep in the population of 68 million, cutting across differences of education, age and, most significantly, attitudes toward the fundamentalist government that the Bush administration says is intent on using an energy program as a cover for developing atomic weapons."

Another contributor to the discussion on indymedia summed it up pretty powerfully:

"Because we also know that despite the obvious horrors of a POTENTIAL nuclear exchange, that the INEVITABLE horror of having your skin burned from your live body by phosphourous, or mangled by cluster-bombs, or torn apart by smart-missiles, not to mention sickening and dying from depleted unranium, the fate of approx 150,000 people in the recent invasion of Iraq, is also not a nice way to go. The idea of MAD is as obnoxious to me as it should be to any sane human. But If I were an Iranian sitting in Tehran, listening to the sabre rattling of the NUCLEAR jingoists in the west and wishing to defend my country from an imperialist land grab, I think it fair to warn you that I would be more likely to reach for some Protons than a pea-shooter. "

Friday, February 17, 2006

Playing it again

My criticism of Green Party policy towards Iran has stirred some debate here (see the comments thread at the bottom of the rant).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hoaxing Lenin

From the Leftist Trainspotters list comes a report of the results of some detective work in Sweden's libraries:

For decades, a quotation of Lenin has emerged and re-emerged, at least in Sweden, proving that Lenin was a monster. Lenin allegedly said that:

"We should be prepared to use any trick, illegal method or lie...If we, for the sake of communism, should be forced to exterminate nine-tenths of the population, we should not avoid this sacrifice"

A Swedish Masters student has written a paper on the sources of this quote and on the scanned pages of a Swedish edition of Collected Works where the infamous quote can be read. His conclusion is that the quote cannot be traced or found in any English or Swedish edition of Collected Works. The original reference to the quotation, in a Danish magazine, 1970, cannot be found. The author also analyses the scanned pages available at the website of the right-wing anti-communist organisation Contra (www.contra.nu) and concludes that it is a rather clumsy falsification.

Maybe I'm a terminal pedant, but I find all this fascinating.

There is a fake quote from Lenin in 'The Darkening Ecliptic', a sequence of poems by the famous Australian literary hoax, Ern Malley. Malley was invented by two conservative poets intent on reversing the tide of modernism that was washing over Aussie literature in the '40s by writing something completely 'ridiculous'. Today they are remembered not for their own work but for the Malley poems, which they banged out in their army barracks in the space of an afternoon.

The fake quote is given in a poem called 'Colloquoy with John Keats':

I have been bitter with you, my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow
Was already on his face: "The emotions are not skilled workers"

In a review of Peter Carey's fictionalised account of the Malley affair, Blair Mohoney writes that:

Part of the intent of McCauley and Stewart with this poem was to expose the ignorance of their mark, who failed to recognise the fact that “The emotions are not skilled workers” is not a genuine quote from Lenin; but as Wode-Douglass points out in the novel, “The Lenin line is more witty than preposterous.”

I wonder how many readers of the poems have actually realised that the quote is invented.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Imperialism's useful idiots

The Greens are often presented in the right-wing media as an 'extremist' party opposed in principle to imperialism and imperialist war, but their record over the past few years tells another story.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Greens supported the right of the US to invade Afghanistan, provided that it was supervised by the UN. They chose to oppose the US invasion not in principle, but because it was insufficiently dependent on UN supervision.

In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Greens supported the weapons inspectors whose visits to the country paved the way for war, and at the beginning of 2003 they backed the last minute Franco-German 'alternative' to US-UK invasion, which would have seen UN troops occupying Iraq 'peacefully'.

Even worse, the Greens have a record of supporting imperialism uncritically in the Pacific region. They supported the 2003 invasion of the Solomon Islands, for instance, despite the fact that it was organised by warmonger John Howard, and motivated by a desire to enforce the imposition of IMF 'reforms' at the point of a gun.

The Greens are not opponents of imperialism - they favour a sort of politically correct 'multilateral imperialism' that operates through organisations like the UN rather than unilaterally. In debates about New Zealand foreign policy, the Greens play the 'good cop' to the National Party's 'bad cop'.

The leadership of the Greens and other parts of the liberal left is always a disaster for anti-war movements, because Green politicians constantly seek to undermine attempts to take direct action to stop war, in favour of appeals to parliament, international law, and the UN. Faith in parliament, international law, and the UN has been proved futile again and again, and only acts to demobilise movements. In 2003 we saw the way that a huge anti-war movement dwindled to nothing almost overnight. A February 2003 march up Queen St attracted 12,000 people; two months later, anti-war pickets of the US embassy were struggling to attract 12 people. The story was the same throughout Aotearoa and in most other Western countries.

It was not that people had suddenly become supporters of Bush’s war – they had just become convinced there was nothing they could do to stop the war, and to force the US from Iraq. Parties like the Greens had told them again and again that international law and the UN could stop the invasion, and when this didn’t happen they became demoralised. In reality, the anti-imperialist left had been correct when it said that only the violent resistance of the Iraqi people and mass strike action and blockades by the Western working class could stop Bush’s war machine in its tracks.

In the statement they issued recently on the Iran crisis, the Greens once again present themselves as the champions of 'moderate' imperialism. They decry the aggressive gestures of the US government, and warn against precipitate military action against Iran, yet give wholehearted support to the attempts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to interfere in Iranian affairs and bully the Iranian people. The IAEA is dominated by the United States, the EU and Russia, and can hardly be counted as an impartial actor in the Iran crisis. In fact, the day the Greens issued their press release the IAEA voted overwhelmingly to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions.

But the Greens are not interested in a fair go for Iran: they explicitly say that they are for ‘restraining Iran’s nuclear programme’. Greens Foreign Affairs spokesman Keith Locke claims to represent the ‘voice of reason’ when he supports international action to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons, but how reasonable is the outcry against the possibility of Iran developing nukes in five or ten years, when this outcry is being led by the US, a country with many thousands of nukes aimed at targets around the globe and a history of aggressive action against scores of other states? How reasonable is the demand that Iran should have to give up the possibility of gaining nukes, while the Middle East’s neighbourhood bully Israel sits on an arsenal of several hundred warheads? If Keith Locke and his party had any integrity, they would point out that countries like the US and Israel have no right to interfere in Iranian affairs. Once again, the Green Party has chosen to stand on the side of imperialism, against the people of an oppressed nation.

Keith Locke and other leaders of the Greens must not be allowed to win the leadership of any movement against a war on Iran. When we march to mark the third anniversary of the invasion next month we should oppose the new war drive against Iran, and defend the country's right to develop nuclear weapons.


The news is telling me that Dick Cheney has accidentally shot and injured a man during a quail hunting trip in Texas. Shame it wasn't the other way round.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A couple of quick comments on 'History from Below'

Over at the splendidly-titled Adventures in Historical Materialism blog 'Snowball' has replied to my post on EP Thompson and the thorny question of 'History from Below' . Snowball concedes that the approach to history developed by Thompson and the rest of the 'History from Below' school was shaped by the political conjuncture of the 1930s, and in particular the turn of Western Communist Parties towards Popular Frontism, but insists that this fact does not tarnish the work that the school did.

Only a fool would deny the value of work of historians as gifted as Thompson, Christopher Hill, and Rodney Hilton, but I think it is possible to appreciate books like The Making of the English Working Class and also recognise the impact on them of the long years that their authors spent inside the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Snowball offers two main reasons for thinking that Popular Frontism does not tarnish the work of Thompson and others. In the first place, he says that the nationalism which was part and parcel of Popular Frontism is offset by the efforts of some (alleged) members of the History from Below school to study non-British subject matter, and subjects that show the dark side of British behaviour abroad. Snowball mentions Eric Hobsbawm, who is famous for his global history of the twentieth century, and John Saville, who has studied the effects of British imperialism. I don't understand the logic of this point, because I don't see how the mere fact that a historian has studied a non-British subject, or a darker side of British history, can make his or her method and conclusions immune from British chauvinism. To use one of an enormous number of possible examples: EP Thompson's father wrote extensively about Indian culture and history, and about the darker side of of British colonialism in India, but that has not stopped many Indian scholars from considering him the purveyor of a patronising, Anglophile view of their world.

In any case, I think that Hobsbawm and Saville must be considered doubtful contenders for membership of the school of History from Below: both relied on secondary more than primary materials, preferring to synthesise existing viewpoints rather than pan for gold in the archives; both made extensive use of the sort of 'dry' economic data that Thompson considered an unreliable ally; and both tended towards a more pessimistic view than Thompson of the ability of the individual to influence the course of history.

Snowball goes on to suggest that even when they studied the finer details of British history members of the History from Below school were "always careful to locate each historical struggle in its own context at the time...as opposed to some ahistorical 'march of history' which can slide over into forms of left nationalism." I don't think this statement is completely untrue, but I think it is far too confident. I don't have time to make the argument fully now, but Snowball ought to remember these words, from the 1963 Preface to The Making of the English Working Class:

[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialisation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or
Africa, yet be won.

Thompson seems in danger here of presenting English economic and social development as the model for the history of the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century. While he hopes for a different outcome to political conflicts in the developing world, he sees the type of development going on there as fundamentally similar to that taking place in the world of his book. The problem with such a view is that it takes the contingencies of one country's history and makes them into a schema for other countries.*

The corollary of such a schema is all too often an insistence on inappropriate political strategies and tactics. During the period that Thompson wrote The Making the Soviet Union and its allies were busy scouring the Third World for 'national-bourgeois revolutions', like the one France enjoyed in 1789 and Britain could have enjoyed in 1832. Communists in Western colonies were being urged to fight for independence by forging alliances with a motley mixture of opportunist military leaders and disaffected members of local comprador bourgeoisies. The likes of Nasser and Sekou Toure were being hailed as revolutionaries on Pravda's World News pages. What was ignored was the fact that countries like Egypt and Guinea had developed in a very different way, thanks to the weight of the imperialist exploitation imposed on them by 'old' bourgeois countries like France and Britain. What had been possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was no longer possible in the twentieth.

More on this later...

*To be fair, Thompson pulled sharply back from his attempt to 'universalise' English history when he wrote 'The Peculiairities of the English' just a few months after the publication of The Making. But those crucial words in the Preface to his most famous book were never changed.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Recovering anti-capitalist politics in Aotearoa

Over on indymedia, Radical Youth member and hyperactivist Omar Hamed has been busy Reinventing Anti-Capitalism in Aotearoa. The result has been something of a generation gap, with sundry old farts chafing at Omar's references to irrelevant 'dead white guys' and 'really old socialist history'.

As usual, I've had my twenty cents' worth in the comments thread, so I'll shut up now and use this post as an opportunity to show off a fantastic image I found using google. It comes from a website called - what else? - Vodka on the Rocks - and shows a relic recovered from the Mikhail Lermontov, a Soviet ship which sunk in mysterious circumstances off the coast of New Zealand way back in the mid-80s, when Comrade Omar was just a twinkle in his parents' eyes.

I guess we could criticise the bloke in the photo for holding the sickle and hammer the wrong
way round, but historically some Trotskyists have reversed the direction of the sickle to differentiate the flags of their groups and the mastheads of their publications from those of their Stalinist rivals. Who knows? ;)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hey, kids, get down with Sir Geoffrey!

Seems there's not much going down in Wellington lately, if the No Right Turn blog is to be believed. No Right Turn recommended a speech on the Treaty of Waitangi by Geoffrey 'constitutional law on the edge' Palmer for 'anyone who has nothing to go to' the weekend before last. Personally, I'd rather go to Sloppy Joe's Whiskey Bar and hear a Dragon covers band than listen to a lecture by the 'progressive' politician who sold Telecom. But when it comes to the Treaty, it's not only the salesman I object to - I don't see why I should buy the product from anyone. Here's a short article I wrote several year ago - I can't remember if it was actually published anywhere - making the Marxist case against the Treaty:


Recently the puppet Karzai government in Afghanistan unveiled a constitution which embedded United States interests in the country and facilitated the US theft of resources from Central Asia. Today in Iraq the US is pushing for the creation of a puppet interim government which Bush wants use to draw up a constitution that will facilitate the plundering ofIraqi resources.

The left has opposed with near-unanimity the Afghan constitution and the moves toward replicating it in Iraq. Paper after paper and speech after speech has pointed out that the Afghan document and the proposed Iraqi government are illegitimate, because they have not been approved by the Afghan and Iraqi peoples, and because they are designed to steal the resources of Afghanistan and Iraq. In New Zealand, the left is joining in this worldwide chorus of denunciation, but remains overwhelmingly in favour of a local constitutional document that was drawn up for the same purpose as Karzai’s constitution, and has the same lack of legitimacy.

The Treaty of Waitangi was never negotiated in good faith, was never democratically approved, and has never benefited the vast majority of either Maori or Pakeha. History shows us that the Treaty grew out of the Declaration of Independence of 1835, a document hastily cooked up by British missionaries and signed by a handful of northern chiefs alarmed by the prospect of the arrival of Charles de Thierry, a Frenchman suffering from delusions of grandeur. De Thierry wanted to set up a private kingdom in the Hokianga, but ended up as a piano teacher in Auckland. The Declaration was supposed to thwart imaginary French designs on New Zealand, not to express some sort of 'good faith' amongst either Maori or British settlers.

Maori nationalism only emerged from the 1850s and 60s, with the growth of pan-tribal movements like the Kingitanga and Kotahitanga. Like Palestinian nationalism, Maori nationalism emerged as a self-defensive measure against the threat presented by an oppressor coloniser. That does not make it any less legitimate, or make the call for the Maori right to self-determination any less urgent. The question is, why on earth does the left need a piece of paper to tell us that Maori are an oppressed and dispossessed people? If the Treaty did not exist, would we not champion Maori land rights? Do we ignore the right to self-determination of the Aborigine peoples, because they never signed a treaty?

Green Party members who have criticised the CWG’s stance over this issue have told us that ‘the Treaty is a reality that cannot be ignored’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Treaty was ignored by NZ governments for 144 years, and denounced by Maori as a fraud for much of that time. Why did Lange’s Labour government dust off this piece of paper and try to elevate it into a constitutional document in the mid-80s? The truth is that Lange was concerned to contain a growing movement of grassroots Maori who were using direct action protests - the Land Marches of 1975 and 1984, the Bastion Point occupation of 1977-78 were particularly important - to challenge the power of the state and to win back land. Jane Kelsey has documented in great detail the way that Lange’s government co-opted a section of the Maori leadership in classic postcolonial style (Mahuta, Mugabe and Mandela have more than a first letter in common) and dragged the struggle off the streets and into the courts and corporate offices.

Now some Maori are breaking with the co-opters, but the Waitangi myth can still get in the way of direct action. Far too many iwi are wasting their time making submissions to the Waitangi Tribunal over the seabed and foreshore issue, when they should be putting all their energies into organising protest! We applaud those iwi who have boycotted the sham tribunal, and call on the Kiwi left to join them in rejecting the Treaty’s attempt at co-option. The bosses recognise force, not legal niceties or historical myths.

For a less seat of the pants version of my argument about the Treaty's role in the '80s and '90s, check out Matt Russell's 'The Pacification of Contemporary Maori Protest'.

Lock up your wife, your daughters, and yourself

Concerned about the direction this country is headed in? Worried about the Muslims/Asians/Maoris/gays taking over the show? Think the Japs, Jerries or commies might have a second wind?

Forget about the bomb shelter or the second passport - the blockhouse is the answer! We stumbled upon Cameron's Blockhouse whilst wandering the countryside outside Wanaganui the other day. Built in 1869 by a red-blooded farmer who wanted to keep that dodgy bugger Tito[commie dally bastard!]kowaru away from his wife and daughters, the blockhosue never saw active service, except as a barn. Its reinforced clay walls and gun sights were restored fifteen years ago by a group of survivalists masquerading as local history enthusiasts.

So what are you right-wing nutjobs doing blogging? You should be building!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

From Manhire to Holub

A few days ago a mate of mine - you know who you are - was complaining over a beer that this blog is long on politics and short on literature. I might have pointed out to him that only a couple of weeks back I flourished the verses of that national institution, the venerable Bill Manhire, only to be reprimanded for my pains by one Annonymouse. In an effort to atone for the sin of sampling Manhire, I'm going to serve up something out of a book of translations from the work of Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet and pathologist who died in 1998.

I'd never read much of Holub's work - I remember we were given one of his poems to pore over and explicate in school, which probably didn't make me want to see more. The other day, though, I plucked his book off a dusty shelf, and was immediately struck by the power and compression of the poems it had been harbouring patiently over the ten years since I bought it at some garage sale. An introduction by the ever-reliable A Alvarez makes some useful points about Holub's preoccupations:

In his poetry, as presumably in his science, he continually insists on probing below the surface of the received, everyday experience to reveal new levels of meaning, to lay bare new emotional facts. It is as though his poems and his researcher's microscope worked in the same way, and towards the same end.

Here are my two favourite poems so far:


Here too are dreaming landscapes,
lunar, derilect.
Here too are the masses
tillers of the soil.
And cells, fighters
who lay down their lives
for a song.

Here too are cemeteries,
fame and snow.
And I hear murmuring,
the revolt of immense estates.


This is a boy.
This is a girl.

The boy has a dog.
The girl has a cat.

What colour is the dog?
What colour is the cat?

The boy and the girl
are playing with the ball.

Where is the ball rolling?

Where is the boy buried?
Where is the girl buried?

and translate
into every silence and every language!

where you yourselves
are buried!