Category Archives: Workers Struggle

Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam

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The following article below was originally published by the Return to the Source news blog: 

January 8, 2012

Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam

At Return to the Source, we frequently use the term ‘actually existing socialism’ to describe various countries that we identify as socialist. The term specifies ‘actually existing’ to highlight the need to approach socialism from a materialist, rather than idealist perspective. We would define actually existing socialism as the material manifestation of the socialist ideal. Imperfect as it may be, it is the reality of what it takes to build socialism in a world dominated by imperialism.

But what does actually existing socialism mean for revolutionaries in the 21st century, long after the fall of most of the socialist bloc? Five countries – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – survived the wave of counter-revolutions in the early 1990s, but their survival has forced them to make certain concessions and retreats to the market system in varying degrees.

Much to the dismay of many leftists, China, Vietnam and Laos have all pursued a path of development that emphasized the role of a heavily regulated market economy in continuing to build socialism. Cuba and the DPRK maintained planned economies more similar to the Soviet Union’s model, but even recently they have accepted strategic market reforms.

Though the market reforms of China and Vietnam have both led to tremendous economic growth, the actual implementation of these new economic policies is decidedly unique. For Trotskyites and left-communists, these market reforms are simply manifestations of state capitalist policies. However, a closer look reveals that these market reforms were deliberate policy decisions demanded by the masses to continue building socialism in a post-Soviet world.

Like China, the commanding heights of the Vietnamese economy remains in the hands of the state. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) – the party of the working class and peasantry – remains at the helm of the state, and it still relies on a planned economic model that incorporates some market elements. The working class still holds political and economic power in Vietnam, and the market reforms were implemented as a means of strengthening socialism rather than weakening it.

Indeed, if many critics of actually existing socialism actually looked into Vietnam, they would find a vibrant protest movement by workers and peasants who work with, rather than against, the CPV to improve socialism. The state subordinates the interests of capital, both foreign and domestic, to the class interests of the people, and the CPV plans the economy to address the needs and demands of the working class first and foremost.

At varying points in history, socialist countries have had to make certain temporary concessions to the market in order to strengthen and preserve socialism. Economically backwards nations that have socialist revolutions face the task of revolutionizing the productive forces in order to meet the material needs of the masses. As Lenin so adequately put it, “Electricity plus soviets equals socialism.”

Vietnam is continuing the arduous task of socialist construction. Hardened by the experience of savage onslaught by US imperialism and inspired by their victory over it, the Vietnamese people have persevered through periods of retreat and economic crisis to continue building socialism in the 21st century. Though market reforms have brought many challenges and negative consequences, the overall orientation of the Vietnamese state and economy is towards the working class, and that alone makes socialism in Vietnam worth studying and defending.

This essay is broken into smaller, digestible chapters:

  • Doi Moi, Market Reforms & Socialism in Vietnam
  • Socialist Market Economies vs. Capitalist Market Economies
  • Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
  • Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
  • Market Reforms as a Mass Demand
  • Let A Thousand Flowers Blossom’: Protest & the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Vietnam
  • What Does Actually Existing Socialism Mean for Socialists in the US?

While the specifics of Vietnam’s market reforms are discussed at length in this piece, we see no reason to reinvent the wheel and one again demonstrate how market socialism is rooted firmly in the direct ideas and experiences of Marx and Lenin. Readers interested in our discussion on market socialism and Marxism-Leninism should refer back to China & Market Socialism: A Question of State & Revolution.

Doi Moi, Market Reforms & Socialism in Vietnam

In his 2010 book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon, journalist Bill Hayton argues that despite market reforms, Vietnam remains a patently socialist country. Sympathetic but not apologetic towards Vietnamese society, Hayton is a Western liberal but even he cannot escape the conclusion that Vietnam is decidedly different from the other capitalist countries in Asia. His book may be the most useful and telling study on modern Vietnam available in English, and we will quote it profusely throughout this piece. Unless otherwise denoted, all quotes come from his book.

After the devastation wrought by the US imperialist war against Vietnam and the continued legacy of French colonialism, “the rural economy was in ruins, the north had been bombed back to a pre-industrial age and the war had killed, wounded or displaced millions.” Vietnam’s ravaged infrastructure forced the country to import about “200,000 tonnes of rice just to prevent starvation.” Further adding to the economic problems, Vietnam was drawn into a war against its neighbor, Democratic Kampuchea (DK), after Khmer Rouge troops attacked Vietnamese citizens on the border. This led to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), an ally of the DK, to cut off essential economic aid to Vietnam.

In this context, limited market reforms were implemented to preserve, rather than dismantle, socialism. These reforms strikingly resembled the New Economic Policy (NEP) that Lenin and the Bolsheviks implemented in the Soviet Union in 1921. Under this first set of market reforms, “State-owned enterprises still had to meet their commitments to the central plan – but they were now allowed to buy and sell any surplus independently.” In the agricultural sector, “Farmers could also sell any rice they had left over once they’d supplied their allotted quota.”

Rather than undermining socialism, these reforms actually protected the working class orientation of the Vietnamese economy. Like in the Soviet Union, “some State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) were already trading informally, and even doing business with foreigners, just to pay the bills. By tacitly approving these informal transactions the Party leadership hopes to control them and gradually rein the in.” These initial efforts failed, and illegal trading doubled from 1980 to 1982, creating a similar ‘second economy’ to the one seen in the Soviet Union.

The CPV responded and “tried to get tough” with measures like Decree 25-CP, which ordered “all state firms to register their market trading.” At this point, the CPV introduced the policy of doi moi, which means ‘change to something new’. Doi Moi boosted agricultural output and reduced the country’s rampant inflation, which had “hit almost 500 per cent” in 1987.

Just as Lenin and Stalin saw the NEP as a temporary retreat in order to meet the challenges posed to socialist construction, the CPV used – and continues to use – market reforms to strengthen socialism, and continued control of the economy by the state insures that the fledgling class of business owners never develops an independent class character.

However, the limited scope of these market reforms changed in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. No event had a greater impact on the remaining five socialist countries than the dissolution of the USSR, which was the largest trading partner for four of the five countries. Not unlike Cuba, Vietnam was heavily dependent on Soviet aid, especially following China’s hostility after the war for the liberation of Kampuchea. It is critical to understand that the loss of the USSR as a trading partner forced the CPV to consider the long-term viability of these reforms to insure continued economic growth and prevent the overthrow of socialism in Vietnam. Hayton writes:

“In 1981, aid from the Soviet Union funded about 40 per cent of the Vietnamese state budget. In 1991, it was cut off completely. The Party declared Vietnam open for foreign investment and the combination of low wages, under-used factories and a great geographical location was too tempting for overseas corporations to miss.”

However, this was decidedly different from the counter-revolutions and capitalist restoration wave that swept Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Hayton continues:

“But even at this point, the state remained in control, and foreign investment was directed into joint ventures with state firms. In every other communist country that has embarked on economic transition, the proportion of the economy controlled by the state has fallen. In Vietnam it actually rose: from 39 per cent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2003 – and these figures exclude foreign-invested firms, which were usually joint ventures with SOEs.”

The economic reforms performed their stated purpose and strengthened Vietnamese socialism. With the state taking an increasingly greater role in the economy, Vietnam’s SOEs began to produce at a level that replaced the lost Soviet aid that had devastated the economy a decade earlier. Once again, we quote Hayton:

“But unlike many other countries, state control did not mean economic torpor – growth rocketed to 8 per cent a year. The boom was particularly strong in the south. By the end of the decade, state firms in Ho Chi Minh City contributed about half of the national state budget. In effect Saigon and its surroundings had taken over the role performed by the Soviet Union two decades earlier.”

Vietnam’s involvement in the World Trade Organization is often criticized as a deep concession to international capital, but this view demonstrates a mistaken, ill-informed view of Vietnamese socialism. Although the World Bank and the IMF were allowed to lend to Vietnam starting in 1993, Vietnam resisted taking even the most enticing loans from both since the “country had very little debt and was making enough money from exports and commercial foreign investment not to need cash.”

In 1998, Vietnam was offered more loans by the World Bank in the form of more than $2.7 billion in conditional and unconditional funding “if it [the government] agreed to implement a timetable to sell off the remaining SOEs, restructure the state banking sector and introduce a trade reform programme.” Although the CPV took the deal, they “took no action to implement it” because the “demands were too much for the mainstream of the Party to accept.” Hayton notes that “Over the course of three years, it turned down a total of $1.5 billion because it placed political stability ahead of the promises of economic liberalisation,” political stability meaning the working class orientation of the economy. He says, “Vietnam had gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the mighty institutions from Washington and won.”

Hayton takes exception to the idea that the presence of private businesses and commercial trade makes Vietnam a capitalist country. He argues instead that academic fixation on “the froth of petty trading is distracting.” He writes:

“Vietnam has not developed in the way it has – balancing rocketing economic growth with one of the most impressive reductions in poverty anywhere, ever – by completely liberalizing the economy. Yes, restrictions on private enterprise have been lifted, markets have been allowed to flourish and foreign investment has been encouraged – but Vietnam’s success if far from being a triumph of World Bank orthodoxy. Some might snicker at the official description of a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’ but it’s not an empty slogan. Even today, the Communist Party retains control over most of the economy: either directly through state-owned enterprises which monopolise key strategic sectors, through joint ventures between the state sector and foreign investors, or increasingly, through the elite networks which bind the Party to the new private sector.”

We cannot fully understand the importance of these market reforms without comparing Vietnam’s experience to that of the USSR. In their book, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny meticulously detail how the growth of the ‘second economy’, or black market, in the Soviet Union materially undermined socialism and led to its overthrow in 1991. They point out that the short-lived ascension of Yuri Andropov as the General Secretary of the CPSU could have led to a crackdown on the black market economic relations that had developed in the Soviet Union, but his premature death led to the ascension of forces within the Party who had grown to accept and profit from the ‘second economy’. These forces, embodied in Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, unleashed a wave of counter-revolution in the Soviet Union that led to the dissolution of socialism.

In Vietnam, the gradual implementation of market reforms allowed the CPV to insure the continued dominance of the socialist state over the private sector. Additionally, it forced ‘second economy’ enterprises to emerge from the black market and placed them under control of the state. The Enterprise Law of 1999, for instance, led to 160,000 enterprises registering with the government, most of which were “existing businesses which had been operating without licenses and took advantage of the new law to register.”

Socialist Market Economies vs. Capitalist Market Economies

The fundamental difference between a socialist market economy and a capitalist market economy is the role of the state. As Lenin describes in State and Revolution, the state is an instrument of class rule. It does not exist above class, but is wielded by one class to dominate another. In the US and the capitalist countries in Western Europe, state intervention and regulation in the economy is wielded by and in the interests of the capitalist class.

However, in a socialist market economy, the state is controlled by workers and dominates the private sector. It allows it to flourish only to the degree that it helps in the economic development of the whole country and serves the greater class interests of the working class and peasantry. The vast majority of businesses and companies are not independent of the government and are instead dominated by the workers state. Hayton describes this in Vietnam specifically:

“There are bigger private firms but they’re few in number. Although 350 companies are now listed on the country’s two stock exchanges, 99 per cent of the country’s businesses are still small or medium sized. In 2005 there were just 22 domestic privately owned firms among the top 200 companies and…’private’ is a debatable term.”

Even in the realm of foreign investment, the Vietnamese state dominates international capital ventures, rather than the other way around. In addition to its rebuke of the World Bank and IMF privatization policies, Hayton points out:

“The foreign-invested sector is a highly visible part of the economy, employing millions of people and providing plenty of tax revenue, but it doesn’t dominate the commanding heights. They are still, in theory at least, controlled by the state. In 2005, 122 of the 200 biggest firms in Vietnam were state-owned. The figure has changed only marginally since then, although some privately owned banks are now marching up the league. For the Party, a strong state sector is the way it can maintain national independence in an era of globalisation. It means the Party can still set the big goals – like its decision, in December 2006, to develop the country’s ‘maritime economy’ – a catch-all concept covering everything from oil to dish and ships. It is also determined to maintain high degrees of state control over strategically important sectors such as natural resources, transport, finance, infrastructure, defence and communications.”

Workers overwhelmingly support these policies as well, even those employed in joint enterprises with foreign firms. Hayton quotes Vu Thi Tham, a shoe production line worker, who noted that the work provided higher income and a better way of life “than being a peasant.” She said, “It’s OK. I’m working here because the income is stable. Before I was a farmer and my income depended on the weather. If it was good, I could make good money. But if it was bad, I couldn’t. Even in good times I could only make $30 per month but working here I can make $60 or more if I do overtime.”

Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam

None of this is to say that the introduction of market reforms has not brought negative effects associated with capitalist markets to Vietnam, but the overall orientation of the state and the economy is still in the class interests of the workers and peasants. Hayton writes, “Growth is vital, but not at the expense of creating too much inequality.” He continues by saying, “The beneficiaries have been the peasants and proletarians.” For instance, poverty in Vietnam dropped from 60% to less than 20% between 1993 and 2004, according to government data. In 2010, the government reported that poverty had dropped to a mere 9.45%, further demonstrating the positive effects of Vietnamese market socialism on the people.

Like most socialist countries, Vietnam has eliminated illiteracy and significantly reduced its infant mortality rate, corresponding to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The state continues to have guaranteed employment, which it’s able to achieve efficiently through the market reforms.

In a March 2011 article for Direct Action, Hamish Chitts notes the overall impact that these policies have had on the economy in raising the overall population out of poverty and underdevelopment. Chitts writes:

“According to World Bank figures, Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita (measured in current US dollars) has grown from $239 in 1985 to $1155 in 2010. The government has ensured that this growth benefits the people. Vietnam has made impressive progress, reducing the poverty rate from 70% in 1990 to 22% in 2005.”

Much like China, market reforms have brought forth contradictions in health care and education, which are no longer purely administered through public channels. A May 4, 2005 article by Michael Karadjis writing for GreenLeft notes that, “Following the Soviet collapse, Vietnam introduced small fees for education and health.” Although Karadjis calls this a “blow against socialist fundamentals,” he also acknowledges that it “was forced by necessity” because  ”Vietnam’s per capita GDP had dropped to $78 by 1990.”

Nevertheless, health care in Vietnam is planned and administered by provincial people’s committees, according to Chitts, and 100% of rural communes now have health workers, demonstrating the CPV’s prioritization of insuring health care access for rural areas.

Further highlighting Vietnam’s socialist character, Karadjis notes that the government – as a part of the Poverty Alleviation and Hunger Elimination Program, launched in 2001 - ”builds schools, health centres, clean water systems and roads in remote areas, delivers free healthcare and education, and delivers a large amount of subsidised, low-interest collateral-free credit to the poor, to help them set up or improve small household businesses in farming, handicrafts and the like.”

Of the inequalities brought about as a result of market reforms, Chitts describes the changing productive forces that allow Vietnamese socialism to both survive and prosper, which lays the material basis for providing these services on an increasingly widening mass basis. He says:

“While doi moi has introduced some inequity through “user pays” systems for essential social services, this has always been alleviated as much as possible at every level. As the productive forces grow, more is available to improve people’s lives. Without doi moi, millions of people would have been condemned to poverty and disease. If it had ignored the objective reality of Vietnam, the government would have brought about what the French, US and allies like Australia could not achieve by 30 years of brutal war – the defeat of socialism in Vietnam. Instead the CPV and the people continue to build a stronger base for socialism in Vietnam and by example a stronger base for socialism internationally in the 21st century.”

The market reforms in Vietnam were essential measures designed to cope with the difficult task of socialist construction for a poor country in a post-Soviet world. They allow the revolution to move forward and continue revolutionizing the productive forces so the state can more adequately meet the needs and demands of the people.

For all of its shortcomings, socialism perseveres in Vietnam and deserves recognition for its achievements. The aforementioned article by Karadjis compares Vietnam’s economic performance with comparably impoverished nations. He writes:

“Vietnam is a “low income” country (US$430 per capita GDP), but its educational and health indicators are on par with, or better than, “middle income” countries such as Thailand ($2000 GDP per capita), China and the Philippines, and far above those of similarly poor countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania.”

Karadjis goes on to note that “Primary school enrollment rose from 88% to 95% between 1990 and 2001,” despite an enrollment decline in the overall East Asia and Pacific region in the same period. Secondary school enrollment is up, class sizes are down, and the nominal fees associated with school – mostly for supplies – are waived for poorer families.

In the realm of health care, Vietnam “cut child mortality to 23 per 10,000 live births, and infant mortality to 19, lower than Thailand, China and the Philippines, and dramatically lower than India and Indonesia,” according to Karadjis. Vietnam’s life expectancy outstrips comparably poor countries in the region and ranks equivalent to wealthier East Asian countries, like Thailand. The country’s elaborate health care infrastructure insures access to medical care for even the most rural citizens, and ethnic minorities, the poor, and children pay nothing for health care.

Even amid the world economic meltdown of developed capitalist nations like the US, Vietnam maintains a 2.29% unemployment rate. Unemployment that low indicates only frictional unemployment for workers who are going between jobs, meaning that Vietnam is essentially able to employ all of its people.

Though these observations of Vietnamese social programs are an important aspect of evaluating the orientation of the state and the economy, they are by no means the only determinant. We will now examine the relationship between the Vietnamese state and the most basic economic organization of the working class: the trade union.

Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam

Union workers in Vietnam celebrating Workers Month.

On the subject of trade unions, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) plays a vital role in representing workers’ day-to-day needs and grievances, but it also acts as their representative on larger legislative matters. Cynical critics claim that trade unions in socialist countries act as rubber stamps on government initiatives, but Simon Clarke and Tim Pringle of the University of Warwick, UK, find that the opposite is usually true. Writing in a comparison study between trade unions in Vietnam and China entitled ‘Can party-led trade unions represent their members?’, Clarke and Pringle find:

“Until 2007 VGCL was directly involved in drafting all labour legislation, and it continues to have the statutory right of consultation. Over the past five years VGCL has taken an increasingly independent position in pressing its own views on the government, most notably in criticising the inadequacy of government enforcement of labour legislation, in pressing for increases in the minimum wage and in insisting on the retention of the right to strike in the 2006 revision of the Labour Code.”

Contrary to propaganda put out by the Western media (and gobbled up by misguided leftist critics), strikes are legal in Vietnam, though there is a formal legal procedure required for launching strikes. However, most strikes in Vietnam, like China, are not necessarily legal but are also not interrupted or broken up by the government. Clarke and Pringle write:

“Faced with growing industrial unrest the trade union and the party-state are forced back into a fire-fighting role. In Vietnam the local office of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MOLISA) generally takes the lead, persuading the management to meet the workers’ demands, at least to the extent that the strike has been provoked by legal violations, while the local VGCL representative encourages the workers to return to work before the strike spreads to neighbouring enterprises. The police will also be called to maintain order as the workers spill out onto the streets. It is rare for there to be any police action against strikers, although strike leaders, if identified, may subsequently be victimised by the employer.”

Strikes, even unauthorized strikes, function as critical pulse-checker for mass sentiment and economic conditions faced by workers, and they usually provoke new pro-worker legislation by the Party. In this sense, the true class nature of the Vietnamese state is revealed as proletarian. After all, if the state steps in to mediate and force concessions from management, the duration of the strike will naturally shorten. We look again to Clarke and Pringle’s findings:

“The strikes in the new booming capitalist industries in both China and Vietnam have been steadily increasing in scale and extent, so that ‘collective bargaining by riot’ (Hobsbawm 1964, pp. 6 –7) has become the normal method by which workers defend their rights and interests. Workers have developed a very good idea of what they can get away with and how far they can go, so that short sharp strikes and protests have become an extremely prompt and effective way of redressing their grievances.”

Indeed, this unravels the criticism levied against socialist countries by many leftist critics, who focus on the legal limitations on strikes rather than the outcome of unauthorized strikes and other forms of worker activism. For the last time, we quote Clarke and Pringle’s conclusion:

“The limitation of the right to strike has been by no means as significant a factor as the absence of freedom of association in inhibiting worker activism and the reform of the trade unions in China and Vietnam. The important issue is not so much whether or not a strike is legal as whether or not it is effective. In China and Vietnam strikes have proved to be an extremely effective method for workers to achieve their immediate demands, as the authorities refrain from repressing strikers for fear of exacerbating the situation and press employers immediately to meet the workers’ demands, to prevent the strike from spreading.”

Anytime strikes take place in socialist countries, leftist critics are quick to argue that this inherently demonstrates the antagonistic interests of the state and the workers. Time and time again, they blur the real issue at play, which is that the workers demands are almost always met by the state. This, in fact, highlights the importance of the concept of ‘actually existing socialism’.

For some leftist critics, there should be no class struggle under socialism. Every worker should be in a state of perpetual bliss, according to their view, because any evidence of poor working conditions or exploitation – usually from foreign companies – is evidence that the country in question is not socialist. Socialism is a complete end; a utopia. Intrinsically, this is an idealist conception of socialism that will never manifest itself in reality, ever.

Socialism is only as valuable as it actually exists in the material world, hence ‘actually existing socialism’. Class struggle continues because of the necessary measures taken to improve the lives of oppressed people; measures that often bring many unsavory, and indeed capitalist, contradictions. This struggle, however, does not disprove the existence of socialism. In actuality, it confirms its existence.

We learn about the essential class character of the state when looking at its overall orientation. A capitalist state does not mediate disputes between trade unions and management in favor of the workers. Strikes are short in capitalist countries because they are repressed with force. The capitalist state doesn’t allow trade unions to sit in the pilot’s seat in drafting labor law.

But all of these things happen in Vietnam. When looking at the class orientation of the state, it defies all logic and evidence – and if these Western leftist critics were honest with themselves, it defies their own experience with capitalist states – to claim that Vietnam is a capitalist country.

Market Reforms as a Mass Demand

There is a misunderstanding of market reforms as a purely top-down phenomenon, rather than an actual demand of the masses in Vietnam. While many of the policies were crafted by the CPV – itself made up predominantly of workers and peasants – many emerged as actual mass demands raised from villages and cities. In Saigon, for instance, urban workers began renovating their own homes and creating their own food production centers to meet demands where the crisis-stricken state economy could not. Although these economic changes were technically illegal, the Vietnamese state had no interest on cracking down on them because they strengthened, rather than weakened, socialism. Hayton notes:

“The houses and livelihoods were illegal, but if the state had enforced the law the result woul have been mass destitution and instability. Instead, households and state reached a compromise which was both pragmatic and tasty. In 1989, as state-owned enterprises and the military laid off a million and a half people, the streets were ‘opened’ and Vietnam’s street-food revolution began. Women led the way. They took control of the means of production: a charcoal burner, a large pot and a few wooden (later plastic) stools, and began to support themselves and their families by selling tea, pho noodle soup, bun cha mini kebabs on noodles, lau stew and all the other homemade delights for which Vietnamese food has now become justly famous. Previous petty trading would have been quickly, and literally, stamped out. Now, a change in police behavior made it obvious that they’d been told to leave the women alone.”

Economic market reforms benefited urban workers, particularly women, by allowing them to meet demands that were going unmet because of the period of crisis brought on by declining aid.

Many detractors from the left view market reforms simply from the perspective of the top leaders in the CPV and view it as a policy concocted by the Party bureaucracy to make more money. As the experience of Saigon in the late 80s demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

Actually existing socialism finds itself within the confines of a world dominated by imperialism. After the Sino-Soviet split and the fall of the Soviet Union, the continued improvement of material conditions for the masses was compromised, and despite its best efforts, the state could not continue to provide services at the same level that they were before.

Ever the innovative animus of society, the masses pushed for many of these market reforms to meet their own needs directly. Women in particular led this charge in the late 80s, and the state respected their act of civil disobedience. This demonstrates the unity of class interests between the masses and the state, which are both oriented towards the working class in Vietnam. Therein is the essence of actually existing socialism.

‘Let A Thousand Flowers Blossom’: Protest & the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh & Mao Zedong meeting together

The Right relies on the image of socialist countries as totalitarian to fuel its propaganda war against Marxism-Leninism. Even left anti-communists – most commonly in the form of Trotskyites and anarchists – frequently argue that existing socialist countries stifle dissent and that this makes them categorically not socialist.

Leaving aside the peculiar reading of socialism as a question of bourgeois civil rights, these criticisms have no basis in actual fact. Protest and criticism play an important role in actually existing socialism, albeit a role very different from that under capitalism. Nowhere is the vibrancy and dynamism of protest and criticism-self-criticism seen more prominently than in Vietnam.

In an article for Asia Sentinel called “Vietnam’s Not-So-Rare Protests,” reporter David Brown describes the frequent protests that take place in Vietnam on all manner of issues. He begins by quoting Article 69 and 79 of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which enshrine the right of the people to free speech and assembly, but also reinforce the demand of the people to enforce and obey the law. Protests are frequent in Vietnam, despite what the Left and Right detractors claim. Brown writes:

“Invariably AFP, Reuters and the Associated Press, etc. describe these demonstrations as “rare.” The wires are wrong. Though a recent informal poll of academic Vietnam specialists failed to turn up anyone who’s been keeping careful count, a consensus readily formed that public protests have become relatively common in Vietnam.”

The state has a dialectical understanding of these two constitutional articles that follows in the tradition of Mao Zedong’s “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” in which protests and demonstrations that emerge from real demands of the masses – rather than hopes of capitalist restoration and counter-revolutionary efforts – should be encouraged, promoted, and respected. Mao writes:

“People may ask, since Marxism is accepted as the guiding ideology by the majority of the people in our country, can it be criticized? Certainly it can. Marxism is scientific truth and fears no criticism. If it did, and if it could be overthrown by criticism, it would be worthless. In fact, aren’t the idealists criticizing Marxism every day and in every way? And those who harbour bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas and do not wish to change — aren’t they also criticizing Marxism in every way? Marxists should not be afraid of criticism from any quarter. Quite the contrary, they need to temper and develop themselves and win new positions in the teeth of criticism and in the storm and stress of struggle. Fighting against wrong ideas is like being vaccinated — a man develops greater immunity from disease as a result of vaccination. Plants raised in hothouses are unlikely to be hardy. Carrying out the policy of letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend will not weaken, but strengthen, the leading position of Marxism in the ideological field.”

We find evidence of the CPV’s attitudes towards principled criticism and dissent by the country’s working masses in the Party’s recent announcement to consider legalizing same-sex marriage. The Vietnamese Justice Ministry announced plans to include same-sex marriage in a new marriage reform law proposed in July 2012, according to the Huffington Post. While this move has raised the cynical ire of Vietnamese ex-pats in the US, it comes in response to the growing gay rights movement in Vietnam and the re-evaluation of the gay question by Marxist-Leninist ruling parties all over the world. If this proposal becomes law, Vietnam will become the first socialist country and the first Asian country – and only the 12th country in the world – to fully legalize same-sex marriage.

Indeed, an AFP article from August 5, 2012, describes the first gay pride parade in Hanoi that followed the Justice Ministry’s announcement. Though small, the activists and organizers faced no repression from the state and feel tremendous support from Vietnamese society in publicly demonstrating for gay rights. We quote a brief excerpt from the article:

“The first gay pride parade in communist Vietnam took place in the capital Hanoi on Sunday with dozens of cyclists displaying balloons and rainbow flags streaming through the city’s streets.

Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists despite their lack of official permission.

“There was no intervention which is a good thing for Vietnam,” said one of the organisers, Tam Nguyen.”

Whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized is still on the table, but the issue highlights the relationship between the Party and the masses. Protests that strengthen socialism and the position of the masses are allowed and supported.

However, the other side of this is the dealing of non-Marxist criticisms and dissent. In the same work, Mao writes, “What should our policy be towards non-Marxist ideas? As far as unmistakable counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech.” This is the protective function of the dictatorship of the proletariat - the class power of the workers to crush agents of imperialism, wreckers, and counter-revolutionaries.

Evidence of the dictatorship of the proletariat abounds in Vietnam. During a series of small-scale political dissent between 2006 and 2007, the Vietnamese state took measures to distinguish between criticism directed at improving socialism – in other words, criticism that came from a desire for unity – and criticism designed at undermining the workers’ power. Hayton writes:

“The events of 2006-7 seem to have generated a new modus vivendibetween the dissidents and the security forces. The dissidents who were arrested and jailed were not those who simply held dissident thoughts or even wrote about them online. They transgressed the Party’s limits of tolerance in much more significant ways – in particular by breaking its monopoly of political organisation with independent parties and trade unions. They were also involved at a much deeper level with activists based outside Vietnam, they took money from anti-communists overseas and they tried to take their message to the people in the offline world – in the universities, factories and streets of Vietnam.“

Indeed, the only protest and dissent that is dealt with harshly in Vietnam and repressed is that which is instigated from abroad for the purpose of undermining socialism. “Dissidents who did not do these things – the majority of signatories of the original Manifesto – may have been harassed or questioned by the police but they were not jailed,” according to Hayton.

This too follows along in the political tradition of Mao, who writes later in the same work:

“There are also a small number of individuals in our society who, flouting the public interest, wilfully break the law and commit crimes. They are apt to take advantage of our policies and distort them, and deliberately put forward unreasonable demands in order to incite the masses, or deliberately spread rumours to create trouble and disrupt public order. We do not propose to let these individuals have their way. On the contrary, proper legal action must be taken against them. Punishing them is the demand of the masses, and it would run counter to the popular will if they were not punished.”

The dissidents that receive the bulk of attention in the West are those who seek to restore capitalism in Vietnam, like the Bloc 8406 that gained notoriety in 2006. Hayton dedicates a substantial part of his book to describing the rise and fall of this so-called movement and why it failed to gain any substantial traction. Even liberal estimates put the Bloc’s membership at “around 2,000 open supporters within the country – about one in 40,000 of the Vietnamese population.” The US and European media praised this pathetic movement that lacked any mass base as a reform wave in the vein of Solidarity, which was the CIA front that overthrew the People’s Republic of Poland. Hayton dismisses the comparison on its face:

“Their [Bloc 8406's] idealistic comparisons with Poland and Solidarity were misplaced. In the 1980s, Poland’s economy was stagnant. Vietnam’s is growing; Solidarity had the backing of the Catholic Church but there is no equivalent mass support in Vietnam and the activists were not the same either – not so much shipyard trade unionists as capital-city lawyers. They didn’t have the same community roots. The parallels are less with Poland than with Czechoslovakia. The Czech dissident movement, the group known as Charter 77, comprised outspoken intellectuals who remained isolated and unknown by the mass of the population until the Party leadership finally cracked in 1989.”

Idealist leftists who attack Vietnam and other socialist countries often look to dissent movements as evidence of the state’s oppressive nature, but in doing so, they ignore the severe degree of isolation these dissidents face from the masses, who overwhelmingly support the Vietnamese government.

Furthermore, they ignore the blatantly imperialist, anti-socialist, and downright illegal practices and beliefs of these ‘opposition groups’. One of Bloc 8406′s ‘largest’ constituency groups was a small, bizarre faction mistakenly called the Vietnamese National Progressive Party (VNPP). Hayton describes their call for independent trade unions ‘opportunistic’ because  their “interim platform had little to say on workers rights. Indeed, the only thing it had to say on economic matters was that it would ‘Re-establish and exercise the full and legitimate right of the Vietnamese People to private ownership,’ which suggests that it might have been more favorable to the interests of the owners of capital than to those of the proletariat.”

While not all protests and calls for reform are anti-communist and pro-imperialist in socialist countries, these groups are often organized and supported by the US and Western Europe to push a pro-capitalist agenda. That these groups only face repression when they actively organize is a testament to the level of dissent and debate allowed in a country like Vietnam. Hayton sums up the relationship between the Vietnamese state and the so-called dissident movements nicely:

“The authorities’ paranoia is not entirely misplaced. Various US-based zealots have periodically hatched hare-brained plans to instigate uprisings in Vietnam. Their plans have underestimated both the security forces’ degree of control and the allegiance the vast majority of Vietnamese have to their country. Most people are, in fact, relatively pleased with their improving lot and quite happy to be loyal citizens of the Socialist Republic.But from their [foreign-based dissidents] faraway vantage point, the exiles convince themselves that this must be the result of propaganda and that if only they could break its stranglehold on the media, the Communist Party would be overthrown.”

What many leftist critics cannot seem to grasp is that the masses rule in socialist countries like Vietnam. Like these out-of-touch foreign dissidents, they convince themselves that the propaganda they hear is correct and they focus purely on the cosmetic changes in Vietnamese society. Yes, there is a private sector. Yes, there is state repression of some dissent. But by failing to properly contextualize these facts, they obfuscate the real class nature of Vietnam, which is ruled by and oriented towards the working class.

What Does Actually Existing Socialism Mean for Socialists in the US?

Market socialism is imperfect and certainly unorthodox. Some may call it revisionist. The important point is to contextualize these shortcomings and flaws so we can understand where they come from. Actually existing socialism will always fall short of the socialist ideal because it is precisely that ideal implemented within the confines of reality. The objective conditions limit the subjective conditions that revolutionaries can create, and Vietnam’s objective conditions became a lot more difficult after 1991.

Nevertheless, socialism continues to exist and prosper in Vietnam. For the student of Marx, the defects and inequalities still present in Vietnamese society should trigger Marx’s own words in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, in which he describes the ‘lower’ stage of socialism:

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

Vietnam was a colonized, oppressed nation that was forcibly partitioned by the Western imperialist powers. After its partition, the nation suffered a vicious onslaught by the US military over fifteen years, and against all odds, the Vietnamese people defeated imperialism. Beaten and battered, but not broken, the CPV led the nation forward out of multiple economic crises to establish a better, more democratic society ruled by the working class.

The reality of the fall of the Soviet Union, the continued impact of the Vietnam War (Agent Orange, in particular), and their encirclement by imperialist powers forced the Vietnamese revolution to make some tactical, strategic retreats into market reforms. With these reforms, Vietnam has maintained the structural integrity of class-based socialism and improved living conditions for its almost 88 million people.

For socialists in the US, defending Vietnamese socialism is very important. Vietnam represents continued defiance of imperialism, and it exists as a symbol of hope that another – better – world is possible. Although Vietnam remains a poor country and its example is not as dynamically inspirational as the USSR in the 1920s or China in the 1960s, socialists in the US should use the experience of Vietnam when explaining the positive aspects of government by and for workers, i.e. socialism.

At a time when trade unions in the US are facing extermination by right-wing state governors, corporate handouts are disguised as ‘health care reform’, and public education funding gets slashed to the bone, actually existing socialism in Vietnam provides a powerful what-if for workers to consider.

Long live the Vietnamese revolution!

 

Three Positions on Gun Control

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The following article below was originally published by the Return to the Source news blog: 

December 19, 2012

Armed Black Panther members of the Seattle chapter on the steps of the Legislative Building.

People across the United States are mourning the ghoulish mass murder that took place on Friday, December 14, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The victims – 20 children as young as six years old and six adults – were murdered by 20 year old Adam Lanza.

The horrific tragedy in Connecticut immediately ignited fierce debate on the merits of gun control, but predictably neither side is interested in examining the issue from a class-based perspective. The usual suspects representing the traditional political trends in America, led by different sections of the capitalist class, jumped feet-first into the discussion espousing the positions that people in the US have come to expect.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama came out in support of reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired under President George W. Bush in 2004. Though Lanza acquired his murder weapons by stealing them from his mother, rather than purchasing them, the President argues that reducing access to assault weapons will prevent future tragedies like the killings in Newtown, Connecticut, from taking place.

On the other side, we find the right-wing gun proponents. For them, not even the most heinous tragedy can shake their determination to uphold the Second Amendment for the capitalist class. Whereas liberals want to limit gun ownership to the state, the right-wing prefers to have armed bands of vigilantes and militias, who can be counted on to repress workers and oppressed nationalities if the conditions call for it. They hypocritically defend the right to bear arms for themselves while turning a blind eye to the already-existing gun control regulations on oppressed people in the US.

After observing the stances of comrades taking part in the debate, we felt it might be helpful to identify and materially analyze the competing positions of the gun control question. For the purposes of this piece, we hope to present some historical examples to better prepare comrades for discussions in the workplaces and the community.

Most of all, we hope to refute both the liberal position calling for greater restrictions on firearms and the crypto-right-wing position extolling the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. In its place, we arrive at and examine the Marxist position on the right to bear arms.

The Liberal Position

The “pro-gun control” forces, who have traditionally opposed to the Republican Party’s Second Amendment support and the expansion of firearms across the US, have found themselves languishing for many years. The Democratic Party has all but abandoned the position out of political opportunism. The pro-gun control position has found new life in the corporate media and the mind of liberal supporters in the US following the recent wave of mass shootings, like in Connecticut.

Rest assured, this “pro-gun control” position is put forward by other sections of the capitalist class in the Democratic Party, supported broadly by white middle class liberals. However, it also has some material support in oppressed nations affected most heavily by gun violence. Groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence articulate this position as follows:

“We should make it harder for convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and others like them to get guns in the first place. We can do this by passing laws such as requiring Brady criminal background checks on all gun sales; banning military-style assault weapons; and strengthening law enforcement’s efforts to stop the illegal gun market, like limiting the number of guns that can be bought at one time.” (1)

The capitalist class and the white middle class in the large cities in the North, West, and Midwest that live in more constricted confines with the working class and oppressed nations push forward this “law and order” gun control policy. Indeed, the US government already has massive gun control measures in place, especially in the major cities like New York and Chicago and states across the nation, which represent the extreme end of this policy, where it’s practically unheard of for average citizens to own firearms legally.

These measures don’t restrict mass murderers like Jared Lee Loughner – the shooter in Arizona last year – or Neo-Nazis like Wade Michael Page, who murdered six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin this summer, from acquiring firearms. Instead, they largely restrict the rights of oppressed people who face violence from vigilantes or police from owning guns.

It is no surprise then that billionaire Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg and his coalition, “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” are quickly becoming the leading force advancing this agenda. Principally, they support gun control for the same reason the Republican opposed gun control: they are afraid of oppressed nationalities. We quote the website of “Mayors Against Illegal Guns”:

“We support the Second Amendment and the rights of citizens to own guns. We recognize the vast majority of gun dealers and gun owners carefully follow the law…But what binds us together is a determination to fight crime, and a belief that we can do more to stop criminals from getting guns while also protecting the rights of citizens to freely own them.” (2)

This is a common theme among the liberal gun control advocates: a heavy focus on “crime” and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, especially in big cities. This position cannot be divorced from the war on drugs and the war on Black and Latino youth, who find themselves disportionately criminalized and imprisoned. Capitalist leaders like Mayor Bloomberg in no way seek to limit the violence visited on working class and oppressed communities. Remember that Bloomberg is responsible for spearheading the blatantly racist “stop and frisk” policies carried out by the NYPD. (3) The NAACP has said of these policies: “Bloomberg’s massive street-level racial profiling program is a civil rights and human rights catastrophe that both hurts our children and makes our communities less safe.” (4)

Are we to trust the liberals like Bloomberg, chiefly responsible and complicit in waging the war on black and brown communities, with ending gun violence with new criminal restrictions? Are we to trust the racist criminal justice system and groups like the NYPD whom Bloomberg has called “his army, the 7th largest in the world?” (5)

It is no coincidence that liberal bourgeoisie like Bloomberg are silent about gun control for their “private army” when it comes to police violence and murder committed by police, like in the case of unarmed 17 year old Ramarley Graham in New York City. (6)

The gun control policies of Bloomberg and reactionary allies, like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, are efforts to extend national oppression and the capitalist monopoly on violence, especially over Black and Latino communities. This also serves to keep the working class and discontented elements of society passive in the face of foreclosures, austerity, voter suppression, legislative attacks like Right-to-Work initiatives, and efforts to use state repression to silence social movements like Occupy Wall Street and trade union protesters in Michigan. After all, unarmed protesters are entirely at the mercy of the capitalist class’ “personal army,” leaving them subject to violent repression at protests or on picket lines.

It is only natural that these forces support such measures to strip oppressed nationalities and workers from their democratic rights to bear arms: They have their own arms, their own personal security, their own “personal armies”, their police, their courts, their prisons; in other words, the “special bodies of armed men” talked of by Lenin in State & Revolution. They live in gated communities and mansions, while most Black and Latino people live in occupied territory not unlike occupied Afghanistan. The agenda of the liberal Democrats is to strengthen the apparatus of state repression – to increase arms and weapons in the hands of their “personal army” – while keeping guns out of the hands of “criminals” and other “undesirable elements”. This agenda is reflected in the expansion of billions of dollars in state funding to arm police with military hardware to the tune of $34 billion dollars over the past decade. (7)

There seems to be no talk of gun control or preventing gun violence when it comes to the army of the capitalist class. There’s no talk of assault weapon bans for the police, who are upgrading to tanks in many cities! (8)

Middle class white liberals who live in gated communities, or the “nice” sections of town also don’t have the same worries as our class and our allies. They want to strip “the common rabble” and criminals of their means of self-defense. After all, the police and the ruling class of the United States are their friends. They’re not the ones getting imprisoned, stopped and frisked, or having their homes foreclosed on.

However, comrades cannot ignore that gun violence does have a disproportionate and devastating impact in the communities of oppressed people and working class communities. African-Americans are the victim of 54% of all firearm homicides, despite making up just 13% of the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (9) It’s no surprise that gun-related violence disproportionately occurs in the US South, the historical home of Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan terrorism against Black and Latino people, according to Zara Matheson at the Martin Prosperity Institute. (10) This provides some material appeal to elements of the oppressed nations in regards to these gun control policy.

Still, comrades should combat this wolf in sheep’s clothing. The enforcers of this violence are the American capitalist class and white supremacist forces that work to uphold the established order. Trusting them to end violence in the oppressed communities with gun control is the equivalent to entrusting the United States to help Syria and Libya with “humanitarian intervention.”

Malcolm X understood the nature of violence by the US government and police, as well as the need for African-Americans to defend themselves from these attacks. We quote him at some length:

“Last but not least, I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. White people been buying rifles all their lives…no commotion. The only thing I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the Constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks, although you’d be within your rights – I mean, you’d be justified; but that would be illegal and we don’t do anything illegal. If the white man doesn’t want the black man buying rifles and shotguns, then let the government do its job.” (11)

There’s a reason that the Sanford police covered up the shooting of Trayvon Martin this past February, and it was only after massive protests that his killer, George Zimmerman, was arrested. Across this country, the system of white supremacy is reinforced by the underlying threat of violence, whether it comes from police brutality or vigilante terrorism. The response is not to buckle to the pressures of liberals, who trust the very purveyors of violence to protect oppressed people, but for oppressed people to have the ability to defend themselves.

Sensible policy on guns for working class and oppressed people in America can only come from a Marxist position. But to do that, we must first analyze and pull apart the muddled position carried by the advanced, progressives, and some of our comrades.

The Left-Second Amendment Position

In response to the liberal gun control proposals, many people on the US Left embrace a position similar to that espoused by the Right. This “Left-Second Amendment” position unites with the views put forth by the National Rifle Association by dismissing guns as incidental to mass murders like yesterday’s tragedy in Connecticut. In this view, something else – an external cause like mental health or the culture of violence in the US – is chiefly to blame.

This is not incorrect. The US is an incredibly violent society, with the greatest purveyor of violence being the US government itself – and that’s not our opinion; that’s the opinion of Martin Luther King Junior, who used those exact words to describe the government on April 4, 1967. We see the evidence of this ‘cultural violence’ everywhere, from movies like Act of Valor, financed by the US military to glorify violence committed against other countries, to police violence inflicted on children and the innocent, like we saw in Anaheim, California, this year.

Along the same lines, mental health services in the US are stigmatized and woefully underfunded. It’s no coincidence that many of the perpetrators of these mass killings have had severe mental health crises; crises that were more often than not identified but not adequately treated.

The Left-Second Amendment position boils down to the pressing concern over the state having a monopoly on violence. When we look back in history, oppressed people have never won their freedom without armed struggle. In many cases, the lack of an armed populace has led directly to the rise of brutal fascist regimes, like in Chile and Spain. In 1973, the workers in Chile were underprepared to defeat the fascist coup d’etat that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende because of the government’s refusal to arm the people. During the Spanish Civil War almost four decades earlier, the social democratic government was similarly reluctant to arm the workers to resist Franco’s fascist brigades. And of course everyone knows of Adolf Hitler’s infamous ban on citizens owning guns after the rise of the Nazis.

In essence, many leftists view guns as a means of self-defense for oppressed people and a safeguard against fascism. This leads them to oppose gun control measures, i.e. the liberal position on gun control.

However, the Left-Second Amendment position mistakenly adopts the Right’s view of the right to bear arms as a philosophical abstraction, rather than a material reality. In practice, the Constitution does not protect the rights of oppressed people to bear arms. Even the most vocal advocates of the Second Amendment have no objection to regulations on firearm ownership by the people who need it most to defend their class and national interests from right-wing vigilantes and state power.

The Left-Second Amendment position rests on two incorrect assumptions. First, it implicitly assumes that gun ownership is not already heavily regulated and restricted for oppressed people. And second, it assumes that the US government would ever totally restrict the ownership of firearms, which leads these leftists to vocally oppose gun control measures.

We will begin with the first assumption.

Consider the following: In 1967, there was a major legal battle going on in California against a Governor bent on abridging “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” The Governor and his party brought out all of the pro-gun control arguments about dangerous vigilantes running loose with weapons, saying that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” (11) As it would today, the Governor’s gun control policies led to massive demonstrations of armed people marching on the Capitol.

Yes, in 1967, California Governor Ronald Reagan – future right-wing President of the United States and darling of the National Rifle Association – signed the Mulford Act in direct response to the protests and actions of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Act banned the open-carry of loaded firearms in California, which the Panthers used to intimidate racist police officers and thereby prevent police brutality in black neighborhoods. Open-carry meant that the Panthers could defend the black community, and they rarely had to fire a single shot.

There was no talk of “a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” The white Second Amendment advocates we see today were not out in the streets marching with the Panthers against “encroaching tyranny.” Reagan banned the use of guns in a meaningful way by oppressed people because it was a direct threat to police dominance and white supremacy in California.

Historically, the Second Amendment has never defended the right of oppressed people to bear arms. An integral component of the state “Black codes” that were implemented at the end of Reconstruction was the denial of the gun ownership to African-Americans. This Jim Crow-era policy of national oppression extends into the 21st century through the racist “War on Drugs” and the disenfranchisement of Blacks and Latinos.

Remember that the US takes away the second amendment “right” of non-violent felons. By prosecuting the war on drugs, a disproportionate amount of Black men – 1 in 8, according to the Huffington Post – have no right to bear arms because of convicted felon status. (12) Similarly, Latinos comprise a disproportionate percentage of all convicted felons – “disenfranchised at a rate higher than whites, but lower than blacks.” (13) Through convicted felon status, the US government takes away the right to bear arms disproportionately from the African-American and Chican@ nations, allowing the state to more heavily occupy their territory through police.

Onto the second assumption:

The US government has no interest in repealing the second amendment or outright banning guns across the board. They already have ways of restricting the right of oppressed people to bear arms. For everyone else – especially white males – it’s the Wild, Wild West.

When the country was experiencing revolutionary upheavals during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, armed bands of white reactionaries used their second amendment ‘right to bear arms’ to attack and repress African-Americans struggling for more freedom. Striking trade unionists faced the same repression from both police and company-hired thugs on the picket lines in the 1930s and 1940s. In both cases, oppressed people and workers exercised their right to bear arms against and in opposition to the rights of an oppressor to bear arms.

The real Second Amendment advocates, attempting to make guns even more prevalent, actively pass Stand Your Ground laws that lead to the slaughter of Black youth like Trayvon Martin in February and Jordan Davis last month in Jacksonville, Florida. Marxists and progressives have nothing in common with these people.

The Marxist Position

“Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”

Karl Marx, March, 1850

We have examined two erroneous positions on gun control: the “left” error of embracing the Second Amendment, and the liberal “right” error of trusting the state with an exclusive monopoly on violence. Fundamentally, both positions stem from idealist assumptions about rights and the nature of the state.

The Marxist position on gun control is unequivocally upholding the right of workers and oppressed nationalities to bear arms.

In direct refutation of the Left-Second Amendment position, which upholds the right to bear arms as an abstract constitutional right, the Marxist position upholds gun ownership as a class right. Similarly, class rights directly confront the liberal belief that the state should be the predominant or sole trustee of firearms.

By classifying the right to bear arms as a class right, rather than a ‘human’, ‘constitutional’, or ‘natural’ right, the Marxist position upholds the social character of gun ownership. The Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms as an individual right set in place to protect individuals and their property from threats. Under capitalism, this translates into principally a ruling class and petty-bourgeois right since these are the classes that own “property,” i.e. capital, businesses, the means of production.

‘Open-Carry’ or ‘Concealed-Carry’?

We see further evidence of the reactionary character of the Second Amendment when looking at the prevalence of ‘concealed-carry’ state laws versus ‘open-carry’ state laws. ‘Open-Carry’ – allowing people to publicly carry firearms – is a social means of exercising the right to bear arms. As the Black Panther Party understood, the known presence of firearms allows oppressed people to better police their own communities and challenge the authority of the state without firing a single shot. The right to bear arms thereby becomes ‘social’ because it is a public exercise of power.

Consider why the police openly carry their firearms. The state allows its officers and agents to publicly display their firearms to deter confrontations with said agents. It is a silent exercise of state power.

Reagan banned the open-carry of loaded firearms in California precisely in reaction to the Black Panthers’ practices. If an African-American was stopped and harassed by a police officer, an openly armed Panther cadre would enter the scene to give legal counsel to the person facing police harassment. The Panthers challenged the state’s perceived monopoly on violence by acting as “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free [Black] State.”

In fact, California is one of seven states in the US to have outright bans on open-carry. Not surprisingly, the other six states with these bans – Illinois, Texas, New York, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas – are either the most populous and multinational, or located in the heart of the Black Belt South.

Not coincidentally, though, all 50 states in the US allow the concealed-carry of firearms. Illinois was the one state that upheld a ban on concealed-carry, but the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that ban a week ago. (15) Concealed-carry caters to the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois class nature of the Second Amendment, which allows individuals to ‘protect themselves from attacks in public’. From Bernhard Goetz in 1984 to George Zimmerman in 2012, this right has generally manifested itself in white men gunning down Blacks and Latinos on the basis that they ‘felt threatened’.

Concealed-carry individualizes, rather than socializes, the right to bear arms. The Right uses concealed-carry laws to expand the legal basis for the murder of African-Americans and Latinos through Stand Your Ground laws. Even the NRA backhandedly agrees with bans on open-carry, calling the repeal of these bans “not a priority.” (16) Instead, the NRA’s far-right membership dedicatedly works to expand concealed-carry, which offers no legal basis for oppressed people to socially exercise the right to bear arms.

The Social Organization of the Right to Bear Arms

On picket lines, strikers in the 1930s regularly had to defend themselves and their fellow workers from company-hired paramilitaries. As far back as the Homestead Strike in 1892 involving Steelworkers and the Battle of Blair Mountain involving Coal Miners, the capitalist class has openly resorted to violence in order to crush the demands of striking workers.

Looking at restoring a militant strike movement as one of the main objectives of the progressive labor movement, it would be a folly to support increased gun control, which would allow the state, the capitalist class and its supporters to monopolize guns. While not all proposed gun control methods would completely curb access to firearms, Marxists should oppose any restrictions that further reduce the ability of oppressed people and workers to defend themselves or deter violence.

The disastrous consequences of gun control on the workers’ movement came full-circle during the South African Miner’s strike this year, in which state police opened fire killing 34 miners, armed mostly with clubs and other such weapons. A modern picket line with workers legally and openly carrying arms in self-defense would represent a strong deterrent to violent attempts to break up the strike by management, vigilantes or illegal police actions, like the ones that occurred in South Africa.

Many comrades will find that workers, and especially people of the oppressed nations in the US instinctively understand that the police force represents the ruling class and not their interests. Presenting the question of gun ownership in terms of class opens up workers to realizing that gun control is a question of democratic and class rights. Many workers understand reasonable gun rights and even gun control, but they will also reject the idea when presented with the prospect of surrendering their democratic right while the rich and their personal army get to hold onto this right.

In a March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Karl Marx described the need for workers to exercise the right to bear arms through social organization independent of the state. We will quote him at some length:

To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition, and the revival of the old-style citizens’ militia, directed against the workers, must be opposed. Where the formation of this militia cannot be prevented, the workers must try to organize themselves independently as a proletarian guard, with elected leaders and with their own elected general staff; they must try to place themselves not under the orders of the state authority but of the revolutionary local councils set up by the workers. Where the workers are employed by the state, they must arm and organize themselves into special corps with elected leaders, or as a part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary. The destruction of the bourgeois democrats’ influence over the workers, and the enforcement of conditions which will compromise the rule of bourgeois democracy, which is for the moment inevitable, and make it as difficult as possible – these are the main points which the proletariat and therefore the League must keep in mind during and after the approaching uprising. (17)

In the underlined portion of the quote selected above, Marx describes the security functions of what the Bolsheviks would later call ‘Soviets’, or workers councils. Writing in London, Marx was warning against English attempts to co-opt independent armed bodies of workers by reviving citizens militias, which were directed and organized by the state to supposedly police communities. In actuality, these bodies served the interest of the capitalist state, making them functionally analogous to the gun control demands of the liberals today.

Marx instead recognized the necessity of workers organizing themselves and defending the right to bear arms through political struggle. This right would not be exercised individually through concealed-carry or for personal security, but it was instead a social right of the working class to defend their gains and interests.

In the oppressed nations within the United States, open-carry and the class right to bear arms has a rich history in America of forwarding national liberation. From countering white terrorism during Reconstruction, to the CPUSA again fighting off the Klan in the 1930’s, to the Black Panthers patrolling black communities, the right of Black armed organizations has been a guarantor of their democratic rights. Every instance of this has been organized, not on individual basis of “concealed-carrying” a handgun for individual defense, but as disciplined groups acting practically as the police force or army of the black nation itself. This, in essence, is the social right to bear arms.

The American working class and the Black and Chican@ nations should have the right and authority in their respective organizations to decide how to best manage gun rights in their communities. The answers lie in organizations and successful practices of the past, in contrast to the white liberal proposal to rely on the capitalist police forces’ monopoly on violence for protection.

We believe gun rights for workers and oppressed nationalities is a major factor in this struggle. Marxists should oppose the war on drugs and any possible “war on guns,” which would likely result in an intensification of national oppression. We should oppose legal restrictions, including efforts to strip members of the oppressed nations victimized by the Jim Crow legal system, of their right to bear arms. We believe Marxists should also support defensive, deterrence-based social gun policies, like open-carry, which would give oppressed nationalities and workers the ability to defend themselves from illegal violence and racist vigilantes in a legal fashion.

_____________________________________________________________________

(1) Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mission Statement, 2012,http://www.bradycampaign.org/about/

(2) Mayors Against Illegal Guns, “About the Coalition,” 2012, http://maig.us/awoN03

(3) The Gothamist, “Bloomberg Continues Tone-Deaf Support Of Stop-And-Frisk Policy,” May 18, 2012,http://bit.ly/KXZrz2

(4) CBS News, “Bloomberg Defends NYPD’s Stop-And-Frisk Program, Says It Should Be ‘Mended, Not Ended’,” June 11, 2012, http://cbsloc.al/NsJZht

(5) Graham Rayman, The Village Voice, “Bloomberg Claims NYPD “7th Biggest Army in World” … Um, That’s Totally Wrong,” November 30, 2011, http://bit.ly/tgb0fT

(6) Lucy McKeon, The Nation, “Marchers Demand Justice for Ramarley Graham,” June 26, 2012,http://bit.ly/Oe65EU

(7) Justin Elliott, Salon, “How the feds fueled the militarization of the police,” December 24, 2011,http://bit.ly/u74o0s

(8) John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute, “Tanks on Mainstreet: The Militarization of the Local Police,” January 3, 2012, http://bit.ly/ybNymo

(9) Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Introduction to Gun Violence Statistics,” November 18, 2012,http://bit.ly/R5xf0i

(10) The Atlantic Cities, “The Geography of Gun Violence,” July 20, 2012, http://bit.ly/MOxA2k

(11) Malcolm X, “Malcolm X on the Right to Bear Arms,” http://bit.ly/R49Yhq

(12) Adam Winkler, The Atlantic, “The Secret History of Guns,” September 2011, http://huff.to/odPpKZ

(13) Dan Froomkin, The Huffington Post, “How Do You Disenfranchise 1 in 8 Black Men?” May 17, 2010,http://huff.to/au3ptU

(14) Michael McLaughlin, The Huffington Post, “Felon Voting Laws Disenfranchise 5.85 Million Americans With Criminal Records: The Sentencing Project,” July 12, 2010, http://huff.to/NtkyLs

(15) Ray Long, The Chicago Tribune, “Concealed carry: Court strikes down Illinois’ ban,” December 11, 2012, http://bit.ly/SRqfEW

(16) Sean Caranna, All Nine Yards, “NRA’s Own Prodigal Son Story – Open and Concealed Carry,” August 25, 2011, http://bit.ly/YdAOXJ

(17) Karl Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850, http://bit.ly/noHW0h

The Vice Presidential Debate and National Liberation

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The following article below was originally published as a Facebook Note, but I’ve been asked not to link back, nor to include the author’s name: 

October 12, 2012

Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi (left) and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (right)

There were two discernible moments in last night’s Vice Presidential debate that I thought were the most telling and most important moments we’ve seen in the two confrontations between the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan tickets. It wasn’t Congressman Ryan’s brilliant swipe at Vice President Biden’s long history of gaffes. It wasn’t Biden’s blistering attack on Romney’s 47% comment or his rock-solid defense of the Administration’s tax plan, in which he pointed out that 97% of small business owners don’t make more than $250,000 per year. These were all interesting moments, although by my own standards of debate – cultivated from four years of competing in high school and three years of coaching in college – Biden won the arguments.

But the moment I’m referring to was more important than all of that. I get that this election is about jobs and the economy in the minds of voters so I don’t use ‘important’ to mean ‘election-altering’. I mean that for progressive-minded people, organizers, and activists in this country, these two moments told us a lot more about the country we live in and the policies we organize against than anything said on the campaign trail.

The two moments I’m referring to were the Libyan embassy question at the beginning of the debate and the Syria question near the end.

First on Libya: Ryan targeted the Obama Administration for not labeling the embassy attack as “terrorism” earlier and not being prepared. Biden countered by saying that Ryan’s budget had cut security funding for embassies by millions of dollars and short-changed the staff there. Romney and Ryan clearly want to win this election, so why do they – let alone the supposedly “free” and “investigative” press – not point out the obvious: NATO, under the direction of the Obama administration, funded, armed, and brought to power the same Libyan ‘rebels’ that attacked the US embassy in Benghazi on September 11th.

We can quibble as to whether or not the attackers were literally “the same rebels,” but NATO commanders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all admitted that a large section of the rebels that they supported in Libya last year were members of al-Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. When NATO was criminally murdering Libyans through their bombing campaigns, they didn’t distinguish between “good rebels” and “bad rebels.” They armed the rebellion by any means necessary – the rebellion that systematically lynched black African migrants; the rebellion that attacked hospitals and schools for children with Down-syndrome; the rebellion that, with NATO’s air strikes, killed more civilians than Libya’s national army; the rebellion that sodomized and murdered Colonel Muammar Qaddafi without trial; and ultimately the rebellion that was directed on the ground by al-Qaeda and Islamist militants.

Qaddafi was a bulwark against radical Islamists, much like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Al-Qaeda committed terrorist attacks against Libyan targets and Qaddafi showed no tolerance for their indiscriminate violence, so much so that he opportunistically joined the war on terror in 2005. Just as it doesn’t matter in Syria today, though, Washington’s short-term interests in acquiring oil overrode any possible problem they had with materially supporting the same people that attacked the US on 9/11. The Obama administration knew it and they did it anyway.

So fast-forward to 9/11 in 2012. Al-Qaeda attacks the US embassy in Libya right after receiving aid from the US and NATO in 2011. With the amount of support they received, there is a good chance that the same weapons used to breach the embassy were provided by the US, much like how many of the same arms given to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan by the US in the 1980s are now used by the Afghani resistance against US troops today.

Why doesn’t Romney or Ryan bring this up? Why don’t they hammer Obama and Biden on the biggest hole of all in the White House’s sketchy narrative on the embassy attack? Even in catering to the racist and Islamophobic base of the Republican Party, why don’t they point out that the Obama administration, in this case, literally armed al-Qaeda and Islamist extremists?

The answer is because they don’t fundamentally disagree on what happened in Libya. Republican or Democrat, neither one of them has an interest in laying the real question before the American people: Why did we bomb the hell out of Libya and arm our so-called enemy against a government that didn’t threaten the United States? Outside of the Ron Paul clique, nary a critical word was thrown at the President for the crimes his administration committed against the Libyan people.

The two parties can posture all they want over tax policies or Medicare reform, but let’s make one thing clear: When the rubber hits the road and we’re talking about dropping bombs on civilian targets that suck the oxygen out of a mother’s lungs before her and her child are charred by the flames; when we’re talking about black African migrants who are strung up on light poles and disemboweled because of the color of their skin; when we’re talking about a school, where children with Down-syndrome go to learn and are cared for every day, being obliterated by firebombs; when we’re talking about real people dying – who you and I will probably never meet – the two candidates are one and the same.

Isn’t that deeply unsettling? I have conversations with Obama supporters to whom I bring this up and they dismiss it out of fear that it might play into Romney being elected. They then proceed to lecture me on how there are differences between the candidate’s domestic policies. And then for the closer, they turn these concerns on their head and ask me why I care so much about foreign policy when there are people hurting in this country.

I just grow weary of it, folks. I get that Romney’s policies on a lot of economic and social issues are more reactionary than Obama’s – although I would follow it up by saying, “Not by much. They’re both reactionaries.” What I don’t get is the national chauvinism that pervades the lesser-of-two-evils progressive community that writes off foreign policy as if it’s some separate sphere to evaluate candidates.

The mother charred by fire from NATO’s death machines in Libya doesn’t care that Obama’s tax policy only affects 3% of small businesses. Frankly, she doesn’t even care that Romney’s policy will raise taxes on workers in this country. She was living a normal life with her family, raising her children, working a productive job, and putting food on the table in one form of another until her country was invaded. Violence was committed against her, and it was done in the name of the United States – violence, for no honest reason; violence, for no positive outcome; violence, completely divorced from any semblance of justice; violence, that even the most opportunistic and hateful critics of the President in this country cannot condemn, especially at the Vice Presidential debate.

For the hanged black migrant, for the dead Libyan infant, for the wounded Syrian bus driver, and for any oppressed person around the world, this election is literally meaningless and tonight’s debate proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Now someone’s ready to protest, “But we’re not Libyans. We’re not Syrians. We’re Americans who live in this country and have to deal with the consequences of this election.” Yes we are. And if those consequences guide progressives to vote to defeat Romney – however they think they can best do that in their respective states – they should absolutely do so.

But I want people to understand that there is only one way to vote for the President and not have Libyan and Syrian blood on your hands: Resistance. Whether Obama or Romney win on the evening on November 6th, progressives must issue a declaration of independence, not just from both parties but from the entire system of imperialism. We have to commit to organizing our communities, our workplaces, our classrooms, and our places of worship to resist the attacks that come down on us and on oppressed people around the world. We have to build a new movement – not an anti-war movement like we saw under Bush, but an anti-imperialist movement that recognizes that the crimes perpetrated on the Libyans are made possible by the crimes committed against workers and oppressed people in this country, and vice versa.

That’s all anti-imperialism is. It takes the anti-war movement and joins it with the battle against budget cuts, the fight against bosses on the shop floor, the struggle to keep collective bargaining rights, the campaigns for affordable public education, and the continued war against racism, national oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other phobia that oppresses people here and around the world. It recognizes that the struggle of Libyan freedom fighters against NATO and the Islamist rebels is intertwined with the struggles that we wage here in the US against anti-union laws, foreclosures, budget cuts, racist violence, and attacks on women’s rights.

Imperialism is a system that oppresses people domestically to commit untold horrors against entire nations internationally. And it’s a system we have to fight and dismantle if we’re serious about wanting freedom in our lifetime.

Clearly it won’t happen through the ballot box. The Vice Presidential debate showed us that. If we hope to achieve that freedom, we have to fight for it in the streets.

Lincoln, Assad & the Vice Presidential Debate

Now onto Syria: The second moment that stood out to me in last night’s Vice Presidential debate was downright awkward and embarrassing for Ryan. Trying desperately to distinguish the Romney campaign’s position on Syria from Obama’s position, he fumbled around and could not answer the moderator’s question, which was, “What would you do differently?” About all he could muster was the flaccid jab at the Obama administration for calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “a reformer.”

Except Obama never said that, and neither did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for that matter. Clinton made a statement in March 2011 that “many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer,” but her agenda was the same as Romney and Ryan’s from the beginning: Use the civil unrest, which later became a civil war, to topple the Syrian government at any cost.

All things considered, Biden knocked it out of the ballpark in terms of honesty. He noted that the US hasn’t worked through the UN on the question of Syria, having never endorsed or accepted Kofi Annan’s peace plan, and began aiding the so-called “rebels” directly in the early stages of the civil war. He candidly admitted that the US was completely aligned with the oppressive Turkish government and the reactionary Saudi and Qatari monarchies, all of whom are funneling arms – most likely provided by the United States – to the Syrian “rebels.” About the only thing he left out in his effort to bolster the Obama administration’s “Tough on Assad” credentials was the White House’s announcement last week to put troops on the Jordanian border with Syria.

For their part, neither candidate endorsed a US military operation in Syria under the current conditions. I take this to mean that both tickets understand how unpopular the idea of another war is with voters, which by extension means that the Syrian government has at least until December to put down the rebellion before the threat of a Libya-style NATO intervention comes back on the table. This is the good news.

The bad news is that both candidates agreed to a disturbing caveat, stated not-so-eloquently by Ryan: “Well, we agree with the same red line, actually, they do on chemical weapons, but not putting American troops in, other than to secure those chemical weapons.” If there’s one thing that the past two Presidents have taught this generation about justifications for this type of preemptive war, it is that a targeted government doesn’t have to have actual weapons (Iraq) or plan to use them on the population (Libya) to still launch full-scale military operations. What Biden and Ryan – and ultimately Obama and Romney – are really saying is that they won’t exercise military force until after November 6th.

Realize too that when Ryan said, “[our strategy with Syria] means like embargoes and sanctions and overflights, those are things that don’t put American troops on the ground,” he is talking directly about the type of intervention that NATO launched in Libya. Save for some military advisors, US troops were not “on the ground” in Libya in the same way they are today in Afghanistan. It’s horrifying, of course, that drone and aerial warfare allows the US to victimize thousands of people without having to weigh the consequences of physical risk. There are no longer any counter-weights or human cost calculations that go into setting up no-fly zones, which Ryan calls “overflights.”

Between Libya and Syria – and Afghanistan and Iraq, despite how Biden may have postured to pretend like he didn’t vote to put the same two wars “on credit cards,” like Ryan did – we have to admit that we don’t have a choice in the US Presidential elections. If you even have a semblance of sympathy for the women, men, and children who will bear the full brunt of war in these countries, then you have to admit that there’s nothing democratic about the choice that voters will make on November 6th. The candidates are in full agreement that the United States should continue to build its empire, declare war on smaller nations for their resources, and do so in the most brutal and efficient manner possible. This is one area – probably the most major area, if we are honest with ourselves as human beings – where there is literally no difference between a second-term President Obama and a President Romney.

Immediately after the debate, CNN aired the second trailer for the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, which has Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the Great Emancipator himself, President Abraham Lincoln. The juxtaposition of both candidates’ characterization of Assad “turning guns on his own people” coupled with this exciting movie trailer hit me pretty hard. Most Americans in 2012 revere Lincoln as a national hero, and the film’s Thanksgiving release date all but guarantees it will be the movie event of 2012.

But why is that? Most people in the 21st century view the American Civil War as a totally just war and condemn slavery as an institution – though it should be noted that a disturbing number of reactionary Republican lawmakers are beginning to come out as slavery apologists – but it wasn’t always seen that way. Neither was Lincoln enshrined as “the Great Emancipator” by mainstream American canon until relatively recently (read: the last forty years).

For a large portion of the country, Lincoln was remembered as a brutal tyrant who “turned guns on his own people” and grossly violated their constitutional rights. He was remembered as a radical who forcibly expropriated the “property” of the rich – namely slaves – and waged a brutal civil war on the American people. His unwillingness to compromise on the issue was not touted as a virtue as it is today; rather it was seen as the stubbornness of a dictator whose decisions cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives. He was seen as divisive, conniving, and wicked by a large section of the country.

Most Americans probably do not think of it this way, but a great number of atrocities were committed during the Civil War, and by no means were they limited to the racists in the Confederacy. Thousands of people – many of whom never owned slaves – were put into prison camps, forced to work without pay, starved, took ill, and died. For the first two years of the war, the Union Army, under the direction of the scoundral George McClellan, refused to liberate slaves in the South, leaving them under the bondage of the white slaveowners. Not least of these victims were the freed slaves, who received second-class treatment when they were allowed to join the Union Army and received unequal compensation.

Indeed, Lincoln’s policies and military draft program were so divisive that they led to massive riots in the North that left hundreds dead, most of whom were black residents targeted by racist pogroms. The media was not silent on these matters either. The Chicago Times in 1863 was topped with the headline, “DICTATOR PROCLAIMED, for the Proclamation can never be carried out except under the iron rule of the worst kind of despotism.”

But here’s the simple and undeniable truth: Lincoln was a hero, the Union was on the right side of history, and the American Civil War was not just justifiable, but necessary and honorable. As Americans in 2012, most of us wouldn’t think twice about making that judgment because we instinctively understand that slavery was a wicked instrument of oppression and the Confederacy was an evil empire seeking its preservation and expansion. All of Lincoln and the Union Army’s actions that were viewed as tyrannical by some people in 1860 are worthy of praise in 2012 because we understand what the conflict meant to oppressed people; so worthy of praise that a legendary director and actor are teaming up for a film honoring President Lincoln.

This should all sound familiar in the context of Syria: Here we have a leader, a President no less, waging a civil war to hold the country together. Opposite him and the Syrian Army is an unholy alliance of neo-liberals seeking to sell Syria’s resources and labor to the West at a profit, militants of al-Qaeda, and other radical Islamists. Assad fights for secular government against theocratic tyranny; he fights for a self-determined Syria against a puppet regime that will prostitute the Syrian people to Western corporations; he fights for an independent country in a region occupied and dominated by the United States and Israel; and now he fights for the self-determination of the Kurdish people in the northern part of Syria.

That last point is particularly salient in the comparison with Lincoln. The Syrian government has by no means consistently stood for Kurdish self-determination or nationhood, and Kurds have in the past faced oppression in Syria. Similarly, the United States government was the chief perpetrator in the crime of slavery against the black Africans kidnapped from their homes to work under the whip in North America. However, just as Lincoln realized that the question of winning the American Civil War was inseparable from the question of emancipation, Assad realizes that winning the Syrian Civil War is impossible without Kurdish independence. And just as the Union Army could not have won the war without the emancipated and slaves liberating themselves, Assad will have the Kurds to thank if he succeeds in putting down the rebellion.

When the Vice Presidents talked last night about the possibility of intervening in Syria, it made me think of the Trent Affair during the Civil War. Oligarchs in France and Britain considered intervening on behalf of the Confederacy. Though the countries were officially neutral, they engaged the Confederacy on possibly intervening on their behalf in the American Civil War and were only dissuaded by the Union victory at Antietam.

As an American, would you have tolerated British or French intervention in the American Civil War, especially on behalf of the Confederacy? I wouldn’t have. Most of us would like to say we would have supported President Lincoln, but I think all of us could agree that foreign intervention would have been wrong.

President Assad will be remembered by Syrians much in the same way President Lincoln is by Americans. Both leaders are fighting a civil war to hold their country together in the face of threats of foreign intervention – in Assad’s case, this is a more likely and greater threat than it was for the Union – and basic questions of freedom and oppression are at stake in the war’s outcome. From every indicator, a majority of the Syrian people supports the government, and it’s only a small band of traitors calling for military intervention.

As progressives, I don’t think it’s sufficient to just call for “Hands Off Syria.” That’s a start, of course, but in 21st century hindsight, “Hands Off America” would have fallen drastically short in 1862. Anti-imperialism means doing what we can to stop the government we live under from violently attacking another nation, but it is also a call to support those forces who are on the right side of history; those forces who find themselves struggling for independence and liberation; those forces who are most threatened by the kind of slaughter we witnessed in Libya last year. And those forces are President Assad and the Syrian people.

When people go to watch Spielberg’s film in November, voters will have already elected a new President. Last night’s debate showed us that the election won’t determine what happens in Syria because both sides are in agreement. Two factors can turn the tide, though: The first is an overwhelming victory for the Syrian people against the terrorist rebellion. And though I pray that happens, we need to begin exercising the second factor: American resistance to war with Syria.

The Wheat from the Chaff: Ultra-Left Hysterics and the 2012 US Elections

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The following article below was originally published by Return to the Source

“Hope is in the people’s struggles, Change is in the streets” starts here.

August 19, 2012

**For the entirety of this piece, “we” should be taken to mean the authors of Return to the Source, and not the FRSO. In other words, this is not an official statement of the FRSO.**

A little under a week ago, Return to the Source reposted an editorial by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) about the 2012 US Presidential elections. We felt that the editorial, entitled “The 2012 presidential election: In the midst of economic hard times, hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets,” was an outstanding analysis of the current conditions facing people’s movements in the United States and the need to build revolutionary power outside of the ballot box. In other words, we read the whole editorial.

FRSO’s position is “that no matter how hopeful we are for change to come through electoral politics, this is not the venue for real change.” (1) Both the Democrats and Republicans are imperialist parties of the 1%, and elections are generally political events bought and paid for by corporations and banks, in which the candidate with the most money wins. FRSO’s editorial ends by saying:

During this particular election cycle progressives should emphasize and talk about the problems inherent in the system, while placing demands on politicians from both parties. Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.

Suffice to say, many other left groups and blogs – ranging from the left-refoundationists at the Kasama Project to the Trotskyites at Marxist update – did not share our view. Rather than engaging with the entirety of FRSO’s editorial, these critics and detractors zeroed in on a single sentence near the end of the second-to-last paragraph, which is underlined below:

What to do?

We know that many activists in unions, the African-American, Chicano and other oppressed nationality movements, and sections of anti-war protesters and immigrant rights activists are likely to continue to vote for the lesser of two evils. However, we think the conditions are right in this electoral cycle to emphasize instead the nature of the two party, one ruling class system and talk about why what we have is not democracy and not good enough. We do think it is still important for progressives to go to the polls to oppose concrete attacks on democratic rights, such as Voter ID and anti-gay amendments. In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states. In other states like California, the Republicans are unlikely to win. In these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.

Ignoring the vast majority of the FRSO’s editorial, Kasama called their position “insanity,” and somehow cast the editorial as “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama.” (2) Kasama looks to read deeper into the single sentence, however, and claims that “this sentence is the raison d’etre of the article — to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama.” Although Kasama is patently wrong in their reading of the article, this particular sentence in their italicized preface betrays everything wrong and anti-Marxist with the criticisms of the FRSO’s editorial. We will return to this point later.

To Kasama’s credit, they republished the entirety of the FRSO’s editorial, but judging from the comments section, very few people read beyond Kasama’s preface. Comrade Zero of The Marxist-Leninist has already written a response piece to Kasama’s post entitled “Electoral Politics: Imperialism and the Mass Line,” that delivers a solid rebuttal to some of the criticisms. Return to the Source unites with the points outlined by Comrade Zero’s piece and wants to expand the discussion of the original FRSO editorial.

First, in light of the ultra-left hysterics emerging from the left-refo, Trotskyite, and left-communist camp, we will examine what the FRSO editorial did and did not say.

Second, we will examine the FRSO’s position on the 2012 Presidential elections as espoused in the editorial and argue that it is the most correct position for revolutionary communists to take.

Third, we will examine the real and perceived differences between a President Romney and a President Obama and place the FRSO’s position in the context of the mass movements in the US.

And finally, we will briefly examine conditions for building the people’s movements and the revolutionary communist party beyond the 2012 elections.

What the FRSO editorial did not say:

Left-critics of the FRSO’s editorial have written very little to nothing about the vast majority of the piece. Unquestionably in anticipation of a follow-up to the FRSO’s editorial on the 2008 elections entitled “2008 Presidential Elections: Defeat McCain,” Kasama, the cruise-missile Trotskyite Louis Proyect, the Trotskyites at Marxist update, and a slew of anonymous commentators have accused the FRSO of “[urging] votes for Obama.” They derive this mischaracterization from the aforementioned single sentence near the end of the second-to-last paragraph. They spend no time discussing the main message of the piece: “Hope is in the people’s struggles, Change is in the streets,” which is explicitly stated in the title and the final paragraph. Instead, these critics erect a strawman to attack the argument they want to engage, rather than the one actually put forth.

First and foremost, the FRSO editorial did not endorse Obama. It did not even urge people to vote for Obama, as Kasama would have readers believe. The editorial posited that “it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states,” based on the recognition that he represents the objectively more reactionary interests within the ruling class. Voting against Romney, however, takes different forms in different states. In swing states, like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, voting against Romney assuredly takes the form of voting for President Obama. However, voting against Romney takes a different form in “other states like California, [where] the Republicans are unlikely to win.” Voting against Romney in this case means voting for a third-party candidate, and the editorial recognizes that “[in] these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.” For Kasama to title their repost of the FRSO editorial as “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama” is dishonest and harmful – dishonest for ignoring the nuance explained in the editorial, and harmful as evidenced in the knee-jerk reactions in the comments section, which stand at 33 and climbing.

Second, the FRSO editorial did not urge, suggest, condone, or even mention revolutionaries and progressives working for or promoting President Obama’s re-election. The editorial is, without exception, critical of President Obama and clearly identifies both the Democrats and Republicans as “parties of the 1%.” The editorial does not say a word about revolutionaries and progressives working on election campaigns, and instead emphasizes that “we think the conditions are right in this electoral cycle to emphasize instead the nature of the two party, one ruling class system and talk about why what we have is not democracy and not good enough.” Far from encouraging or directing its members to work for Obama’s re-election, the FRSO puts forward a position that revolutionaries should use the 2012 election as an opportunity to expose the two-party system for what it is: a bourgeois imperialist state ruled by and for a single class. Kasama’s assertion that the purpose of the editorial is “to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama,” is a completely baseless and unprincipled attack on the FRSO.

Rest assured, the FRSO does outline its strategy for organizing during the 2012 election, but it has nothing to do with working on the campaigns to re-elect the President or any other politician. Completely overlooked by the ultra-left critics is the FRSO’s call for “people to build the people’s struggle in the streets” at the March on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL, and at the March on Wall Street South at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. Rather than actively engaging in electoral work – the baseless and false claim of Kasama – the FRSO is actively leading and contributing two these two historic acts of popular resistance to both parties of the 1%. We quote the FRSO editorial at length:

It is in this context that the Democrats and the Republicans, both parties of the 1%, are holding conventions and nominating their candidates for the Nov. 6 elections. We are calling for people to build the people’s struggles and protest in the streets. If you want peace and justice, if you want a job, healthcare, education and equality, then join us at the Republican National Convention on Monday, August 27, in Tampa, Florida. A few days later more will join the March on the Wall Street South during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Elections come and go, parties change places, but the people’s movements – especially the strategic alliance of the working class movement and the national movements of African-American, Chicanos, and other oppressed nationalities, can bring not just reforms, but radical change that no bought and paid for politician can deliver.

The ultra-leftists at Kasama read what they want to read in the FRSO’s editorial, but their claim that the piece “urges votes for Obama” is entirely dishonest. Kasama could put their time to better use by joining with the FRSO and the multitude of other progressive organizations in building for the March on the RNC on August 27 and the March on Wall Street South on September 2.

Third, the FRSO editorial did not “give a free ride” to President Obama or the Democrats, as was claimed by the Trotskyites at Marxist update. In describing the disillusion of the youth and other progressive forces after President Obama’s election in 2008, the editorial refutes the arguments put forward by opportunist liberals and Democratic Party apologists, writing that “While Democratic Party leaders point to the Republican majority blocking Obama initiatives in the House of Representatives, we remember the Democrats had majorities in both the House and the Senate when President Obama took office.” Themselves the target of massive repression by the US federal government, the FRSO details the sharp increase in state repression during President Obama’s tenure. They conclude, “More and more, the government’s use of raids, subpoenas and courts to criminalize political activism and label it as ‘terrorism’ is driving activists away from the Democrats and electoral politics.”

To be certain, the FRSO editorial is not full of the ultra-left phrasemongering that many left groups engage in around elections, and ultimately this is what offends groups like Kasama and the Trotskyites so much. These groups have a completely different understanding of how revolution is built. For them, communists need to distinguish themselves first and foremost in words. In their view, the bolder the polemic, the greater the success. This amounts to idealism, pure and simple, especially when reconciled with the material reality that most leftist publications – Kasama included – are read by a small sliver of the general population on the internet.

The FRSO’s view is different, rooted in the experience of revolutionaries who have successfully built parties and led revolutions around the world. The FRSO believes that the party emerges first and foremost from the mass movement, and without the masses, the party is nothing more than a declaration on paper. This understanding – seemingly self-explanatory and obvious – is the pitfall of most leftist groups in the United States because it requires an honest assessment of the position of the masses as the starting point for building a new communist party. The FRSO took such an inventory in their editorial, as evidenced by the statement, “We know that many activists in unions, the African-American, Chicano and other oppressed nationality movements, and sections of anti-war protesters and immigrant rights activists are likely to continue to vote for the lesser of two evils.”

Let’s be clear: The FRSO editorial did not say to remain silent or to withhold criticisms of the Democrats because “many activists” in the people’s movements plan to vote against Romney by voting for Obama. On the contrary, the editorial’s central call to action is to initiate discussions on the nature of the capitalist dictatorship present in the United States and the lack of real democracy through the ballot box. However, there is no place for ultra-left phrasemongering that holds as little truth as it does credibility with the masses (i.e. asserting that no difference exists between a President Obama and a President Romney).

The Wheat from the Chaff: Why FRSO’s editorial is the correct position on the 2012 US Presidential Elections

Protest against the NATO Summit in Chicago

That all of the polemics and criticisms of the FRSO’s position on the 2012 elections have focused hinged on a single sentence reflects how firmly ingrained idealism remains within the bulk of the left in the United States. For all of the strawmen erected by the FRSO’s critics though, none stand taller than the total misunderstanding of the editorial’s purpose.

For Kasama and the other ultra-left critics, the perceived purpose of the FRSO’s editorial is “to finally, publicly give a green light to those who want to work for Obama.” Embedded in this statement is the assumption that this editorial was written for a particular audience, namely FRSO members, progressive activists, and the broader ‘revolutionary left’ in the US.

Can we prove it? Yes, we can. Kasama concludes its attack by asking, almost lamenting, “It is possible that young radicals and revolutionaries will accept and promote such arguments?” Kasama, along with most left groups in the US, generally write to the comparatively small section of revolutionary leftists in the United States. To put it another way, they preach to the choir; proselytize to the already converted. How else can one explain their choice to obsess on a single sentence – a vote against Romney by voting for Obama is preferable in swing states – instead of acknowledging and uniting with the crux of the editorial, which is the call to expose the undemocratic and violent nature of the bourgeois imperialist state and build the people’s movement?

The FRSO’s editorial, however, was not written principally for the already converted. Rather, the editorial was written for careful use and application in the mass movements.

Within the trade union movement, the immigrant rights movement, the black national movement, and to an extent the student movement, the principal opponent of revolution is not ultra-leftists; it is liberals, reformists, bureaucrats, opportunists, and some combination of all four. While some exceptions exist, the reformist leadership of these movements are firmly beholden to the Democratic Party, electoral politics, and in the particular case of the 2012 Presidential elections, President Barack Obama. Revolutionaries within these movements must do battle with these opportunist elements in order to draw out the advanced and build a revolutionary movement in the United States. However, the vast majority of the advanced in these different arenas of the people’s struggle are not revolutionary communists and will vote for President Obama, as acknowledged in the FRSO editorial.

How do revolutionaries combat the rightist and opportunist elements within the mass movement? Is it through hoisting high the banner of revolutionary communism and proselytizing loudly against the Democrats? Or is it through the Marxist-Leninist method of unity, struggle, unity: begin from a point of unity with the advanced elements of these movements, struggle and build the people’s movements, and come to a greater point of unity around revolution?

Kasama and the ultra-left critics of the FRSO’s position should ask themselves this: Would a union worker who plans to vote for President Obama read the FRSO’s editorial and come away believing that the central message was urging voters to re-elect or work for the re-election of the President? Would a first-generation Chican@ DREAMer finish the FRSO’s editorial and come away thinking that their salvation lies in the ballot box? Would or an African-American student protester at a Trayvon Martin rally get to the end of the editorial more convinced in the legitimacy of the electoral system? Would a heavily indebted student put down the editorial believing that the group was calling on her/him to work on the Obama campaign? Or would they come away with the real message of the piece: “hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets”?

To believe that the advanced and intermediate elements of the mass movement would view the FRSO’s editorial as Kasama does – namely, as a call to vote for Obama – is delusional at best and reflects just how insular and incestuous elements of the left in the US have become. Divorced from the actual mass movement, these groups can only read statements like the FRSO’s as conscious revolutionary leftists, which leads them to obsess on a single tree amid an entire forest.

The FRSO’s statement is not an abstract theoretical document written for discussion and debate among the revolutionary left. It is a tool for identifying the most resolute fighters in the people’s struggle and advancing them towards a revolutionary position. It is a document to be shared and discussed in union halls, classrooms, community centers, and other meeting places for the people’s movement. It unites with the best elements of the people’s sentiments and attitudes – the desire to defeat reactionaries and better their conditions; identifying Mitt Romney and Republicans as a party of the 1%; the disappointment of the Obama Presidency; the worsening conditions of the people under capitalism – and challenges them to go a little bit further in rejecting the electoral system as undemocratic and fundamentally imperialist. It unites with the material reality of the 2012 elections – and make no mistake, that the vast majority of activists in the people’s movements will vote for President Obama in 2012 is a reality – but it synthesizes this with another reality: that elections are simply tools of the 1% and that revolutionary change through the ballot box is impossible.

President Obama “still polls in the mid-90s among African-American voters.” (3) After endorsing racist legislation like SB 1070 in Arizona and taking other radical anti-immigrant positions, Romney has all but guaranteed that 2/3rds of the Latino vote will go to Obama. (4) 57% of union workers pledge that they will vote for Obama, and that number is substantially higher among black and brown union workers. (5) Among the white working class in general, Obama polls at approximately 40%, trailing Romney because of white chauvanism instead of proletarian class consciousness. (6) Among other oppressed groups, Obama continues to poll very high, which puts to rest any question that 2012 is the year of mass revolt at the ballot box against both the Republicans and the Democrats.

Therein lies the genius of the FRSO’s editorial: uniting with the best sentiments of the masses and synthesizing it with a ruthless critique of bourgeois elections in the US to produce a revolutionary line: “Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.”

Left Social-Chauvanism and the Differences Between President Romney and President Obama

Read the other statements or examine the other strategies of organizations in the US, and none will coincide with the statement given by the FRSO. The Communist Party USA unabashedly endorses and calls for its members to work for the President and the Democratic Party; a product of its historic tailing of the opportunists in the labor bureaucracy. The Trotskyites in the Party for Socialism & Liberation and the Socialist Workers Party, along with the reformists in the Socialist Party USA, are running their own candidates for President; nominally to expose the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system. Other Trotskyites, left-communists, and left-refoundationists (like those in the Kasama Project) will merely issue polemics against the Democratic Party and President Obama, with equal parts truth to ultra-left phrasemonering.

What all of these approaches have in common is a misreading of the material reality of our place, as revolutionary communists, in relation to the masses. There is no credible organized challenge to US imperialism within the United States, which makes these approaches equally incredible. According to these approaches, the union member facing massive cuts to her pension, or the first-generation immigrant whose parents face threats of deportation, or the black activist facing a resurgence of naked white supremacist vigilantes, can vote for an nonviable third party candidate and take a moral(!) stand against capitalism, or s/he can not vote.

That won’t happen. Although elections in the US are dominated by the 1%, the masses understand that “this doesn’t mean that there is no impact on objective conditions in the people’s struggles and the condition of people’s everyday lives, depending upon who is in the White House.” If one had to isolate a single reason for why these ultra-left strategies for organizing during elections will fail, it would be social-chauvinism.

While President Obama and the Democrats are unquestionably imperialists, there are significant differences between a President Obama and a President Romney, if not in practice than certainly in popular perception. We quote the FRSO editorial at length:

The Republicans are the greater of two evils. They represent the most reactionary and racist section of the capitalist class – the millionaires and billionaires who rule this country. Romney panders to the anti-women, anti-gay and racist base of the Republican Party on social issues. Mitt Romney wants more military spending, more war, and more U.S. occupations, especially in the Middle East. Romney wants to privatize government services or just cut them altogether, to downsize and put more people out of work like he did at Bain Capital.

For lack of a viable revolutionary alternative to the electoral system, the masses understand the objective reality of an Obama Presidency versus a Romney Presidency. Both candidates represent the capitalist class, as is the case in almost every election at every level of the US government. However, the masses correctly view Romney as the more reactionary of the two choices and will generally vote for President Obama.

The Democratic Party and their opportunist running dogs embedded in the people’s movements overstate the differences between the two candidates, rest assured, but this doesn’t mean that some significant differences do not exist. Does Kasama believe that conditions would genuinely be better for the masses under President Romney? Undoubtedly the Democrats bring no salvation from capitalism, but would Kasama actually argue that Governor Scott Walker defeating Mayor Tom Barrett in 2010 in Wisconsin made no difference to trade unionists? Would Kasama argue that the people of Florida, teachers, and public education are no worse off for electing Governor Rick Scott in 2010 than they would have been with Alex Sink, herself a Bank of America CEO? Ultra-leftists can argue these points – and FRSO’s editorial unites with the general sentiment towards rejecting electoral politics in lieu of revolutionary organizing – but they run counter to the real-life experiences of the masses.

Particularly within the Black Nation, the Republicans’ blatant racist attacks on and the Tea Party’s proto-fascist organizing efforts against President Obama and African-American in general provide a multitude of reasons to vote against a President Romney in 2012. While a significant sector of the Black Nation is discontent with the President’s complete neglect of improving their conditions in four years, they overwhelmingly attribute this to the Republican legislature. Telling the nation to vote for an nonviable third party or, worse, to not vote at all, will not work and amounts to left social-chauvanism. Instead, revolutionary communists ought to unite with the Black Nation’s struggle against the racist right-wing, embodied by the Republican Party, point out the class nature of the US election system, and above all else, continue building the people’s movements in the streets separate from the ballot box.

The question of trade unions is quite similar. With the exception of the Mineworkers, who have taken the objectively more reactionary position and endorsed Mitt Romney, every major trade union has endorsed President Obama for re-election. The Building Trades unions, in particular, see very real material differences between the two candidates on the question of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). Under the Bush Presidency, PLAs on federally funded construction projects were banned. In February 2009, President Obama reversed the ban on PLAs, which prioritized union labor on many of the construction projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the totally insufficient ‘Obama stimulus package’). With Romney pledging to once again ban PLAs, building trade unionists will likely go to the ballot box with this proletarian class interest in mind.

Teachers, education support personnel, and other public-sector union workers, under heavy assault from right-wing governors across the US, will likely go to the ballot box with the multitude of attacks they have suffered in mind. Union members across the country have overwhelmingly expressed that this election, for them, is about keeping the union hall open, and with the plans laid out by the Romney-Ryan budget, they are correct. Many are disaffected with the President, who incidentally signed free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea the day before receiving the AFL-CIO’s endorsement, but they will not vote for a third party. While many members, particularly in right-to-work states, will not vote period, the advanced fighters in the trade unions will vote for President Obama.

Revolutionary communists, in other words the conscious element in the people’s movements, understand that a President Obama and a President Romney will continue the policy of austerity because they both represent the capitalist class. They understand that both will carry out the imperialist agenda of the US, and they understand that there can be no serious change in the people’s condition through the ballot box. Advancing the masses to this point of understanding and raising their class consciousness, however, does not occur through polemics divorced from the sentiments and experiences of the masses. It only occurs through building the people’s struggle and summating the victories and defeats with the masses. The FRSO’s editorial is both a tool to have these conversations with the advanced fighters in the mass movements and a call to build the people’s struggle outside of the US electoral system.

Beyond the 2012 Elections

Wisconsin workers and students flood the state capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on collective bargaining. (2011)

It is hard for us to believe that the ultra-left hysterics of Kasama, the Trotskyites, and the left-communists emerge from active engagement in the mass movements, particularly in the “swing states” explicitly addressed in the FRSO’s editorial. The revolutionaries plugged into the mass movements in these states overwhelmingly see that even the most advanced fighters will still vote for the President. However, therein lies the importance of the FRSO’s editorial. The position outlined in the editorial is forward-thinking and casts the 2012 Presidential election as the relatively minor event it is in the long march to building a new revolutionary communist party in the United States, and the even longer march towards proletarian revolution.

Accelerationists may argue that the people’s struggle will grow faster because of the emboldened contradictions present under a President Romney. Leaving aside the lack of consideration for the negative material impact on the real lives of the masses, which is left social-chauvanism, this view is incorrect. The FRSO editorial points out that “at] times, people’s movements are more active when there is a sense that achieving reform is possible.” Certainly the defeat at the hands of reactionaries in power fuels the people’s movements – as in the experience of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida’s fights against their Republican governors – but continued sustained defeats can demoralize activists or lend itself to co-opting by the opportunist elements loyal to the Democratic Party.

On that last point, in particular, the deflation of the anti-war movement after the end of the Bush Presidency demonstrates how closely the movement’s successes were tied to anti-Republican politics. Suddenly with an Obama Presidency, many of the loudest anti-war critics are silent, or at worst apologists, for the continued occupation of Afghanistan and the NATO assault on Libya. Without a doubt, these opportunists will return to the people’s movements under a President Romney and continue to poison the movements with their liberalism.

Kasama calls the FRSO’s editorial “remarkable given that the emergence of Occupy has opened a political space that so stubbornly refused to morph itself into a progressive grassroots movement for the Democrats,” but they once again cannot see the forest beyond the trees. The Occupy movement’s emergence was unthinkable under a Bush Presidency, and the general anti-capitalist orientation of the movement – however short-lived and problematic in its class and racial composition – was fueled by the contradiction between the masses and a Democrat in the White House. Endorsing President Obama is not the answer, and the FRSO editorial did no such thing. However, a second-term Obama Presidency offers the conditions to expand the people’s struggle and increasingly draw a line in the sand between revolutionaries and opportunist Democrats, whose actions and policies can never match their populist rhetoric.

As the masses move past November 6, 2012, the people’s struggle in the United States will enter a new period. Whether President Obama or President Romney wins the election, imperialism will continue to exploit and oppress the working class, the internal oppressed nations, and the oppressed nations around the world. As such, the people’s movements will continue. However, this new period will require revolutionaries and progressives in the mass movements to expose and do ideological battle with the opportunists and liberals in their ranks in order to build a new revolutionary communist party.

Just as the FRSO editorial argues, we must place our faith and future “in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.” This is the message that revolutionaries across the country must bring to the advanced fighters in the mass movements if we ever hope to build genuine mass political power outside of the wretched two-party system. And for all the distortions by ultra-left critics, this is the fundamental message of the FRSO’s editorial.

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(1) Freedom Road Socialist Organization, August 12, 2012, “The 2012 presidential election: In the midst of economic hard times, hope is in the people’s struggles, change is in the streets,” http://bit.ly/R6nHox

(2) Kasama, August 16, 2012, “Freedom Road (Fight Back) urges votes for Obama,” http://bit.ly/N7ipSG

(3) Edward Klein, Fox News, July 10, 2012, “Could the black vote cost Obama the election?,” http://fxn.ws/MYExTk

(4) Andres Oppenheimer, The News Tribune, August 17, 2012, “Romney serving up Hispanic votes to Obama on a silver platter,” http://bit.ly/OmsZrN

(5) Frank Newport, Gallup, June 11, 2012, “Majority of Union Members Back Obama; a Third Back Romney,” http://bit.ly/NxRg0Y

(6) Felecia Sonmez, The Washington Post, May 29, 2012, “Romney, Obama and the white working class vote,” http://wapo.st/KpqSCL

Electoral Politics: Imperialism and the Mass Line

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August 16, 2012

The following is by Josh Sykes, member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Recently, the Kasama Project attacked the Freedom Road Socialist Organization based on a statement published on the Fight Back! News website concerning the 2012 presidential elections.

The basic orientation of the attack is to accuse the FRSO of deliberating confusing the issue, in order to “give the green light” to cadres to work for the Obama campaign. The Kasama Project’s view is that the FRSO is sheepishly “still” endorsing Obama, even though the organization remains under direct attack from the FBI following the raids and Grand Jury investigation began in late September, 2010.The basis for this claim is the drawing out of one sentence in the statement on the 2012 elections that says, “In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states.”

The Kasama article claims that this “green light” is actually the purpose and main point of the whole article. Fortunatly, however, Kasama is honest enough to reprint the statement so that it can be read in full. I’m sure any honest reader, upon reading the entire statement (which is much longer than this “hidden” sentence) will get what the real point is.

In 2009, I went to Brussels to speak to the International Communist Seminar, a gathering of Marxist-Leninist parties and organizations from around the world, about the Student Movement in the United States.  While I was there, I was also part of a panel discussion on the U.S. presidential elections in 2008. I spoke about our position on the 2008 elections and our work organizing the demonstration at the Republican National Convention.

I began my brief talk by saying that our position was based on two principles: First, it was based on an understanding that the class character of the United States is imperialist, that is, that it is ruled by the monopoly capitalist class and in the interests of that class, and that this character cannot and will not miraculously change over night through an election, despite many people’s hopes to contrary. Second, it was based on an understanding of the mass line. On the one hand, we have an understanding that it is the people who make history, and not the politicians. On the other hand, we understand that people are paying attention to and engaging elections as their main form of political engagement during an electoral period, and that revolutionaries have to engage people where they are at rather than at where we would like for them to be.

Following these fundamental points, it becomes clear that revolutionaries who are actually engaged in mass organizing with broad forces in trade unions, the student movement, and so on, must actually say something about elections. We could say simply, “don’t vote for the bourgeois candidates”, but what would be the point? Most people who care about politics are going to go vote, and as much as they would be interested in our opinions on Libya, they would also be interested in our opinions on what to do in the voting booth. “Who, then, are the people’s candidates that we should vote for?” they will ask. To this, we don’t have a real answer.

Then there’s the question of why. In my brief talk in Brussels, I tried to emphasize the point that we wanted to elevate people’s consciousness through struggle, beginning where people are and summing things up as we go forward together. We advocated defeating McCain as a way of engaging people’s progressive political views, and we took the advanced to protest outside of the RNC to emphasize that the power to change the course of history lies in the streets with the people rather than in the conventional hall. As our pamphlet on the Mass Line puts it:

We hold that it is through these particular battles that people learn about the nature of the enemy, how this system works and what are the effective methods of struggle. This in turn allows us to: Land blows which weaken and confuse the enemy while winning all that can be won; to accumulate forces for future battles (i.e. to build the respective movements by raising the general level of organization and consciousness) and to create favorable conditions for people to take up revolutionary theory.

Despite the setbacks that came as a result of the attacks from the FBI, certainly we accomplished the goals as best we could given the conditions before us, and the FRSO is certainly stronger now than ever before. The line put into practice at that time has been proven correct in practice.

This election cycle, we of course find that the same Marxist-Leninist principles hold true. What’s the real point of the statement on the 2012 elections?

We think the conditions are right in this electoral cycle to emphasize instead the nature of the two party, one ruling class system and talk about why what we have is not democracy and not good enough. We do think it is still important for progressives to go to the polls to oppose concrete attacks on democratic rights, such as Voter ID and anti-gay amendments. In terms of voting in the presidential election, it is better to vote against Romney, especially in swing states. In other states like California, the Republicans are unlikely to win. In these cases, it would be positive to have a strong third party vote total.

Our main message is that no matter how hopeful we are for change to come through electoral politics, this is not the venue for real change. Citizens United, and its ruling that corporations are free to openly buy the allegiance of politicians, makes more clear what has always been true: those who have the gold, make the rules. During this particular election cycle progressives should emphasize and talk about the problems inherent in the system, while placing demands on politicians from both parties. Our faith and our future are in the people’s struggle, not the ballot box.

Simple enough, one would think. See you in the streets at the RNC and the DNC.

Source

Committee to Stop FBI Repression condemns Seattle SWAT raid

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The following statement below was originally published by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression:

July 10, 2012

We have received reports, that this morning, July 10 2012, the Seattle Police Department raided an apartment – targeting well known activists from Occupy Seattle and the Red Spark Collective. A statement from the Red Spark Collective (part of the national Kasama network), notes “This apartment has been a hub for organizing the Everything 4 Everyone festival in August – to bring together West Coast forces for a cultural and political event building on the year of Occupy.”

In the United States today the forces of repression and reaction, ranging from the FBI to local police forces are trying to intimidate those who are standing up for peace, justice, equality and liberation. The examples are many, including the repression directed at Arabs and Muslims, the coordinated attacks on the occupy movement, and FBI raids on anti war and international solidarity activists.

We condemn this act of political repression and send our solidarity to all those who were targeted in this raid.

SWAT raid on organizers of Occupy Seattle & E4E

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The following article below was originally published by the Kasama Project. To read ongoing coverage on the situation by the Kasama Project, click here

July 10, 2012

Door beaten in by SWAT police raid.

Early morning, July 10, SWAT police forced their way into the Seattle apartment of organizers from the Occupy movement. The sleeping residents scrambled to put on clothes as they were confronted with automatic weapons.

The neighbor Natalio Perez heard the attack from downstairs: “Suddenly we heard the bang of their grenade, and the crashing as police entered the apartment. The crashing and stomping continued for a long time as they tore the place apart.”

After the raid, the residents pored over the papers handed them by a detective. One explained: “This warrant says that they were specifically looking for ‘anarchist materials’ — which lays out the political police state nature of this right there. In addition they were looking for specific pieces of clothing supposedly connected with a May First incident.

When the police finally left, they did not arrest anyone.

This action targets well known activists from Occupy Seattle and the Red Spark Collective (part of the national Kasama network).

This apartment has been a hub for organizing the Everything 4 Everyone festival in August – to bring together West Coast forces for a cultural and political event building on the year of Occupy.

No ‘Arab Spring’ possible in China, despite BBC’s desires

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The following article below was originally published on the Sons of Malcolm news blog, written by the Not A Dinner Party news blogger: 

June 29, 2012

Clearly the BBC is hoping to stir up an imaginary “Jasmine Spring”, the tone of the reporting is quite clear in that. Now, these workers have legitimate grievances, as they do in the many protests and riots that break out across China. Working-conditions, heavy handed policing, corruption, gangsterism. And often less legitimate reasons such as the usual bigotry, racism and sectarianism that often blight the poorest communities.

And these issues need to be addressed by the CP. And in many cases they are and seriously.

For example the BBC reporter mentions wages issues amongst migrant workers who are often lower paid and discriminated against. What he fails to mention is that the wages of migrant workers have increased by over 20% on average over the last year. How much did your wages go up this year?

The simple fact is, whatever legitimate issues and grievances there are for many millions of workers in China, the fact is that there is no demand, no desire for “western style reforms”. There is no mass movement against the CP or the socialist system. Quite the contrary, people by and large want to see more socialism not less, want to see the CP being more pro-active, not less. What they want is accountability and greater means for redress.

Even hostile analysts accept that if there were a “western style” election in China tomorrow, the CP would win with such a landslide it would most likely have more seats in the already multi-Party National Peoples Assembly than it already does!

But that does not allow room for complacency. There are plenty in China with wealth and power who will be more than happy to play the west’s game. And they will use whatever means available to them to sell China out and destroy what has been gained.

These kind of protests are important. They keep the Party on its toes. Remind them who is really boss under socialism.

Supporting Resistance, Not Regime

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By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
July 5, 2012

A handout picture released by the Syrian opposition’s Shaam News Network on 4 July 2012 shows Syrian rebels allegedly taking over an outpost belonging to government forces in Idlib on July 3. (Photo: AFP – SHAAM NEWS NETWORK)

Though far outnumbered by supporters of the Syrian uprising on the one hand, and Third Wayers who reject both the opposition and the regime on the other, a significant minority of Arab leftists, nationalists and even Islamists have sided with the Assad regime’s struggle against the imperialist-Zionist-GCC onslaught being waged against Syria.

I will articulate the position of this “resistance camp,” which is closely identified with Hezbollah’s position on Syria, and explain the rationale behind its controversial and unpopular position. It is important to clarify here that this position is not synonymous with those who support the Assad regime per se or with those who support it for reasons unrelated to anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist considerations; as its name suggests, it is a position which is defined primarily by the prioritization accorded to the liberation of Palestine and, more generally, the liberation of the region from imperialism, and Assad’s value to both of these objectives.

This position is underpinned by a resistance logic or rationality – a way of thinking which, to borrow Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah’s words “views events in the region through the [lens of] the Israeli issue…how it evaluates threats and dangers, how it acts and what it considers opportunities.” In the case of Syria, this resistance rationality “takes a step back from the details and looks at the bigger picture,” to quote Nasrallah again. And the bigger picture is one that prominently features the US and Israel as they relate to the struggle for Syria’s political identity and foreign allegiances.

Assad’s ouster serves US-Israeli interests

While some have argued that Israel and the US would prefer that Assad remains in power, as it is easier to deal with the “devil you know than the devil you don’t,” their active political and military support for elements in the Syrian opposition – support which predates the establishment of the SNC and FSA by several years as revealed by leaked US embassy cables published by Wikileaks – in addition to their official rhetoric, has proven the reverse.

Indeed, the ideal case scenario for both imperialists and Zionists is one involving an eviscerated, submissive and hence, manageable Assad. But given that the regime has refused to capitulate to US-Israeli longstanding demands to relinquish its support for resistance movements and divorce itself from Iran, its overthrow is viewed as the next best scenario.

Former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, Tzachi Hanegbi, acknowledges that the Syrian crisis represents a great opportunity for furthering Israel’s interests: “Events in Syria will have a more decisive impact than those in any other Arab country,” in that “the ouster of the Syrian president would significantly improve Israel’s strategic situation.” The collapse of the Assad regime would strike “a major blow to the radical axis” said Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. In so doing, it would drastically alter “the entire balance of forces in the region” as elaborated by former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevi.

Halevi continues: “Iranian-sponsored terrorism would be visibly contained; Hezbollah would lose its vital Syrian conduit to Iran… Hamas fighters in Gaza would have to contemplate a future without Iranian weaponry and training; and the Iranian people might once again rise up against the regime…” In a similar vein, Washington envisages Assad’s downfall as “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years” and the most efficient means for cutting off Iran’s lifeline to Hezbollah, according to General James Mattis, commander of US forces in the Middle East.

Such strategic benefits for the US and Israel outweigh any risks and uncertainties surrounding Syria’s future, and specifically, the role of Islamists in shaping it. Echoing Nasrallah’s assertion that “There is a consensus in Israel that any alternative in Syria is better than Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” Halevi declares “the way things are at present, any replacement of Assad is better.”

This assessment is also shared by a number of Israeli officials including Israeli president, Shimon Peres who described Assad on Israeli Channel 2, as “the worst there can be” of all alternatives, as well as by Barak in his CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour.

As contended by Hanegbi, fears of Sunni Islamists wreaking havoc on Israel’s doorstep were completely unfounded as it was “more likely that Assad’s successors will first seek to sideline the devoted supporters of the hated duo, Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad.” Like Hanegbi, Halevy also envisages a post-Assad Syria that is dominated by a “moderate” and Empire-friendly Sunni Islamist force who “won’t come to power in order to launch an effort against Israel.”

Such predictions do not appear far-fetched when one considers former head of the SNC Burhan Ghalioun’s assurances to his foreign sponsors that one of the first orders of business for a post-Assad government would be “breaking the exceptional relationship” between Syria and Iran and Hezbollah. Israeli and US assessments are further substantiated by the very public and well-documented “semi-official” contacts between various members of the SNC and Israel.

Even if the Syrian opposition figures collaborating with Israel belong almost exclusively to the foreign-funded, externally-based opposition, the fact remains that the uprising as a whole enjoys the support of the same array of forces who backed Israel and urged it to finish off Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in winter 2008/2009. It is for this reason that the US- Israeli-NATO-GCC- backed Syrian insurrection is viewed by the resistance camp as an extension of both of these wars against resistance movements, and an attempt to “reintroduce” the “New Middle East” project “through other gates” such as Syria, to cite Nasrallah.

In effect, to support Assad’s overthrow is to align oneself, whether by accident or design, on the same side of the trench as oppressive and reactionary powers. Given that justice is almost always situated in diametric opposition to wherever imperialism and Zionism stand on a given issue – considering that both forces are the clearest embodiments of injustice – such an alignment can never be dismissed as an undesirable coincidence or as strategically benign.

While an infrequent occurrence, one can conceivably share a political interest with the US or Israel without allowing either power to benefit from the convergence itself. One such example is the overthrow of Iran’s longtime enemy, Saddam Hussein, by the US, which clearly benefited the Islamic Republic. But despite the shared interest in his removal, the strategic objectives of the US in Iraq did not require Iran’s shared interest in Saddam’s ouster for their fulfillment. In fact, many in Washington lamented the extent to which Iran was empowered by Saddam’s overthrow, even before control of Iraq fell into Iran’s hands after the US withdrew the bulk of its troops.

By contrast, if resistance forces were to share the Empire’s interest in toppling Assad, they would directly play into its hands as his overthrow is conceived as a means for divorcing Syria from the resistance axis and for weakening Iran and resistance movements. In this connection, the resistance camp’s abandonment of the lynch-pin of the resistance front would only expedite US-Israeli strategic designs on the region and undercut the resistance project in Lebanon, Palestine and beyond.

Moreover, considering that the US-Israeli scheme requires a weakened Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Palestine axis for the fulfillment of its strategic objectives, the resistance camp’s forsaking of the Assad regime would be tantamount to political suicide on its part and hence, a de facto handover of the Levant to the Empire on a silver platter.

The Uprising is Not a Revolution

From the resistance camp’s perspective, it is precisely this US-NATO-Israel-GCC line-up supporting the uprising which renders it far less a popular revolution than an insurrection that is bankrolled by petrodollars and piloted by the Empire.

Although there is an acknowledgement that part of the opposition is a legitimate, homegrown movement which views its revolution as having been “hijacked” by these foreign powers and their Syrian proxies, the logic of resistance dictates that any cause hijacked by Zionism, US imperialism and Arab “moderation” effectively stops being a just cause and becomes somebody else’s reactionary and imperialist agenda.

Furthermore, having the leader of the world order on one’s side surely means that the “revolution” will be only used to perpetuate that world order – in other words, it will only serve as a counter-revolution to thwart any genuine attempts to redress the vast political and economic imbalances which characterize the prevailing global status-quo.

As such, leftists who support the Syrian opposition cannot, by any Marxist definition, consider themselves part of a Gramscian counter-hegemonic “war of position” when they are aligned with the same position as the hegemonic powers.

This would remain the case even if we were to assume hypothetically that the opposition enjoys as much popular support as the regime does and was led by the working class. As underlined by David Fennell in his illuminating essay on counter-revolution in Libya, “Marxism understands that a thing is determined by the totality of the forces acting in it.” Fennell goes on to quote Lenin’s definition of totality as one which takes account “of all the forces, groups, parties, classes and masses operating in a given country’.”

In other words, when formulating a political position, an analysis of the working class’ situation alone does not suffice, but must involve all social contradictions, with special emphasis on social contradictions which occur on the world system’s level.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.

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Paraguay: For the Restoration of Democracy and Popular Sovereignty

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By Front for Defense of Democracy
June 24, 2012

The Guasú Front, which was the driving force behind the 2008 electoral triumph of President Fernando Lugo, and a broad spectrum of other social and political movements agreed to form the Front for Defense of Democracy (FDD), which “rejects and condemns the putschist government of Federico Franco” and calls upon people “to defend the democratic process and institutional framework of the Republic by permanent mobilization.”  With that purpose, the FDD told us, a plan of struggle will be worked out, under Guasu Front Secretary General Ricardo Canese as FDD’s spokesperson.  See below the FDD’s first communiqué, reproduced here for its significance.  — Agencia Latinoamericana de Información

For the Restoration of Democracy and Popular Sovereignty

The FDD, united in the general assembly of its members, political parties and social movements, political and civil society leaders, denounces the rupture of the institutional framework and the state of law in Paraguay, torn down by the most conservative and reactionary sector of the National Parliament, who disregarded the fundamental principle of the right to legitimate defense and due process, using concepts and practices of the Stroessner dictatorship, and thus overthrew the constitutional government of President Fernando Lugo.  This violation of the National Constitution is based on accusations made without any evidence, by means of fascist, Nazi methods of intrigues and calumnies dressed up in pseudo-legal tools.

This grave deed, with deleterious consequences for the economy, society, and institutional life of the Republic, must be reversed immediately.  The civilized and democratic coexistence, based on justice and respect for popular sovereignty, must be reestablished.

For these reasons, the FDD rejects and condemns the putschist government of Federico Franco and calls upon the people of Paraguay to defend the democratic process and institutional framework of the Republic by permanent mobilization, in order to prevent the subjugation of fundamental human rights.  We appeal to all Paraguayans, at home and abroad, as well as the solidarity of the other fraternal peoples of Latin America, to mobilize ourselves in coordinated fashion for the restitution of the state of law and respect for popular sovereignty in Paraguay.

For the full force of the National Constitution!

For full respect for social justice and human rights in Paraguay!

Fernando Lugo is the sole Constitutional President of the Republic of Paraguay!

No to the putschist government of Federico Franco!

For the restoration of democracy in Paraguay!

The Front for Defense of Democracy (FDD)

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