Wednesday, August 23, 2017

2692. The Rise and Fall of the 1979 Iranian Revolution: Its Lessons for Today

By Kamran Nayeri and Alireza Nasab, March 31, 2006
Azadi (Freedom) Circle, Tehran, February 1979. The Circle was previously named Shayad (The Kings Memorial).
Editorial Note: The following paper was prepared for and presented at the III Conferencia Internacional La Obra de Carlos Marx y Los desafíos del Siglo XXI (The Third Conference of the Challenges of the 21st Century and the work of Karl Marx) in Havana, Cuba, in May 2006.  The was organized by the Instituto de Filosofia de Cuba.  The paper was presented on the first day of the conference by Alireza Nasab.   Alireza Ismaeli Nasab was an Iranian Trotskyist who lived in exile in London and died there on April 22, 2011, at age 57.  I have edited the paper, which I drafted in a rush for the conference and included typographical and grammar errors. I have revised a couple of sentences to read better or impart more information to the reader. The original draft is still available at the Institute of Philosophy's website.  KN.

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Achievements
The February 1979 Iranian revolution was the largest urban mass uprising since the 1917 Russian revolutions. It changed the strategic relation of forces in the Middle East to the detriment of imperialism. In 1953, the Shah’s regime had been imposed by the CIA-MI6 coup that overthrew the democratically elected nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh. It overthrew imperialism’s regional gendarme, an ally of the colonial-settler state of Israel, and a supporter of South African Apartheid. It dissolved the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a regional anti-Soviet Union military pact. 

After the 1953 defeat of the mass movement, the Shah’s regime had gradually consolidate an autocratic capitalist state, on the basis of an imperial Fars (Persian) chauvinist ideology that denied the oppressed nationalities any rights, and increasingly choked off the political life. The February revolution destroyed the monarchy, the historical form of the State in Iran, and badly damaged its repressive and ideological props. Aside from those who were caught by the revolutionary forces, with the royal court almost all the major industrialists and bankers, the military brass and top bureaucrats fled the country, mostly, for the United States. 

Who led the February revolution? 
No political party or individual led the February revolution. Instead, grassroots organizations in the neighborhoods, workplaces, high schools and universities, and among peasants and oppressed nationalities, and eventually in the armed forces, were formed to challenge the Shah’s power structure. Workers began to exert control over workplaces. Peasants moved to take the land they had tiled for centuries; closely tied to this oppressed nationalities began to revive their cultural heritage and exercise autonomy. Universities became centers of political discourse. Neighborhoods were organized through popular committees. Political parties, including the banned communist groups, began to function increasingly openly. Finally, as the discipline in the armed forces began to break and some soldiers went to the side of the revolution, the population armed itself and overthrew the monarchy. 

It was entirely possible for Iranians to inaugurate the first workers and peasant government in the Middle East and open the road to socialism. 

Instead Ayatollah Khomeini, who had opposed the Shah’s capitalist modernization reform programs in 1963 and was subsequently arrested and exiled to Iraq, captured the moment and established himself as the spokesperson for the revolution. By 1983, he had used populist demagogy and ruthless repression to suppress all independent mass organizations and practically all political parties to consolidate a theocratic capitalist regime. Thus, he offered a historically reactionary response to imperialism in the Middle East. 

The Shah’s regime and its opponents
In Iran the state has been the force behind capitalist industrialization. The Pahlavi monarchy led this effort in the 1930s, and it was resumed soon after the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953. The pace of capitalist development picked up after the White Revolution in 1963 as it reformed class relations especially in the countryside in order to facilitated capitalist primitive accumulation and ongoing capital accumulation. 

The agrarian reform favored a shift of rural surplus funds to capitalist accumulation and rural surplus population to towns where industrialization was underway. The White Revolution contributed to the weakening of the power of the Shiite hierarchy, itself a major landowner and tax collector, and its traditional ally the Bazaar merchants, who were also part of the traditional absentee landowners. The Shiite hierarchy opposed key planks of the White Revolution, including the land reform, Health and Knowledge Corps (army draftees whose mission was to bring elementary health and literacy campaigns to the countryside), and the extension of the right to vote to women (even though the right to vote itself had little meaning under a dictatorship). Thus, an alliance of Shiite hierarchy, bazaar merchants and sectors of the old landowning classes opposed the Shah’s regime. 

The Shah’s regime was also opposed by social classes and sectors that his own capitalist modernization program had created. Most importantly, this included the proletariat; between 1963 and 1975 the size of the Iranian working class doubled. Millions of the pauperized peasants had become squatters in the large cities, especially Tehran, and came increasingly into conflict with the State apparatus. Finally, the “new middle class” and the intelligentsia became the most vocal critics of the Shah’s regime. They also provided most of the cadre for the nationalist, Islamic and socialist forces opposed to the Shah. 

The bourgeois nationalist parties 
The Iranian capitalist class developed belatedly and dependent either on the State or the imperialist powers, never cut it’s ties to pre-capitalist social relations. Thus, it was never willing or able to carry a national democratic revolution. In the 19th century Iranian merchants held Russian citizenship to safeguard their wealth against the Qajar kings. During the course of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, they took refuge from the Qajar autocracy in the British Embassy. 

The State sponsored industrialization spurt under the Pahlavi dynasty helped to develop a small layer of industrial and financial capitalists; but they remained subservient to the royal court and the international bourgeoisie. 

The period of glory of bourgeois nationalism was limited to brief campaign for nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1950s that was led by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, who became the prime minister on popular demand. In a period of the climax of confrontation with the royal court, Hossein Fatemi spoke of a republic while Mossadegh limited himself to the notion that “[t]he Shah should rule but not govern.” In his confrontation with Britain, Mossadegh sought the support of the World Court and the US administration. When Washington and London joined forces to stage a coup in the summer of 1953, Mossadegh refused to mobilize and arm the masses even after the first coup attempt failed. Three days later a second coup succeeded and a generation of Iranians suffered the consequences. 

The National Front, the umbrella organization of the bourgeois nationalists formed around Mossadegh, never attained the same glory. A combination of dictatorship and a lack of a genuine program and strategy for a national democratic revolution fractured it into a half a dozen small sects organized around various personalities. On the eve of the February revolution, Shahpour Bakhtiar, one of the leading National Front figures, accepted to Shah’s offer to become his caretaker prime minister. After the triumph of the February revolution, Mehdi Bazargan, another National Front leader who had merge nationalist and Islamic sentiments, became Ayatollah Khomeini’s interim prime minister. His cabinet was made of assortments of nationalist figures who merely served as a transition belt for the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Bazargan’s cabinet was forced out after it was discovered that he had secretly met with the Americans in Algeria in the summer of 1979. A few other Islamic nationalist characters, like Bani Sadre, Ghotb Zadeh and Yazdi, served the Islamic Republic as non-clergy confidants before they were also purged. 

Thus, the Iranian bourgeoisie has proved unwilling and incapable of leading a national democratic revolution. 

The working class and its leaderships. 
The Iranian working class origins includes thousands of oil workers in Baku (annexed in late nineteenth century by the Tsarist Russia) and the early influence of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, especially the Bolsheviks. In 1904, the first Iranian social democratic group (Hemmat) was founded in Transcaucasia. Social Democrats participated in the Constitutional Revolution, including, with help of their Russian Social Democrats, in the defense of revolutionary Tabriz, when monarchist forces stage a counter revolution from Tehran. Iranian Social Democrats established links with the leaders of the Second International and helped the Bolsheviks smuggle Iskra into Transcaucasia. In June 1920, after the Bolsheviks called for the formation of the Communist International, Iranian communists held their first party congress and founded the Communist Party of Iran. 
During the same period, there were rank-and-file attempts to form trade unions in the few industries that had emerged. Notable was the printers’ trade union. However, the political development of the Iranian working class was largely influenced by the communists from the very beginning. The communist world view entered in Iran before it emerged from the struggles of workers themselves. This process differed from much of the historical development during Marx’s and Engels’ time and their conception of the developmental trajectory of the working class, beginning with trade union formations. The existence of autocracy also proved detrimental to the development of trade unions and economic struggles as the pretext to class (political) struggle. Thus, the Communist party was established before any large-scale trade unions were attempted. The formation of trade unions or any other workers’ organization became the task for communists. 

This uneven development proved critical for the history of the Iranian labor movement. By 1930, the Communist party and most of its leadership were destroyed by the combined blows from Reza Shah’s dictatorship and the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union. Many communists rotted in Reza Shah’s jails, and some, including Otis Sultanzadeh, the party’s principal leader and a leader of the Communist International in Lenin’s time, were executed during Stalinist purges. 

As elsewhere in the world, the degeneration of the Russian revolution and ascendancy of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste destroyed the Bolshevik revolutionary program and strategy. Communist parties were transformed into reformist bureaucratic organizations that blindly followed Moscow’s policies. 

After the occupation of Iran by the Allies in 1941, with the support of Moscow and the initiative of the Stalinist members of the former Communist party, the Tudeh (masses) party was organized as a Popular Front, anti-fascist organization. The Tudeh party became more similar to the typical Stalinist parties after the Cold War began; that is, it never developed a socialist program and strategy. Instead, like other Stalinist parties in the semi-colonial and colonial world, it has pursued a strategic alliance with the “national bourgeoisie” who it has claimed will lead a national democratic revolution. 

The Tudeh party’s influence on the Iranian working class has been disastrous. The leadership of the Central Council of the United Trade Unions of Iranian Workers and Toilers, which it came to control in 1946, was entirely imposed by the party and made up of key party cadre who were from the Iranian elite, not the working class. The Tudeh party used its influence in the labor movement to bargain with the capitalist regime. It put down militant labor strikes, including of oil workers in Aghajari, when it believed it was possible to wrestle concessions from the government. This is how Tudeh party was offered three ministerial posts in the reactionary Qavam cabinet in 1946. These policies mirrored Moscow’s own: to please Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin pulled out the Red Army from Azerbaijan. This made it possible for the Shah’s advancing army to overthrow the pro-Soviet government of Pishevari. 

The Tudeh party advocated for oil concessions in the northern portions of Iran for Moscow when the government was considering oil concessions in the south for the West. Te Tudeh party did not join the fight for nationalization of the Iranian oil industry led by Mossadegh. It also did not use its significant influence in the army to fight the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953. When the coup succeeded, its most committed militants were given to the firing squads. Not surprisingly, the Tudeh party never regained its standing with the Iranian workers again. 
With the Sino-Soviet rift, the exiled Tudeh party leadership also suffered a split. The various Maoist groups that emerged were not essentially different in their program and strategy. Like the Tudeh, they all hoped for a “national bourgeois” force to lead the national democratic revolution. Meanwhile, after the White Revolution of 1963 Moscow, and later Beijing established good relations with the Shah that lasted until his overthrow by the February 1979 revolution. 

During the 1960s, a layer of the youth influenced by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions split off from the National Front and from the Tudeh party. They formed the Mujahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin) and the Fedayeen-e Khalq (People’s Fedayeen) respectively. These were anti-dictatorship and anti-imperialist urban guerrilla forces. Despite the sincerely and self-sacrifice of its original leaders, these organizations tried to substitute the reformism of bourgeois nationalists and the Tudeh party with heroic armed actions and determination to struggle. They lacked any mass action program and strategy for radical social change. Thus, they remained vulnerable to the more sophisticated Stalinist forces. The Mujahedin suffered a Maoist split in early the 1970s. The Fedayeen were split by the pressure from the Tudeh party after 1979. The guerrilla movement itself was quickly militarily defeated by the Shah’s repressive apparatus and was soon politically superseded by the mass movement of the working people who made the February 1979 revolution. 
After the 1953 coup, Stalinist and centrist political forces had little direct contact and influence in the labor movement. Meanwhile, the quickening pace of industrialization doubled the size of the labor force and gave it a measure of power in relationship to employers. At the same time, intensification of dictatorship limited trade union development and institutionalized economic struggle. Combined, these factors contributed to the development of the mass working class movement in 1978-79 and after the February 1979 revolution. 

The events of 1978-79 showed that in the relative absence of Stalinist and centrist parties workers can display an amazing capacity for organization and action even under a system of dictatorship. Thus, Iranian workers with no prior strike experience formed formidable strike committees. Iranian workers with no experience in workers’ control developed workers’ councils and took charge of their work places. Even during the counter-revolutionary offensive of the summer of 1979, workers councils were being formed and organized into regional and national networks. 

These could have developed further and a class struggle working class leadership could have emerged in due time to pose the perspective for a workers and peasant government. However, by 1983, all workers’ councils were destroyed or substituted by corporatist Islamic Shoras (councils) of Labor and the Workers’ House. 

The Islamic Republic as counterrevolution 
The historical weakness of the national bourgeoisie and crisis of the working class leadership provided a vacuum in 1978-79, which Ayatollah Khomeini filled. A resolute opponent of the Shah, Khomeini and his allies were negotiating a peaceful transfer of power to keep the capitalist order intact. The behind the scene negotiations, which included Washington, settled on a government headed by National Front figures to take over the power from the Shah. What motivated these negotiations was the common fear of a proletarian revolution. However, Shahpour Bakhtiar, the National Front figure chosen by the Shah as the caretaker prime minister, decided to remain at the helm. Meanwhile, a section of the army brass that was routing for a bloodbath decided on a military coup. The show down with the masses led to the February 19-21 armed insurrections. 

Thus, in the actual reality, the power fell in the hands of the grassroots organizations that had no common perspective for the future. However, the bulk of bourgeois nationalist and petty bourgeois parties, including the Tudeh party, most Maoist groups, Fedayeen, and Mujahedin supported Khomeini’s bid for power. Khomeini’s secretive Revolution Council that was set up to take the power from Shah-Bakhtiar proposed a provisional government headed by Mehdi Bazargan and staffed with National Front figures. The provisional government itself had no mass base and drew its legitimacy from Ayatollah Khomeini. Thus, Khomeini-Bazargan government, on one hand, and the grassroots organizations that sprang out of the revolutionary struggle, on the other hand, produced a situation of de facto dual power. 

From the first day after the February victory, Khomeini’s designated government pursued policies to resolve this duality of power by undermining the grassroots organizations that held the potential of for a proletarian revolution. 

A necessarily limited chronology has to suffice. Pro-Khomeini forces arrived soon after the liberation of the State-run TV and radio stations (there were and are no others) to take it over and impose a censorship that excluded among other things socialist points of view. Soon all news, information, and entrainment, deemed “non-Islamic” were censured and staff that did not cooperate were fired. Within a few days after the insurrection, Khomeini issued a decree to disarm the neighborhood defense committees and forced a top-down Islamic armed squads (Committees Of Islamic Revolution) that were based in mosques. When these tightly controlled Islamic squads proved inadequate to control the mass movement, some in the Shiite hierarchy recruited youth from the urban poor into semi-fascist Hezbollah squads. These were used to attack demonstrations and political or social groups. Just before the International Women’s Day, Khomeini issued a decree requiring women to wear the Islamic garb. Hezbollah goons attacked the women’s March 8 march with chains, sticks, and knives. During the Iranian New Year at the end of March, the air force bombed Turkman Sahra, where the oppressed nationality Turkeman lives, on the southeast of the Caspian Sea where peasants were taking over the land and the Turkmans had established a cultural center. On the 14th day of the Iranian New Year (in April), Khomeini staged an undemocratic referendum in which the population was given the choice of continuing with the monarchy which they had just overthrown or the undefined Islamic Republic. The voters rejected the monarchy by an over 90% majority; Khomeini and his allies claimed that such huge majority actually wanted an Islamic Republic— which at the time was just a slogan empty of content. He then used the vote to exclude all non-Islamic groups from the legal political discourse. In April, a mass circulation daily, Ayandegan, which was critical of Khomeini, was shut down by force. This was followed by a war waged against the Kurdish people who have been struggling for self-determination for decades. At the same time, armed Hezbollah gangs were used to ransack headquarters of socialist parties and 40 newspapers were shut down. Meanwhile, Khomeini decided that instead of a democratic constituent assembly based on grassroots organizations that had issued from the revolution, an Islamic Assembly of Experts should write a constitution for the Islamic Republic he had rubber stamped in the April referendum. 

By all appearances, the reactionary offensive of the summer of 1979 had consolidated the Islamic Republic and all opposition parties were driven underground. However, when a select group of pro-Khomeini students took over the US embassy in October, streets of Tehran and other cities were once again filled with millions of anti-imperialist demonstrators. Open political activity revived. Once again, the workers showed the way forward. United workers’ councils led several mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere. Workers’ councils that sprang up in individual factories had learned that in order to manage their workplaces they need to link up with other workers’ council within the same industry, region, or industrial group. Peasant councils were also formed and some linked up with others and land occupations were underway. This posed the problem of working class management of the economy and society and the need for a workers and peasant government.

What was lacking was a working class leadership to link up these class-specific demands with the anti-imperialist movement and the defense of democratic and political freedoms through the expansion of the already existing grassroots organizations, in particular workers and peasant councils; this would have created a workers and peasants government. Only such a government, like the one that issued from the October 1917 revolution, and subsequently in Cuba after 1959, could have charted a consistent anti-imperialist, that is, anti-capitalist and socialist course. History has produced no other alternatives. 

Such leadership did not exist. Instead, Stalinist and centrist parties were essentially divided into two camps. A group best exemplified by the Tudeh party and Fedayeen Majority argued that the conflict with imperialism and monarchism required political support for the “anti-imperialist” Khomeini regime. Others such as the Mujahedin and Fedayeen Minority countered that Khomeini is the gravest danger facing the revolution. Thus, they each looked for an alternative force within the Islamic Republic and in the bourgeois political spectrum. President Bani-Sadre temporarily provided one such a bourgeois figure for the Anti-Khomeini opposition. In practice, each of these two camps subordinated actual class struggle to their perceived need to either politically support or to militarily confront the Islamic Republic. 

Take the case of the workers’ council movement. In the spring of 1980, the Islamic Republic party begun to systematically organize and use Islamic Associations in workplaces to divide the workforce into “followers of Imam (Khomeini)” and those who were not prepared to pledge allegiance to him. The same scheme was used to split workers’ councils and establish the corporatist Islamic Councils of Labor. This scheme not only split the working class according to workers’ religious or ideological belief, it also created organizations of workers with the explicit goal of supporting the clerical, capitalist regime and its management in the State sector of the economy, which was extensive thanks to the expropriations. Further, this policy created tensions and conflicts among workers, which allowed management and State officials to intervene. After the start of the Iran-Iraq war, workers resistance to these and any other capitalist policies were labeled as “counter-revolutionary.” 

The Tudeh party and Fedayeen Majority asked their membership to identify themselves as Muslims and “followers of Imam.” They even joined noon time prayers at workplaces. The Mujahedin and Fedayeen Minority and others who placed open struggle against Khomeini quickly came against a still substantial section of the workforce that still harbored illusions in Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. These groups were quickly isolated given that they had no proposal for uniting workers as a revolutionary class. Their followers in factories were quickly fired or were forced to operate secretly. 

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. Khomeini called this “a divine gift.” He and the Islamic Republic began an offensive to destroy the grassroots organizations and political parties. Workplaces, especially factories, were militarized. All workers’ protests against the management or the State were called “counter-revolutionary.” Soon after the war began, Khomeini heeded the demand by Ayatollah Golpaigani and Ayatollah Marraashi, two archconservative Shiite leaders, to discard a modest land reform bill in the Islamic parliament. Landowners went on an offensive against peasants. Socialists and others who did not agree with the Islamic Republic but wanted to participate in the defense of the revolution against Saddam Hussein’s army were expelled from the fronts. Meanwhile, Iraqi army destroyed the oil industry in the South, thereby undermining the strongest section of the Iranian proletariat, the oil workers. In the villages, the Iraqi army executed members of the peasant councils. 

At the same time, imperialist and monarchist terrorism provided additional opportunity for the regime to clamp down on political freedoms. The failure of socialist currents to join the fight against imperialist and monarchist terrorism and the increasingly systematic State repression undermined independent working class organization and action. 

In the summer of 1981, under blows from the Islamic Republic, the Mujahedin leadership decided to stage an “armed insurrection.” This putsch failed quickly. The government used it to justify a murderous campaign to physically destroy the Mujahedin and the armed centrist groups such as the Fedayeen Minority. The Tudeh party and Fedayeen Majority helped the authorities in identifying and persecuting these groups whose members and sympathizers were routinely imprisoned, tortured and in the summer of 1981, executed. As a result, Mujahedin and Fedayeen Minority and other centrist groups retreated to Kurdistan, which still was not under the full control of the Islamic Republic. Most these groups eventually splintered and no significant organization remains today. The exception is the Mujahedin who have built a cult organization in the service of imperialism (the French and later American imperialisms) and then organized an armed unit of several thousand to attack Iran from Iraq at the pleasure of Saddam Hussein. 

After dealing a decisive blow to the labor movement, the Mujahedin, and centrist groups, all with the complicity of the Tudeh party and Fedayeen Majority, the government turned against them. Late in 1982, the government arrested the bulk of Tudeh leadership and some of the Fedayeen Majority leadership. Some were tortured and executed. Others appeared on the State television to denounce Marxism, explain how they spied for the Soviet Union, and praise Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. 

The combination of these Stalinist betrayals and centrist policies disoriented workers and the youth and facilitated capitalist attacks on the labor and mass movements. These led to demoralization of a generation of youth and working class fighters well before the Soviet bloc collapsed. 

By 1983, all grassroots organizations and socialist political currents were effectively destroyed in Iran. Khomeini pursued the fratricidal war with Iraq even after the Iranian army and volunteers had effectively driven the invading forces out in the spring of 1982. The war continued until 1988 when both sided were exhausted and over a million were killed or mimed. After 1988, the Islamic Republic began a massive economic offensive against the working class that continues to this date. 

Lessons for today
The 1979 Iranian revolution could be gainfully compared to the 1917 Russian revolutions. In both revolutions workers and peasants brought down autocratic monarchies. Although the Bolsheviks’ influence had indirectly prepared the workers, the February revolution in both countries triumphed without the leadership of any individual or party. In both revolutions, grassroots organizations of workers and peasants were formed: The soviets in Russia and the workers, peasants, and other popular councils in Iran. But here the similarities end. 
In Russia, Lenin recognized that proletarian character of the revolutionary process and educated and mobilized the Bolshevik party to fight for a government of the commune-type based on the soviets of workers, soldiers, and peasants deputies. In Iran, the Stalinist and centrist parties, much like the Mensheviks in the Russian revolution, called for support to the capitalist Islamic republic or other bourgeois forces within or outside of it (or organized their own sectarian, sometimes armed, campaigns). These class collaborationist and sectarian policies were decisive in the defeat of the working class and the revolution. 
Unfortunately, the experience of the Iranian revolution is not unique. As noted, similar policies defeated the mass upsurge in Iran from 1945-53. Dozens of revolutions in the industrial capitalist counties and in the periphery have suffered a similar fate. With the demise of the soviets’ power and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste, the Bolshevik program, strategy and tradition was buried in favor of a new doctrine suitable to the conservative new elite. These polices were imposed on the young Communist parties and those communists who opposed them were violently purged, sometimes murdered. Thus, the communist movement was defeated as a mass movement by the end of 1920s. 

The Marxian theory of socialism seeks human emancipation through self-organization and self-activity of the proletariat as the ruling class. This is also what Lenin stresses in his State and Revolution. The fundamental lesson of the Iranian revolution is to return to this long lost treasure of working class and socialist movements: to critically re-appropriate the Bolshevik legacy (which includes Trotsky’s) in light of what Marx and Engels left us from their critical appropriation of the 19th-century struggle for socialism. 

Marx’s legacy is an open system and the socialism of the 21st century will have to tackle new problems, most importantly the fight to re-appropriation of nature in theory and practice as the basis of our humanity and a fundamental plank of Marxian socialism. However, to tackle new problems, it is imperative that we find the courage to learn from previous defeats and to revise the theory and tradition that has contributed to our victories. 

March 31, 2006 

Monday, August 21, 2017

2691. Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History

By Eric Foner, The New York Times, August 20, 2017
Statue of Rober E. Lee brought down in New Orleans
President Trump’s Thursday morning tweet lamenting that the removal of Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great country” raises numerous questions, among them: Who is encompassed in that “our”?

Mr. Trump may not know it, but he has entered a debate that goes back to the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based on shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or should it rest on “blood and soil,” to quote the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., whom Trump has at least partly embraced?

Neither Mr. Trump nor the Charlottesville marchers invented the idea that the United States is essentially a country for white persons. The very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790 to establish guidelines for how immigrants could become American citizens, limited the process to “white” persons.

What about nonwhites born in this country? Before the Civil War, citizenship was largely defined by individual states. Some recognized blacks born within their boundaries as citizens, but many did not. As far as national law was concerned, the question was resolved by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Blacks, wrote Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a statue of whom was removed from public display in Baltimore this week), were and would always be aliens in America.

This was the law of the land when the Civil War broke out in 1861. This is the tradition that the Southern Confederacy embodied and sought to preserve and that Mr. Trump, inadvertently or not, identifies with by equating the Confederacy with “our history and culture.”

Many Americans, of course, rejected this racial definition of American nationality. Foremost among them were abolitionists, male and female, black and white, who put forward an alternative definition, known today as birthright citizenship. Anybody born in the United States, they insisted, was a citizen, and all citizens should enjoy equality before the law. Abolitionists advocated not only the end of slavery, but also the incorporation of the freed people as equal members of American society.

In the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, this egalitarian vision was, for the first time, written into our laws and Constitution. But the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold in the South.

When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as essential parts of “our” history and culture, he is honoring that dark period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America.

The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

We have come a long way from the days of the Dred Scott decision. But our public monuments have not kept up. The debate unleashed by Charlottesville is a healthy re-examination of the question “Who is an American?” And “our” history and culture is far more complex, diverse and inclusive than the president appears to realize.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

2690. Film Review: Les Saisons (Seasons)

By Kamran Nayeri, August 20, 2017

Les Saisons (Seasons) is a 2015 French-German nature documentary film directed, produced, co-written, and narrated by Jacques Perrin, with Jacques Cluzaud as co-director.  The documentary is centered on the natural history of Europe beginning with the Ice Age c. 110,000 – c. 11,700 years ago. The film depicts this period focusing on animals who survived in Europe at the time, it opens with a herd of bisons that look like frozen statues.  As the climate warmed, the ice retreated, and the geological epoch Holocene began, a forest covered Europe and new and more varied life thrived there. This part is rich wildlife cinematography. The film succeeds so well in drawing the audience into viewing the forest from the perspective of it animal inhabitant, that when the camera rolls onto a scene of hunter-gatherers we see them from the eyes of onlooking animals, with curiosity. This part constitutes the majority of the film coverage and is most beautiful of all. 

Then the next episode in the film is the rise of first farmers, with hints at domestication of animals and plants.  Gradually, the audience views with alarm the expansion of the realm of farmers and their ever more learning of the forest and domestication of wildlife as the forest retreats to ever smaller parts of the continent.  The wildlife that survives is forced up the mountainous regions. 

In the last part of the film, we see the arrival of industrialization with the devastation of forests and wildlife that had survived, increasingly being forced to live in the ever-expanding human settlements.  Finally, we see the European wars that destroyed not just millions of humans but also an untold number of non-human fauna and flora. 

The director and co-director are well-known for their earlier nature documentaries: Winged Migration (2001) and Oceans (2009).  Seasons is definitely as beautifully produced as their earlier films. Where it is lacking is in its final message, which blames humans for the ecological crisis since the Agricultural Revolution, especially for the current Sixth Extinction, and in it naively expressed hope that somehow we will change our ways, to bring peace in human relations with nature.  

Of course, we humans are part of the animal kingdom, hence of nature itself. What the film depicts as the rise of early farmers, required a world-historic break with the long history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who did not differentiate themselves from the rest of nature in their ecocentric worldview.  The first farmers were pioneers of the anthropocentric worldview as their mode of production required domestication of plants and animals. In effect, they adopted an alienated view of nature in their new mode of life with their presumption that humans are separate and morally superior to other species. This drive for increasing domination and control of nature eventually produced an economic surplus through the exploitation of domesticated species which formed the material basis for that the early class-based civilizations that were formed through subordination, oppression, and exploitation of humans.  

Taking notice of the world ecological movement that has been actively searching for ways to stop and reverse the planetary crisis would have been a fitting ending to the film.  Yes, there is hope, but only if billions of us realize what five millennia of class societies, especially the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization of the last 250 years, has done to the life-support systems of the planet, and organize and mobilize to transcend it in the direction of an ecocentric ecological socialist world.  

Still, Les Saisons is a treat to your senses and will open your heart to the love for Mother Nature, an absolutely necessary ingredient for saving the world.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

2689. Book Review: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

By Heather Boushey, The New York Times, August 15, 2017
Earlier this year, when the Republican pollster Glen Bolger sat down with Donald Trump voters who had previously voted for Barack Obama, one Wisconsinite summed up his reason for favoring Trump this time around: “I think they all lie, but Trump was more — is more obvious.” This statement presents quite a puzzle. Why would any voter think that being a known liar is an asset?

Insight into this conundrum comes from an unlikely source, the life’s work of the economist James McGill Buchanan — who happens to be the subject of a new book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by the historian Nancy MacLean. Buchanan, who was born in 1919 and died in 2013, advanced the field of public choice economics into politics, arguing that all interest groups push for their own agenda rather than the public good. According to this view, governing institutions cannot be trusted, which is why governing should be left to the market.

In the United States, promising and then delivering services and protections for the majority of voters provides a path for politicians to be popularly elected. Buchanan was concerned that this would lead to overinvestment in public services, as the majority would be all too willing to tax the wealthy minority to support these programs. So Buchanan came to a radical conclusion: Majority rule was an economic problem. “Despotism,” he declared in his 1975 book “The Limits of Liberty,” “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

Buchanan, therefore, argued for “curbing the appetites of majority coalitions” by establishing ironclad rules that would curb their power. As he was known for saying, “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers.” In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision making.

Buchanan, however, also had what MacLean calls a “stealth” agenda. He knew that the majority would never agree to being constrained. He, therefore, helped lead a push to undermine their trust in public institutions. The idea was to get voters to direct their ire at these institutions and divert their attention away from increasing income and wealth inequality.

This is the sordid tale that MacLean lays out in “Democracy in Chains.” She starts with Buchanan’s early engagement in policy work in the late 1950s, when he offered to help the state of Virginia respond to the federal mandate to desegregate public schools. After the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public school segregation was unconstitutional, Buchanan and a fellow economist called for the state to issue tax-subsidized vouchers to any parents who wanted to send their children to private schools. What these economists were calling for was essentially the privatization of public education.
But even in 1950s Virginia, public schools were popular with many white parents, and “a fire sale of tax-funded public schools to private school operators would be political suicide,” MacLean writes. Buchanan’s plan failed, and he learned a tough lesson from this foray into policy making: If the majority demands services such as free public schools, politicians will acquiesce.

Buchanan decided he needed to influence policy at a deeper level. In the ensuing years, he sought to lead an economic and political movement in which he stressed that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential” to mask efforts to protect the wealthy elite from the will of the majority. In September 1973, Buchanan held the inaugural meeting of the International Atlantic Economic Society, arguing for the need to “create, support and activate an effective counterintelligentsia” to reshape the way people thought about government. He believed the center-left controlled academia and “effectively indoctrinated political actors in both parties,” MacLean writes. To fight back, conservatives needed to develop new surrogates who could be “indoctrinated” in turn with right-wing ideas, and then “mobilized, organized and directed” to disseminate them.

We know all of this because MacLean found documentation of Buchanan’s plans — including correspondence, meeting minutes and personal papers — in his previously unexplored archives. She came upon her biographical subject “by sheer serendipity,” she writes, while researching how the state of Virginia responded to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Seeing the name of an unfamiliar economist eventually led her to rooms full of documents that made clear how “operatives” had been trained “to staff the far-flung and purportedly separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors.” Buchanan’s papers revealed how, from a series of faculty perches at several universities, he spent his life laying out a game plan for a right-wing social movement.

Election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a watershed for conservatives, yet it quickly became clear that he, too, would succumb to political pressure. By 1982, Reagan’s fight to end Social Security — long a bugbear of Buchanan’s — was faltering. Amid that debate, the libertarian Cato Institute, funded by the brothers Charles and David Koch, made privatization of Social Security its top priority and turned to Buchanan for a master plan. Buchanan told them that “those who seek to undermine the existing structure” must do two things: Make people doubt the viability of Social Security, and divide the public by suggesting high earners be taxed at higher rates — which might sound progressive but would ultimately undo the universal foundation of the program itself.

MacLean doesn’t hide her antipathy to Buchanan’s goals. As a historian of American social movements, she brings this expertise to her study of Buchanan, showing how his work helped to sow doubt that anyone — whether individuals, groups or institutions — can act in the public good. Nevertheless, her overt moral revulsion at her subject can sometimes make it seem as if we’re getting only part of the picture.

American democracy was unprepared to defend itself against the agenda of Buchanan and conservative benefactors. Buchanan may not have been the only actor in this movement, and the role of conservative donors and economists has been documented elsewhere, but we are now living in a world he helped shepherd into reality. Public choice economists argue that those with the most to lose from change will pay the most attention, which has certainly been the case with Charles and David Koch. They and their friends have invested enormous sums in organizations that have changed the national debate about the proper role of government in the economy. Our politically polarized and increasingly paralyzed government institutions are the result.

With this book MacLean joins a growing chorus of scholars and journalists documenting the systematic, organized effort to undermine democracy and change the rules. In “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer tells the tale of the Koch brothers. In “Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal,” the historian Kim Phillips-Fein shows how a small group of businessmen initiated a decades-long effort to build popular support for free market economics. The political scientist Steven M. Teles writes about the chemicals magnate John M. Olin in “The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.”

Power consolidation sometimes seems like a perpetual motion machine, continually widening the gap between those who have power and money and those who don’t. Still, “Democracy in Chains” leaves me with hope: Perhaps as books like MacLean’s continue to shine a light on important truths, Americans will begin to realize they need to pay more attention and not succumb to the cynical view that known liars make the best leaders.

2688. Video: Charlottesville Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists Attack and People's Resistance


Sunday, August 13, 2017

2687. Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism

By Kristen R. Ghodsee, The New York Times, August 12, 2017
A woman working at a collective farm near Moscow in 1955. CreditMark Redkin/FotoSoyuz, via Getty Images
When Americans think of Communism in Eastern Europe, they imagine travel restrictions, bleak landscapes of gray concrete, miserable men and women languishing in long lines to shop in empty markets and security services snooping on the private lives of citizens. While much of this was true, our collective stereotype of Communist life does not tell the whole story.

Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. 

Researchers marveled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction, especially since East German women suffered from the notorious double burden of formal employment and housework. In contrast, postwar West German women had stayed home and enjoyed all the labor-saving devices produced by the roaring capitalist economy. But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women who had to line up for toilet paper.

How to account for this facet of life behind the Iron Curtain?

Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria, who was 65 when I first met her in 2011. Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships.

“Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,” she said. “After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased.”

Ms. Durcheva was a single mother for many years, but she insisted that her life before 1989 was more gratifying than the stressful existence of her daughter, who was born in the late 1970s.

“All she does is work and work,” Ms. Durcheva told me in 2013, “and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t matter, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.”

Last year in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, I spoke with a recently married 30-something named Daniela Gruber. Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Ms. Gruber to have a baby.

“She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell,” she told me, referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”

This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these regimes saw women’s emancipation as central to advanced “scientific socialist” societies, as they saw themselves.

Although East European Communist states needed women’s labor to realize their programs for rapid industrialization after World War II, the ideological foundation for women’s equality with men was laid by August Bebel and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. After the Bolshevik takeover, Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandra Kollontai enabled a sexual revolution in the early years of the Soviet Union, with Kollontai arguing that love should be freed from economic considerations.

The Soviets extended full suffrage to women in 1917, three years before the United States did. The Bolsheviks also liberalized divorce laws, guaranteed reproductive rights and attempted to socialize domestic labor by investing in public laundries and people’s canteens. Women were mobilized into the labor force and became financially untethered from men.

In Central Asia in the 1920s, Russian women crusaded for the liberation of Muslim women. This top-down campaign met a violent backlash from local patriarchs not keen to see their sisters, wives and daughters freed from the shackles of tradition.

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin reversed much of the Soviet Union’s early progress in women’s rights — outlawing abortion and promoting the nuclear family. However, the acute male labor shortages that followed World War II spurred other Communist governments to push forward with various programs for women’s emancipation, including state-sponsored research on the mysteries of female sexuality. Most Eastern European women could not travel to the West or read a free press, but scientific socialism did come with some benefits.

“As early as 1952, Czechoslovak sexologists started doing research on the female orgasm, and in 1961 they held a conference solely devoted to the topic,” Katerina Liskova, a professor at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, told me. “They focused on the importance of the equality between men and women as a core component of female pleasure. Some even argued that men need to share housework and child rearing, otherwise there would be no good sex.”

Agnieszka Koscianska, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Warsaw, told me that pre-1989 Polish sexologists “didn’t limit sex to bodily experiences and stressed the importance of social and cultural contexts for sexual pleasure.” It was state socialism’s answer to work-life balance: “Even the best stimulation, they argued, will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.”

In all the Warsaw Pact countries, the imposition of one-party rule precipitated a sweeping overhaul of laws regarding the family. Communists invested major resources in the education and training of women and in guaranteeing their employment. State-run women’s committees sought to re-educate boys to accept girls as full comrades, and they attempted to convince their compatriots that male chauvinism was a remnant of the pre-socialist past.

Although gender wage disparities and labor segregation persisted, and although the Communists never fully reformed domestic patriarchy, Communist women enjoyed a degree of self-sufficiency that few Western women could have imagined. Eastern bloc women did not need to marry, or have sex, for money. The socialist state met their basic needs and countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany committed extra resources to support single mothers, divorcées and widows. With the noted exceptions of Romania, Albania and Stalin’s Soviet Union, most Eastern European countries guaranteed access to sex education and abortion. This reduced the social costs of accidental pregnancy and lowered the opportunity costs of becoming a mother.

Some liberal feminists in the West grudgingly acknowledged those accomplishments but were critical of the achievements of state socialism because they did not emerge from independent women’s movements, but represented a type of emancipation from above. 

Many academic feminists today celebrate choice but also embrace a cultural relativism dictated by the imperatives of intersectionality. Any top-down political program that seeks to impose a universalist set of values like equal rights for women is seriously out of fashion.

The result, unfortunately, has been that many of the advances of women’s liberation in the former Warsaw Pact countries have been lost or reversed. Ms. Durcheva’s adult daughter and the younger Ms. Gruber now struggle to resolve the work-life problems that Communist governments had once solved for their mothers.

“The Republic gave me my freedom,” Ms. Durcheva once told me, referring to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. “Democracy took some of that freedom away.”

As for Ms. Gruber, she has no illusions about the brutalities of East German Communism; she just wishes “things weren’t so much harder now.”

Because they championed sexual equality — at work, at home and in the bedroom — and were willing to enforce it, Communist women who occupied positions in the state apparatus could be called cultural imperialists. But the liberation they imposed radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union. Those comrades’ insistence on government intervention may seem heavy-handed to our postmodern sensibilities, but sometimes necessary social change — which soon comes to be seen as the natural order of things — needs an emancipation proclamation from above.


Kristen R. Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of numerous books on European Communism and its aftermath, including, most recently, “Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th-Century Communism.