Friday, August 30, 2013

New York Post Endorsement of Joe Lhota More Harmful Than Helpful

Thomas Riggins Reading the New York Post's endorsement of Joe Lhota in the Republican Primary for New York City Mayor (8-26-2013) one can see that if he wins the Post will be backing him for mayor in the general election as well. The trouble is that the endorsement is so outlandish and ridiculous that no one with any sense would want to vote for someone the Post would endorse. You would have to think if the writers at the Post are as crazy as they seem to be in the claims they make about the up coming election who would trust their judgment as to whom to vote for. The Post likes Lhota because he is different from "many" of the other candidates who "say we can strip the police of their powers, give giant raises to the municipal unions, and tax our way to utopia." Really? Who are these other candidates? Not one of the major candidates, Democratic or Republican, advocates "stripping" the police of their power. Some have supported measures that allow for more civilian review of police conduct to prevent abuses by some police of their powers (especially as regards "stop and frisk" which has been found to violate the constitutional rights of New Yorkers. None of the suggested reforms strip the police of any legal powers granted to them or would in any way hamper legitimate policing. For the post to suggest otherwise is to pervert the truth and to try and mislead those who read the paper. The same is true about the claim regarding "giant raises" for city workers, many of whom have been working without new contracts for years. That the workers demand realistic cost of living adjustments and wages that reflect increases in their levels of productivity as well is perfectly natural and is what collective bargaining is all about. Again the Post perverts the truth in an effort to mislead and misinform its readers. Again, with respect to taxing "our way to utopia"-- what claim could be more absurd. None of the candidates believes that New York City can be turned into "utopia" but some of them, mostly if not exclusively the Democrats, think that closing tax loopholes or modest increases on the super rich, or on Wall Street, could go a long way to easing the strains on the city's ability to provide the best possible municipal services to the people without at the same time seriously causing distress to those whose taxes are raised. This is simply prudent governing, which the Post very well knows but would rather distort for its own political reasons. As is well known the Post has never had a profitable year since it was taken over by reactionary billionaire Rupert Murdoch and survives on life support by monetary transfusions from his other sources of wealth. He keeps it alive to have a political presence in New York City and its editorial stances function to further his business investments, as does its news reporting. The Wikipedia article on the Post, in fact, reports that, " According to a survey conducted by Pace University in 2004, the Post was rated the least-credible major news outlet in New York." This endorsement of Lhota is one of the reasons why this is still true.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

MARX and the Muslim Brothers

Marx and the Muslim Brothers
Thomas Riggins

How should one respond to the claim, made by Sheri Berman a political science professor at Barnard College, that Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are "Marx's contemporary successors"? [Oped- New York Times 8-10-13: "Marx's Lesson for the Muslim Brothers"]

This seems like an outrageous assertion and I doubt that there are many Islamist madrases where hadiths from the life of Karl Marx are discussed. Lets take a closer look at professor Berman's article to see the reasoning behind this statement.

She begins her article with the well known remark, allegedly adapted from Hegel by Marx about history repeating itself first as tragedy and again as farce. Marx puts it this way: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Berman says this remark (it is from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) was made in response to the revolution of 1848 and the overthrow of Louis Phillip the last French king (King of the French). The title of Marx's work refers to the month of Brumaire in the French Revolutionary calendar adopted to celebrate  the new era of liberty (and to get rid of the Christian calendar). Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d'etat on the 18th of Brumaire Year VIII of the Republic (November 10, 1799).

This 1848 revolt ushered in a Republic (the Second Republic, 1848-1852) the French are on their Fifth now) but this republic, which the French masses had hoped would be a radical democratic and progressive government, was actually a conservative and even reactionary compromise that liberals made with the conservative forces because they feared the demands being made by the workers. The Communist Manifesto was written at this time.

The first president of the Second Republic  was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873: the undistinguished nephew of  L'Empeuror)-- he was the son of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother). In 1851 he staged a coup against the republic and later became the Emperor of the French as Napoleon III (Napoleon II, the son of Napoleon I died  from consumption in exile in Austria  at the age of 21 in 1832).

The "tragedy" in Marx's remark is the reign of Napoleon I (his downfall) and the "farce" is the coming to power of Napoleon III. Berman sees a pattern in the coup staged by Louis Bonaparte -- the dictatorship of Napoleon III came to be because "Conservatives were able to co-op fearful liberals and install new forms of dictatorship"-- i.e., the Second Empire. Basically that is what happened.

Berman goes to say that these "same patterns are playing out in Egypt today." Three groups seem to be at work according to Berman-- LIBERALS ( not otherwise specified but must include the progressive petty bourgeoisie, secularists of almost- all types, the working class and  independent unions, progressive Christians (Copts), progressive Muslims, etc.,)-- AUTHORITARIANS (the compradore bourgeoisie, the armed forces, the supporters of Mubarak-- both secular and religious, conservative Christians, and some Islamists, etc) and ISLAMISTS (in this context this group must be the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). We are told that the "Islamists" are "playing the role of socialists" -- i.e., the role the socialists played in 1848.  Zut alors!

She thinks 2013 Egypt is analogous to 1848 France because 1.)  the masses have overreached "after gaining power" [but the masses never gained power in 1848-- nor have they in Egypt in 2013];  2. the Egyptian "liberals" were put off by the the enactments of  their former allies the Islamists [ but the French liberals were afraid of the PROGRESSIVE demands of their former allies-- the working class while the Egyptian masses-- not just the "liberals"-- were afraid of the REACTIONARY demands and enactments of the Muslim Brotherhood]; 3. The liberals "have come crawling back" to the "authoritarians" to get protection [ this may be true of France, but in Egypt the "liberals" did not "crawl"-- they demanded, with the largest demonstrations and mass movement in the history of Egypt, that the army take action and remove the Islamists, who were elected under false pretenses, from power]; 4. The "authoritarians" have taken back the "reins of power" [while this seems to be what is going on in Egypt today, in France the liberals compromised with the "authoritarians" and both shared the reigns of power.]

So it does not seem to be the case that there is any merit to Berman's comparison of the French (actually it was was a broader movement ) Revolution of 1848 with the on going revolution in Egypt. Most glaringly it should be noticed that in 1848 the "socialists" never gained power so any comparison with the Egyptian "islamists" of today is off the wall (in more ways than one).

But wait! Berman's analysis gets even more Baroque. She says that if the Egyptian masses ("liberals") continue to support the crackdown by the army they will be playing into the hands of the Islamists (which may be the case) and that the Islamists are "Marx's contemporary successors." I am sure the Egyptian Communist Party, the independent labor federation and unionists in Egypt, as well as the Communist and worker's movements around the world  will be surprised to discover that it is not they but the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who are the "successors" to the teachings of Karl Marx.  Even as an analogy this is unhelpful.

Berman says the Islamists would be right if they adopted the slogan: "Islamists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains." Well, the Islamists should not be in chains, but unfortunately one of the things they try to do, as soon as they lose their chains, is to put them on non Islamists-- this is what they started to do in Egypt.

Berman says the "liberals" implored the military to end "the country's first experiment in democracy." What seems to have happened is that the vast majority of the Egyptian people rose up against the betrayal of their democratic aspirations which the Muslim Brotherhood began to engineer once they were in power. The military was asked to intervene so that the experiment in democracy could start up again. Plans for a new constitution and elections are in the works.

One of the most advanced politically of the opposition groups, the Egyptian Communist Party, has characterized the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading force of the "fascist religious right" in Egypt and the representative of the "most parasitic, tyrannical, corrupt, fascist, racist and reactionary segment of large capital" dominating the country. [The Egyptian Communist Party:  The June 30 (2013) Revolution… Its Nature, Duties and Prospects].

 So the current struggle being carried out in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities is a struggle to the death between the forces representing secular democratic people's power  and fascist reaction. The army, whose leadership is not Islamist, has, for now, sided with the people. The fact that major elements of the Western mass media seek to portray this epic battle as simply an anti-democratic military  coup merely indicates the sympathy of the imperialist powers with fascism when confronted with a people's uprising.

Trying to force the events in Egypt into the Procrustean bed of 1848, Berman writes that during the 1848 uprising the "liberals" feared that "workers and socialists might win" so they joined with the conservatives thinking "the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils."

"This," she tells us, "is almost exactly what is playing out in Egypt now." The only difference is that the Egyptian situation is exactly the opposite of what happened in 1848. In Egypt the "liberals" were not reacting to a socialist threat. An authoritarian reactionary Islamic movement came to power by running on a fraudulent democratic platform-- the "liberals", the Egyptian left, the working class, and the vast majority of the people coalesced together to fight this usurpation of the 2011 Egyptian Democratic Revolution. The armed forces supported the masses as the "lesser of two evils." How the armed forces will react in the future, once the Islamist threat is contained and eliminated, will depend on how unified the masses are and how determined they are to push through a really democratic and inclusive constitution.

What is Dr. Berman's analysis of why "liberals" act the way they do? Does she discuss what material interests they represent, what classes they represent and the relations of their interests and ideas to those of others they may be able to ally with or must needs come into conflict with? The answer is no. "Liberals" act the way they do because they "like order and moderation and dislike radical social experiments." They also "fear"  those who engage in "extremist rhetoric, mass protests and violence." Which is just what the "liberals" did to get rid of Mubarak!

She compares the coming of "democracy" to Eastern and Southern Europe after the implosion of the Soviet Union to the middle east.  In Europe "extremism and religion weren't major factors" (forget the genocidal  wars in the Balkans) and anyway the European Union "was there to help." The poor Egyptians don't have a European big brother to guide them (and won't do what the Americans tell them)--"there is no strong democratic neighbor to guide them." Maybe Bibi over in  Jerusalem could help out?

This "liberal" fear and or dislike of "radical social experiments" is as true today, we are told, as it was for "liberals" in 1789 and 1848 "and it's true of Egyptian liberals today." Oh my! It was the French "liberals" that brought about 1789 and there are not many people who have read up on the great French Revolution that would not call it a "radical social experiment." The whole point of a "tragedy" vs "farce" comparison is the contrast between the courageous, radical and revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of the French Revolution of 1789 and the pusillanimous, conservative and counter-revolutionary liberal bourgeoisie of 1848.

After a few more irrelevant paragraphs concerning Marx's analysis of 1848 and the development of socialism in Europe and the errors the "liberals" made because they did not understand how to handle contradictions among the people-- she decides the Egyptian liberals should realize that just as all European socialists were not "proto-Stalinists" and that many were total sell outs ("socialists" who "wanted  social and economic reforms, but not ones that were mortal threats to capitalism or democracy'') so not all Islamists "want to implement a theocratic regime. " Liberals should work with these moderates or " Egypt’s political future will be troubled."

The problem is she nowhere discusses what "Islamism" means. Islamism is a political and religious tendency, made up of moderate elements and also forces of extremism (restoration of the Calafate!), which seeks to create political states based on religion: "The Islamic Republic of -------." No state is meaningfully "democratic" if it favors one religion over others and thus treats some citizens as "more equal than others." The Muslim Brotherhood claimed to be moderate yet once in power brought about its own downfall by trying to impose its Islamic doctrinaire positions on the population at large which led to a massive revolutionary upheaval joined by the armed forces.

The imperialist powers and their press call this the imposition of an undemocratic military dictatorship but the Egyptian masses have yet to make this determination. How the masses and the military relate to one another in the coming months will determine the next stage of the Egyptian Revolution that commenced in 2011. Marx, by the way, has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Friday, August 16, 2013

For Whom the Cock Crows

Thomas Riggins

This article aims to reprise Marx's 1844 article on Hegel's philosophy of law which ends with the memorable prediction that the Germans will only become conscious of their revolutionary destiny when they respond to the "the ringing call of the Gallic cock." Well, the last time the Gallic cock was heard from was in 1968 and it was rather subdued compared to is noisy past (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871).

Fortunately for those who read this pre-Communist Manifesto work of the young Marx (he was 25 when he wrote it) it has many useful ideas packed into its 13 pages that are still of interest today even though no one is expecting the Gallic cock
to make any ringing calls in the foreseeable future. Its greatest call remains that of 1789 which inspired the Russian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Revolutions as well as the Cuban and  which is echoed today in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now for Marx's ideas and how they relate to today's struggles. There are revolutionary movements at work in the contemporary world and some of the ideas expressed by Marx in relation to the French and German movements of the early nineteenth century can be applied to them. There are three areas where revolutionary ferment is currently occurring--  the MIddle East  and Africa where we see revolutions and counter revolutions breaking out in several different countries, Latin America where several countries are now led by pro socialist and/or progressive governments inspired by the Cuban revolution and threatened by US imperialism, and in south east Asia where both India and Nepal have active revolutionary movements based on exploited peasants and indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately in some of these areas, especially in the Middle East and Africa, there are armed groups and political organizations whose ideological roots are allegedly   based in religion and a fanatical commitment to creeds which do not reflect objective reality (this is also true in Europe and especially the U.S. where dogmatically fundamentalist  ideas fuel many in the Tea Party and the core of the anti-choice movement which rejects Roe vs. Wade and treats women as objects to be manipulated for political gain.)

This essay by Marx  ("Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction") maintains that the fight to improve the world involves a fight to criticize religion since we will not be able to focus on the real world and its problems if we spend our time engaged with a false world such as the one conjured up by religion. This essay is admittedly dated but still of some interest today.

This work is justly famous as the source of the quote that "religion is the opium of the people." While opium may be able to supply some relief from an intolerable reality we can't expect people doped up on opium, spiritual or otherwise, to be involved in schemes for rationally based world improvement. We will get to the full quote in a minute. First, I want to note that in 1844 Marx thinks the basis of all criticism of the basic world order is the criticism of religion and that in his day this criticism has basically been completed-- at least in western Europe (Germany in particular). "Man makes religion, religion does not make man."

Marx is right of course for the Western world in general and large parts of Asia (China, Vietnam) religion is no longer a major factor in people's lives (except in a pro forma sense or within fringe groups or in backward areas). Unfortunately this battle has not yet been won, or even joined, in large areas of the Third World. Religion thrives on oppression and only by simultaneously fighting oppression, and furthering progressive education, will religion wither and the people flourish. The following is Marx's full quote on this issue:

Religion "is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma."

He continues: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Finally, he says: "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."

These three quotes form the basis of the materialist outlook on religion. But what is the difference between illusory happiness and real happiness? If a person is experiencing "happiness" what more is there to say? If we take an example from current history and say that the members of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, being at heart members of  a religious organization, are living in an illusory world and the Egyptian people demanding their removal from power was an example of the demand to abandon illusions about the nature of the problems facing Egypt and the existing state of affairs  then, it would seem, the only justification for this action would be to revolutionize the state of affairs (i.e., the social, economic, and political status quo) to such an extent that religious illusions would no longer have any traction in that society.

But who is to decide who is delusional? In the first place, rather than speaking of illusory versus real happiness, it would be better to speak of a feeling of happiness based on a false belief about the nature of reality and one based of a true belief about the nature of reality. You may feel (temporarily) happy taking your laetrile for that lump but you would be better off having it removed.

As for who decides, Marx was very specific (in 1844) as to whom this responsibility devolves. It is the role of philosophy in service to history. We will have to allow Marx to use this Hegelian way of expressing himself: while critical of Hegel he had not yet completely liberated himself from Hegelian ways of expressing his ideas. He says: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."

Marx may have thought this battle was over in the Germany of his day, but it is still raging here in the USA: one only has to read the the statements made by right-wing US politicians on the issues of a woman's right to choice, or on the food stamp program, or on sex education or on social welfare and "entitlement" programs to see how retrograde religious references are put forth to justify reactionary and even quasi-fascist social policies. And it is not just in the United States. Every day you can read in the papers how all over the planet religion is used to crush the human spirit, attack enlightenment,  retard scientific understanding and further the goals of fascism, militarism, and imperialism. Although they are an important influence, all the religious progressives and pacifists in the world will not stem this backward tide of religious fanaticism without robust secular movements and political parties that are able to rally millions of oppressed people to fight against it.

Behind the religious facade stands a more this worldly enemy. Marx writes that once the other worldly illusion has been mastered we must focus on the reality of this world and the real roots of oppression and human self-estrangement. "The relation of industry, of the world of wealth generally, to the political world is one of the major problems of modern times." A 170 years isn't so long after all as our world today faces exactly this problem-- from the Koch brothers to the Occupy movement, to big oil and pollution, to the European economic crisis and the war against working people, to the world wide faltering of capitalism based on domination by banks and financial institutions, and third world exploitation-- it is all based on struggle over which countries and which classes are going to control industry and the world of wealth.

As this struggle intensifies we can expect the world to become a more and more violent place. The past century may have been only a prelude of things to come. We read in the papers that Japan plans to rebuild its military, the US is building up its forces in the Pacific (aimed at China) and moving into Africa, NATO is carrying on wars of aggression far from its home bases and preparing for interventions any where that may threaten Western dominance. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Haiti, Libya, Egypt, Syria (to name just a few of the most recent examples) no country is safe from Western intrigue, drones, outside interventions, or externally manipulated civil wars  whenever the economic interests of the US and its allies and puppets are seen to be at risk.

Marx realized that journalism alone, philosophy and criticism alone, would never be able to change this situation or be able to overthrow the world system of human exploitation. "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course," he wrote, "replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses."  This is why Wiki-Leaks and people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and  Edward Snowden  along with other whistle blowers and investigative reporters must be silenced, for governments and their toadies know that once the people are informed, once they realize that the theories of their own governments are that information and democracy must be restricted (fascist policies introduced) in order for them to carry out their repressive domestic and international polices, they will fight back (or so they think) to ensure their rights and lively hoods.

A revolution in thought must precede a revolution in deed.  Marx thinks there must be a material basis for any revolution. "Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." People around the world are becoming more and more aware of their real needs which are the exact opposite of those they are told about by capitalist governments and their hand kissing mainstream media. They need jobs, peace, education, housing and clean air and political parties and movements that truly represent working people and their allies, not bombs, drones, military interventions, no fly zones, fossil fuels, austerity and bank bailouts, and capitalist and fake socialist and labor parties that betray them.

A political revolution, such as we see in Egypt, or the "Arab Spring" in general, is only a partial revolution. Marx's thinking here is conditioned by the experiences of 1789 and 1830 in France. What are these partial revolutions based upon Marx asks [a complete revolution would change the social relations and economic base of a country-- 1789 rather than 1830-- or even 1776.] His answer is that a "part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class , proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society."

In Egypt in 2011, for example, it was the middle class in alliance with the workers and peasants and some elements of the big national capitalists against  the military dictatorship headed by Mubarak and representing compradore capitalists in alliance with US imperialism and its puppets (e.g., the EU).

"No class of civil society can play this role," Marx says, "without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative; a moment in which its demands and rights are truly the rights and demands of society itself; a moment in which it is truly the social head and social heart."

It was Mohammed Morsi and the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that emerged in 2012 as the general representative of the forces that brought down Mubarak-- it claimed to represent the incarnation of the most general (and contentless as it turned out) demand of the revolution: "Democracy" as incarnated in free and fair elections. Unfortunately for the Brotherhood its anti-democratic  and dogmatic nature soon came to the fore as it tried to impose its sectarian doctrines on the rest of the revolutionary movement, of which it was only one component, while relying on the military to maintain it in power.

This is why a merely political revolution is only partial. In Egypt one "tyrant" was removed from power, and a would be tyrant was also expelled from office-- both by the Egyptian military reacting to millions of people in the streets demanding rights and freedoms which are the norm in stable bourgeois democracies. The real rulers in Egypt remain the military-- the same military that installed Nasser-- and the economic and social relations remain the same. To what extent they will allow bourgeois democracy to take hold in Egypt remains to be seen. One thing we can count on is that all the forces of US imperialism will be marshaled against the Egyptian masses and their democratic aspirations.

Marx, in this essay, thought a complete revolution would have to be led by a class whose emancipation would free both itself and all other classes-- by abolishing class differences. Of course, he is talking about 1844 Germany and the working class was very small and just beginning to develop so any coming revolutions would be bourgeois democratic in nature and not socialist. Yet Marx thought that only a full fledged socialist revolution, one demanding the abolition of private property, would actually be able to free human beings from exploitation and oppression. That day has not yet dawned but, if Marx was right about the role of criticism in the development of human self consciousness and the struggle for freedom, we can conclude that the role of religion and the religious consciousness will play an insignificant part-- indeed will be a negative rather than a positive ingredient in the self liberation of humanity from its self imposed fetishes and idols.

What then does Marx think will replace religion as the moving force in advancing historical progress.  He said it would be philosophy.  In his day what we call science was more or less considered a part of philosophy-- natural philosophy. So if we think of Marx as thinking that the road to liberation will be guided by a materialist  philosophy based on scientific understanding we will not be misguided. The section of humanity that will traverse this road is that of the working people, including agricultural workers, and especially industrial workers who will finally be able to put the economic resources of the planet, the common property of all not the few, to work  for the common good.

This day will come, following Marx, when scientific philosophy finds its material weapons in the working people and they find their spiritual weapons in scientific philosophy.  But whether it will be the Gallic cock or some other whose ringing call proclaims this day remains to be seen.