September , 2014

JK Alternative Viewpoint

Challenges & Responses to Conflictual Politics

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Tariq Ali, in this exclusive interview, seamlessly switches from contemporary historian to scholar-at-large to polemicist ...

Archive for the ‘Art/Cuture/Cinema/Travels’ Category

Like Joyce, García Márquez gave us a light to follow into the unknown-Peter Carey

Posted by admin On April - 19 - 2014 Comments Off

Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez greets journalists and neighbours outside his house in Mexico City earlier this year. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters
The greatest writer of our time showed us that a large and generous heart is no impediment to genius, says Peter Carey
Sometime in the very early 1970s two Australian friends returned from Colombia and asked me to ghostwrite the story of their adventures, which included a conversation with an unknown writer named Gabriel García Márquez. In an effort to overcome my reluctance they lent me an English edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude. None of us understood that they had thereby changed my life.

I tried, and failed, to help them memorialise their adventure. Worse, I “forgot” to return the book. Worse still, I arrogantly decided that this novel by this unknown writer would be of far more use to me than it could ever be to them.

I was, at the time I became a thief, stumbling to find a way to escape what Patrick White had called “the dun-coloured realism” of my own country’s literature, to make the windswept paddocks on the Geelong Road, say, become luminous and new. The stories worked well enough, but I still wasn’t up to the bigger challenge. The absence of placenames in the stories is a good indication of what I was avoiding, a sign that I was still too young (and damaged) to see that Myrniong was a beautiful strange name and that Wonthaggi was a poem unto itself.

It would take 10 years (some 20 stories and a novel) to free myself of this colonial bind, but the first step, without a doubt, was when I opened One Hundred Years of Solitude and read: “At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”

Thus Márquez threw open the door I had been so feebly scratching on.

In truth he had done it before that: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

And he would keep on doing it line after line after line. And I was drunk on Márquez. And of course I had no idea what I was reading. I knew nothing of Colombia, let alone Macado. Thus, like the foreign reader of an Australian saga, I was left free to believe that the novelist has personally invented the koala and the platypus.

Even 10 years later, when this lightning strike began to show its effects in my own work, when I could finally celebrate names like Myrniong and Wonthaggi and the attendant miracles and cruelties of my native land, I still did not have a clue about how Márquez’s art grew from his own soil. I was like my friend the Australian painter Colin Lancely who loved Miró and finally, in Catalonia, those “original” Miró symbols on every corner.

So, like many of my generation, in a swirl of admiration, I learned from Márquez and was even nourished by my misunderstandings.

It is, of course, unseemly to talk about myself when the greatest writer of our time has died. If I persist it is to make a larger point, that while a writer’s greatness can be marked in many ways, it can be objectively measured, across the barriers of translation and oceans, by his or her influence on succeeding generations.

Like Joyce and Eliot, Márquez gave a light to follow into the unknown. He made us braver, he returned us to the path of story and he showed us, thank you Sir, that a large and generous heart is no impediment to genius.

Peter Carey has won the Booker prize twice, for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang

The Coup Against Salvador Allende-Oscar Guardiola Rivera

Posted by admin On April - 11 - 2014 Comments Off


A detailed account of the Allende presidency and its violent end, as Chile’s military carried out Washington’s bidding

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, just before Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile, to a White House committee which decided which other countries’ internal affairs should be manipulated.

“Our country is a force for good without precedent.”

Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, to the U.S. Army War College, 1997.

“If we have to use force, it is because we are America!  We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future.”

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright, 1998.

In pursuit of its national security, the U.S. no longer need be guided by “notions of international law and norms” or “institutions like United Nations” because it is “on the right side of history.”

Prospective U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, 2000.

(Items 2-4 above are cited in David Cromwell, Why are We the Good Guys?  Alresford: Zero Books, 2012, pp 83-4.)”

It is always other people who pay the price for this hubris, which seems yet to be overtaken by its nemesis despite the deaths, perhaps amounting to tens of millions, it has caused. To crusaders possessed by such messianic fervour, the untidy indeterminacy of ordinary people’s lives and of countries’ dealings with one another, and the capacity of peoples and states to coexist and more, however untidily and indeterminately, is unbearable. For the messianic, the world must be as they fantasise it to be, and anyone who embodies anything else must be removed or exterminated. Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1970, was no communist, but a moderate social democrat; Henry Kissinger and his president, Richard Nixon, were terrified not that he was in office but that his mixed economy would work. It had already worked astoundingly well in western Europe, but that is one region of the world which Kissinger, who himself ordered the illegal saturation bombing of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, seems not to have considered destroying.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, senior lecturer in law at Birkbeck College in the University of London, has written a detailed account of the Allende presidency and its violent end as the Chilean military did what Washington wanted, and did it to oblige major United States corporations who feared having to share even part of their profits with millions of poor Latin Americans on whose backs they made those profits. At least some of Allende’s hopes have been realised in the last sixteen years, especially since Hugo Chávez, a harder-line socialist than Allende, was elected and then repeatedly reelected by the Venezuelan public, starting an era of resolutely social-democratic voting across Latin America.

That continues; in Venezuela, foreign oil corporations pay 16 per cent of their profits to the country, in contrast to the one per cent they used to pay. Chávez told them they could pay or leave. The money, despite corruption and violence, goes into public healthcare, schools, and universities, and so far the efforts of the Venezuelan elites to mobilise against this have failed to rouse the masses. Latin America is the one continent where elected leaders ignore the International Monetary Fund.

Terrible period
Guardiola-Rivera, faced with the task of chronicling a terrible period, starts with one which lies further back but is no less terrible. It was not the Spanish crown but British and American banks which became the dominant powers in Chile, and British families who settled there – like the Edwards family – came to be among the most powerful, funding extractive industries, especially in nitrates and copper, for colossal profits in the northern Anglosphere; their expansion was predicated on the explicit and racist assumption that those they colonised in Latin America had no history or civilisation and were in effect subhuman. King Leopold II of Belgium, one of the most brutal colonists of all in Africa, enthusiastically supported their project, which inevitably involved genocide, in this case the slaughter of most of the Mapuche people in southern Chile.

By the early 20th century, however, resistance was emerging, and the young Salvador Allende, born in 1908, learnt much from Juan Demarchi, a cobbler and one of the many artisan-scholars and worker-poets in the Chile of the time. Allende became a political activist while studying medicine; he shared his fellow-travellers’ concerns about the spread of Fascism in Europe and the United States (where its adherents included Henry Ford), and was a minister by 1938. By 1945 he was a senator, and in the next decade proceeded to create the Chilean national health service, the first such in the Americas.

Elected President – in a close triangular contest – in 1970, having lost in 1964 in a process heavily rigged by the CIA, Allende proceeded to act on a broad range of social-democratic commitments, in particular implementing a doctrine of geoeconomic sovereignty against, for example, foreign corporations, who mined Chilean copper for the voracious U.S. armaments industry throughout the Cold War.

Geoeconomic sovereignty by itself may not have been decisive in his overthrow (even if it was one reason for the failed U.S.-backed coup against Chávez in 2002), and the author brilliantly demonstrates the enormous ideological threat Allende, Fidel Castro, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara posed to the United States. None of them was a slavish follower of the Soviet Union; Castro and Guevara had been disillusioned by the Cuban missile crisis, by the extent and nature of Soviet domestic failures, and by the USSR’s decision to participate in an arms race with the U.S., a race which could only — and did — bankrupt it and also meant that monies which could have gone to domestic and global causes went into armaments. In contrast, the three Latin left leaders thought very hard about political economy. Castro cited Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson before he cited Lenin; Guevara, a doctor, read Freud before he read Marx, and gave up his own idea of leadership for a far more open idea of the state; Allende considered democracy essential for a broadly equal society.

Drawing partly on the work of Raúl Prebisch, the three seriously considered an international economic system independent of the existing convertible currencies and founded on a new international sensibility in which a decent life for all would be central; this would include reparations for imperial and colonial exploitation. They also thought very hard about technology and politics; in a 1962 analysis, Guevara said, “Electronics has become a fundamental political problem.”

Furthermore, Castro and Guevara offered to normalise relations with the United States in 1963. They were, of course, ignored; after the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice-President Henry Wallace, who openly attacked U.S. domestic apartheid, had been marginalised by the bitterly anti-communist President Harry S. Truman, and within a few years McCarthyism was rampant. It is no surprise that Nixon and Kissinger — and the corporates — were frightened of Allende’s potential impact. The Chilean industrialist Agustín Edwards Eastman was among those in Washington who plotted the coup, and on September 11, 1973 the Chilean air force attacked La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, with British-made Hawker Hunter aircraft; Allende took his own life. Thousands died in mass killings by the Chilean forces, and the new dictator Augusto Pinochet declared himself immune from prosecution. The coup had adoring support from the Chilean elites, and the author notes that rich upper-class women were among the country’s worst bigots.

Guardiola-Rivera adds to remarkable political detail by drawing on his own immense knowledge of literature, poetry, music, and film to show that Allende’s incipient vía chilena — the Chilean Way — amounted not only to a political battle against an enormously brutal society but to also to an existential challenge from below, directed at the crushingly controlling and violently destructive forces of global capitalism. Mighty figures were involved: Pablo Neruda, himself a presidential contender, Delia del Carril, Blanca Luz Brum, Federico García Lorca, Carmen Lazo, and Victoria Ocampo all played crucial parts in the struggle for a decent life for ordinary Chileans; others feature too, like Ariel Dorfman, Beatriz Allende, and the Gaitáns, Jorge Eliécer and Gloria. They were highly intelligent and very passionate people, and their political commitments were as intense as their many sexual liaisons. This is no ordinary political biography.


The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2004-Carlotta Gall

Posted by admin On April - 10 - 2014 Comments Off


The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2004


Author: Carlotta Gall


Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Pgs: 352


Price: $ 28




“When the Taliban took Kabul days later, the first thing they did was drag Najibullah through the streets and string him and his brother up on Ariana Square…The first ring of Taliban fighters controlling the gawping crowds were Urdu-speaking Pakistanis. Some of them dark-skinned and wearing sunglasses, Abdul Waheed Wafa, a colleague who was there, told me. The ISI’s demand had been met,” writes Carlotta Gall, virtually indicting Pakistan’s intelligence agency for the murder of the former Afghan president who had asylum at the UN compound at the time. Pakistan is clearly miffed at the New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall’s new book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2004, that was just released.


Ms Gall’s account of Dr Mohammed Najibullah’s lynching, a war crime by any standard, matches what many Afghans and Pakistan’s Pashtun nationalist leaders have said all along. She also chronicles that the ISI gave orders to kill Dr Najibullah to a Taliban commander Mullah Borjan, who had travelled to Quetta before the imminent fall of Kabul in 1996. Borjan, like many other Taliban, was hesitant to carry out this particular order but confided to a Pakistani journalist that he had come from the ISI offices and that “They are insisting that the first thing we do is kill Najibullah. If I don’t, I am not sure what will happen to me.” Borjan’s Kashmiri guard killed him on his way back to Afghanistan. Someone clearly did not trust Borjan’s vacillation and had a backup plan in place to eliminate him and Dr Najibullah both.

Dr Najibullah was not the only Afghan leader that was killed. Ms Carlotta Gall, again like many Afghans, Pashtuns and analysts, has pinned the responsibility on Pakistan for commissioning a decapitation campaign against the Afghan leaders. She notes that the two Tunisians pretending to be journalists who killed the veteran anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in a suicide bombing — the first ever in Afghanistan — two days before the 9/11 attacks, had been issued one-year, multiple-entry visas on forged Belgian passports by the Pakistan embassy in London. The assassins travelled from Pakistan to Kandahar to what was a high profile reception by the Taliban there. “The ISI undoubtedly knew of their trip,” Ms Gall has concluded. Ahmed Shah Massoud, like Dr Najibullah, had the appeal and national standing that stood in the way of Pakistan’s plans.

Ms Carlotta Gall traces the tragic journey of another prominent Afghan, the former mujahideen commander Abdul Haq, back into Afghanistan right after 9/11 only to be assassinated on the direct orders of the Taliban interior minister Mullah Abdul Razzaq. She notes, “His brothers blamed the CIA for pushing Haq into Afghanistan when conditions were still too dangerous. Those close to him claimed to see the hand of Pakistan in his assassination, too, since the interior minister was especially close to the ISI, and Haq was a strong charismatic leader who opposed Pakistan’s policies toward Afghanistan.” Ms Gall has accurately noted that Abdul Haq and his two associates were unarmed at the time. It may be worthwhile for her to probe into who denied arms to Abdul Haq starting in the settled areas of Pakistan, across FATA and in Afghanistan. Abdul Haq’s brother Haji Qadeer, who was a vice president under Mr Hamid Karzai, was gunned down nine months later.

The most recent victim of the decapitation spree against the Afghan leadership was Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of the country and the incumbent chair of the Afghan High Peace Council. Ustad Rabbani’s assassination in a suicide bombing was again blamed on the ISI, Ms Gall writes. This time around, Afghan intelligence caught the bomber’s accomplice and under interrogation he revealed that two Pakistani men in Quetta, whom he only knew as Mahmoud and Ahmed, had plotted the attack and sent him in with the suicide bomber. President Hamid Karzai himself has narrowly escaped several attempts on his life, including in his home province of Kandahar. Ms Gall is on the money that someone has clearly wanted the independent Afghan leadership eliminated or bombed into submission.

Ms Carlotta Gall makes a case, and has taken flak for it already, that Pakistan not only wanted these Afghan leaders dead but has all along harboured their killers, including Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. She writes that in 2005 Zawahiri crossed over from FATA into Kohat where “he negotiated to stay for one month in the governor’s home”. Her assertion that a special ISI desk handled Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary, including in Abbottabad, has already appeared in her article last month. She has a point that such operations are by design covert and planned for maximum deniability, thus precluding hard evidence of foul play, but it would have been helpful to see more supporting information in the book about both the al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar. It is unlikely though that she would convince any naysayer unless a directive signed in ink is produced, which obviously never happens in the murky world of clandestine wars. The onus, however, should not be on Ms Carlotta Gall to release more information but on Pakistan to officially release its own inquiry report into the raid that netted Osama bin Laden, which hopefully does not imply something more sinister than the incompetence plea Pakistan has taken. The terrorist lynchpin was found in Pakistan’s, not Carlotta Gall’s, front yard, after all.

The book is organised into 14 chapters that move in chronological order from the Taliban’s 2001 surrender through the ‘Pakistan protégés’ unleashing hell on Afghanistan courtesy the ‘suicide bomb factory’ that Pakistan’s tribal areas have become, to culminate in the people of Kandahar finally rebelling against the Taliban in 2013. Ms Gall, who has covered the region from Wakhan to Pashtunabad, Quetta, and has a Rolodex second to none, has stated at the outset, “I do not pretend to be objective in this war. I am on the side of the victims.” The account, delivered in a veteran war reporter’s flawless but unassuming language, stays true to the title drawn from the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s concern that “we may be fighting a wrong enemy in the wrong country”.

The enemy, as the Afghans continue to lament, is not in the villages of Afghanistan but remains headquartered across the Durand Line in Pakistan. Why has the US failed to confront the actual threat is a question asked throughout the work. Squashing the vipers without draining the pit seems like a self-defeating exercise. Ms Gall’s conclusion, like President Karzai’s, seems to be that the US is reluctant to confront a nuclear-armed large country despite the latter’s continued backing of cross-border jihadist terrorism due to geopolitical expediency. She rightly resolves that the Afghans do not necessarily want the foreign troops but need continued assistance, training and support in both civil and military sectors if the second coming of the al Qaeda-Taliban is to be averted. Many in Pakistan are not miffed at Carlotta’s gall just for probing Zawahiri and bin Laden’s whereabouts but because she has chronicled their malicious, hegemonist behaviour pattern towards Afghanistan accurately.
—Dr Mohammad Taqi

The Arab Gramsci- VIJAY PRASHAD

Posted by admin On March - 7 - 2014 Comments Off


The killing of Hassan Hamdan, better known as Mahdi Amel, a highly regarded Marxist theoretician who strove to produce Marxist concepts that would be faithful to Arab reality, is part of a continuing battle between religious fundamentalism and communist doctrine. By VIJAY PRASHAD
ON MAY 18, 1987, Hassan Hamdan left his apartment in west Beirut (Lebanon). He was a professor at Lebanese University and a central committee member of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP). Hamdan turned right and headed to an errand. On Algeria Street, not far from his home, two men accosted him. They called out his name. He turned. They shot him. He was injured, taken by a passer-by to the American University of Beirut’s hospital, where he died. He was 51.

Lebanon was then in the midst of “the events” (al-ahdath), the civil war that ran from 1975 to 1990. Different phases of the war pitted different sections of Lebanon’s society and its militias—that often acted as proxies for outside powers—against each other.

Palestinians and the Left joined up to fight the Christian Right, a struggle that morphed through Syrian and Israeli military intervention into a brutal war to suppress the Palestinian bases in Lebanon. When the Palestinians were ejected to Tunisia in 1982, the war metastasised into an attack on the Left.

Islamist militias opened a war against the Communists who had powerful strongholds across Lebanon. In 1984, militants captured 52 Communists, forced them to renounce their atheism, killed them and, according to the Communist Party, dumped their bodies into the Mediterranean.

On February 17, 1987, Hussain Muruwwa lay in his bed. Muruwwa, also an LCP intellectual, had injured his leg. He was the editor of the LCP’s newspaper al-Tariq, and had written a series of books that showed how Arab culture was not just about religion and sentiment. It also had deep roots in science and reason. This seam of materialist culture—evident in the 10th century thinkers such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna)—had been denied by Islamist scholarship. Some men entered Muruwwa’s house and shot him dead. He was 78.

The attack on Muruwwa took place in the context of a battle between the LCP and the Islamist militants. The fight, said Jamil Nahmi, Director General of Lebanon’s General Security (Surete Generale), was between “religious fundamentalism and communist doctrine”, irreconcilable ideologies that first came to blows in south Lebanon. According to the LCP, in the next 10 days, over 40 LCP members were killed, with 17 members kidnapped. A sheikh in southern Lebanon’s town of Nabatiye issued a fatwa that stated: “No communist must be allowed to remain in southern Lebanon.” It was a death sentence. Old communist villages came under attack. Adham al-Sayed, the current secretary of the LCP’s youth sector, calls these “martyr towns”, such as Srifa, Kafr Rumman and Houla, which were once “fortresses of the party”. Party members died or fled, or else abandoned politics.

The killing of Hassan Hamdan is part of this battle, although nothing conclusive can be said of the killing itself. Senior police officers sniff at the lack of information—“after all”, says one, “this is Lebanon”. As with the killing of Muruwwa, theories abound but there is nothing of substance. Police reports do not exist.

Few know Hassan Hamdan by his name. He is known now as Mahdi Amel—in the Arab world one of the most well-regarded and beloved Marxist theoreticians of his generation. Hamdan wrote widely and left behind a score of important books whose topics range from revolutionary theory to poetry. In his apartment, his son Redha tells me that the family and the Mahdi Amel Culture Centre continue to hear from those who find his work inspirational. Most recently, during the uprising in Tunisia, students painted a mural of Mahdi Amel on the walls of their campus. His image looked down on them with a benevolent sharpness. His books—all in Arabic—remain in print, and his work continues to be closely utilised by Arab intellectuals. It has been 26 years since his death, and yet little of his work seems to have faded.

In a corner of the study in Hamdan’s apartment sits his desk. It now carries a portrait of him. This is where he would sit and work at night while his family slept. What drove Mahdi Amel was a simple problem: how to produce Marxist concepts that would be faithful to Arab reality? This is a question that has plagued thinkers across the Third World ever since they encountered Marxism. The Peruvian Marxist Jose Carlos Mariategui’s Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928) sought to understand the history and struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Andes alongside their domination by the Spanish conquistadors and the creation of new land tenure and labour systems. The Egyptian socialist Salamah Moussa’s Our Duties and the Tasks of Foreign Countries (1930) tried to provide a narrative of Egyptian society using socialist concepts. E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s history of Kerala and report on the land tenancy Bill of 1938 are part of this attempt.
In one of Mahdi Amel’s early essays, “Colonialism and Backwardness”, published in al-Tariq (1968), he wrote, “If you really want our own true Marxist thought to see the light, and to be capable to see reality from a scientific perspective, we should not start with Marxist thought itself and apply it to our own reality, but rather start from our reality as a foundational movement.” If one starts with the historical development of a society and its own cultural resources, “only then can our thought truly become Marxist” (translated by Hisham Ghassan Tohme). Marxism could not be adopted whole cloth. The reality of colonial “backwardness” (takhalluf) had to be explored and Marxism elaborated to take this into account.

Arabs bore the stigma of being “backward”, Mahdi Amel wrote. It was as if they were not capable of anything but failure. But the ruin of Arabs was not because of their culture but because of what had befallen them. Colonial rule for a hundred years would alter the structure of politics and economics as well as society. Old Arab notables would be sidelined or absorbed into a new world where they were merely the representatives of forces that lived elsewhere. The new elites that emerged represented external forces, not their own populations. When Paris sneezed, they caught a cold. The United States’ Ambassador became more important than elected officials. (An old joke that used to do the rounds: “Why is there no revolution in the United States? Because there is no U.S. embassy there.”) The experience of backwardness was not the fault of Arabs, Mahdi Amel suggested, but it was the way in which their lives had been structured. Marxism had to take this idea seriously, he argued.

At this time the Pakistani scholar Hamza Alavi had offered his theory of the colonial mode of production; in India there was a debate over the modes of production; and the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin had produced work on the same theme. Like them, Mahdi Amel saw backwardness not in cultural terms, but in terms of the way the global order had been structured—with the South to provide raw materials and markets, while the North would produce the finished goods and earn the bulk of the social wealth. The feeling of backwardness was a reflection of this order. The political mess in the South was also related to this economic subordination. All these thinkers—with greater or lesser success—tried to provide a theory of how this is so.
The Red Oak

Born in 1936, Hassan Hamdan left Lebanon 20 years later to study philosophy in Lyons, France, at a time when a progressive opening in his homeland had been closed off. Arab nationalism and communism had begun to make strides in Lebanon. An armed uprising led by these two forces was crushed by the Lebanese elite, who were assisted by a U.S. military intervention. In France, Hamdan joined a clandestine group of Arab communists. The Algerian war was in full swing, and Charles de Gaulle would not allow any dissent within the country. It was fitting that Hamdan left France in 1963 for Algeria, where he and his wife, Evelyne Brun, came to help build the newly independent country. Evelyne Brun taught French, while Hamdan taught evening classes on the newly deceased Frantz Fanon in the provincial town of Al-Qustantiniyah (Constantine). Hamdan’s first published article was on Fanon for the review Revolution Africaine.

Political ferment in Lebanon drew Hamdan home. Lebanon’s Communist Party held its second Congress in 1968 where, as the youth leader Adham al-Sayed points out, “we put our own concepts, our own theory to the forefront”. The LCP distanced itself from the Soviet approach to the Palestinian question, throwing itself fully behind the resistance to Israel and to building up the Arab national movement. In the aftermath of this Congress, Interior Minister Kamal Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party gave legal sanction to the LCP. Between 1970 and 1975, as the Left emerged from repression, union activity increased—there were 35 strikes a year. High levels of militancy during the Ghandour food workers’ strike in 1972 came alongside a renewed student movement. In 1974, fifty thousand people demonstrated against the move to privatise education. Veteran LCP labour leader Elias Habr said he had never seen such an event in his life.

In the tobacco fields of southern Lebanon the farmers went on strike, with the South Lebanon Tobacco Farmers’ Union attempting to come out from under the thumb of the old notables. Hamdan had taken his nom de plume —Mahdi Amel—from Lebanon’s southern mountains, the Jabal Amel, one of the homes to the country’s Shia population. This was an area of economic wretchedness. Tobacco is an unfriendly crop. It is hard work to grow and worse on the smoker. But it provided a living, and the peasants in the region had gradually given up their subsistence crops and planted this cash crop. What cash came to them was minimal as the state monopoly seemed to always get the better end of the deal. As the struggles emerged out of and alongside the Communist movement, Mahdi Amel travelled across the tobacco farmers’ bases, giving lectures about Marxism and its relevance to Lebanon’s contemporary problems. He spoke in homes and mosques, remembers Evelyne Brun, and was listened to “with religious silence”. He explained how backwardness worked, and what were the intentions of Lebanon’s right wing (the Phalange) as representatives of outside forces. Years later, Evelyne Brun learned, he was known as “the man with the green beard” and had attained a legendary status amongst the farmers.
Evelyne Brun recalls one of the major themes of Mahdi Amel’s work, “Being a Marxist is being a person who can provide answers to the problems of daily life.” During the Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982, Mahdi Amel threw himself into organising water distribution with as much energy as he had into helping build the armed resistance. None of these matters had priority. One cannot overturn the condition of backwardness if one ignores the everyday maladies of the people.

When a tree falls

Mahdi Amel was killed in 1987, two years before the Soviet experiment began to fail. Already, the LCP had suffered major setbacks. Entry into the civil war in Lebanon meant that it had to concede to the rhetoric of sectarianism, the war between Christians and Muslims. It was impossible not to be sucked into that logic, as Mahdi Amel noticed in his cautionary books on sectarianism and the Lebanese civil war, say two LCP youth leaders, Adham al-Sayed and Jana Nakhal. It was hard to sustain the party in the new context. It began to flounder.

The Left in the Arab world suffered gravely over the past two decades. Communist parties had largely been destroyed by the Arab nationalist regimes. The room to grow seemed limited. Trade union activity was also not as easy as before, with the relocation of firms breaking links to older union traditions and the importation of migrant workers on restrictive visas making union activity virtually impossible. The rise of religious politics and the reinforcement of sectarianism made the severely rational world of Marxism seem alien to everyday life.

Nevertheless vibrant political movements did emerge in the 1990s and 2000s—new political movements around Palestine solidarity, brave trade union efforts in the mines of Tunisia and the factories of Egypt, and new social movements around women’s rights and the rights of migrant workers. The concatenation of these efforts led directly to the upsurge of 2011, the Arab Spring. Expressions of new left-wing initiatives are visible across the Arab world. In Egypt, for instance, the Eish we Horria (Bread and Freedom) party looks backward to the socialist tradition and forward to a new kind of politics for Egypt against the military-dominated state and political Islam.

But not everything is bright. In Tunisia, the Left seemed in the best position to make a claim on that country’s future through the Democratic Patriots Movement. As the movement grew, one of its leaders, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated outside his home on February 6, 2013. He was 48. Belaid, like Mahdi Amel, wrote poetry. One of his poems was on the assassination of Hussain Muruwwa. The wheel turns, and sometimes repeats itself.

A new perspective on 
antiquity’s greatest slave rebel-Spartacus

Posted by admin On January - 6 - 2014 Comments Off


A new perspective on 
antiquity’s greatest slave rebel-Spartacus
Posterity has left us little more than a dozen pages of writing from antiquity about Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who in 73-71 BC led the largest slave uprising in the history of the Roman Empire. These accounts and fragments were written long after the events passed, by Roman historians who certainly were not sympathetic to their subject. And yet two millennia later the story of Spartacus still inspires novelists, historians, and filmmakers. Marx once called him the “finest fellow antiquity had to offer.” This rebellion still thrills us with its size and scope—Spartacus’s army, which possibly numbered as many as 40,000, defeated several Roman armies sent to crush it—and the way in which it humbled, even if for only a few years, the greatest empire of the day. It is no accident that the German Revolutionaries led by Rosa Luxemburg called themselves the Spartakusbund.

Aldo Schiavone, professor of Roman Law at the Institute of Human Sciences, retells the Spartacus story in this short book with deftness and poetic skill. He writes, for example, of how in the Rome of Spartacus’s time, gladiatorial combats became “increasingly detached from funerary rites and memories of sacrifice, and were now a stable component in the experience of the festivity, of the spectacle, of city munificence—of the heady sharing in the pleasure of blood and its contaminating heat.”

But the book is much more than a poetic retelling. It places Spartacus in a deep historical context, and, through intelligent conjecture, tries to explain the movements and decisions of the slave army, challenging a number of previously held assumptions along the way.

Most accounts of the rebellion argue that the slave army sought to find a way to escape from Italy, either northward to Thrace (Spartacus’s homeland), or, when that path was thwarted, southward and toward ships to disembark to other shores. Schiavone argues that this story doesn’t make sense, and that a more likely explanation for the movement of Spartacus’s army was that he sought to “transform his revolt into an Italic war and into a civil war.”

Though careful to note that the paucity of information makes hard conclusions impossible, Schiavone’s case is well reasoned, situating the Spartacus revolt in the context of a transitional period full of uncertainty and contradiction between the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the dictatorial rule of the Caesars.

This period, as Schiavone describes, is marked by a dramatic expansion of the empire through military conquest. The early empire had been built on the basis of the “citizen-soldier,” the small landowning farmers who provided the backbone of Rome’s conquering armies. But the very success of this model undermined it. Conquest opened up vast tracks of land for exploitation by the Roman landed aristocracy, as well as providing the labor—slaves from conquered peoples—to work them. The increasingly powerful landed aristocracy pushed out the small farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic and of its armies, appropriating their land and concentrating them into large estates worked by slave gangs. Economically ruined, many of these former citizen-soldiers were driven into Rome and other cities to become a “proletariat” dependent on the plunder of empire for their subsistence. The increasing demand for slave labor in turn fed the drive toward greater conquest.

The old republican system of rule could not contain these new developments. Increasingly, power became concentrated in the hands of successful generals, posing as either defenders of the privileges of the senate elite or of the dispossessed urban masses and their own soldiers, each competing for political power by using Rome’s urban plebs “as a mass to be maneuvered by opposing forces.”

Spartacus’s revolt coincided with this period of dramatic change and ferment. Schiavone speculates that Spartacus was aware of the Sicilian slave revolt that had taken place a generation earlier, and that he was probably conscious of the difficulties Rome faced in its outward expansion and the wars and conflicts it engendered, including the “Social War” of 90-88 BC, waged between Rome and several Italian cities that had long been Rome’s allies and now wanted fuller citizenship rights. Spartacus was probably also aware that Rome’s best legions were tied up suppressing a rebellion in Hispania and a war with Mithridates’s Pontic Empire to the east.

Spartacus, writes Schiavone, “really did try to step into the political and social vacuum which he somehow felt lay before him, and to take a leap into the dark.” He built up a substantial army, recruiting not only slaves, but also free poor people. But he was never able to conquer and hold any city, and though he was able to defeat several armies sent to crush him, Spartacus was eventually defeated by legions led by Rome’s richest man, Lucinius Crassus.

In the end, Spartacus was not able to trigger a wider revolution or civil war in Rome that might have provided him with the forces necessary to succeed. As Schiavone notes, in “his scheme to win the support of whole populations and cities, Spartacus underestimated the limit represented by the servile origins of his movement. When it came to the crunch, the strong prejudice against slaves ended up closing many doors and debarred many alliances that must have seemed possible to him.”

Most importantly, argues Schiavone, Spartacus’s plan foundered on the “lack of a real political and social perspective to offer to the rebels, capable of going beyond a simple break with Rome and not merely looking to the past, to the autarchic egalitarianism of bygone days.”

The only weakness in Schiavone’s argument is his insistence, drawing perhaps on the great antiquities scholar Moses Findlay, that Rome was a society of “orders” and “statuses,” but not of classes. The concept of classes, the author argues, is merely the superimposition of industrial capitalist relations onto the past. Indeed, he seems to make the case that one can only speak of classes and class society with the rise of capitalism, modern political parties, and the waged working class. He notes in defense of his point that slaves had no real sense of class-consciousness.

Perhaps Schiavone was motivated in his analysis by the fact that the urban struggle in Rome, which pitted representatives of the people against defenders of the power of the senate oligarchy, used the masses as a battering ram—the latter being largely not a producing or exploited class, but a group of propertyless consumers living off the crumbs of empire. These conflicts were not, strictly speaking, class struggles so much as social and political struggles between factions of the elite.

And yet, it is undeniable that a great portion of the wealth of Rome’s ruling elite was derived, outside of direct plunder and taxation, from the labor of slaves. For Marx, classes were determined not only by their consciousness, but of their objective position in the production of society’s surplus wealth. The slaves may not have been a class “for themselves,” to use Marx’s famous term—that is, a class capable of conscious organization in its own interests—but they certainly were a class “in themselves,” that is, an exploited class whose labor was the foundation of Roman wealth.

This weakness, however, does not detract from the great insights and the new, dynamic interpretation Schiavone gives to antiquity’s greatest slave revolt.
–reviewed by  Paul D’Amato


Gramsci and the Politics of Truth-Murzban Jal

Posted by admin On December - 26 - 2013 Comments Off


Along with the Georg Lukács in spired-genre of critical and revolutionary Marxism, followed by the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, there is no single thinker that has inspired the arts and the humanities in the 20th century, from radical politics and culture theory to historiography, more than Antonio Gramsci. It was in the late 1970s that Chantal Mouffe had said that “if the history of Marxist theory can be characterised by the reign of ‘Althusserianism’, then, we have now, without doubt, entered a new phase: that of “Gramsciism” (1979). Yet this new age of Gramsciism is itself caught in a problem. After all, so Antonio Santucci says in his intellectual biography of Gramsci, Antonio Gramsci, that the International Gramscian Bibliography, compiled by the American historian John Cammett, has more than 10 thousand titles in various international languages, from Afrikaans to Turkish (p 161). Yet we are caught in a bind, for as Santucci says, “something new must be said about Gramsci” (ibid).

So what is this “new” that we learn from Santucci’s little book? Now we are all familiar of the “old”: what Gramsci did was that it retrieved Marxism from the mechanical materialism, economism and fatalism that were dominant in Marxism since the times of the Second International and made into scholarly theory by Nicolai Bukharin. We know that Gramsci rescued Marxism from not only the fatalists, but also from the dogmatic almost theological-like edifice that the Soviet Union had turned Marxism into, where communism existed, as Santucci rightly notes, “only on paper” (p 172). We also know that Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis made a philosophical turn in the history of Marxism, in the sense that it moved from the theory of iron laws of history to understanding Marxism as historicism and humanism, not to forget his theory of the modern capitalist state as the New Prince. And from the scholarly articles written in journals like Telos and New Left Review, we learnt that Hegelian dialectics became the fundamental question for Gramsci’s idea of the revolution. Consider Gramsci:

In a sense, moreover, the philosophy of praxis is a reform and development of Hegelianism; it is a philosophy that has been liberated from any unilateral and fanatical elements; it is a consciousness full of contradictions, in which the philosopher himself, understood both individually and as an entire social group, not only grasps the contradiction, but posits himself as an element of the contradictions and elevates this element to a principle of knowledge and therefore of action (1987: 404-05).

The Leninist Gramsci


What Santucci does is that he combines the personal aspects of Gramsci’s life with the intellectual and political developments where we see how Gramsci’s idea of the moral and intellectual reform became the necessary conditions for the communist revolution. In this sense Gramsci follows the perspective of the young Marx who had talked of “the reform of consciousness which consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness…(and) in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions” (Marx 1975a: 144). This deeper cultural revolution reminiscent of the European humanist and revolutionary movement is shown by Santucci to be the essence of Gramsci’s thought. He quotes the young Gramsci who, even before becoming a communist, noted the discontents of bourgeois civilisation:

Many say that by now whatever mankind had to achieve, in matter of freedom and civilisation, has already been achieved. There is nothing else to do other than enjoy the fruits of his struggles. On the contrary, I believe that there still is very much left to do. Mankind is just varnished with civilisation. If merely scratched, the wolfs’ tough skin will appear at once. Instincts have been tamed but not vanquished, and the right of the mightiest is the only accepted one. The French revolution eliminated many privileges and raised the oppressed many, but it did nothing more than replace one oppressing class with another. However, it left us a great teaching: privileges and social differences, being the product of societies and not nature, can be overcome. Mankind needs another bloodbath to remove many of these injustices. Let the oppressors then have no regrets for having left the masses in such a state of ignorance and slavery as they are now! (p 50).

It must be noted that whilst there has been a plethora of Gramsci studies from Palmiro Togliatti and Eurocommunism to Ernesto Laclau, Martin Jacques, Stuart Hall, Ranajit Guha, and the Indian subaltern school, there is a form a social democratic co-option of Gramsci as the Leninist philosopher of praxis to a respectable academic. Santucci’s little book – with a preface by Eric Hobsbawm, foreword by Joseph A Buttigieg and editor’s note by Lelio La Porta – is different from the respectable academic interpretations of Gramsci as the avant-garde philosopher of the superstructure. Just as Lenin (1977a: 476) had once said that “politics is the most concentrated expression of economics”, so too Santucci brings forth the dialectics of economics and politics as the best form of expression of the revolution.


What one finds in Santucci is the reaffirmation of this revolutionary dialectic and the critique of the ideologues of academic scholasticism – Gramsci (following Julian Benda) called these “scholars”, “clerics” who ceased to be the “custodians of justice and naked truth” when they put their scientific, philosophic and artistic activities at the service of bourgeois interests (p 166) – who wrote treatises in the name of Gramsci (namely, Gramsci devoid of Lenin, if not Gramsci devoid of Marxism itself), as if Marxism had missed out the dialectics of the base and superstructure to opt for a theory of economism and vulgar materialism, and presto Gramsci the philosopher of the superstructure and advocate of understanding “civil society” corrected this mistake of economic reductionism to create a theory of the magical superstructure. Let us after all recall that we were told by the academic socialists, that one can change the world without taking power (Holloway 2005). We are also told of the “terrible explosive lie at the heart of Leninism” (ibid: 232). According to this logic, Gramsci advocates “passive revolution”, “hegemony”, “politics as an autonomous science”, the “transition from War of Maneuver to War of Position”; but never of the terrible Leninist lie of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We heard that one face of the exposures of this Leninist so-called lie was the Frankfurt School, whilst the other was Gramsci.

To understand Santucci’s biography of Gramsci, this little context of understanding Gramsci is necessary, in fact understanding this Leninist Gramsci, who refuses to become not only a part of what is recently been called “an amalgam of sheer empiricism and abstract theory” (Gohain 2012: 75), but also refuses to become part of the discourse of what Lenin once called “graduated flunkeys” who “stultify people by their torturous ‘idealism’” (1977b: 320). Santucci’s work is contrary to the above culture theorists. It is bereft of this torturous idealism. Santucci’s rendering of Gramsci, in this sense, is a critique of what Lukács once called “government socialists” (1973: 41).

This book has four chapters besides Santucci’s own introduction: (1) “The Political Writings”, (2) “The Letters from Prison”, (3) “The Prison Notebooks”, and (4) “End-of-century Gramsci”. Besides these it also has two appendixes: “Biographical Chronology” and “Biographies of Main Political Figures”. The book stands out for two reasons, one that we may call after Žižek that it speaks the “politics of truth”; and second, that it speaks, what we call, the “politics of simplicity”. It is also important as Lelio La Porta notes in this volume to recognise Santucci as “the most important philologist of Gramsci’s texts” as well as “Gramsci’s major interpreter”. And it is this method of philology that makes this book an important contribution in Gramsci studies. As against the academic socialists who oppose Lenin to Gramsci, those who claim that Leninism involves domination, whilst Gramsci involves hegemony, we learn that Gramsci did not create the concept of “hegemony”, but we learn how he learnt the dialectics of hegemony from Lenin (p 104). As Santucci quotes Gramsci, “to push the text”, or to make the “texts say more than they really are….is reproachable” (p 46).

Against Capital

The book is contextualised by its simplicity beginning with Gramsci as a journalist. Gramsci is recalled as a person who “was never a professional journalist, who sells his pen to those offering more money” (p 44). Instead Gramsci “reveals a new type of journalism, one whose aim is the building of a truly new society” (ibid). This book refuses to become scholastic. Instead it is biographical, essentially political in the Marxist sense; it combines what Santucci calls, after Togliatti, the “rebellious instinct” with “humanitarianism” (p 49). The book traverses the political journey of Gramsci from his socialist days in Sardina where he learnt the philosophies of Marx along with the political theories of Benedetto Croce and Gaetano Salvemini.

Yet when we saw that Gramsci’s understanding of Marxism as historicism and humanism broke the hegemony of the fatalist mindset of the Second International to create a radical philosophy of praxis, there is another hidden problem that arises. Consider the following: historical materialism (for Gramsci) is to be re-seen as not a theory of natural law, but as the philosophy of will (p 62), such that “the cannons of historical materialism are not as rigid as might have been thought” (p 63). This seems to be fine.

Yet when Gramsci saw the Bolshevik Revolution as a “revolution against Capital” (Gramsci 1977: 34-37) and when he said that Capital

was a critical demonstration of the necessity in Russia first to form a bourgeoisie prior to bringing about a capitalist era and establishing a western type of civilisation, before the proletariat could revolt…(whereby) the Bolsheviks disown Marx (p 63),

Gramsci did not seem to take into account Marx’s own critical accounts of non-western societies where these societies could actually skip the entire capitalist mode of production. After all, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks were only published in 1974 (by Lawrence Krader) and Gramsci was totally oblivious to this text. But did Gramsci also miss out Marx’s 1877 letter to Mikhailovsky and the 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich where he talked of putting the logic of the “iron laws” of history under the radical politics of suspicion? Remember that Marx did not talk of the unilinear theory of history determined by the fictitious “iron laws”, but a multilinear historicism where one need not pass “through all the dreadful vicissitudes” of capitalism to get to socialism, and that there is a “theoretical possibility of such an evolution” (Marx 1970: 153). Santucci’s version of Gramsci misses out this point.


The drawback of Santucci is that he does not go into the silent and lesser visible layers of Marxism, nor see that Marx’s historical materialism had two rigorously defined sites: that of the deep structure that Marx talked as the “pure form” (1975c: 40) or “classical form” (1970: 152) and the surface level which he designated as the chaotic form (1974: 100). By “pure form” Marx means the phenomenon occurring in “typical form”, “most free from disturbing influence” (1983: 19). For one must understand that never in the real world does history function solely in manner of the static building-like metaphor where a passive superstructure stands on an active economic base that Marxism inherited since Plekhanov. Engels’ letter to Josef Bloc clearly notes this problem (1975b: 682-83).

Santucci misses out this methodological point. Therefore for him (he is quoting the 1859 “Preface” to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy): society can “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs…(but) can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development” (p 65). According to him, Marx remained a positivist and naturalist (ibid). He then claims that Marx himself embodied German idealist philosophy thereby creating a “fatalistic interpretation of the historical process” (ibid). What Gramsci did (according to Santucci), was that for the laws of history, he substituted the “subjective element of the will” (ibid).

If Santucci did not talk of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and the alternative understanding of history, he also does talk of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (which was published only in the mid-1920s by David Ryzanov) where the humanist theory of alienation was spelt out by Marx as the most fundamental aspect of modern capitalism. Instead Gramsci rescues Revolutionary Marxism via Hegel, Gentile and Croce where he seemingly anticipates Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

“ Humanity and reality, the instruments of labour, and the will are not separate, but are connected through the historical act” (pp 65-66).

Genealogy of the Marxist Party

For Gramsci it is this historical act that can solve the problem of fatalism and parliamentary cretinism. And it is the Party as the bearer of the Cultural Education and Intellectual Reform that would realise this historical act. So just as Žižek’s politics of truth – Santucci calls this the “recovery of truth in politics” (p 171) – goes directly to the Leninist theory of the Party, Santucci’s important contribution is locating the genealogy of the Marxist Party in actually existing history: from the Protestant Reformation to German Classical Philosophy. Whilst the dialectics of German Classical Philosophy created the discourse of the “public spirit”, what historical materialism did was transform this discourse of the public spirit that exited only idealistically to the level of “true renewal and progress such as to cover all society down to its deepest roots” (p 170). Gramsci’s “intellectual moral bloc” where the “national popular” played the role of the reform of politics (p 169) is brought by the Party:

The problem extends to the most fundamental political element, the party, which, in turn, ‘must and cannot be but the announcer and organiser of a moral and intellectual reform. In sum, this means preparing the ground for further developing a national popular collective will toward the fulfillment of a higher and complete reform of modern civilisation’ (p 170).

In more than one way Santucci claims that Gramsci does not want to play the hermeneutics of suspicion to the question of the Party. Gramsci does not want to be tied down in the “empiricisation effect” (if we may be permitted to use this term) with the Party question. He does not think it necessary to get bogged down in the debates that were prominent in the early part of the 20th century, namely, the debates between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. Instead he goes into another problematic: of ethics and politics, and how ethics is created not by the ruse of a subjective mind where an individuated individual like Immanuel Kant writes the moral law. Instead we have the “intellectual and the moral” which are the “adjectives that indicate the sense of Gramsci’s hypothesis on cultural, political, and economic reform” (ibid).


Santucci brings forth this Leninist Gramsci, a Revolutionary Marxist who whilst refusing to be tied down to the spurious logic of fatalism and determinism, also refused to accept voluntarism. Gramsci was no “workerist” (p 79). Instead he saw the worker as “intellectually lazy” (ibid) who did not “want to see beyond the immediate” (p 80), despite his claims that “everybody is a philosopher” (p 141). For Gramsci, “it is not possible to conceive of any human who is not a philosopher, who doesn’t think, because thought is proper to humanity as such, or at least to any human who is not a pathological cretin” (Gramsci 1987: 347). This complexity of the ideas of the “philosopher’s philosophy” where the “professional philosopher thinks systematically” (p 141), along with his ideas of “common sense thinking”, the “traditional intellectual” and “organic intellectual”, made Gramsci a theoretician of council communism who at the same time “did not give in to the easy demagogy of the moment” (p 80).

Santucci’s work is philosophical in the sense that it goes back to the very basic Marxist question:

How does German Classical Philosophy bequeath to the world, the algebra of the revolution in the quest for the ‘true’, the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’, and then transform these into the question of the revolutionary proletariat?

Santucci’s Leninist Gramsci turns to another perspective. The communists have to separate themselves from the reformists who create “proletarian aristocracies” that “rotted away within state parliamentarism” (p 83). Instead they have to understand how the national popular lifts itself to the level of the Party, the Party that is not only closely bound to the masses, but is realised as the philosophical actualisation of the masses in ferment. This binding of the masses and the Party is in Hegelian language the binding of the particular to the universal. The Party is not the one which concocts the revolution as a form of a transcendent “Event” dependent “exclusively on the existence of an ‘official apparatus of functionaries who closely adhere to the official line’” (p 92). The party cells, the party centre and the masses are bound together not in terms of hierarchy, but where the “Russian Communist Party, with Lenin as its leader, was so bound to the entire development of the Russian proletariat, and thus to the development of the entire Russian nation, that it is not possible to imagine one without the other” (pp 93-94).


The apparent false binaries, party/factory committees, party-centre/party-cells that we seem to have uncritically borrowed from the Stalinist counterrevolution yet haunt us. Break this opposition and we free ourselves from the traps made by Stalinism and liberal democracy. It is this philosophy of praxis, this insurrection as art (to recall Lenin once again) that heralds the revolution, in fact the revolution with a revolution.

It was Žižek who once said that speaking of Lenin is not fashionable (2002). One may speak of Marx as the “poet of commodities” singing at Wall Street, but not Lenin who dreamt of zombie ideas like the dictatorship of the proletariat. Santucci in this sense presents Gramsci not as the poet of commodities who sings at the Wall Street but as the zombie, and consequently as a humanist and revolutionary par excellence who constantly reminded us that:

Communism is the near future of human history, and the world will find a unification in it, not through an authoritative, monopolistic one, but through spontaneity, with nations organically joining (p 162).

Murzban Jal (murzbanjal@hotmail.com) is with the Indian Institute of Education, Pune.



Engels, Frederick (1975): “To J Bloch in Königsberg, London, 21 September 1890” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Gohain, Hiren (2012): “Subaltern Studies: Turning around the Perspective” in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLVII, No 39.

Gramsci, Antonio (1977): Selections from Political Writings 1910-20, selected and edited by Quintin Hoare, translated by John Mathews (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

– (1978): Selections from Political Writings 1921-26, selected and edited by Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

– (1987): Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers).

– (1994): Pre-prison Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Holloway, John (2005): Change the World without Taking Power (London: Pluto).

Lenin, V I (1977a): “The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes” in V I Lenin Selected Works in Three Volumes, Vol 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

– (1977b): Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Lukács, George (1973): Tactics and Ethics, trans Michael McColgan (London: New Left Books).

Marx, Karl (1970): “First Draft of the Reply to V I Zaschulich’s Letter, 1881” in Marx and Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

– (1974): Grundrisse, trans Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin).

– (1975a): “To Arnold Ruge” in Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels: Collected Works, Vol 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

– (1975b): “To the Editorial Board of the Otechestvenniye Zapiski, London, 1877” in Marx Engels: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

– (1975c): Theories of Surplus Value, Part I (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

– (1983): Capital, Vol I (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Mouffe, Chantal, ed. (1979): Gramsci and Marxist Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Nemeth, Thomas (1980): Gramsci’s Philosophy: A Critical Study (Sussex: The Harvester Press).

Žižek, Slavoj (2002): “A Plea for Leninist Intolerance” in Critical Inquiry, Winter.

Capitalism and the global food crisis -Elaine Graham-Leigh

Posted by admin On November - 30 - 2013 Comments Off


A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Hungry for Change: Farmers, Food and the Agrarian Question (Fernwood Publishing 2013), vi, 194pp
The global food system is in crisis. There is enough food produced in the world to feed the entire human population, yet every year at least a billion people go hungry. Food price inflation has been relentless since 2007, sparking protests from Mexico to Mauretania, and forming part of the background to the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. At the same time, the actual food producers are also suffering, as the commodification of the products of subsistence agriculture is impoverishing farmers and driving them off the land. These two short books, Hungry for Change and Hungry Capital put different aspects of the food crisis at the centre of their analysis, but are united in considering it as created by capitalism’s expansion within the realm of food production. This leads them to similar conclusions about what should be done; conclusions however which are not always sufficient to the nature and scale of the problem they identify.

Hungry for Change’s focus is on the food producers, as Akram-Lodhi structures his analysis of the problems of the modern food system around the experiences of farmers in the developing world in particular, from coffee farmers in Uganda, subsistence farmers in China and Pakistan, to sugarcane producers in Fiji. Hungry Capital starts from the financial markets and the world of commodity speculation, in which food has gone from the stuff of life to just another commodity, indistinguishable from war planes or widgets, with production determined not by human needs but by profit. This might seem a world away from Hungry for Change’s peasant farmers, but both books make clear that the two spheres are in fact linked. The battles which the poor farmers of Hungry for Change have faced to maintain their livelihoods, in the face of increasing corporate involvement in agricultural markets, arise from the financialisation of food described by Russi in Hungry Capital.

This is brought out particularly strongly by the account in Hungry for Change of the Green Revolution and the subsequent development of GM crops. The Green Revolution was the development in the 1950s and 1960s of new disease-resistant strains of food crops, principally wheat and rice, to increase yields in developing countries like Mexico and India. This revolution remains extremely controversial in green circles. For some it is one of the major causes of environmental degradation, while others see those who object to its legacy as preferring to see poor people starve.[i]

Akram-Lodhi does not get bogged down in these debates but points out that alongside the gains in crop yields, the Green Revolution brought about the introduction of the market into subsistence farming systems, which had hitherto remained effectively outside it. In order to reap the benefits of the new technologies, peasants needed cash to buy the seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and continuing supplies of cash to maintain them. Peasants could not longer exist simply by eating their own produce and selling the surplus; they had to sell their crops if they wanted to continue farming. This effect of the Green Revolution would be continued by widespread adoption of GM crops, which are ‘not about improving small-scale peasant productivity; [but] …about monopolistically consolidating the profitability needs of agro-food transnational corporations’ (HfC, p.95).

Movements like Via Campesina, fighting to take back power from the corporations for the benefit of small producers, are therefore an important part of the answer to the problems of the food system, and Akram-Lodhi in particular is clear about the need for genuinely pro-poor land reform. For both authors, however, what is needed goes beyond the demands of current movements, working as they are within the system as it exists. Both books end with visions of food systems removed from capitalism and based on small-scale, local production.

Akram-Lodhi proposes that ‘some food provision could instead become a kind of “commons” – an area outside the exclusive and untrammelled sway of the market, available to all as a basic right of citizenship.’ This is, as he acknowledges, a return to a pre-capitalist reality: ‘For most of our history, being a member of a community has brought with it a right to an elementary amount of food; this has been true for even very poor communities. It is only in the past four centuries that food slowly became something to be bought and sold to the highest bidder’ (HfC, p.157). The system of communal responsibility described here in fact goes back to the Neolithic and did indeed survive in peasant communities, despite the rise and fall of empires and, in Europe, the imposition of feudalism, until it was destroyed by capitalism. This is certainly a demonstration that there is nothing inherent in human nature which means that co-operative production and distribution of food is impossible. Whether it is possible to turn the clock back in the way Akram-Lodhi suggests is however less clear.

Luigi Russi, Hungry Capital: The Financialization of Food (Zero Books 2013), xii, 160pp.Russi makes no such explicit call to return to a pre-capitalist model, although the recurrent contrast between ‘artificial’ food production under capitalism with ‘natural’ food does seem to hark back to a pre-capitalist age in a way that is not entirely dissimilar to that found in Hungry for Change. He makes clear however that a world of ‘peasant co-production’ and ‘a diverse ecology of small rural producers’ (HC, pp.98-9) should be the aim for the food system.

The conclusion that when it comes to farming, bigger is not necessarily better is not an unusual one. Studies comparing small-scale farming with industrial monocultures have found that the small to medium-sized mixed farms were also the most productive, as well as the ones which were the least destructive to the environment.[ii] However, this in itself does not mean that peasant production is the only way forward: the size and production patterns of the agricultural enterprise do not have to determine the social structure in which it exists.

It is clear that in Hungry Capital especially that peasant-style farming is presented as a positive good over and above the issue of farm and field size. This is partly through the identification of peasant-farming with natural as opposed to artificial food production, and partly through the definition of the peasant condition as ‘consisting both of an element of resistance and an element of autonomy’ (HC, p.54). The peasant as producer of their own food can be independent from the market in a way in which a proletarian, who has to sell their labour to survive, cannot be. They are therefore in a position to withdraw resources from capitalism by refusing to participate in the market. Here, Russi gives the example of peasants giving olive oil rather than money in exchange for help with the olive harvest, and thus ‘effectively challeng[ing] the worldview behind the patterning of the current economic system’ (HC, p.103). These are also of course the communities which could be imagined as adopting the communal right to food projected in Hungry for Change.

It is clear that the defence of peasant communities from the depredations of capitalism and the struggle for land reform are both a necessary part of any potential alternative food system, but it is less obvious how the vision in either of these books for a return to pre-capitalist peasant farming is a sufficient answer to the crisis of the food system. It is not entirely clear in either work whether the ideal of communal peasant production is supposed to apply only to existing peasant communities, or whether it is equally applicable to the West, where capitalism has long transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. While the focus of Hungry for Change in particular is on the developing world, both works are clear that the food system in the West is a large part of the problem. It is also the case, of course, that the audience for both books, published as they are in English in London and Ontario respectively, will be predominantly Western. The question of what campaigners in the West should be doing about the food system, and what we should be aiming for, therefore cannot be ducked, but it is the point at which the weaknesses of the arguments in both works are exposed.

For Akram-Lodhi, the problems of capitalism and food express themselves in the West in ‘the 500 million around the world who are clinically obese, the 1.5 billion people who are overweight’ (HfC, p.4). This version of the common trope that a billion people underconsume while another billion overconsume is repeated a number of times, and is amplified by a story of a college student who put on weight during her first year because the food available to her in her hall of residence was poor but calorific. Akram-Lodhi is by no means the first writer on the food system to hang his book on this convenient hook but it is not necessarily a good precedent to follow. There is of course no direct causal relationship between obesity in the West and starvation in the developing world,[iii] and the repetition of this neat little paradox only serves to strengthen two unfortunate ideas: that the basic problem is that there is not enough food to go round, and that fat working-class people take up too many resources and need a dose of austerity.

A further effect is that, if the problem is identified as how people eat, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the solution lies not in the system but in individuals changing their behaviour. Thus for all his analysis of the food system as a system, with structural effects which determine how different communities across the world behave around food, Akram-Lodhi’s prescription for his Western readers is profoundly personal: ‘We must change ourselves if the world is to change … Our tastes must be transformed. We must reject high fructose corn syrup-based calorie- and chemical-intensive processed foods and our excessive love of meat …’ (HfC, p.168). Hungry Capital has nothing so explicit but does end with a call for planning to encourage small shops to survive in Western high streets and a shout out to ‘forms of politicization of the consumer’ (HC, p.99).

The difficulty with these conclusions is that they do not represent a sufficient solution to the systemic problems identified. Capitalism can survive very well relying on consumers with sufficient money and time switching to lower-calorie foods which take longer to cook. Capitalist businesses will even sell the lifestyle to them. The idea that individuals can make small changes to withdraw resources from the system comes from a failure to understand the totality of the system, and the way in which capitalism by its very nature extends into all areas of life, even those where people are trying to live by a different ideology. It is this very tendency of capitalism to expand which these works identify in describing what has been happening to agriculture. The conclusions, that this can be overcome by individual paradigm shifts, do not follow from the analysis of the problem.

In the end, both Hungry for Change and Hungry Capital suffer from a problem common to those who identify serious systemic problems within capitalism but do not want to consider that to overcome them it might be necessary to overthrow the system. This is not to say that struggles for improvements within the system, such as land reform, are pointless, as clearly they are valuable and necessary. It is also true that trying to live in a less consumerist way can be empowering as a way of expressing dissent from the mainstream capitalist ideology. What this will not do, however, is overthrow capitalism on its own. In Hungry Capital, Russi appears to take the view that all sorts of small actions, like bartering labour for olive oil, can be revolutionary, and points out that the flashpoints for the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia included food issues. This is true, but it does not mean that any activity around food is essentially revolutionary. What it tells us is that food prices can be, as they always have been, a trigger for revolt, but that ultimately if we want to oppose the system, we have to be prepared to get out onto the streets and bring it down.

[i] See for example Fred Pearce, Peoplequake (Transworld 2010), p.90: ‘Many people I know regard the green revolution as a disaster. They say it has tied billions of the world’s peasants to a marketised, globalised, mechanised, energy-guzzling, climate-warming, biodiversity-destroying way of feeding the world. I see their point. And it might have been done differently. But would they prefer billions starving?’

[ii] Peter Rosset, ‘Fixing our Global Food System: Food Sovereignty and Redistributive Land Reform’, Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar (eds.), Agriculture and Food in Crisis. Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (New York 2010), pp.189-205, p.200.

[iii] In 2004, Compassion in World Farming developed a computer model to see what the effects would be on world hunger if Westerners ate a less resource-intensive diet. They found that the reduction in a 50% shift would reduce childhood malnutrition in the developing world by less than 3%; Mark Gold, Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (CWF 2004), p.34.


Many alternatives to privatisation-reviewed by C.T. KURIEN

Posted by admin On November - 28 - 2013 Comments Off


A book that critically evaluates the many alternatives to privatisation practised across the world, which are enough to disprove the there-is-no-alternative theory. By C.T. KURIEN
ONE of the myths assiduously propagated by the votaries of the neoliberal ideology is that there is no alternative (‘TINA’) to privatisation. The championing of privatisation, of course, is based on the affirmation that a market-based economic order is superior to any other that has existed or can be thought of. Beneath the economic logic of privatisation, of course, is the more fundamental assertion of its link to capitalism, which is claimed to be the only social order compatible with individual freedom and thus with democracy too.

In the second half of the 20th century, there were many scholarly writings propagating this alleged intimate connection between personal freedom, the market economy and the capitalist order. The theoretical literature of the period, however, had recognised a category of goods —street lighting taken as a typical example—where the pricing principle of the market was not applicable as they were not divisible enough and no individual would bid for them as the benefit would become available to others as well. Such goods were referred to as “public goods” to be provided by the state with costs to be met through taxation. A case for the state was thus recognised in an essentially private enterprise system. The Great Depression had shown that the state also had a “stand by” role, and the theoretical rationale for it was provided by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. How crucial this role has been was seen during the financial meltdown in the United States in 2008. Disciples of free enterprise conveniently set aside these historical events and go on with the gospel of privatisation.

The operational aspect of the contemporary drive for privatisation is the demand that the state must withdraw from the economic sphere, leaving it to the professional players, especially the large corporations (most of them multinational) to provide goods and even services to consumers. However, a little deeper scrutiny is required to decide the roles of the public and the private in the economic sphere. Are “public” and “private” mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive categories? Consider health services. Apart from government and corporate bodies, there are others that provide health care: in our country, typically missionary or charitable organisations. These need not be the only ones either. There are health services provided by local communities and those referred to as “non-governmental organisations” (NGOs). What is designated “public” too can take different organisational patterns—administrated by a department of the government or a public corporation, for instance, when it comes to a service such as the supply of electricity. With a multiplicity of agencies to deal with, other aspects also must be taken note of, particularly motivation. Here, what distinguishes corporate bodies is that their bottom line is clearly profit. The motivation of public agencies cannot be so sharply identified, and yet it is generally accepted that they too have aims and objectives. Some ambiguity appears unavoidable.

A major contribution of the volume under review is that it recognises this ambiguity and attempts a way out as part of the search for alternatives to privatisation. The contributors to the volume (27 in all) are drawn from many parts of the world. In the first instance they worked together in reviewing the existing literature on arrangements for provision of social services—health services, water and sanitation, and electricity—and commonly designed a procedure of research to identify and evaluate the variety of arrangements for this purpose in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The experimental research design that the volume contains and the vastness and variety of case studies make the work a unique contribution towards research and policy formulation. The contributors modestly state that the work is only a “mapping exercise” to gauge the scope and character of alternatives to privatisation in water supply, health care and electricity supply in different parts of the world.

To remove the ambiguity of what they identify as private and to evaluate the multiplicity of service providers, the contributors suggest that a meaningful criterion is to examine the extent to which the provisioning of the service gets commodified. It will be seen that for-profit bodies such as business corporations would want full commodification of whatever they provide. On the other hand, the state and its agencies may be primarily interested in providing services such as health care not only to individuals who can afford to pay but for the entire population irrespective of the ability to pay. Public agencies may have other and complementary criteria as well. For instance, the state may not want to be seen as a mere service provider, but one that promotes solidarity, that is, horizontal relations between citizens. Or, instead of appearing as an agency delivering services, the state may want the citizens to accept responsibility directly through local self-help groups. To go a step further, the state may accept health, for instance, as a human right (as was stated in the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978) and that therefore it is its duty to provide health services for all its citizens. The rights-based approach to services has received a further fillip with the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2010 calling upon nations and international agencies to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all.

If, thus, there are different criteria in the provisioning of services, one must also accept that there can be a multiplicity of agencies for that purpose. The state itself may not be a single agency from this perspective. Departments of the government may directly deal with services, or they may set up what are called “public sector enterprises” for that purpose. Increasingly, there are NGOs as service providers, most of them on a not-for-profit basis. There may be community organisations or self-help groups. Under the circumstances the decision of the contributors of the volume to use profit-making as the objective and commodification as the means in identifying “privatisation” can be accepted as legitimate. A rule of thumb binary classification is, thus, possible: for-profit agencies can be considered as “private” and all not-for-profit agencies can be treated as “alternatives”. The initial task is to document that there are alternatives to privatisation. That is what the rich empirical material in the volume provides.

Cuba’s experience

Nationalisation of health services has been the standard alternative to privatisation. There is apprehension, though, that it will lead to bureaucratisation. Cuba’s experience shows that it need not be the case. After the revolution in 1959, the aim was to establish a public organisation of the health system with free and universal coverage. In 1961, the state took over the entire health services. In the 1970s, a programme of decentralisation was implemented with the establishment of “health areas” in the 14 provinces and 169 municipalities. A decade later “the family physician and nurse” model was introduced with the medical team actually living with communities and visiting homes providing medical care and health education.

In the mid-1990s, the National Council for Health Education was created to promote social participation in health care. By the end of the century, the entire population was covered and Cuba came to have the best health indicators in Latin America although its income level was relatively low.

Vietnam under the communist regime had a somewhat similar national health scheme. China too attempted a national health scheme which, though it did not achieve full coverage, vastly improved the health conditions of the population. The scheme was neglected once the “reforms” set in, but in 2003, a new Cooperative Medical Scheme, partly financed by the government but with contributions by members also, was started covering 800 million rural people. These cannot be treated as patently “leftist” schemes either.

A fairly comprehensive national scheme of health care is being tried out in Iran. During the 1980-88 war with Iraq, a “health houses” scheme was started mainly to take care of people in the sparsely populated rural areas. Health workers were selected from local communities to provide primary health care and serve as a link between the rural population and medical centres and hospitals in urban areas. The system is entirely funded by the national government.

Venezuela, which traditionally depended on the private sector for provision of health services, declared in the new Constitution after Hugo Chavez came to power that health is “a fundamental social right which is an obligation of the state, who will guarantee it as part of the right to life”. Popular clinics were created for primary health care. The medical team from these clinics would also do home visits. Health committees were set up to promote social participation.

Primary health centres (PHC) are widely prevalent in many countries in Asia providing medical care and health education, mainly in the rural areas. Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are noted for these services. Thailand, indeed, has a universal health care coverage scheme funded by the government. India too has had a primary care system, and a National Rural Health Mission was launched in 2005. Many countries in Latin America have brought health care into the more comprehensive social security system. In Africa, one alternative to privatisation is the community-based health insurance which aims to extend the benefits of insurance to populations that have been excluded from traditional social protection schemes. It is prevalent in Mali, Senegal, Ghana and a few other countries. Some countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa have national health insurance schemes based on contributions from members and their employers. African countries are also noted for faith-based agencies that provide medical aid at very concessional rates.

In Asia, water and sanitation are largely the responsibility of the states and are administered mainly by municipal corporations, thus bringing them closer to the people and making popular participation possible. There are instances of public/ non-profit partnerships wherein one or more public sector agencies work with one or more civil society or community-based organisations. A good example is the Tamil Nadu Rural Water Sector Programme. Under it a public sector board works with local communities for joint management of water services, including for irrigation. Similar programmes have been successfully practised in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Even in Hong Kong there have been attempts to prevent the commercialisation of drinking water.

In Latin America, which had a long history of the state accepting responsibility for the provision of basic infrastructure and services, there was a wave of privatisation from the early 1980s. Several private water companies emerged taking advantage of the relatively wealthy population in the urban areas and with ideological and financial support from international agencies.

But in the 1990s social movements such as the Coalition for Water and Life in Bolivia and Uruguay demanded that water be treated as a human right and became very vocal about democracy, accountability and transparency in the management of public services. In 2010, the U.N. agencies concerned declared Uruguay as the only country in Latin America that has achieved near universal access to improved water sources and sanitation. In Caracas (Venezuela) and Brazil, water companies have improved services by democratising decision-making. A worker-controlled water cooperative in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been heralded by the U.N. as a model that can be replicated elsewhere. The Council of Potable Water in the rural areas of Honduras has been commended as a good example of a successful community-oriented water system.

In Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan countries where most organised efforts to supply drinking water are heavily commercialised, some governments have stepped in to take over the responsibility. There are many municipal water providers, but their structure and functioning have not been properly researched.

The electricity services of Latin America, once in the hands of for-profit companies, are increasingly being provided by various forms of public enterprises with much heterogeneity in terms of inclusion in ownership and managerial structures and diverse degrees of financial and administrative autonomy. Experiments have been taken up in Venezuela, especially in the capital Caracas, to involve citizens in diagnosing problems in their neighbourhood in terms of access to public services, including electricity. Argentina had for a while involved the Light and Power Workers Union as a key player in matters relating to electricity generation and distribution. Also, in many countries there is growing recognition that wind and solar energy projects are more environment-friendly than coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear plants. Africa has a long way to go as far as electricity is concerned. While two thirds of Africans live in rural areas, only 19 per cent of them have access to electricity and the number of people without electricity is expected to increase over the next two decades. In most countries electricity supplies are fully state-owned. Ghana has a successful Self-Help Electrification Programme. Some countries have community cooperatives that produce and supply electricity in limited neighbourhoods.

In Asia, provision of electricity by governments had a meteoric rise from post-Second World War time to the 1980s, only to be challenged by a strong push for privatisation from the end of that decade. Private companies eagerly take over generation and transmission of electricity where, possibly, their operations are more efficient than those of government departments or public corporations. But they are reluctant, except in urban areas, to take over distribution. The not-for-profit alternatives must be viewed in that context. In Thailand, the government cooperates with a non-profit organisation for the generation of electricity from biogas. In the Philippines, community-oriented electric cooperatives work with government agencies for the distribution of electricity in rural areas. The restructuring of the power sector in Indonesia after the financial crisis of 1997 allows private companies to supply electricity to the national power grid, with transmission and distribution retained by the government.

The volume deals with and critically evaluates many more alternatives to privatisation, enough and more to call the TINA bluff. I strongly recommend it for study and action by those interested.

Sylvia Pankhurst: War and Imperialism -Katherine Connelly

Posted by admin On November - 19 - 2013 Comments Off


Sylvia Pankhurst’s activism during the First World War demonstrated her unwavering commitment to anti-imperialism – a thread running through all her activity for the rest of her life
Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.Sylvia’s radicalism also created tensions in the Women’s International League (WIL), which emerged out of an international conference of women who wanted to see an end to the war, in the Hague in April 1915. (In Britain, 180 women, including Sylvia, had wanted to attend the meeting, but the government refused Sylvia a passport and then stopped shipping from crossing the North Sea.)

Sylvia was on the executive of the British branch, but the WIL voted against the WSF’s proposal that they call themselves the Women’s International Peace League, and rejected foreign women members and even wives of ‘enemy aliens’. Much of the leadership were women who had felt forced to leave the nationalist NUWSS in order to participate in the WIL, and although they were unhappy at the war they had accepted the notion of serving the nation in wartime and were unable to fully break with looking out for the interests of ‘their’ state and therefore rejected the notion of campaigning for peace on any terms. Sylvia, however, was moving in a very different direction; she spent the war reading ‘Karl Marx, Kropotkin, William Godwin, William Morris – all those who attacked the ethics of present society at its base took on a deeper meaning’, and developed an understanding of the war as driven by imperialism.68 In an article asking ‘What is a Pacifist?’ she answered ‘the true pacifist is a rebel against the present organisation of society’.*

Sylvia later explained her turn towards explicit antiwar campaigning as a consequence of a personally traumatic experience. In September 1915 she was devastated by the news that Keir Hardie had died. She felt that ‘the War had shattered him’, while George Bernard Shaw, the Fabian socialist, commented ‘I do not see what Hardie could do but die’ when ‘the Labour Party he had so painfully dragged into existence – should snatch still more eagerly at the War to surrender those liberties and escape back into servility, crying: “You may trust your masters: they will treat you well.” … This was what broke the will to live in Keir Hardie.’

Reflecting on Hardie caused Sylvia to dwell upon her own campaigning focus in the first year of the war. She explained her dilemma as an internal dialogue: ‘though I had spoken against the War, the greater part of my struggle had been waged for economic conditions. “Oh yes, I know this is a capitalist war; if capitalism were ended, wars would be no more; yet the politics of this War, in their callous wickedness; these you have not sufficiently exposed”.’ But though Hardie had been opposed to the war, he was primarily opposed to it from a moral standpoint; that he was unable to galvanise collective opposition was reflected in Sylvia and Shaw’s depiction of him as a broken, isolated individual.

Sylvia’s opposition to the war was motivated both by her commitment to the ethical socialism represented by Hardie, but also by a more scientific socialism which saw the war as fundamentally opposed to the interests of the vast majority of people. She was therefore able to identify ‘economic conditions’ where inequalities were intensified in wartime, which people could unite around and challenge. Though personally horrified by the war, Sylvia therefore never felt as isolated as Hardie did, and although she felt his influence as her emphasis changed, she did not in fact change her approach of working towards collective, popular resistance. Indeed, her move towards campaigning for peace coincided with a shift in public opinion against the war.

The enthusiasm for a war that would be ‘over by Christmas’ 1914 evaporated as it turned into a bloody war of attrition in which a single day could bring tens of thousands of casualties. The drive in 1915 towards conscription, introduced in 1916, reflected the fact that not enough men were volunteering to continue the war, while the intensified hardships on the home front, which Sylvia had identified as the basis of opposition, were translating into disillusionment in the war. The Dreadnought reflected this changing consciousness; in one instance in March 1916 it reported the reaction of striking women munitions workers in Newcastle who were told to go back to work for the sake of the soldiers: ‘A girl waved her hand and said: “Don’t mention the soldiers. England at 2ód. an hour isn’t worth fighting for!”’

The discontent was reflected in the increased numbers of strikes that broke out in 1915 and 1916; and then at Easter 1916 an uprising in Dublin against British rule was brutally crushed, and the leaders executed in prison. Sylvia was most affected by the execution of Connolly, whom she had spoken alongside in 1913, and whose socialism she felt was the greatest loss to the movement for Irish freedom ‘because his rebellion struck deeper than mere nationalism’.

Sylvia’s shift in emphasis, then, largely developed out of her own reading in this period and her identifying the opportunity that a change in popular consciousness provided for more explicit antiwar campaigning. In December 1916 she launched a peace campaign, holding demonstrations at the East India

Dock Gates and Victoria Park. The police made arrests claiming there was disorder, but Sylvia and other WSF members argued that they had largely sympathetic audiences and the disorder was exaggerated to give the impression the country remained overwhelmingly prowar and as a pretext to remove antiwar campaigners from the streets. Sylvia would later remember: ‘Peace, and the popular government of the world to end this capitalist system of ruthless materialism, stood out for me as the two great needs of the hour.’ This more explicitly socialist and anti-imperialist agitation would come to define her activity for the next few years.

The WSF’s rejection of a ‘national interest’ from the very start of the war, and their insistence on the particular, but international, interest of the working class, enabled them to develop a defence of women’s rights in wartime, which had been abandoned by other women’s organisations, and a more complete antiwar position than the international organisations working towards, but not for, peace. No wonder that the WIL chair Helena Swanwick found Sylvia ‘a very provoking colleague, owing to her habit of going her own separate way, even after she had joined others in hammering out an agreed way … like one of the hoops in “Alice’s” game of croquet, Sylvia had wandered off to another part of the field’.

Then, in March 1917, everything would change again. Elsie Lagsding found out while she was sitting in a socialist meeting – Norah Smyth came ‘rushing in and she said “the revolution’s started, it’s started”. They all sat and gaped at her, they thought she’d gone mad.’


* The term ‘pacifist’ was a much broader term in the early twentieth century than it is now. It did not mean the absolute renunciation of all violence, but it did entail demanding an immediate end to war. (See ‘Preface’ in Wiltsher, Most Dangerous Women, p. xii.)

This article is an extract from the chapter War and Imperialism (pp.83-6)


A history of Punjab — a subject long overdue — I — By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted by admin On November - 18 - 2013 Comments Off


Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten

Author: Rajmohan Gandhi

Publisher: Aleph Books, : New Delhi: 2013

Pages: 432

The distinguished historian Professor Rajmohan Gandhi’s monumental contribution, Punjab: From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, is meticulously, deftly crafted and structured and is a reader’s delight no doubt. Sayyid Muhammad Latif’s History of the Panjab (1889) and Ikram Ali’s History of the Punjab — 1799-1947 (1971) had been available in the public previously. However, while Latif’s work is now dated because it was written within the constraints of the colonial order of that time, that of Ali did not cover the critical period of almost a century when Aurangzeb died in 1707, and in 1799 when Ranjit Singh established the Kingdom of Lahore.

I was curious what made him, a Gujarati, work so painstakingly to produce a work that will surely be the standard reference on the history of Punjab. A clue Gandhi gives in the preface is: “[I]n 1948, my assassinated grandfather, the Mahatma [Gandhi], had joined the numberless victims of Punjab’s and the subcontinent’s anger. Punjab had become a part of my life, a question-provoking yet precious part, and I needed to understand it as well as I could.”

In an even more important sense Gandhi’s book breaks free from the nationalist-communalist narratives on Punjab since the 1947 partition. Scholars of history in the Indian East Punjab have been writing histories of the Sikhs, while in the Pakistani Punjab the Two-Nation Theory alone inspires historical research. Ikram Ali’s work from 1971 is an exception. From both sides, there is a strong temptation to explain the Punjab partition as rooted essentially in the religious conflicts between two antagonistic groups: Hindus and Sikhs being considered one group and the Muslims the other. Gandhi’s book amply demonstrates the poverty of such slanted historiographies and restores the Punjab narrative to its pre-partition moorings.

No doubt, Aurangzeb’s persecution of the Sikh Gurus is proverbial but the reprisals by the self-proclaimed avenger of that oppression, Banda Bahadur, a Rajput from Kashmir, resulted in havoc being wreaked on the Muslims between the Yamuna and Lahore. That gruesome period of excesses from both sides culminated with the Mughal Emperor when Farrukh Siyar finally put Banda and his family to death in a most horrific manner in 1716.

However, the bloodshed caused by the confrontation between the Mughals after Aurangzeb and the Persian Nadir Shah and later Ahmed Shah Abdali was no less gory and appalling. Those two invaders showed no sympathy for the Punjabi Muslims during their raids on Delhi and Punjab. For years Punjab — roughly the region between Attock in the west and Delhi in the east — was bled white because of the conflict between Delhi/Agra and Kabul.

However, before Ranjit Singh came to power in Lahore in 1799 and put a stop to that tussle between Delhi/Agra and Kabul, another son-of-the-soil, Adina Beg Khan (1710-1758), an Arain from Sharaqpur, 18 miles south of Lahore, emerged as the major player in Punjab politics. He served as the viceroy of the Mughal state in Punjab, accepted Afghan suzerainty as well as the overlordship of the Marathas who were another major force in the Punjab of the 18th century and entered into alliances with the Sikhs and Muslim chieftains. From his base, mainly in the Jullundur tracts, he led armies consisting of men from all communities into battle and was a successful military commander. His closest associates were some Hindu Khatris.

We learn that whenever Adina found the opportunity he established good government and particularly looked after the interests of the peasantry and other farming communities. However, the Punjabi Muslims could not produce a strong and unified leadership despite being the biggest religious group in the province. It seems that Adina Beg Khan succeeded largely because of his individual skills of manoeuvre and sagacity rather than the solid support of the Muslims of Punjab to establish an independent state.

On the other hand, since the Sikhs were subjected to persecution from the time of Jahangir onwards and under Aurangzeb such oppression only magnified, Guru Gobind Singh transformed them from a quietist brotherhood into a militant Khalsa fraternity in 1699. Subsequently, Sikh commanders began to organise into a number of standing armies known as misls led mainly by Jatts, the biggest agricultural biradari in Punjab. Many of them began to wear the Khalsa emblems and thus distinguish themselves as a militant group, believing in their destiny to rule. The misls specialised in guerilla warfare as mobile units of raiders ambushed Afghan and other armies.

The consummation of the Sikh rise to power was the triumphant march in July 1799 into Lahore by Ranjit Singh of the Sukerchakia misl centred on Gujranwala. He eliminated his Sikh rivals and drove the Afghans out of Punjab. Peshawar, Kashmir and Multan were also annexed militarily. We learn that Ranjit Sikh was always willing to forgive his opponents if they submitted to his rule. That way he broke with the cruel practices of the Mughals and Afghans of imposing barbaric punishments on their opponents.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rise to power was a most spectacular success story because the Sikhs were a small minority of the Punjab population, though at that time ambiguity prevailed over the exact boundaries between Sikhism and Hinduism. Although Ranjit Singh patronised the Sikh religion and orthodox Hindu influence increased at his court, he adopted a tolerant and inclusive policy towards the Punjabi Muslims. Some of them served as his ministers and military commanders, who led his armies into battle against the Afghans and other Muslims. A sizeable number of Europeans, most notably Frenchmen, served in his army as well and trained his soldiers.

(To be continued)

The reviewer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at:billumian@gmail.com

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