James Petras: More uncompromising than ever before, and a thorn under the saddle for many fellow progressives.
Dateline: Wednesday, november 26, 2008
Prominent progressive intellectuals
By Stephen Gowans | [print_link]
James Petras has taken issue with progressive public intellectuals (PPIs) who endorsed the Obama candidacy on pragmatic grounds and who argued the Democratic candidate is a lesser evil, while at the same time condemning lesser evils abroad. In particular, Petras wonders why there’s not a single PPI who supports “the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the popularly supported nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, the anti-occupation Taliban in Afghanistan or even the right, recognized under international law, of the Iranian people to the peaceful development of nuclear energy.” Whatever their defects, continues Petras, “these are the ‘lesser evil’.” (1)
To Petras’ list can be added Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, a lesser evil no PPI would publicly support. While the secular nature of Zimbabwe’s party of national liberation makes it marginally more attractive to secular leftists than Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists of Iraq, it is still shunned for its failings. Its failings, however, do not erase two realities: (a) with its land reform and economic indigenization policies it is a more progressive alternative than the opposition MDC, which is virtually run from Western capitals and, not surprisingly, promotes a comprador program; (b) there is no other progressive alternative with any realistic chance of coming to power in the foreseeable future. (2) In other words, the situation in Zimbabwe parallels the situation in the US, in which PPIs concluded the progressive alternative, Nader, couldn’t win, that Obama was marginally better than McCain, and, therefore, that an Obama presidency deserved their endorsement on pragmatic grounds. If PPIs are willing to sacrifice their moral hymens at home, why do they keep their legs tightly crossed when surveying the political landscape abroad?
Support for the lesser evil at home but never abroad is a manifestation of an older PPI double-standard: eschewing communist organizations for their ‘crimes’ and hierarchical structure while supporting, working within, endorsing or voting for the Democrats, an organization that can hardly be considered non-hierarchical or free from moral failure. PPIs are forever condemning organizations that effectively oppose imperialist spoliation, while justifying support for a major party of imperialist predation whose commitment to civil and political liberties is no more absolute than that of communist organizations. As Michael Parenti points out:
“Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations morally unacceptable because of the ‘crimes of communism.’ Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic party in this country, either as voters or as members, apparently unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a ‘national emergency’; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all of these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberal, the social democratic, and the ‘democratic socialist’ anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnation of either the Democratic party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.” (3)
Petras amplifies Parenti’s point:
“PPIs justified their support for Obama on the basis of his campaign rhetoric in favor of peace and justice, even as he voted for Bush’s war budgets and foreign aid programs funding the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Colombians, Somalis and Pakistanis and the dispossessing and displacement of at least 10 million people from their towns, farms and homes.” (4)
PPIs like victims, so it’s fitting that they’ve endorsed or voted for a candidate who as president will continue to produce victims in abundance. They’re always springing to the defense of innocent civilians, but rarely to the defense of those who fight back (who in doing so, in the view of PPIs, are no longer innocent). The problem with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists, from the point of view of the PPIs, is three-fold: (i) they’re religious-based, (ii) they use violence, and (iii) they’re not victims. The secular Zanu-PF earns the PPIs’ enmity because it uses the wrong tactics to resist imperialist pressure (presumably it should remove all impediments to the US and Britain using civil society and the MDC as instruments of Western foreign policy.)
To be sure, secular socialist alternatives would be preferable to these lesser evils, but those that exist command insufficient support to mount effective oppositions, and, in many cases, are supporting larger, religious-based, anti-imperialist organizations. And while nonviolent direct action alone is preferable to violence, it has yet to prove effective against armed occupations, except in circumstances in which the violence of war has weakened the oppressor (Britain in India).
There is both a moral and tactical argument for supporting existing organizations which have mounted effective anti-imperialist oppositions. First, they have a right to resist occupation, aggression, and intervention. That their political orientations may be repellent is irrelevant. We don’t deny the right to a fair trial on the basis of the accused’s views, no matter how offensive they are. Second, to the extent these organizations are successful in exercising their right, they weaken the ruling class forces against which progressive at home struggle. The anti-occupation Taliban is reactionary, and is an organization one would bitterly oppose at home, but in its resistance to occupation, and in this alone, it is objectively progressive from the standpoint of Western working class populations; a Taliban that is successful in its efforts to oppose occupation weakens the class forces that both exploit foreign populations by conquest and economically exploit populations at home.
Petras attributes the PPIs’ double standards to what aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes called “the sad reality of capitalism” (5) – “supporters of the millions of victims of Western and Israeli butchery do not live off foundation handouts,” while those who condemn organizations that have mounted effective opposition to imperialist predations receive “invitations to speak at universities with offers of five-figure honorariums.” (6)
There’s a principle governing which political ideas bubble to the surface of public awareness: the prominence of a political idea and of whoever can articulately express it, is proportional to the degree to which it is congenial to the interests of those who have the wealth to bring it to prominence.
Conservative intellectuals (CIs) enjoy the greatest degree of prominence because they articulate ideas that closely match the interests, and justify the privileges, of the wealthy. For example, a CI writing in my daily newspaper said Obama will back away from his pledge to hike taxes on Americans who earn over $250,000 per year and that this is prudent because the wealthy are “the most productive element of society.” It should be no surprise that intellectuals who articulate these kinds of legitimating ideas have no problems securing access to platforms capable of giving their views prominence.
PPIs are far less prominent than PCIs (prominent conservative intellectuals) because they articulate ideas that are often hostile to the interests of the wealthy. But their condemnations of any effective opposition to the interests of the wealthy are congenial to the interests of predatory capital. Whatever the failings of communist governments, they remained effective oppositions to capitalist interests. Whatever the failings of national liberation and anti-occupation movements, they act as effective oppositions to imperialist aims. And whatever the regrettable and grim outcomes of violence, movements and governments that use violence to defend themselves against the aggressions and predatory pursuits of capital, have enjoyed more success than their counterparts who won’t or can’t use violence. Progressive intellectuals who are able to set forth compelling cases against communism, really-existing national liberation and anti-occupation movements, and political violence, earn access to platforms which allow their views to be widely circulated within the progressive community. In this way, they become PPIs.
There is a parallel in the control of insect populations. If you want to reduce the mosquito population, you introduce sterile mosquitoes who mate with fertile counterparts and produce no offspring. This doesn’t eliminate successful fertile pairings, but it does reduce the probability, and checks population growth. Favoring sterile PIs with foundation grants, invitations to lectures, and ready access to progressive media (much of which operates on foundation grants), is equivalent to overwhelming mating populations with sterile mosquitoes.
Articulating a compelling case for effective organization against the wealthy at home is, to those who dole out foundation grants, also undesirable; accordingly, PIs who promote engagement with the Democratic party while condemning effective anti-imperialist movements aboard, are highly valued, and earn access to platforms capable of raising the visibility of their ideas. The question of whether PPIs alter their ideas to cater to foundation and progressive media gatekeepers is beside the point; all that matters is that the right ideas, articulated in compelling ways, earn their bearers prominence.
What we need to do is examine ideas on a case-by-case basis, immune from the halo effect of someone’s admirable political stance on other issues. Aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes makes much of the fact that he’s earned his progressive stripes, but his political stance on the IMF, World Bank, debt peonage or the Bush administration does not mean his stance on ruling class funded nonviolent pro-democracy activism is sound. In particular, we should ask:
• What movements and forms of organization have been historically effective in opposing exploitation and oppression?
• What political positions have PPIs taken on these movements and forms of organization?
• Are there systemic imperatives that push to prominence PIs who can persuasively argue against effective movements and forms of organization?
It might be argued that capitalist forces centered in the Western world are a common enemy of Western working class populations and the Taliban. Failure of the West’s popular forces to forge contingent, ad hoc, alliances with the Taliban weakens their common fight. From a purely self-interested standpoint, Western working classes stand to profit from such an alliance, in the same way the US state profited from an alliance with reactionary Islam in opposing a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. This does not mean, however, that, from the standpoint of Afghans opposed to the Taliban, or the progress of humanity, that the Taliban is the lesser evil; nor that it is preferable from the perspective of a large number of Afghans to a secular comprador regime which guarantees the equality of the sexes, makes provision for the education of females, and expunges the remnants of feudal institutions. The question of who is the lesser evil, then, is necessarily relative. For women and peasants in Afghanistan, it’s difficult to imagine what the Taliban could be the lesser evil to.
My interest, however, isn’t in the normative question of whether Western working classes ought to pursue their own interests by supporting the Taliban in it fight against occupation, even if an alliance with the Taliban means sacrificing the interests of the peasant and female populations that face Taliban oppression. It is, rather, in the empirical question of whether PPI opposition to the Taliban serves the interests of imperialist forces, and whether PIs become PPIs as a consequence of their hostility to movements and forms of organization that have been historically effective in combating exploitation and oppression. The weakness of Petras’ argument lies, I think, in its reliance on the idea of the lesser evil, which is a contingent idea reflecting class interests in a particular place and time. The elevation to PPI from PI of those who favor support for the Democrats while condemning effective anti-imperialist oppositions abroad, can best be understood, not from the perspective of double standards, but as a necessary outcome of the way wealth operates to bring ideas acceptable to the interests of the wealthy to prominence in progressive communities.
Stephen Gowans runs an important site ( What’s Left ) devoted to iconoclastic political commentary.