Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

January 1, 2009


Filed under: history, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:52 am

I happened across the above video recently where Maher was defending the Vietnam war and Hitchens was criticizing it.  It is a bizarro moment because in more recent discussions I have seen between Hitchens and Maher about the Iraq war, they are in the opposite position.  Hitchens is for the war; Maher is against.  It floors me particularly because the arguments are essentially the same for the war, the actors are different.

Maher, when supporting the war in Vietnam, feels the need to stop the advance of communism.  Hitchens, when supporting the war in Iraq, feels the need to stop the advance of Islamic extremism.  In both pro-arguments, the particular war is seen in the context of a larger war of civilizations.  

In truth, both wars were started for essentially imperial reasons.  Vietnam was, to a first approximation, an ideological war.  Iraq was, to a first approximation, a resource war.

The fear of Vietnam was a type of domino theory, although not as it is usually described.  The fear was that a colonial or client state would obtain some degree of prosperity through nationalistic or socialistic reform and would become a model for popular uprisings in other colonial or client states.  I’m somewhat surprised when people say the United States lost the Vietnam war.  Lost?  Lost what?  It isn’t like the Vietnamese invaded Washington D.C.  Not a single U.S. city was even attacked by the National Liberation Front.  Vietnam was bombed and devastated to such an extent that it did not become a model for countries elsewhere.  The United States failed towards one goal, the country did not relent and submit to a puppet regime, thus proving armed resistance could succeed if one was willing to endure massive casualties and mass devastation for the principle of self-determination.  What a Pyrrhic victory for the Vietnamese!  Why the United States continued the war, even after its government knew that the installation of a puppet regime was not going to work, was to increase the cost of this victory.

The Iraq war was a war of opportunity.  After September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration saw a historic opportunity to establish American power in the heart of the world’s energy reserves, and they took it.    

As Bertrand Russell put it in The History of Western Philosophy: “The stages in the evolution of ideas have had almost the quality of the Hegelian dialectic: doctrines have developed, by steps that each seem natural, into their opposites (pg. 643).”

For both Maher and Hitchens, both of their respective pro-war arguments are equal in merit in principle, and equally divorced from the particular circumstances of the actual conflict.  The role-reversal is so stark, it seems unlikely they are even aware.  Although, it is said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

December 31, 2008

Harold Pinter

Filed under: culture, history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:19 am

Harold Pinter was a playwright and critic of United States foreign policy.  In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Above is his acceptance speech.  Democracy Now! had excerpts on their December 30th show, but the whole speech is interesting in its own right (from outlining the process he used to write plays to giving a passionate defense of the Sandinista government).  

Pinter passed away Decemember 24th, 2008.

August 28, 2008

RE: Clive James on Leon Trotsky

Filed under: history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:01 am

Clive James wrote a piece called “Don’t idealize Leon Trotsky” on Slate back in 2007.  In general, I would extend it further to say, don’t idealize anyone.  However, James makes a common claim that Trotsky was a mass murderer.  I wonder what revolutionary figure would not deserve such a label.  Was George Washington a mass murderer when he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, or had his own troops executed for desertion?

Anarchist Emma Goldman criticized Trotsky for his role suppressing sailors in the Kronstadt Rebellion.  Shouldn’t some consideration be paid to the devastation brought by the first World War, followed by the Russian Civil War where Western countries backed the White Army to restore the Tsar?

Trotsky’s life ended in exiled where he was assassinated via a pick of an ice axe that was driven into his skull. He died more than a day later from the brain damage he suffered.  To James, this implies the fundamental disagreement between Stalin and Trotsky was that Trotsky was complaining that Stalin wasn’t killing people fast enough.

But when it became clear that the vast crime called the collectivization of agriculture would involve a massacre of the peasantry, Trotsky’s only criticism was that Stalin’s campaign was not sufficiently “militarized.” He meant that the peasants weren’t being massacred fast enough.

Is that the only explanation?  Isn’t possible that Trotsky thought that the collectivization was too disorderly and causing needless deaths?

According to James’ argument, Iraq war critics who argued for more troops only did so because they weren’t satisfied with the rate of Iraqi casualties and wanted more civilians to be killed faster.

As James concedes:

We can dignify Trotsky’s ruthlessness with the name of realism if we like, but the question abides of just how realistic his ruthlessness would have been if he had won a power struggle against Stalin and stayed on to rule the Soviet Union.

We will never know.  However, I don’t see why one would prefer one particular answer over another.  There are a couple different historical threads in socialism.  One is where socialism is achieved by democratic means.  The government usually found itself undermined in some fashion, such was the case in Iran and Chile.  Others used socialism as a brand to overthrow the existing power structure and establish a dictatorship, as was the case in Nazi Germany, Iraq and I would argue Stalinist Russia.

In this respect, I think Marx got it wrong.  The story of history is not between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but rather the history of the rulers and the ruled.  Permanent revolution, if it means anything, is a willingness of ruled classes to replace their rulers.  The American system of government has the capacity for permanent revolution in theory, although it has not worked that way in practice.  The ideal of social democracy is to establish and maintain an egalitarian equilibrium where the rulers are never too far above those they rule.

Trotsky deserves to criticized along the lines of Goldman’s argument.  The failure of the Bolsheviks to establish democratic governance with individual rights is a legitimate one.  Whether or not that could have been done at the time of Kronstadt Rebellion is, again, arguable.

The fact that James has to slander Marx, Lenin and Trotsky based on a contempary’s observation hardly speaks well for his argument.  Although, James’ contempt for people who he feels might “idealize” Trotsky is hardly concealed:

Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution will always be attractive to the kind of romantic who believes that he is being oppressed by global capitalism when he maxes out his credit card.

All I ask is that we apply the same standard to figures in history.  It is necessary to look at history through the eyes of its victims, but we cannot do so selectively.  When we complain of usurption of power, it behooves us to look at how that power was actually used and whether it was ever relinquished.  In one respect, we could criticize Lincoln for suspending habeas corpus but to ignore the reality of a full-scale insurrection is hardly fair.

James concludes:

Trotsky lived on after Stalin, and to some extent is still alive today, not because young people want the world he wanted: a phantasm that not even he could define. What they want is to be him.

Anyone who finds something admirable about Leon Trotsky actually wants to be a mass murderer.  Should we say the same about people who idealize Lincoln or Washington?  There is much to criticize Trotsky for, but resorting to slander is unnecessary.

August 22, 2008

Nixon-Frost Interview

Filed under: film, history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:27 am

In 1977, David Frost interviewed former President Richard Nixon.  The interview is the basis of an upcoming Ron Howard film titled “Frost/Nixon.”  Looking back on the actual interview (thank goodness for youtube), the one thing that becomes clear is what really screwed Nixon were the tapes.  People could independently verify exactly what was said and when.  The crimes of Nixon are hardly of any significance by today’s standards.  This speaks more of the establishment attitudes of today more than those of the Nixon era.

August 20, 2008

Jared Diamond: Collapse Lecture

Filed under: culture, environment, history — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:42 am

Jared Diamond gives a lecture about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”  Choose is probably too strong a word.  As Rush put it in their song “Freewill”:

If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

The underlying point is that Malthusian catastrophes have already occured on small scales.  There are finally enough of us to accomplish disaster on a global scale.  The elephant in the room is population.  We can choose humanely and preserve human dignity and quality of life through zero population growth (although even this may entail some reduction in resource usage) or we can let the catastrophe choose for us.

Diamond asks what did the last Eastern Islander say when they chopped down the last tree?  It is a failure of imagination to think they did so out of stubborness, invoking property rights and such.  When it came down to one tree, the disaster was already upon them.  He/she probably saw no other option.  The society didn’t address the issue until it was too late to do anything about it, at which point they couldn’t.  The destructive spiral was most likely caused by desperation, a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable thus making the problem worse.

Issues, like deforestation, can strike very fast.  Easter Island may have been in a halcyon age right before it met unmitigated disaster.  Nothing is inevitable.  However, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

August 15, 2008

Michael Parenti – The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Filed under: history — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:19 am

Above is a talk by Michael Parenti about the history surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar.  While the leisure class is responsible for the lasting contributions to the ongoing enterprise known as civilization, it is important not to forget the nameless backs that life of privledge rested.

August 4, 2008

James Loewen – On Social Class

Filed under: capitalism, history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:46 am

James Loewen is a professor and author.  He is probably best known for the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  In the above video he talks about a taboo subject in American society: class.  Discussing class is a difficult task.  It is actually unsurprising that the right-wing picked up on Martin Luther King’s vision of a color blind society and routinely tout it as the true heirs of his legacy.  It has long been the claim of conservatives that we have already established a just social order.  These claims date back before and during Jim Crow and the nadir of American race relations as Slavery by Another Name shows.

Regardless, social stratification and class remain an omnipresent facts and economics are directly tied to politics.  There has been a one-sided class war in this country.  The reluctance to discuss class and the inability to organize a political party around working-class interests means social stratification will continue.

July 22, 2008

Chomsky on Anarcho-syndicalism

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:17 am

Youtube has an interview with Noam Chomsky pertaining to government.  Chomsky is an anarcho-syndicalist, or the libertarian left.

(Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6)

If the words don’t make sense, it proves the effectiveness of filters in our society.  For example, Leon Frank Czolgosz, an anarchist, shot President McKinley.  Although, calling Czolgosz an anarchist is a little bit of a stretch.  It isn’t like one has to take a test or get a degree from an accredited institution.  In fact, the primary schism in the two branches of socialism, communism/Marxism on one-side and anarcho-syndicalism on the other, is the use of violence in bringing about social revolution.  Anarcho-syndicalism, in the Proudhon tradition, believes social revolution can take place peacefully.  Social revolution is a matter of raising consciousness of the populace to a new way of living.  Communism, in the Marxist tradition, advocated the violent overthrow of the existing regime.  When in power, the new regime would have the power to dictatorially carry out social reforms.

The underlying point is that there is a great diversity of thought about the organization of society that is far to the left of the Democratic party.  It is common, in the United States at least, to label this “liberal.”  It is hard to determine what “liberal” means besides a label that the right uses to adorn some political opponent as a target of scorn.

There is a fundamental difference between a thing, and what that thing is called.  I hope what this alphabet soup of “isms” convinces the reader of, more than anything else, is to know the idea and not just the label.  As Friedrich Engels once wrote:

These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.  This is how these profound thinkers mock at the whole world.

July 19, 2008

Mark Steel: Russian Revolution

Filed under: history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:34 am

In the videos above, Mark Steel examines the Russian Revolution.  It is clear that a revolution happens when enough people stop following orders from the elites in the current structure of society and start standing in solidarity with a new order.

Judging the ultimate results of revolutions, like the Russian is difficult, because invariably the new government is terrorized by foreign intervention.  This terror has the effect of concentrating power within the revolutionary government, with a strong possibility of bringing a small group to near dictatorial power which they will seldom relinquish.  This is why the American revolution is more of the exception rather than the rule.

July 8, 2008

A People’s History of American Empire

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:13 am
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