Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kshama Sawant and Leon Trotsky

Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist, was recently elected to the Seattle City Council. I think this is a healthy event; I applaud Ms. Sawant's peaceful route to the extremely limited power one has as a city council person. But Ms. Sawant is a member of a Trotskyist Party. Most American's don't know much about Trotsky or the parties that carry his flag, mainly because they are small and usually quite obscure.

Americans are not likely to take to any party that idolizes a foreign political leader. Ms. Sawant and Socialist Alternative have not chosen one of the many American socialist leaders or parties to idolize. So why Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky is a lot like Thomas Jefferson. I don't mean that in a positive way. I mean that his rhetoric is attractive to idealists, but his life betrays his rhetoric. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, it which he talks of freedom and the equality of man (mostly plagiarizing British writers). He owned slaves. When the British freed his slaves during the American Revolution, he demanded their return (he got a number back when the British surrendered at Yorktown). He supported his spendthrift habits (fine wines, fancy horses and the endless expansion of Monticello) partly by forcing child-slaves to spend their days in his nail factory.

Leon Trotsky was a Russian Marxist revolutionary running his own political party until the Russian Revolution. Then he joined up with the Bolshevik Party to stage a coup that both killed the Czar (who by then was only a figurehead) and overthrew the government established by the workers and peasants and their political parties. He was then assigned the task of organizing the murder of anyone Left, Right, or Center, who disagreed with the new dictatorship of middle-class intellectuals led by Lenin. He headed the Red Army that murdered hundreds of thousands of opponents during the Civil War. He did not object to the killing of socialist opponents by the brutal Leninist political police.

So why would a nice, thoughtful person like Kshama subscribe to the ideology of such a madman? After Lenin died a new leader, really dictator, was needed. Naturally Trotsky thought that with so much blood on his hands, he was the natural choice. But Joseph Stalin outmaneuvered him, eventually forcing Leon into exile.

By then Trotsky had a large following both in the Soviet Union (Russia plus places Trotsky had conquered, notably the Ukraine, where anarchists had tried to set up a non-dictatorial socialist system) and within the many communist parties around the world. He changed his tune. He began to use the rhetoric of democracy to improve his chances of eventually becoming a dictator. He criticized Joe Stalin, saying he (not the entire bunch of Leninists) had perverted the Russian Revolution, transforming it into a bureaucratic dictatorship.

For radicals of a certain mindset Trotskyism has a deep appeal. You can be a revolutionary and imagine that you are in a vanguard party in the line of Marx and Lenin, while talking about freedom and democracy. In the United States since around 1970s the numerous (but each small) Trotskyist parties have been particularly adept at recruiting LGBT radicals.

Their inability to see the contradiction between Trotsky's rhetoric and the factual historic record, or worse still their acceptance of it, is a key to understanding activists like Kshama. The world is a bright and shiny place just needing some nice rhetoric to wake up "the masses" to complete the glorious worldwide Leninist revolution that went astray when Stalin got his grubby hands on it.

If a socialist party wants to succeed in the United States, it should reject Trotsky.

If socialism is the best system for running society, it should be so on its own merit. It should not need the "blessing" of some Marxist saint like Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Trotsky.

If an American socialist party wants some saints, it could at least use American socialists. There have been plenty of them, and their example is much better than that of any of the Russian leaders, even if they did not bring a socialist revolution to the U.S.A. [note no Trotskyist political party has ever come to power anywhere in the world]. Look to Mother Jones, the Industrial Workers of the World, Daniel De Leon, or Emma Goldman for inspiration.

Over the decades I interviewed many leaders of American Trotskyist parties. They all lacked the confidence to speak out about the historical reality of Trotsky's life. Their tiny cults trapped them in error: to renounce Trotsky, after building their parties around worshipping him, would have meant being ostracized.

If Kshama Sawant wants to graduate to being a socialist leader herself, she needs to denounce the legacy of mass murder that is the life of Leon Trotsky. If she can't do that, she is a moral cripple who cannot be trusted to build a genuine popular socialist movement.

See also: A Rare Elected Voice for Socialism Pledges to Be Heard in Seattle [New York Times, December 29, 2013]

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Learning from Ho Chi Minh

Like most of my fellow Americans, I associate Ho Chi Minh with the Vietnam War. Having recently completed William J. Duiker's rather detailed biography of Ho [Ho Chi Minh, A Life], I found much that is worthy of study by Americans, indeed by anyone in the world who thinks politics should be about positive change.

Ho was the son of a peasant-scholar. The closest American equivalent to his father would be someone with a tiny farm that produced food but not money, and a teaching (or tutoring job) that provided middle-class status without the money that accompanies it in the U.S. Because his father continued to pursue his studies (in the only topic considered worthy in 19th century Vietnam, Confucian philosophy), he migrated to the city of Hue and Ho was exposed to the reality of French control of his country. It was a grim picture. After failing to convert the Vietnamese with Roman Catholic priests and commerce, the French had come in with guns blazing. They taught a few people their piggish language and culture, but were mainly there to extract wealth, no matter how many Vietnamese died in the process.

If did not matter who was in charge of the government of France over the decades: conservatives, moderates, liberals, progressives, fascists (Petain and the Vichy regime) and even Socialists all insisted that once conquered, the Vietnamese had to remain in the French empire.

Ho Chi Minh, of course, was not the only one to revolt against French rule. The story of his becoming the leader of his country has some resemblance to that of George Washington in the U.S., but Ho started with less, worked much harder and longer, and accomplished more.

While in theory Ho could be said to be a Marxist, a Leninist, even a Stalinist and a Maoist, he compares well to those men of totalitarian bent. While the Vietnamese did fight the French and eventually the Americans, Ho was by nature a peaceful guy. He negotiated continuously with his friends and enemies alike. Constantly gave both the French and the Americans (and domestic opposition parties) an easy out: withdraw peacefully, and let us govern ourselves, was his only message.

Duiker sums up how Ho operated: "be thrifty, be friendly but impartial, resolutely correct errors, be prudent, respect learning, study and observe, avoid arrogance and conceit, and be generous."

To be thrifty means resources are available for the good of others, or for a good cause. Ho lived in what only could be called poverty for his entire life. Unlike Washington, who was rich and owned slaves, and Mao and Stalin, who lived luxuriously after obtaining power, Ho really just did not feel a leader should live better than the people he served.

To be friendly but impartial is a difficult dance, in my experience. Friends want you to give them breaks you would not give to non-friends. But impartiality is important for many reasons, including that it keeps you from being deluded by your friends. People who hold your impartiality against you are corrupt. They are the problem, not the impartiality.

To resolutely correct errors is a bit more than learning from your mistakes. A lot of people don't even notice when they are making mistakes. In the corporate world the quality control principles used at Toyota, which have spread to many other manufacturers, are a system for resolutely correcting errors. In politics people tend to stick to positions no matter how counterproductive they are in reality. That is how you get organizations like the Democratic Party and Republican Party, and for that matter the dysfunctional communist parties of the 20th century.

Hopefully the benefits of prudence and respecting learning don't need to be explained, though they are often absent or minimally present in American life.

"Study and observe." How often have you seen someone fly off the handle because they misunderstand a situation? How many disasters have occurred because people oversimplify something complex, or don't bother to understand the materials they are working with at all? In particular, Americans don't know their own history, much less world history, and not knowing history, cannot see what will result from various actions or inaction.

"Avoid arrogance and conceit." Not only are these characteristics off-putting, but they prevent you from learning from others. I would note, however, that pretending to be ignorant in order to avoid being accused of arrogance is also a no-win situation for everyone.

Finally, be generous. Generosity can take many forms. I don't think Ho had a lot of money to give away at any point in his life. He was generous, however (considering the circumstances) with people who disagreed with him politically. In retrospect his whole life might have seemed like an endless meeting in which he tried to persuade people to do the right thing. He tried to persuade the French and Americans to give the Vietnamese their freedom. But he also spent countless hours trying (and to some extent succeeding) to get his younger, more ideological communist comrades to not think their job was to boss peasants (or intellectuals, or even business people or other party members) around.

Duiker's book fleshes out how Ho Chi Minh tried to put these guidelines into action. It also sheds a lot of light on the psychology and workings of imperialism, which is still a problem in the world today. Leninist-style communism may no longer be the best way to fight (or peacefully oppose) imperialism, but the lessons from Ho's life are now our common human heritage.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pearl Harbor, the Cadiz Raid, and War Crimes

Americans are more likely to know the fictional histories of Middle Earth or of Westeros than actual world history. Most, however, have at least a vague idea of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, memorialized every December 7. So too it is hard to miss the story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. But few know of the Raid on Cadiz. When it comes to issues of war and war crimes, you should consider Cadiz along with these other historic events.

The Cadiz Raid of 1587 was part of the struggle between Spain and England (which was partly a religious struggle between the reformed Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which is not important to the context of this essay). Sir Francis Drake can be fairly said to have been a pirate operating under license from Queen Elizabeth I. The Spanish Armada was assembling in a number of ports, preparatory to the invasion of England, following the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, which made a Roman Catholic (and pro-Spain) succession to Elizabeth unlikely. Leading a fleet of only four vessels, Drake surprised the Spanish fleet at Cadiz and destroyed 37 ships in April 1587.

The Raid on Cadiz, in both English and American history, is a glorious moment. The following year Drake and the English navy and a fortuitous storm repelled the Spanish Armada, saving England from the Spanish Inquisition.

But what if you stop and think about whether the Cadiz Raid was right or wrong, or a war crime?

Is building an army or navy the same as actually waging a war of aggression? What if the intent is to wage war? What if the intent is to bully, so obtain some advantage without actually waging the war?

Would the Cadiz raid be legal because the English knew Spain was planning a war? Or was it illegal since negotiations were taking place that might have averted war?

[300 pages of legal and ethical discussion later...] Let's look at some other historical events using our Cadiz decision [(1) it was an act of aggression and war crime, or (2) it was an act of defense, and not a war crime] as a legal precedent.

Fast forward a few hundred years to the Battle of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. First, you need to know some important facts that are not in most U.S. history books, where Pearl Harbor is characterized as a "surprise" attack. The U.S. and Japan were already fighting in China, with the U.S. air force thinly disguised as a volunteer unit under the dictator Chiang Kai-shek. In addition, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur, had been given permission to attack the Japanese, and a large U.S. invasion fleet was steaming towards the Philippines. The U.S. had broken the Japanese cryptographic codes. The declaration of war by Japan, simultaneous with the attack, was no surprise to Cordell Hull or President Franklin Roosevelt. Though it seemed horrific, the actual attack did relatively little damage to the U.S. fleet. The U.S. was in a massive naval construction program, and had over 10 times the industrial capacity of Japan. The good new battle ships at Pearl Harbor had mysteriously sailed out to sea, well away from the battle. The Japanese sank mainly easily replaceable World War I relics.

So, back to your Cadiz choice. Maybe Pearl Harbor was Japan's Cadiz Raid. The Japanese government knew that its plan to drive the White Race out of their Asian colonies was about to lead the U.S., with its astonishing industrial capacity, to initiate a war allowing the U.S. to fulfill its dream of ruling China and Japan (and maybe take Indochina from the French, too). Pearl Harbor was defense. If you believe Francis Drake should be treated as a hero for his Cadiz raid, then you should treat the Japanese fleet as heroes too.

But what the hey, Cadiz was a long time ago, and Drake was a Brit, not an American, so maybe to preserve the "day of infamy" status of Pearl Harbor you want to go with Cadiz was an act of aggression and a war crime, as you already believe Pearl Harbor was. Then if one nation is planning to attack another nation, even a weaker nation sure to lose a war, the small nation has no right to a pre-emptive strike. They have to wait until the big bully starts the war before they can defend themselves. Like in the recent Iraq war: if Saddam Hussein had shot first, he would be a war criminal. Even though his fight with the U.S. was purely defensive, somehow he was still the war criminal.

American Presidents and most citizens actually prefer to toss out logic. America is always right! If we initiate an attack, we are right! If we are attacked and retaliate, we are right! If we kill civilians in ways that are clearly war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, we play the Americans get out of war crimes free card. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's pontificating against aerial bombardments of cities, and calling those actions war crimes, when the U.S. was not yet in World War II, did not mean his later ordering the obliteration of Japanese and German cities was a war crime.

Apparently international law is not really something peacefully agreed upon. As a man who knew something about killing people who disagreed with him once remarked, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." One nation's hero is another nation's pirate. As long as America has chumps stupid enough to buy our bonds, we can keep our guns and our national debt and our freedom from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Other People's Imperialism: Roosevelt, Hitler and Ho Chi Minh

Americans, the citizens of the United States of America, have a long tradition of anti-imperialism. After all, our 13 original colonies rebelled against the British Empire in 1776 and established a "novus ordo seclorum," in which, in theory at least, all men are created equal.

Hypocrisy, however, was in no shortage among America's founders, who went off a conquering as soon as they got the rabble they whipped up for the Revolution back under control. Jefferson, Jackson and the lot did not consider Native American nations to be real nations, hence there was nothing imperial about taking their land. Nor was there anything imperial about trying to take Canada in 1812, since the Canadians should have had the good sense to toss off the Brits all along.

Well before World War II began the U.S.A. had become one of the great imperialist powers, behind Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, but ahead of Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. We ruled the Philippines, Hawaii and Puerto Rico directly, and maintained puppets in many Western Hemisphere nations. Despite that many Americans, including presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), made good anti-imperialist speeches.

FDR and crew were against British, French, Dutch and Japanese imperialism. Those imperialists prevented U.S. commercial penetration of their domains. It is possible FDR's rhetoric even fooled Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese struggle for independence.

Before World War II what we now call Vietnam was divided into three parts [if you must know: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center, and Cochin China in the South], but all were essentially one big colony run by the French, who also ran Laos and Cambodia, the whole region being referred to as French Indochina. The French were vicious in their exploitation of Vietnam, killing and starving people to death in numbers that, had the French been Communists, would have got them in big trouble with both yesterday's and today's American propagandists.

Ho Chi Minh, aiming at independence, was dealing with a remarkably complex situation. Although he was a communist, he was also a nationalist whose first goal was to kick the French out. There were also Vietnamese nationalists who were not communists; most allied with Ho, but some saw themselves as future rulers, and so either fought the French separately or even put energy into sabotaging Ho's organization, the Viet Minh. The nationalists bickered among themselves, but there was a lot of bickering in the Viet Minh as well.

Before World War II the French kept alternating governments between conservatives, who had no sympathy at all for the Vietnamese, and socialists, who in theory had sympathy but who nevertheless opposed independence for Vietnam. Ho and his diplomats negotiated with all of them. Ho was willing to accept independence within a French federation. He was a moderate and worldly guy who had lived at times in France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, before setting up his headquarters in southern China.

Where and when World War II began depends on who you ask. Japan started styling itself the America of Asia in the 1930s. Japan was one of the few independent Asian nations, it had a democratic and militaristic government (just like the U.S.), and it asserted its own equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe told the European imperialists to keep their hands off the New World (western hemisphere). But later U.S. presidents grabbed as much territory as they could and frequently sent in the Marines to "restore order," often by appointing a dictator.

Japan told the European imperialists it was time to get out of Asia, and Japanese leaders were very interested in the restoring order game. The most disorderly nation in Asia was China, where a combination of internal weakness and predatory tactics by Europeans and Americans had left a state of chaos characterized by warlord rule, famine, and economic distress. Communists had set up their own Chinese state in the northwest, while in theory Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party "governed" the nation as a whole. To describe the mess in detail is beyond the scope of this essay. The Japanese, on the other hand, had built up industrial and military capabilities sufficient to defeat both China and Russia in earlier wars.

The Japanese went about restoring order in China, meeting the same kind of resistance the U.S. met when restoring order within the Monroe Wall. No American President liked the Japanese out-competing the U.S. in China, but in particular FDR did not like it. The "Delano" side of his family had made its fortune running illegal opium into China, and Roosevelt backed the Open Door Policy, which allowed every imperialist nation to pillage and rape China's economy, as long as new official colonies were not established. Roosevelt berated the Japanese and sometimes even British, French and Dutch colonialism in Asia, but note he did not grant independence to the Philippines, a U.S. colony.

Pretty soon there were 3 major governments of China (many more, if you count the war lords who ran with Chiang but obeyed no one but themselves): the communists, the Japanese puppets (one in Manchuria, one in Coastal China), and the increasingly irrelevant Kuomintang. FDR decided to prop up Chiang, who had married a Christian, American-educated banking princess. Money flowed and ammunition flowed to Chiang, but most of it was diverted by his corrupt cronies or Madam Chiang's family. So FDR sent the U.S. Air Force to fight the Japanese. In order to avoid going to Congress to ask for a declaration of war (the Republican Party was opposed to war back then, and enough Democrats were for peace to kill such a request) the U.S. Air Force in China pretended to be volunteers in the Chinese air force. They were known as the Flying Tigers.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Adolf Hitler's German army had defeated the French Army. The French fascists, led by Petain, made a deal to rule much of France and all its colonies from Vichy. The Japanese then demanded and got the right to station their troops in Vietnam.

No one was helping Ho and his comrades very much. After Pearl Harbor, Chiang and the Americans were willing to give Ho limited support as long as his ragtag guerillas fought the Japanese. The Russians were too busy with their own problems to help. The Chinese communists provided some training, but they had to fight both Chiang and the Japanese, so their support was minimal.

Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh did the best they could during the war years. They organized a vast underground network and a Provisional Government. The French killed as many Viet patriots as they could, and the Japanese did too. [Many native leaders in the Philippines cooperated with the Japanese, as did Indonesian and Burmese leaders, and in turn these nations were granted independence. It is not clear why that strategy was not followed in Vietnam.]

When FDR died and President Truman vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Vietminh thought the time for Vietnamese independence had finally come. Instead, since the U.S. was busy occupying Japan (a goal of U.S. imperialists from at least 1850), the allied imperialists somehow decided that the Chinese would occupy northern Vietnam and the British would occupy southern Vietnam. They were to ship the Japanese soldiers home, but what would come next?

The French wanted Vietnam back! The Chinese considered keeping North Vietnam, but Chiang could not really spare the troops since he was planning to wipe out the Chinese communists. The Cold War was already on, with the U.S. and British Empires demanding free elections in Eastern Europe (held by the Russians after defeating Hitler) and the Communists demanding free elections in France and Italy, plus the deposing of General Franco from power in Spain. Similarly, free elections were all the rhetorical rage in Vietnam, but just in case the imperialists refused to cooperate, the Viet Minh seized what territory they could, which included most of Tonkin. The local remnants of French fascism not being up to the task of fighting, they encouraged the Japanese, who were now POWs, to fight the Vietnamese independence forces!

To wrap up an already long story, while Ho negotiated with the new government of France organized by Charles de Gaulle, the French got enough material from President Truman to put together an army and reinvade Vietnam. Truman felt that French imperialism was better for the U.S. than Vietnamese independence probably leading to communism.

So the Vietnamese had to fight a long war with the French, and when they won they only got North Vietnam (the deceitful French agreed to nationwide elections, then used an interval of peace to set up a puppet regime in South Vietnam, which the U.S. soon came to equip, finance, and generally pull the strings of).

Sadly, although imperialism has taken on forms different from the colonies of the past, it is still a major part of the world order today. As I write this the French are "helping" African nations by sending in the Foreign Legion again. America has never given up the imperialist game; Barack Obama has approved plans to establish U.S. military bases in almost every country in Africa.

Inside the U.S., the anti-imperialist movement is weaker than it has been at any time since the American Revolution. People just don't care, they don't know the present day facts or the historical facts. American citizens don't understand how imperialism enriches our elite, sucks the blood out of our working class (and even the middle class), and is largely responsible for the impossible-to-pay-back federal debt.

But hey, won't Apple being coming out with a new phone next year? Shouldn't that be what we are focusing our attention on? Or Lady Gaga? Or World of Warcraft?