Friday, April 24, 2015

Kissinger and Shultz on 'The Iran Deal'

Kissinger and Shultz on 'The Iran Deal'
Thomas Riggins

For our edification The Wall Street Journal on 8 April turned over an entire editorial page to former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz so that we could understand why President Obama's negotiations with Iran over nuclear issues "will reinforce, not resolve, the world's challenges in the region." Let's take a look at what these two nonagenarians (who served under Nixon and Reagan respectively) present as the reasons for their prediction. 

We can ignore the first half of their article which consists of nothing more than pointing out the difficulties involved, should an agreement be reached, in inspecting and monitoring Iran's nuclear facilities. The subtext of this portion of the article is that the U.S. is naive and trusting and the Iranians are crafty and untrustworthy and are likely to cheat and cover up their bomb making progress. "In a large country with multiple facilities and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently difficult to detect." But what is the point of even entering into negotiations if your starting position is that the other side is dishonest and won't negotiate in good faith? 

The whole point of making a deal with Iran is to diffuse a dangerous and unstable situation and prevent a military confrontation over that country's ability to be a nuclear armed regional military threat. It is not just the US who wants to make a deal with Iran. There are six world powers involved-- the so called P5 + 1 (i.e., the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). So let's not just focus on the U.S. and President Obama as our establishment media and the Republican - Israeli lobby alliance tend to do. It is not rational to think that the combined diplomatic corps of the P5 + 1 (no matter how bumbling the U.S. may be) can be bamboozled by the crafty Ayatollahs. 

We will now turn to the second half of the article where we will find the really substantive arguments against the Iranian deal as it now appears to be shaping up based on the much ballyhooed "Framework Agreement" announced on 2 April.
In analyzing this section of the Kissinger/Shultz paper it becomes clear that their only reason for thinking the deal with Iran won’t really work is that the Iranians will not  agree to submit to U.S. hegemony in the region. There is no compromise position available in which the  U.S. and Iran can give and take in such a way that both sides can have their interests protected. It is the U.S. way or the highway. Even though the negotiations are with the P5 + 1, Kissinger/Shultz completely ignore two of the P5 (Russia and China) and carry on as if only Iran and the West are involved, and by “the West” they mean “the U.S.”

The negotiations will only work if both sides cooperate to bring stability to the Middle East as well as resolve the nuclear issues and this requires “congruent  definitions of stability.”  Messrs. Kissinger and Shultz write, “There exists no current evidence that Iran and the U.S. are remotely near such an understanding.” I think Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is a good example. 

The U.S. supplied Israel with both weapons and political support during its military assault on Gaza last year and Israel succeeded, for the time being, in establishing “stability” with regards to its occupation of Palestinian territories. Can we realistically expect that Iran, a supporter of Palestinian rights, will accept this kind of “stability” and adopt “congruent” positions with the U.S. vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians? In fact the US position is not even “congruent” with other members of the P5 + 1. In this, and many other issues, the fact is that the positions of the U.S. are realistically untenable, rest on aggressive, hegemonic  behavior, and are the main causes of instability in the region. 

It is objectively the case that it has been and is U.S. actions that have destabilized Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, areas of Pakistan, worsens and prolongs the civil war in Syria, supported military dictatorship in Egypt, enables Israel to perpetuate the oppression and occupation of Palestine, and created the conditions that brought forth the Islamic State. So we must agree with Kissinger and Shultz that there are no “congruent definitions of stability” upon which the U.S. and Iran can cooperate.

 The U.S., due to deep ignorance of the cultures and the peoples of the Middle East (as elsewhere) combined with the fact that its policies are totally focused on the economic interests of its multinational corporations and their extensions and allies with little or no regard for the interests and rights of the local populations, is incapable of providing security and stability for the region. The best expression of this incapacity is demonstrated by the ignorant and unrealistic discussion presented by Kissinger and Shultz in their Wall Street Journal article. 

 Both men are former Republican U.S. secretaries of state and the best they can come up with to explain the present problems in the region is that Iran (the victim of a C.I.A. directed coup against their democratic government in the 1950s and the installation of the tyrannical government of the Shah, as well as the overt support of  a war against it launched by Iraq under Saddam Hussein, when he was our S.O.B., in the 1980s) is trying to create “a new Shiite empire.” 

They oppose  the Obama administration’s supposed desire to militarily disengage
in the region (no boots on the ground—maybe) which will leave the Sunni states at a disadvantage— especially our ally Saudi Arabia (a medieval tyranny second only to the Islamic State [ISIS] whose religious fanaticism it largely shares). They maintain that the region cannot become stable on its own (due to Sunni/Shiite rivalry). Therefore, since, according to the doctrine of “balance of power” theory of international relations which “suggests the need to bolster the weaker side” the U.S. has to remain engaged in the area and help out the Sunnis. But if either one of these so-called experts really believed in “bolstering the weaker side” to maintain stability they would also be advocating for the U.S. to support the Palestinians not the  Israeli Zionists.

As far as the problems in the Middle East are concerned, the article implies, the U.S. has clean hands. It is all the fault of Iran. “Stability requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international order.” In other words, it must comply with the diktat of the U.S.

If the deal with Iran being negotiated with the P5 + 1 does not go far enough in making the Iranians come to heel to the demands of the neoconservatives in the U.S. and Israel, and the Framework Agreement indicates that it won’t, then the U.S. will likely become even more involved in the area in the future according to the authors of The Wall Street Journal article.

The only conclusion that can be reached, in my view, after reading this article, is  that neither Kissinger nor Shultz know what they are talking about and the sole purpose of the article is  to give aid and comfort to the enemies of peace in the Middle East and to strengthen politically those forces backing U.S. imperial domination of the region.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Conclusion: Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part Two)

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part Two: Conclusion)
Thomas Riggins

This article picks up where Part One left off and explains in more detail the two conceptions of Ukrainian statehood discussed by Richard Sakwa in his new book Frontline Ukraine

First the 'monist' conception of Ukraine. In this view Ukrainian culture and statehood had been held back for the past several hundred years. In fact, ever since the Treaty of Pereyaslavl of 1654. This was a treaty between the ruler of much of what is now Ukraine and Russia in which Russian suzerainty became established. A program of Russification had been undertaken in the 1800s. Basing themselves on the primacy of the Ukrainian language as the official national language the monists seek to undo the Russification they think has been imposed on them in the past. This will entail their imposing monist values in turn on those segments of the population not sufficiently infused with their version of Ukrainian nationalism-- especially those who speak Russian as their first and preferred language.

One of the major influences on this outlook was Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973). Dontsov had been a Marxist in his youth but morphed into an ultra-right Ukrainian nationalist after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He became a Russophobe who wanted Ukraine to become a major nation on the European model. Sakwa quotes him as follows: we want, "unity with Europe, under all circumstances and at any price -- that is the categorical imperative of our foreign policy."

The most important monist organization was (and is) the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) a home spun fascist group which has integrated the teaching of Dontsov into their ideology. Dontsov was never a member but he wrote for them and provided a fascist outlook of his own creation distilled from the Italian and German (NAZI) models he had studied.

The OUN’s ideology is based on something called “integral nationalism.” This ideology views the nation as an organic whole— the state is supreme and superior to the individual. There is a supreme leader, a totalitarian one party state, and hostility to all forms of socialism (especially communism) as well as to bourgeois democracy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine describes it as follows : “The nationalists insisted on the primacy of will over reason, action over thought, and practice over theory. Their doctrine of nationalism was infused with aspects of the irrational, voluntaristic, and vitalistic theories popularized in Western Europe by such philosophers as Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave Le Bon, Georges Sorel, and Oswald Spengler. In the place of objective scientific discovery the nationalists propagated myths and favored an ideologically ‘correct’ image of the Ukrainian past.”

 The same source describes their political program as follows: “The political order of the future Ukrainian state was to consist of a one-party system and would be based on a principle of supreme leadership (vozhdyzm). There would be only one political organization, which would consist of a supraclass of ‘better people.’ The state [i.e., the OUN] structure would be formed from a hierarchy of leaders under the supreme leader (vozhd), who would function both as leader  of the movement and head of state. Propaganda and educational materials for young cadres would consistently underline the role and authority of the leader.”

In the late 1930s Stepan Bandera became the leader of the OUN. During World War II the OUN alternated between working with the German occupation and participating in the massacre of Jews, Poles, and Russians, and fighting against it, depending on its perceptions as to whether or not the Germans would go along with an independent OUN run Ukraine or not. In 1943 Bandera’s followers massacred 70,000 Poles the majority of whom were unarmed men, women, and children (the future Ukrainian state was for Ukrainians). This mass killing took place in Volyn in the Western Ukraine. Also, Sakwa says, by 1945 the OUN had, in Eastern Galicia, killed 130,000. Many people had their eyes gouged out (including women and children) and were then hacked to death. This was the fate of suspected “informers” and their families.

This was massive ethnic cleansing. Russians and Jews were also targeted. One can perhaps understand why many Russian speakers in the eastern Ukraine took up arms in 2014 when they saw the flags of the OUN proudly displayed in Kiev after the overthrow of the elected government.

After WWII the OUN kept fighting against the forces of the USSR and People’s Poland until 1949. Bandera had been imprisoned by the Germans during the war when he was no longer useful and had started to fight against them when he saw they would not support an OUN run independent Ukraine but had been released towards the end of the war to fight against the USSR.  He stayed on in West Germany and was eventually hunted down and assassinated by the KGB in 1959. 

When Ukraine became independent in 1991 liberal-democratic forms of government and a market economy began to replace the Soviet forms that preceded them, but they have not really taken root. It turned out that all the old animosities and contradictions from the past had not been overcome but had only lain dormant.

After 2007 statues in honor of Bandera started cropping up in cities in the western Ukraine. The home grown fascism and ethnic hatred of the OUN was on the march again. The Maidan demonstrations in early 2014, which led to the overthrow of the legally elected Ukrainian government, even witnessed 15,000 people marching in celebration of Bandera’s 105th birthday. The Svoboda Party, a neo-fascist mass party tinged with anti-semitism along with the Fatherland Party of Yulia Tymoshenko (a right-wing anti-Russian pro NATO nationalist mass party) both supported this commemoration of the former Nazi ally and war criminal.

The Russian speakers in the eastern Ukraine who saw the Soviet era in a positive light were shocked. They were the core of the original Soviet Ukraine to which much of the western Ukraine was added as new territory after WWII and which had been been ruled until then as parts of other European states (Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland). These new areas are part of the heartland of the OUN and are permeated with fascist ideology left over from their pre Soviet experiences. It is in these troubled waters that US imperialism and its NATO puppets are currently fishing.

Sakwa sees the core of the problem between the Donbas area rebellion (eastern Ukraine) and the western Ukrainian integral nationalists as primarily ideological. The Kiev government and rebels represent opposite world views. Basically, Kievian monism has an idealized conception of a pure Ukrainian nationalism that must be imposed on the country. It denies the reality on the ground of a pluralistic national population and seeks to make reality conform to its vision rather than adapt its political outlook to reality. (Sakwa points out this is also going on in the Baltic states.)

So what does the pluralist view entail? Due to all the changes in the boundaries of Ukraine over the last hundred years or so— territories switching back and forth due to wars and then to governmental policies-- the borders of the Ukraine today are very different than they were before WWII. 

There are other peoples, nationalities and languages in Ukraine besides the Ukrainians (even though they are the vast majority). About 78% of the people are Ukrainian, 17% Russian and 5% are others (about seventeen different ethnic groups). About 7 million Russians live in the country and they want their language and customs respected— as do the other ethnic groups as well. [The 2.4 million people in the Crimea are included in the above breakdown.]

The official national language is Ukrainian with 18 regional or territorial languages also recognized. The pluralists want Russian also recognized as a national language while also agreeing that Ukrainian has pride of place— i.e., should be taught to all. 

As Sakwa puts it, “The pluralist model argues that all the people making up contemporary Ukraine have an equal stake in the development of the country, and thus opposes the nationalizing strain, although without repudiating some of its concerns.”

The reason there is a rebellion going on in parts of the eastern Ukraine is that the extreme nationalists who are in the western Ukraine (although monists and pluralists are to be found everywhere they do predominate in some regions) feel that since they are the majority they can force their views on all the other people in Ukraine (the others are not “true” Ukrainians).

As V. Goldstein writes (pointed out by Sakwa) in Forbes magazine (5/19/14) “the culture, language and political thinking of western Ukraine have been imposed  upon the rest of Ukraine.” Dr. Goldstein (who teaches Slavic studies at Brown University) also explains why this imposition was attempted (rebellion was the backlash): “the objective has been to humiliate and put down Ukraine’s Russian speaking population. The radical nationalists of western Ukraine, for whom the rejection of Russia and its culture is an article of faith, intend to force the rest of the country to fit their narrow vision.”

It is this vision, with its roots in irrationalism, fascism and the anti-Semitism and ethnic massacres  of  WWII, that President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and NATO along with the leaders of the EU, as well  our domestic right wing jingoists and puppet mass media are defending as “democracy, freedom, and national sovereignty.”  Blut und Bodin.

Congressional District 11 -- Why Donovan Must Be Defeated

 Congressional District 11:  May 5 Special Election-- Why Donovan Must Be Defeated

Thomas Riggins

The people of the newly revised Congressional District 11 covering Staten Island and adjoining parts of Brooklyn have an opportunity on May 5th to send a progressive pro working class politician to the House of Representatives to replace the felonious  Republican Michael Grimm who was forced to resign earlier this year. 

While several candidates will be on the ballot for this special election, only two have a realistic chance of winning. They are the Republican conservative Dan Donovan (currently Staten Island D.A. best known for trying to cover up the police murder of  Erik Garner with a secretive Grand Jury proceeding ) and the Democratic progressive Vincent Gentile (currently a member of the the City Council).

The media predicts a small turnout for this election and a Republican victory. A large turn out of motivated progressive people, however, could upset this prediction and send a progressive Democrat to Washington. I hope this article will help to motivate people to get out the vote as Donovan must be defeated.

He must be defeated because his party, the Republican Party, does not really represent the interests of the people either in his district or the nation as a whole.
It works constantly to undermine all the progressive social legislation enacted since the 1930s including social security, unemployment insurance, laws enacted to enable unionization drives, medicaid, medicare, food stamps, VA benefits, pre-school and infant care, civil rights laws, the Affordable Care Act, environmental protection, fair housing laws, public housing, tax relief for the poor, worker safety and protection laws, anti-pollution laws, immigration reform, voting rights, and by and large any legislation that benefits the masses of American people. But it does support any and all laws enacted to benefit banks, corporations, international conglomerates, CEOs and all members of the 1% of wealthiest Americans, and the military-industrial complex.

We do not need, and can ill afford, another Republican representative in the House to work against our interests and needs. What we need is a representative that will work for us as much as possible and who understands the needs of working people, minorities, children and seniors. The only real alternative to Dan Donovan and his conservative, reactionary party is to vote for the progressive Democrat Vincent Gentile. Not only vote for him but tell your friends and neighbors to vote as well because the Republicans are counting on a low turnout and hope that working people and their allies won't turn out for a special election scheduled for Tuesday, a work day.

Below is a list of some of the projects Vincent Gentile will prioritize if elected:

1. An increase in the minimum wage so working people can live on their earnings.

2. Fight for the maximum insurance payments from FEMA for the victims of  
    Hurricane Sandy.

3. Get funds for North Shore Rapid Transit, the Staten Island West Shore Railway 
     and increase express bus and ferry service in Brooklyn.

4. Close the loopholes created in the federal tax code that gives tax breaks and 
     incentives for corporations to move overseas and to ship jobs overseas as well.
     Gentile will back, instead, giving tax relief to those who create jobs domestically.

5. Gentile supports our efforts to work with our overseas allies to fight ISIS and
    Al-Qaeda but he opposes sending in American troops on the ground.

6. He will fight Republican efforts (or any other efforts) to weaken the Social 
     Security  and Medicare laws and benefits.

It is important to note that Vincent Gentile has also been endorsed by The Working Families Party and such unions as 1199 SEIU United Health Workers East and the
Hotel and Motel Trades Council (HTC).

So we have a clear choice in this election: a progressive Democrat or a reactionary 

Republican. Donovan must be defeated.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)
Thomas Riggins

The crisis that struck Ukraine last year-- the overthrow of the elected president, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in the Russian speaking eastern provinces— was the result of problems that had been festering, not only in Ukraine but all along the former frontiers of the USSR since the end of the cold war and the collapse of eastern European socialism over twenty some years previously. 

There were many pressure points and areas of potential conflict along this defunct border. Over the years they became more and more exacerbated mainly as a result of the triumphalist attitude of the US and its allies over the end of the Cold War which they considered as a "victory" of their side over the Russians and their allies.

Meanwhile the Russians and their remaining close allies had considered the end of the Cold War as a cooperative undertaking in which, with western help, the leadership of the USSR would dismantle the Warsaw Pact and replace state socialism with a European style market economy thus eliminating the threat of nuclear war and allowing for the eventual flourishing of a united European civilization stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The "we won, you lost" attitude assumed by the US (and its NATO puppet) along with the EU has led to economic and political actions the Russians and their allies believe threaten their interests and rights. This is the theses of professor Richard Sakwa of Kent University (UK) in his new book Frontline Ukraine. This article will attempt to highlight the fateful steps that have led to the current crisis as professor Sakwa annunciated them (any misinterpretations or errors are mine).

One of the major steps was the growth of NATO right up to borders of Russia after the Russians had been given assurances by the US that that would not happen. The US now argues that the growth of  NATO  was necessary due to the 
security problems along its borders. This overlooks the fact that it is the new borders that are the location of these problems. As Sakwa puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the needs to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.” This kind of mendacious logic is typical of the US ’s (and to a lesser extent the EU’s) dealings with Russia. Echoed by the corporate media in the US, it is one of the main reasons the American people are ignorant of the true causes of the Ukraine crisis and for their antipathy toward Russia.

The reason there are so many problems between the US (and its satellites) and Russia is because there are many systemic contradictions between them left over from the end of the Cold War and there has been little, if any, attempt by the West seriously to try to resolve them by good faith negotiations. When a problem boils over, as in the Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia), all the blame is put on Russia and the solution is framed as the need for the US and the West to make the Russians back down. This, Sakwa points out, only makes the contradictions between the interests of the Russians and the US side worse. 

A major consideration with regard to the West’s relations with Russia is that after the collapse of the USSR Russia was economically in turmoil and politically weak. The West could pretty much do as it wanted as Russia, as well as Ukraine, were dominated by corruption, oligarchs calling the shots, and the need to concentrate on internal problems not foreign affairs.

Russia  was able to economically benefit during the early years of the 2000s, due to high profits of oil, and Putin was able, after he disastrous Yeltsin years, despite democratic short comings, to curtail the power of the oligarchs, reassert state ownership in many strategic areas of the economy, and reinvigorate the Russian economy and state. This allowed the Russians to reengage in foreign affairs and begin to reassert their perceived interests vis a vis those of the West once they realized it was not part of the West’s intentions to work in partnership with them to peacefully resolve contradictions to the mutual benefit of all concerned. If not a cold war the US was starting a “Cool War.” In contrast Ukraine remained mired in corruption and the control of oligarchs despite a democratic facade.

Another important point made by Sakwa concerns the makeup of the Ukrainian nation. There are two contradictory views which he calls the monistic and pluralistic views. In short, the monistic view, held by the Ukrainian government and the ultra nationalist faction which dominates western Ukraine is that the country is a unique cultural whole bound together by its national language and which has its own historical destiny to fulfill as part of the European continuum and is thus more closely bound to the EU than to Russia which is seen as an alien foreign influence.

The pluralistic view, which dominates in the eastern Russian speaking Ukraine, maintains that the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are related by a common cultural ancestry born of their participation in a shared early state and religion (Orthodox Christianity since 988 AD). The shared state (Kievian Rus) was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1240, nevertheless the common cultural unity persists and the three peoples are more closely bound to one another than to the EU and its people. This is admittedly simplified and Sakwa will expand upon it later.

Surveys and polls show that as late as 2005 around 67% of eastern Russian speaking Ukrainians identified with Ukraine as their country and there was no great feeling to join with Russia or become independent. There were major problems, however, which included worries and complaints about the status and use of Russian, negative attitudes towards NATO and no desire to identify with Europe and the West at the expense of Russia. 

All of these issues could have been dealt with democratically within Ukraine by means of parliamentary processes and constitutional guarantees. What has led to the present crisis in Ukraine was the perception by the Russian speaking east that the undemocratic overthrow of the elected government in February 2014 brought to power ultra-nationalist forces that were seeking to force their views on the east and that eastern concerns, beliefs, and rights were being ignored and even abrogated.

This eastern crisis is a separate issue from the Crimea. The Russians in the Crimea were never happy about being separated from Russia due to the fact that in 1954 the USSR transferred the area to Ukrainian administration for purposes of cost efficiency. No one then even dreamed of the possibility that the Crimea would be cut off from Russia in an independent Ukraine. Sakwa points out that the Crimea, after all, "is the heartland of Russian nationhood." 

The annexation of the peninsula  by Russia was welcomed by the majority of people living there and while its return to its motherland set off the storm that has now descended upon US and European relations with Russia (totally provoked by the West and its backing of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Ukraine) it is unlikely to be reversed. The issues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine have to be settled independently of those of the Crimea which is now a part of Russia and likely to remain so. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Prolegomena to Any Future Understanding of the Crisis in Ukraine

Thomas Riggins

The political and military maneuvers now going on in the Ukraine have the potential of escalating out of control. If we don't understand the actual reality that has brought about this crisis there is no hope of being able to prevent this escalation. In order to understand this reality we must refrain from simple minded finger pointing at one side or the other and assigning complete responsibility for the crisis to one of the parties in the dispute, although one side may be disproportionately responsible.

The establishment media in the West (reflecting the position of the US and the EU) seems to have arrived at a consensus that the crisis is the result of a revanchist foreign policy initiative of the Russian Federation and its president Vladimir Putin on the one hand and the aspirations of the Kiev government to build a democratic Ukraine based on the western European model and free of undue Russian influence and domination on the other.

This has been simplified by many to a proxy war between a dictatorial undemocratic Russia out to eventually recreate the defunct USSR's boundaries and the Western democracies led by the US once again called upon to defend the Free World. The phrase "a new cold war" encapsulates this position.

That this is a warped view of the Ukrainian crisis is suggested by a reading of a new book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (Tauris, 2014) by Richard Sakwa, an expert at the University of Kent in the UK. The "Preface" to this book presents the following historical background to the current crisis which goes back many decades to a time before there was any Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation or independent Ukraine.

When the cold war ended with collapse of the Soviet Union and east European "socialism"  there was a possibility of establishing a pan-European order that would have provided for peace and security for all European countries. However, the EU and NATO made no provision for the inclusion of Russia in a common European "defense" alliance. This resulted, according to Sakwa, in numerous "stress points" along the borders of the EU and the former USSR.

One major stress point was the fact that NATO, a military anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) alliance which had faced off against the Warsaw Pact during the cold war, now had lost its raison d'être and with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact should have also come to an end. The US however decided not only to keep NATO in existence but to enlarge it-- clearly an aggressive and hostile act no matter how it is presented.

As a result two different visions of Europe's future developed, Sakwa says. The two are that of a "Wider Europe" and a "Greater Europe." The former represents the EU with France and Germany (basically Germany) at the core and its extension eastward incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries and parts of the old USSR. [A 21st century version of Drang nach Osten.]

The latter represents a vision of "one Europe" but is inclusive of all parts of Europe and not dominated by "Brussels, Washington or Moscow." It would be "multi-polar and pluralistic.'' Both Russia and the Ukraine (both pluralistic) would be part of it. This is the vision favored by the Russians. Sakwa says these visions are not necessarily stark alternatives: with good will some kind of synthesis could be reached.

The US and EU have decided against "Greater Europe" and seek to construct the vision of "Wider Europe" leaving the Russians as odd man out. This decision [based on the interests of US and Western capital] and being implemented by stoking old historical grudges going back to the first world war and even earlier, is the background to the current crisis.

The different factions in the Ukraine are  (unscientifically) being associated with colors-- primarily orange, blue, and gold. The Kiev government, backed by the EU and US, is the "orange" faction. Its basic desire is to form an Ukrainian national Slavic government with one official language (Ukrainian), culturally homogeneous and identified as far as possible with the EU and NATO. 

There are millions of Russian speaking Slavs within the boundaries of Ukraine that do not share this orange outlook. They make up the "blue" faction which points out that different regions of the country have different linguistic, cultural and historical experiences and if the Ukraine  is to work these realities have to be taken into consideration and respected. As it stands, the orange and blue factions don't seem suited for co-existence in the same political framework. To make things more complicated both factions are being supported and aided by outside players.

One last major faction is the "gold" faction. This is the faction representing the new billionaires (the oligarchs) that arose out of the collapse of the USSR and through corruption and undemocratic machinations have attained unprecedented political power in the country and can manipulate the Ukrainian "political class." 

Sakwa says the country has produced "no visionary leader" who  has been able to command the loyalty of all these factions  and unite them around a project of successful nation building.

These are, more or less, the major ideas in the preface to Sakwa's book. It will be impossible to understand the crisis going  on in Ukraine without keeping them in mind. For those who think the crisis is the result of the big bad Putin and Russian "aggression" there is no hope at all of their understanding anything that is going on in Ukraine.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?
Thomas Riggins

A kleptocracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Many anti-Russian commentators today have no problem with classifying Vladamir Putin's government as kleptocratic but Richard Sakwa, a Russian expert at the University of Kent, is not one of them. He gives his reasons in "Grey - area Gold," an analysis of Putin's Keleptocracy: Who Owns Russia a book by Karen Dawisha, published in the TLS of February 6, 2015. What follows are some comments and observations on Sakwa's article. I have italicized my own views to avoid confusion.

Dawisha obviously thinks Russia is a kleptocracy. She paints a picture of rampant corruption and abuse of power by those involved in the overthrow of soviet power and the transfer of the collective wealth and property of the soviet people into the hands of private individuals. The security forces of the soviet state played a major role in this betrayal. Sakwa says her arguments are so "incendiary" that Cambridge University Press backed off from publishing the book and it cannot be bought in the UK. It is available in the US from Simon and Schuster.

"The fundamental picture that emerges," Sakwa writes, "is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process." In Marxist terms this would have been a counter-revolution led by elements of the leadership in collusion with the state security apparatus. However, it does not account for the acquiescence of the Red Army nor the passivity of the soviet people.

Dawisha's picture shows that Putin and his circle have certainly taken advantage of the end of soviet power and have enriched themselves at the expense of the general population (''behaviour typical of nouveaux riches throughout the ages") and have supported acts of corruption but her analysis also results "in obscuring complexity and counter trends."

That is to say, Sakwa contends, there is more to Putin's Russia than just the kleptocractic features Dawisha highlights. When then bigger picture is taken into consideration Russia turns out to be, while having some of the kleptocratic features found in many other countries [including the United States ] "not a kleptocracy tout court."

This is because the Putin government plays a much bigger role than just the enrichment of its elite supporters. It maintains social peace at home and is active on the world stage supporting Russian interests and "meets the basic needs of the Russian people" by furthering a "dirigiste" model of capitalism. Instead of hiding its revenues overseas the Russian government invests its tax money and oil revenues in public works projects and investments "for a rainy day."

That day is here, Sakwa says. Since Russia is being run in the interests of the Russians rather than the Germans or Americans this has caused the "west" to over react and initiate policies against Russia with which the Russians cannot possibly  comply. One of these is the "sanctions" regime imposed on "Putin's cronies" (and now the threat of direct involvement in the Ukrainian civil war by arming the Kiev regime). These will have no effect on the Putin leadership but are now "affecting the whole population in a form of collective punishment". As could have been expected (If Obama and the American leadership knew anything about the real history and sentiments of the Russians) these ham fisted reactions have only increased Putin's popularity at home and "the people have rallied around the flag." The US is on a collision course of its own choosing with Russia.

Sakwa lists four reasons why Dawsha’s book as well as the so-called liberal domestic opposition to Putin (and the Western supporters of anti-Putinism allied with them) should not be taken at face value. They are:

1.) The portrait of Putin presented “is often circumstantial, conjectural,
      and partial.” Do we really want to base our foreign policy on this
      kind of evidence?
2.) There is evidence of a “deep state” at work in Russia [we have one 
     too] made up of sections of the military and security operatives (the          
     “siloviki or (‘force-men’)” and “former Party resources” but the 
     evidence given does not prove that it functions simply as a force 
     for “kleptocracy.” It has been used against the Russian “mafia” and
     for the creation of state owned enterprises which “struggle to 
     achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance.” 
     Western sanctions actually thwart the forces that are trying to
     integrate Russia into the international system.
3.) Unlike what is to be expected from kleptomaniacs, the Putin 
     government has “delivered significant public goods” and supported
     “neoclassical liberal nostrums.” Russia followed policies that allowed
      it to get through the  2008-09 world economic downturn and has 
      since begun “to invest in some major infrastructural projects". All
      in all we see “a developmental dynamic” which “does not look like 
      the policies of a kleptocracy” but, Sakwa says, the country might 
      have been in even better shape without the elite skimming off  
      social wealth for itself (this includes Putin) and “the misguided 
      dirigisme.” [Since the alternative to “dirigisme” is unregulated
      privatization I can’t agree with this last suggestion.]
4.) Russian foreign policy is not conducted on the basis of what is good 
      for kleptocrats but rather on the vision that Russia is a “great  
      “power and should be “an equal partner of the West.” Needless to   
       say “the West” [ i.e., basically the  US ] doesn’t want to accord  to
       Russia “equality.” [Russia is treated as a second rate power that
       must comply with US dictates. The Ukraine is a test case and the
       Russians must be seen to give in to American demands. This 
       fully accords with the dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry  which has   
       come to the fore since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has 
       been so well described by Lenin in his work on “Imperialism the
       Highest Stage of Capitalism.” American “over-reach” here could 
       result in Obama’s policies leading to an unprecedented flare up of
       violence and destruction on a continental scale, or worse.]

In concluding his review, Sakwa says Dawisha’s book “is one of many books that contribute to a misleading paradigm of how Russia actually works.” The reality is more complex. Dawisha’s book will give you a good insight into the elite and how their wealth was acquired but there is much more going on in Putin’s Russia than you will find in this book, so “when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.” Well, it seems this is not the book to read if you really want the dope on what’s going on in Russia. I will nose around and try to to find a better guide to post to this blog.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" (Part 5 & last)

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger’s World Order (Part Five)
Thomas Riggins

We conclude with Ferguson’s opinions considering Kissinger’s views on what the real lessons are concerning world order that we have learned from the practice of American foreign policy since 1945. Basically we learn that American idealism + traditional balance of power = world order (as far as possible). Kissinger writes:

“Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend towards either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.”

This is a rather garbled mess and it is difficult to understand what Kissinger is trying to say.  Ferguson , explicating Kissinger, comments that America’s “bloodiest failures” [bloodiest for the victims not for us by the way] resulted from the US putting moral considerations “above the balance of power.”  The defeats he refers to are those of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Can this be what Kissinger or Ferguson really believe?  If so they do not even have the simplest idea of what morality is. What was "moral" about dropping Napalm, Agent Orange and other chemicals on Vietnamese children?

I can believe that Kissinger is totally amoral and I hope Ferguson has a shred or two of the moral sense here and there.The mass slaughter of the civilian population in both Korea and Vietnam carried out by the US in truly Hitlerian proportions, the war of choice waged by Bush in Iraq and the current droning of women and children in the fields, at wedding parties and funeral processions, the obscene ratio of “collateral damage’’—i.e., murder of innocent civilians, perpetrated by the US in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen where children were deliberately targeted) is the morality of the SS and the Wehrmacht of WW II— it is not an example of “American idealism.”  

I can’t think of any instance in which, since 1945 (or even before)  the US has put moral considerations above realpolitik considerations concerning the “balance of power.” It’s not  just the US. I can’t think of any nation, with the exception of Cuba since 1959, that has done so.

To protect US interests Kissinger proposes a secret treaty with China and uses nineteenth century models (the Treaty of 1839 on the neutrality of Belgium) to put forth deals with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep it it from being controlled by “jihadists.”

For someone influenced by Kant’s Perpetual Peace Kissinger seems to forget that Kant rejected secret treaties as a violation of the rights of the citizens of a state to have sufficient knowledge of their constitution to be able act as free citizens and participate in the social life of their country rather than be used as means instead of as ends by their rulers. No treaty that needs secrecy to succeed is moral for Kant.

Anyway, Ferguson points out these suggestions would only be workable in a broader context both realistic (a workable balance of power) and idealistic. The ideal of preventing a third world war may be more important than avoiding climate change, we are told. There are two things wrong with this. First, even contemplating the need to prevent a third world war is to reveal a subtext that sees China, and perhaps Russia as well, as existential threats to US interests and that the balance of power the US aims at will be weighted in its favor. This is the same old imperialist junk Kissinger has always pushed. Second, climate change poses an existential threat to the whole planet which is just as threatening as a third world war, maybe more so as climate change is happening now and a third world war is a future speculation based on viewing the world through nineteenth and twentieth century lenses by which we can only see the world as dark and blurred.

Kissinger advocates, as he says, “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary reality.” But the contemporary reality is an über-powerful US which basically does what it wants and only gives lip service to the idea of a World Order in which it is not the dominant and all determining power. No “Westphalian” system can be so based. World Order is only possible by a strengthened United Nations in which the US is willing to share power with the rest of the world  and submit itself to universal rules to which all are subject. What could induce the US to do this— to actually put moral considerations on the same level as brute power considerations? 

Kissinger says the next president must answer this basic question; “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?”  But this is a question for the American people to answer. Right now they are so divided and kept ignorant of the realty of the world they live in (state secrets, rotten education, semi-literacy, news networks that only spew forth propaganda, crazy religious illusions, you name it) they are incapable of arriving at a consensus. In reality the 1% will continue to answer the question with a president that represents their interests primarily.

But this is the fundamental question. Until the American people unite around their interests, the interests of the 99% (metaphorically speaking) and arrive at a consensus about the sort of country and world they want to live in— one that fosters the well being of all working and laboring peoples and not just the tiny group at the top of society, until then the US will have a foreign policy geared towards war and domination as it has at least since 1945, and the Kissingers of the future  will ensure that there will be no chances of a world order based on human dignity and peace.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Lenin State and Revolution Today (Part 7 and last)

Lenin State and Revolution Today Chapter Six  (Part Seven and final of the series)
Thomas Riggins

3. Kautsky's Polemic Against Pannekoek

The Pannekoek in question was Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960) a Dutch Marxist who in later life became one of the leaders of "Council Communism" a tendency which developed out of the "Left Wing Communism" considered by Lenin to be an infantile disorder.  However, long before this, in 1912, he published an article in Neue Zeit  called "Mass Action and Revolution."  In this article he criticized Karl Kautsky's views on the nature of the state in relation to the coming revolution. He pointed out that workers have to overthrow both the ruling class and their state. "The struggle will not end until, as its final result, the entire state organization is destroyed."

Lenin says Pannekoek's article has defects, is imprecise, and not very concrete  but is clear enough in advocating both the overthrow of the ruling class and the state that it controls replacing it with a working class state. But Lenin is really interested in Kautsky's reply which, he says, betrays Marxism on this issue -- i.e., the fate of the bourgeois state.

Kautsky wrote: "Up till now the difference between Social Democrats and Anarchists has consisted in this: the former wished to conquer the state power while the latter wished to destroy it. Pannekoek wants to do both." Lenin says this distinction is a vulgar distortion of Marxism. Lenin was not always very subtle in his critiques.

Pannekoek is the one who is correct, not Kautsky and for the following three reasons which differentiate Marxists (M) from Anarchists (A):
1. M- the state withers away after the revolution and the creation of Socialism: A- the   
    state is abolished immediately and permanently after the revolution .
2. M- the state that withers away is the new form of the state. based on the Paris   
    Commune, which the workers create after the revolution to replace the bourgeois 
    state: A- the old state is abolished and nothing is put in its place to direct and
    channel the newly won power of the working class-- the dictatorship of the
    proletariat (the necessary first form of worker's power after the fall of the working  
    class) is rejected.
3. M- use the currently existing state (as far as is possible) to educate and train the 
    working people for revolutionary activity: A- reject this notion.

Lenin also objects to Kautsky’s taking quotes out of context from Marx and using them against Pannekoek when they are not at all germane to the argument (a fate all too soon to befall quotes from Lenin himself).

Kautsky talks about the party being in opposition to the capitalist state now and wants to put off discussions about the nature of the state until after the workers come to power. He doesn’t want to talk about the nature of the revolution— which is one of the main features of opportunism.

It’'s all well and good to make general comments about opposition and democratic struggle but we must always be clear about how this struggle must eventuate.  “A revolution must not consist in a new class ruling, governing with the help of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing by means of new machinery.”

Kautsky ignores this because he maintains there must be officials and experts just as much after the change of power as before. Lenin agrees but insists, based on the lessons of the Commune, that the officials and experts will be under the direction of the working class and not be responsible to the bureaucratic structures of the old capitalist state which is kept around and is supposedly supervised by the working class.

Capitalism has enslaved the working people and bourgeois democracy, which we may now live under, is, Lenin says, crushed and mutilated by the wages system, poverty and “the misery of the masses.” This fake mutilated pseudo-democracy is the reason why, in our day the Tea Party has such influence and the Republican party can take control of the levers of power in the US.  And, Lenin says, it is the source of corruption in the political parties and the trade unions, and fuels the tendency for the “leaders” of the people to turn into bureaucrats— “i.e., privileged persons detached from the masses, and standing above the masses.” This is just the nature of democracy under capitalism and until capitalism is overthrown even the leaders of the working people “will inevitably be to some extent ‘bureaucratized.’” 

In attacking Pannekoek, Lenin says, Kautsky is only repeating the views of Bernstein (“the ‘old’ views”) as expressed in Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein had rejected many of Marx’'s positions concerning workers democracy versus bourgeois democracy on the idea that after 70 years or so “in complete freedom” the British union movement had given up on the idea  as “worthless” and had settled on a model based on bureaucracy  and regular parliamentary practice. 

As against this Bernstein-Kautsky assertion Lenin says it is not the case that the British unions have developed “in complete freedom,” but they had rather developed in an atmosphere of “complete capitalist enslavement.”  Of course, in such an atmosphere, it made no sense to try to create a working class democracy  along Marxist lines that had presumed a post- revolutionary environment in which the working class was the new ruling class.

The two great errors we must avoid are: First, thinking we have to just take over the presently existing state machinery by means democratic elections or parliamentary procedures and then employe it to build socialism, and Second, to take the Anarchist position of just smashing the presently existing state and then letting the working people decide what happens next (i.e., no pre-planning for a temporary worker’s state until conditions of socialism are firmly established.)

The Anarchist view is not really taken very seriously within the working class, but Kautsky’s view (or some modern day descendent ) still has its supposititious appeal. Lenin quotes Kautsky: “never, under any conditions can it [a working class victory] lead to the destruction of the state power; it can lead only to a certain shifting of forces within the state power....
 The aim of our political struggle then, remains as before, the conquest of state power by means of gaining a majority in parliament and a conversion of parliament into the master of the government.”''

Lenin says this is an example of “vulgar opportunism” i.e., of abandoning the principles of  Marxism and the real long term interests of the working people and tailoring your program to take ephemeral advantages of historically temporary social and economic conditions. It is a confusion between strategy  [the what, the goal, the end result, socialism] and tactics [the how, what must be done, the present step in the democratic struggle]. 

Of course in the present day and in the non revolutionary conditions temporally instantiated in the US and most of Europe there is no sense in calling for the destruction of bourgeois democracy, of coining a lot of "revolutionary" slogans about the dictatorship of the proletariat, of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalists by the armed workers, etc.  "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

Our current struggle is to defeat the ultra-right politically and work with progressive groups and others to build a meaningful coalition of forces able to protect already existing democratic rights and to extend them, and fight for new ones, for the benefit of the working people and their allies.

Nevertheless, in the realm of theory we should not forget the ultimate destiny of the capitalist system and become so blinded by the present transient stage in history that we become as those "socialists," condemned by Lenin, who rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat in theory because it "contradicted" democracy. Lenin thought that ridiculous; it contradicted only the pseudo-democracy used by the ruling class to befool the workers, and of those so-called "socialists," he said there "is really no essential difference between them and the petty-bourgeois democrats."  This may have no sting today, but it may in the nearer than we think future.

State and Revolution ends here and chapter seven, the last ("Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917") was never written. The October Revolution broke out and Lenin wrote: "It is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it."

I hope people will find this commentary useful.

New York, January 31, 2015