Friday, December 22, 2006


Online at:

Religion and Enlightenment: A Reply to Shweder's "Atheists Agonistes"
By Thomas Riggins

Recently the New York Times published an article by Richard A. Shweder (11/27/2006) a professor at the University of Chicago. Shweder's article is an attack on the Enlightenment tradition and indirectly gives a boost to the antiscientific and superstitious ultra-right political environment in the US, so recently trounced in the midterm elections. Shweder's description of the Enlightenment tradition is historically inaccurate and wrongheaded, as I hope to show.

The author seems to think that there is a vast secular movement abroad in the land, derived from the Enlightenment, to denigrate religion and religious people. He tells us that "pious" mention of "God" is "one of the ways to bring a certain type of dinner party to a halt." I am sure it is. Just as "impious" mention of "God" is a way to bring other "types' of dinner parties to a halt.

Not only will the "pious" mention of "God" disrupt a certain type of party but so will expounding the theology offered "in evangelical churches." He says that "is likely to produce the same effect." Well, I'm not surprised. Outside of a church supper if someone starts spouting off about "sinners, apostates or blasphemers," and the "promise of salvation" it might very well put a damper on most dinner parties.

Shweder thinks the dinner parties most affected by this sort of behavior are those given by "cosmopolites who live in secular enclaves." Since a recent Newsweek poll shows that about 80 percent of Americans are religious (believe in "God" and the Bible), I can't image where these secular enclaves of cosmopolites are located (but there must be a big one at the University of Chicago) which so upset Mr. Shweder.

In any event we are informed that for the aforementioned "cosmopolites," "religion is automatically associated with darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or pre-modern cast of mind." Not only that, "but it has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of the gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith."

How can one take such an expostulation seriously? There is no such thing as such a "Darwinian" article of faith as that proposed by Shweder. Many, perhaps even most, scientists maintain that science (including Darwinism) and religion deal with different areas of human experience. In fact one of the greatest of the "Darwinists", the late Stephen Jay Gould, maintained exactly this position and advocated greater mutual understanding between science and religion. In other words, Shweder has a created a straw man to knock down in order to make his arguments, lacking in merit, look better than they are.

Shweder's actual target, it turns out, is not the Enlightenment at all (as we shall see) but three contemporary books by secular humanists which he considers to be over the top. The books are "Breaking the Spell" (Daniel Dennet), "Letter to a Christian Nation" (Sam Harris), and "The God Delusion" (Richard Dawkins).

Why, the author wonders, are these atheists so provoked at religion? Why are they attacking books "dictated or co-written by God" and believed in by 2.1 billion and 1.3 billion "self-declared" Christians and Muslims respectively? He decides the reason is that "secular society" is attacking religion because it fears that "it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real." Marxists should take note. Since Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment, it would be embarrassing if it turned out to be more illusory than religion: especially after that "opium of the masses" crack.

The article goes rapidly down hill from this point. He says the Enlightenment has its own version of Genesis "and the themes are well known." The Enlightenment was not really interested in Genesis. The author has confused Darwinism, a product of mid-Nineteenth Century British science with the mid-Eighteenth Century "Enlightenment" movement which was basically a political movement against despotic government as well as against authority as the basis of personal belief and understanding of the world.

Here is the author's simplistic description of the "Enlightenment" as he thinks it is seen today: "The world woke up from the slumber of the 'dark ages,' [most people call this the "Renaissance", it was 400 years before the "Enlightenment"-tr] finally got in touch with the truth [this is nonsense, the 18th Century thinkers only said they wanted to search for the "truth" not assume they had it already because King and Pope said so] and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe." Nobody, by the way, uses the word "good" in this context. The question for the Enlightenment would have been, for example, if one wanted to know how many, if any, moons Jupiter had would it be better to look in the Bible or Aristotle, or to use a telescope. I don't think this would be an "illusory" method to adopt.

Shweder thinks that what the Enlightenment represents can be seen as "religion (equated with ignorance and superstition)" giving way to "science (equated with fact and reason." But this is not the Enlightenment story at all. The Enlightenment was not hostile to religion. Both Thomas Paine and Voltaire, for example, as well many of the most noted figures of the Enlightenment, believed in God and subscribed to personal religious beliefs. The issue was what attitude to take about some forms of state sponsored organized religions and their political agendas as well as their outright violent persecutions of individuals and groups that disagreed with them. The great Enlightenment figures did indeed battle for tolerance and the rights of all people to their religious beliefs as long as they did not try to deny those rights to others.

The author is correct on some aspects of the Enlightenment's views on science. Science was embraced as a way to understand the natural world, to find the causes and cures of diseases, and to improve human life in general. Science also used reason and the search for facts to carry out this program. However, I cannot think of one great Enlightenment figure who claimed that only science could use "fact and reason."

Shweder's description of the Enlightenment is so off base that it is difficult to understand what his game plan is. He says the Enlightenment "blueprint" was designed to "remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West's secular elites." But surely the propagation of such Enlightenment values as human rights, religious freedom (including the freedom not to be religious), public education, public health projects, scientific advances in our understanding of nature, the end of absolutist political regimes and their replacement by representative governments, was in the interests of the vast majority of the populations of the countries where the Enlightenment took root.

"Science has not replaced religion," the author proclaims thinking this is a defeat for Enlightenment thinking. But it was never the intention of science to replace religion as such. As I mentioned above, many Enlightenment figures were not at all hostile to religion (Immanuel Kant comes to mind), only to dogmatic, narrow minded, dictatorial religious elements using religion for their own selfish purposes.

But in one sense, the only sense intended by the Enlightenment, science has replaced religion. Concerning matters of fact with regard to the natural world, in astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., educated people in general (not just "secular elites") turn to science for explanations and guidance. Tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activities, are no longer explained in terms of religious dogmas. Religious leaders who explain events such as 9/11 as due to God's dislike of gays are increasingly finding themselves discredited.

Shweder ends up deciding that since so many people believe in religion, even if religion is a delusion "it is a delusion with a future." Marxists, of course, believe that the widespread acceptance of religion is due to socio-economic conditions which manifest themselves as religious beliefs after a long process of alienation and reification. Widespread religious dependence is a sign of our backward social conditions, even in the 21st Century. Shweder holds that a "shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society." This would seem to preclude multiculturalism and societies that tolerate different, rather that shared, conceptions. Shweder's view may be shared by many religious people, but it is definitely pre rather than post Enlightenment in its spirit.

In conclusion, I will only state that people such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, both militant atheists and "pop" philosophers and scientists, are not representative of Enlightenment thinking in general, although they, as most modern thinkers, have been influenced by some aspects of it.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, December 18, 2006


[Archival Material 2000]
Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York
The Corliss Lamont Chapter of the American Humanist Association
Why Humanists Should Reject The "Social Contract”

The following is a rebuttal to an article by Robert Grant entitled "The Social Contract and Human Rights" which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of The Humanist magazine.

by Thomas Riggins

Robert Grant's "The Social Contract and Human Rights" while well intentioned cannot, I believe, be the basis for a Humanist outlook.
The main thesis, that "human rights are inherent features of our nature as human beings" the author fails to establish. When he discusses our "nature" it seems that it boils down to being the nature of "an animal that is a predator with needs for food, clothing (!) and shelter". The author shows confusion in this definition as "clothing" is certainly a social construction as is the "need" for it in many instances.
He improves on this definition, based on his understanding of Rawls, by presenting Rawls' ideas on the original condition of human beings -- "stripped of their accidental characteristics: gender, age, race, nationality or tribe, social status, wealth or poverty, good health or disability." This imaginary predatory animal happens to be "rational, able to think at a very abstract and symbolic level." This last feature is too far-fetched to be realistically considered. It took our species a long time and many ages of development to arrive at "rationality".
The author is aware of this and allows that the original condition leading to the social contract is only a theoretical condition not an historical one. This is a thought experiment -- and not a very good one. It means that the actual people (or person) rationally constructing the contract is in fact of a particular gender, age, race, nationality, etc., and most important lives in a particular historical period in a particular socio-economic formation. For Rawls and our author that formation is late capitalism as it developed in the United States after the extirpation of the native American cultures, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the war of conquest waged against the people of Mexico.
It is this society's concept of "human rights" which Mr. Grant thinks is "universal" and general "in their application to all people and at all times." Mr. Grant only discusses John Locke, John Rawls and the US Constitution as the sources of his ideas. Those societies that don't embody these universal values must have a problem. They do, and Mr. Grant tells us that it is due to the fact that "the degree of knowledge and understanding of these rights and duties will vary" by culture. This is a very, or not so very as you choose, polite way of saying that societies not agreeing with our values (which are after all universal or catholic values) are backward.
And what are these values? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This pursuit includes "the right to acquire and own property" -- a right the "backwards" aboriginal tribes were lacking when they met up with the followers of John Locke who, exercising their universal rights, gave them their first lesson regarding the unalienable rights of man.
I believe, as humanists, we must understand and learn from other traditions while seeing them as historically conditioned -- and this includes our own tradition. What we must not do, and I think the Grant article is guilty of this, is elevate our own tradition to the status of "universalism". This is just rehashed cultural imperialism and has its roots in the dogmatic religious outlooks of the past and present. If you are looking for universal human rights and duties go to Rome and ask the Pope. Humanists should realize that we create our own values, reacting to the times and climes, and rational people can disagree on what these values are.
~ ~ ~
Robert Grant is a practicing attorney and former judge living in New Rochelle, New York. He is a lecturer and the author of American Ethics and the Virtuous Citizen, published in October 1999 by Humanist Press, a division of the American Humanist Association. The book expands upon and develops the ideas in his article.
Thomas Riggins is Chapter President of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, the Corliss Lamont Chapter of the AHA. He teaches History of Philosophy and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was involved with Students for a Democratic Society.
The article discussed above originally appeared in the January/February 2000 (Volume 60, Number 1) issue of The Humanist magazine (ISSN 0018-7399), published by the American Humanist Association, Washington, DC 20009-7125.

Monday, December 11, 2006

HEGEL: A BIOGRAPHY, by Terry Pinkard [Book Review]

Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Pp. 780

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Terry Pinkard’s Hegel is one of the best introductions available to the philosophy of Hegel. We often hear that Hegel is the eminence grise standing behind Karl Marx and that the Hegelian dialectic is the basis on which Marx and Engels developed materialist dialectics. Lenin even says that it is impossible to understand Capital without reading Hegel’s Logic.
The problem with Hegel is his forbidding style which drives many readers to distraction. He seems to be incomprehensible. Pinkard's book overcomes this difficulty. It is clearly written in an enjoyable style and covers both Hegel's life and philosophical development as well as providing easily digestible summaries of all the works--especially The Phenomenology of Mind, The Logic, The Encyclopedia of The Philosophical Sciences, and The Philosophy of Right.
For those who want to know what all the fuss is about,  this is a highly recommended first book on Hegel from which one can graduate to the original works.
Hegel's politics were progressive and humanistic. Pinkard points out that he supported the American and French revolutions and rejected as "degrading" the type of newly developing capitalist division of labor touted by Adam Smith.
Hegel thought that modern individualism [i.e., entrepreneurial capitalism] must be harmonized with the interests of the people [people before profits]. Pinkard suggests that his philosophy was based on three components.  The three component parts of Hegelianism being 1) a blend of representative government with "Germanic" freedom; 2) Scottish commercial society; 3) French revolutionary politics.
This may remind readers of Lenin's Three Component Parts of Marxism -- namely British economic theory, French socialism, and German philosophy.
Perhaps one of the most trenchant points Pinkard makes in his chapter on The Phenomenology is the following on the French Revolution (The Phenomenology discusses the development of human consciousness from its origins up to Hegel's time): “The Revolution, under Rousseau's influence, had culminated in a vision of ‘absolute freedom’ as determined by a ‘general will,’ which in the development of the Revolution became identified with the ‘nation.’ Kant saw that what was required had to be a self-determined whole that made room for the individual agent and neither swallowed him in abstractions such as ‘utility' nor reduced him to moral insignificance as merely a cog in the machine of the ‘nation’."

Replace "nation" with "class", "general will" with "the party", "absolute freedom" with "socialism" and "Rousseau" with "the cult of the personality" and maybe we can begin to see why Hegel and Kant are still relevant.
The following Hegelian observations are still meaningful (properly updated): the first with respect to how communist and worker's parties were sometimes  perceived to have operated, the second on the role of the press.
“Without an anchoring in social practice, in the self-identity of the people in the reformed communities, the reforms could have no authority;[Reference is to German communities in Hegel's day that progressive government ministers were trying to liberalize] they would only appear, indeed would only be, the imposition of one group's (the reformers) preferences and ideals on another. Without the transformation of local Sittlichkeit [ethics], of collective self-identity, the reformers could only be the "masters" and the populace could only be the ‘vassals.’”’

Pinkard continues: “In their reforms there was no ‘dialogue’, there was instead only administrative fiat in which, even in those cases where the ‘right’ thing was being decreed, the self-undetermining nature of decrees that seem to come from ‘on high’ was evident. The press plays its proper role when it serves as a mediator for the formation of such public opinion; when the press serves to mediate things in the right way, it thereby serves to underwrite the process of reform.”

In studying Hegel it has often been the rule to start with The Phenomenology of Mind, but Pinkard points out that Hegel, late in life, did not consider that work, interesting as it may be, a proper introduction to his system. One should begin with reading the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences.
I think we should note that there has been a dialectical reversal in modern life from the times of Hegel. Pinkard notes: “The problem of modern life [ in Hegel's time] was that its rationality was not immediately apparent to its participants; for that one required a set of reflective practices that could display and demonstrate the rationality of modern life, namely, those involved in modern art, modern religion, and, most importantly, modern philosophy.”

However, now it is, I think, just the opposite. The irrationality of our world system is what is not immediately apparent. As it was the task of Hegelianism at the beginning of the nineteenth century to demonstrat the rationality of the world, especially the world resulting from the French Revolution, so the task today is to show, by means of Marxism, the irrationality of the new world order. This is another way of saying that whatever progressive role the bourgeoisie played in Hegel's day is long over.
Pinkard's discussion of The Philosophy of Right is also important. It centers on Hegel's "core idea" that "what counts as 'right' in general is what is necessary for the realization of freedom."
How much Hegel's views on freedom can be adjusted to Marxism is a matter of debate. This problem is too complicated to go into in a review, but a hint to its solution may be found in Hegel's view that the opposite of freedom is "to act in terms of something one cannot rationally endorse for oneself, that is, ultimately to be pushed around by considerations that are not really one's own but come from or belong to something else (for example, brute desires, or social conventions." Or. I might add, an economic system based not on humanistic (working class) principles but on the drive for profits whatever the human cost. An economic system that controls us instead of being controlled by us makes a mockery of all bourgeois claims to "freedom."
The following observations by Hegel-- on religion and the state-- are relevant not only to our own situation (the Bush/Fundamentalist religious nut position), but to Zionism and to political Islam. Again, summarizing Hegel's views, Pinkard writes: ” Letting religious matters into state affairs only leads to fanaticism; when religion becomes political, the result can only be ‘folly, outrage, and the destruction of all ethical relations,’ since the piety of religious conviction when confronted with the manifold claims of the modern political world too easily passes over into ‘a sense of grievance and hence also of self-conceit’ and a sense that the truly faithful can find in their ‘own godliness all that is required in order to see through the nature of the Laws and of political institutions, to pass judgment on them, and to lay down what their character should and must be.’”

Although there is no space here for the attempt, Hegel's philosophy may also be useful in trying to explain the collapse of European socialism. His doctrine that "world history is the world court" has much to recommend itself for a hard nosed analysis. I also pass over the chapters on The Logic with reverential silence.
This book is a work of important philosophical as well as historical analysis. The Hegel described by Peter Gay ("a disembodied spirit who oracularly pronounces on deep matters") becomes a living and easily comprehended human being in Pinkard's handling of him. Anyone who wants to know what Hegel had to say, and why it is still important, could do no better than begin with this biography.

Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be
reached at Adapted from the print edition of Political Affairs.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Christopher Caudwell and the Sources of Poetry
By Thomas Riggins

Christopher Caudwell, the British Marxist who was killed in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War at age 29, was one of the most important cultural theorists of the past century. Many Marxists, especially of the younger generation, may never have heard of him since with the overthrow of the Soviet Union and its East European allies the entire cultural legacy of the Marxist movement has been over-shadowed by capitalist triumphalism.

One of the functions of Marxists is to keep alive the memory and the traditions of the truly great Marxist thinkers who have preceeded us and whose achievements we will be the custodians of until the world revolutionary movement is again in a position to challenge the imperialist powers and block their domination of the planet. A time we are approaching more rapidly than many suspect.

Caudwell’s most important work was the posthumously published Illusion and Reality: A Study in the Sources of Poetry (1937). This article will attempt to present some of his major ideas to a contemporary audience.

According to Caudwell, the social consciousness of human beings is directly proportional to the interaction it has with other human beings and with nature. In other words, the more interaction humans have with one another and nature, the greater their social consciousness. This social consciousness is the tool used to attain freedom, which Caudwell defined as the degree of control over the environment.

Poetry had its origins in the way humanity first struggled to attain freedom. The earliest humans could not rely on a purely instinctual life such as we find in other animals. Humans had to form some type of economic cooperation (hunting, fishing, food gathering) which necessitated a higher degree of socialization of the instincts (that is, of common feelings and emotional responses) directed to group survival.

As an example, Caudwell points to the role of art in relation to early harvest festivals. The festival functions to collectivize group emotions and direct them towards the future harvest (or hunt). It does this by means of dance and ritual. Early people thus entered a world of illusion in which group goals were reinforced to bring about the socially necessary labor needed to translate the illusion into the reality of the future hunt or harvest. Caudwell believed that art was basically economic in origin and function. The individual is socialized by participation in group ceremonials--i.e., she is educated.
The development of class society breaks down the old collectivity and the artist becomes differentiated from the group. Individual artists replace group art. Art is divorced from the nitty-gritty of everyday economic concerns.  In poetry, the lyric replaces the epic. While Homer reflected the collective life of Greece, the lyric poets expressed individual and solitary views of their subject matter.
So poetry, and art in general, is “the nascent self-consciousness” of humanity. An Hegelian notion better expressed by Marx as an historically determinate species-being consciousness (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). In other words, art brings about the beginnings of human self consciousness.
What is the content of early art? What does it reflect and create? What is its role? Its content is not an independent objective reality but social reality. Its function is to direct individual emotions to a common goal. Its role is to domesticate the instincts--to socialize them to group values. The “fantasy of poetry is a social image.”
Originally thought separated from practice to be a “guide to action” but gradually the guiding group became dominate in the society. This group no longer reflects a socially undifferentiated consciousness. It has become a ruling class. Two cultures now develop: the culture representing the ruling circles and “folk” culture. This is the origin of our distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture.
Having dealt with the origins of art (poetry), Caudwell turns his attention to modern poetry. “Modern poetry is capitalist poetry.” Why do Shakespeare, Galileo, Michaelangelo, Pope, Goethe and Voltaire seem modern when compared to Valery, Cezanne, Joyce, Bergson and Einstein, while Homer, Thales, Chaucer and Beowulf seem remote and foreign to us?

Caudwell thinks it is because the economic base of developing capitalism which the first group represents (the bourgeois foundation) is reflected in their works. They are spokesmen of their times when the feudal world view was under attack by a new economic class whose outlook they reflected. To the extent our culture still rests on this foundation we can identify with these thinkers and artists.
Recalling the social function of art, Caudwell points out that in class society art has separated itself from religion "as the art of a ruling class" and tends to be conservative, "academic" and conventional. We see long periods of time, even centuries, of unchanging artistic standards (Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, China, etc.) yet the art of our time is constantly changing and seems to progress. New and radical schools of art flourish, peak, decline, and make way for new schools and experimental methods. How can this be reconciled with Caudwell's thesis?

   To answer this we must grasp the "basic contradiction of bourgeois society"--the bourgeois concept of freedom--the basic bourgeois illusion. With the overthrow of feudalism arose the idea of an aristocracy of merit (Jefferson) rather than birth. Every person is free to own private property and to dispose of her life as she wishes (originally this applied only to men). The bourgeois state appears to function above society and class as a referee be-
tween the various component parts of the population.

The basic contradiction is that "seen from the viewpoint of the bourgeois, bourgeois society is a free society whose freedom is due to its completely free market and its absence of direct social relations, of which absence the free market is the cause and expression. But to the rest of society bourgeois society is a coercive society whose individualism and free market is the method of coercion." The worker must enter the capitalist's market or starve.
The basic precondition for capitalism's advancement is its constantly revolutionizing its means of production and the concomitant competition between capitalists. The growth of monopolies takes its toll on small and medium businesses, and sometimes even giant corporations, which fail and are eliminated from the scene.

Modern art, as a product of this constantly changing society, is not conservative and conventional precisely because the bourgeois mode of production is also non-conservative and non-conventional. The bourgeois falls victim to his own system, his illusion of freedom will not save him from the exigencies of the real economic functioning of his market. Kafka is an example of this petty bourgeois feeling of powerlessness. "The bourgeois is always talking about liberty because it is always slipping from his grasp."

Freedom from natural necessity (want) is the sine qua non for the development of spiritual freedom. In so far as the bourgeois economy is expanding and developing freedom from nature is growing. Unfortunately this freedom gravitates to the pole of the bourgeoisie leaving more and more unfreedom in society as a whole.

"Thus the bourgeois illusion regarding freedom, which counterpoises freedom and individualism to determinism and society, overlooks the fact that society is the instrument whereby man, the unfree individual, in association realizes his freedom and that the conditions of such association are the conditions of
Poetry (art in general) in the bourgeois period functions to reinforce emotional attitudes having survival value in bourgeois
society. The greater degree of complexity in modern society explains why different and contradictory artistic movements clash and contend appealing to different classes and strata. The function of poetry (art) is to adapt the instincts to the social situation humans find themselves in or are in the act of creating.

Caudwell Notes: "The bourgeois sees men's instincts -- his 'heart, source of his desires and aims -- as the source of his freedom. This is false in as much as the instincts unadapted are blind and unfree. But when adapted by the relations of society they give rise to emotions, and the adaptations of which the emotions are the expression and mirror, are the means whereby the instinctive energy of man is diverted to drive the machine of society: the machine of society, revolving, enables man to face nature and struggle with her, not as individual instinctive man but as associated, adapted men. Thus the instincts drive on the movement which secures man's freedom."
Art is an attempt to achieve freedom in the world of feelings and emotions. Science is that same attempt in the world of sense perceptions. There are, therefore, two methods for attaining freedom -- one adapted to our inner, the other to our outer reality. To understand these, we must look to the function of the "word."

Words "are tied to precepts which are photographic memory- images of bits of reality." Precepts are used to create concepts, language, and the possibility of communication. For humans to be able to work together they must have a common perceptual reality changeable by their actions. The world created by language and the word gives us the Common Perceptual World. The other world, of the ego and the emotions (called by Caudwell "feeling tones"), is the Common Affective World. Cooperation and the associated life of humans in groups, interacting with and working upon nature, creates a special ego or mind so that individuals share feeling tones just as they share the meanings of words.
Science has created a "Mock Ego", a universal observer who could create and verify the laws of science--the "any right thinking person" to whom the scientist could appeal for procedural verification. Parallel to the "Mock Ego" of science we find an equivalent for the world of art to which feeling tones and emotions can be attributed. Just as the Mock Ego of science tries to integrate the laws of objective external reality, the Mock Ego of art tries to integrate the feeling tones and emotions of associated humans. They both arise from the social interaction of humans and they both aim at freedom -- freedom from want as well as the positive freedoms of individual development and expression.

While science gives humanity more control over external reality, "the other world of art, of organized emotion attached to experience, the world of the social ego that endures all and enjoys all and by its experience organizes all, makes available for the individual a whole universe of inner freedom and desire." One way art does this is to make the emotional content of consciousness congruent with common social aims required for the attainment of the instinctual desire for freedom and development. "Art is the consciousness of the necessity of the instincts."
Art and science, then, are the products of the human struggle against nature. Art represents the struggle to socialize the instincts and to be free from their blind operation. Caudwell sees both science and art originating in, and then freeing themselves from, religion. Once they have independently established them-selves, "religion no longer plays a useful role."
The two conditions that a work of art must fulfill if it is to live up to its function of integrating the individual ego into the social ego are 1) that the work must be important in dealing with the crucial problems of its age as significant emotional attitudes, and 2) the work must be general -- i.e., the average individual must be able to relate her inchoate emotional attitudes to it in such a way that it helps her to organize them in a way beneficial to her participation in, or understanding of, the social ego.

Because of these two conditions, only a materialist outlook will enable us to come to an understanding of art -- i.e., the understanding of the connection between the social relations and their influences upon works of art. Art "lives in the
social world and can only be of value in integrating experiences general to men, it is plain that the art of any age can only express the general experiences of men in that age."
Art is subjective and linked to the sources of our emotional self-awareness. Caudwell calls this source the "genotype." He writes, "art cannot escape its close relation with the genotype whose secret desires link in one endless series all human culture." He views the genotype under two headings -- the "timeless" (universal) and the "timeful" (particular).

The universal aspect leads to the following comment: "... on the whole the genotype is substantially constant in all societies and all men. There is a substratum of likeness. Man does not change from Athenian to Ancient Briton and then to Londoner by innate differences stamped in by natural selection, but by acquired changes derived from social evolution."

Under the other aspect we see the timeful or particular. Caudwell holds that individual differences appear within the basic universal genotype due to a genetic "shuffle." Thus individual differences arise, personalities, characters,etc. On the basis of these observations, Caudwell maintains that poetry represents the universal while the novel represents the individual aspect of the genotype.
Poetry helps us to adapt to the objective world which surrounds us. It "is an emotional attitude towards the world." Because it adapts our emotions to external reality it enriches that reality. The poet gives emotional significance to the contents of the world -- to a part of external reality. "In life this piece of external reality is devoid of emotional tone, but described in those particular words, and no others, it suddenly and magically shimmers with affective coloring. This affective coloring represents an emotional organization similar to that which the poet himself faced (in phantasy or actuality) with that piece of external reality."
Poetry expands with the development of society and new poets arise from whom we demand a new emotional attitude towards our changing social reality. Great poems are those which gather the greatest amounts of the new social realities and place the proper emotional responses on them. Thus Caudwell thinks great poems must necessarily be long ones (to cover the greatest amount of new content and emotional response).

The purpose of the poem, however, is not to display its content but the emotional structure which the poem organizes and directs towards that self same content. Poetry is just as essential as science in humanity's attempt to dominate nature and make for itself a human world in which to live.

Poetry is the weapon of the genotype in its on going struggle to subdue nature -- "to mold necessity to its own likeness." Poetry is especially important for materialists in so far as humanity and its longings can be easily overlooked in the scientific descriptions of the world in which everything is ultimately reduced to atoms, waves, energy particles, etc. "Poetry restores life and value to matter, and puts back the genotype into the world from which it was banished."
According to Maynard Solomon (Marxism and Art), we have in Caudwell the first attempt to create a complete theory of poetry based on Marxism. He was the first Marxist to point out that fantasy plays a major role in bringing about causal changes in both human consciousness and history, and that through fantasy art changes the world by means of individual works of art whose production, by forcing into consciousness previously unarticulated and mute feelings, changes both the artist and the audience.

These insights, according to Solomon, helped Caudwell explain the enduring appeal of the great art of the past which persists because it expresses, in addition to its historically specific emotional articulations, certain basic and common genotypical features which are universal in the human species.

This answer to the problem of how the art of one era could appeal to people in another era based on a different economic and class system (a problem raised by Marx in the introduction to his Critique of Political Economy) was another of Caudwell's contributions to the philosophy of Marxism.

For our own times, we should ask ourselves what kind of “feeling tones” do current works of art produce. When we evaluate the movies, theatre, music, painting, architecture and contemporary literature, especially poetry, we must analyze our immediate emotional responses. Do these works inspire us to collectively work together to overcome the problems of life and society or to resign ourselves to the status quo of the “human condition”?

In understanding our own responses, and the responses produced in others, to the emotional content of the contemporary art world we can creatively apply Caudwell’s theories to the construction of a contemporary Marxist understanding of the role and function of art.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at or at Thomas Riggins' Blog.

Monday, November 27, 2006


by Thomas Riggins

The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has an important article in the current issue of The New Yorker: “The Next Act: Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more? (November 27, 2006).
Hersh has many connections within the administration, especially the Pentagon and he is a primary source of information about what our leaders are thinking. Since neither our elected officials nor the government will tell the American people what they are doing and what they plan to do, articles such as Hersh’s become of vital concern to all Americans. This article will not only discuss the main factual content of ‘The Next Act” but attempt to go beyond the facts by deducing (always a risky business) what they imply for the future.

Early on we are told that one of the great worries of BC [for Bush-Cheney, since Cheney not Rove is clearly Bush's brain with respect to foreign policy] was that a Democratic takeover of Congress would mean that they might not be able to exercise an unrestricted military option against Iran and its apparently imaginary nuclear weapons program. The supine new Congress will of course continue to finance the mass murder of Iraqis but it might balk at an extension of the US led military terror to Iran. Hersh quotes a past senior intelligence official who told him: “They’re afraid that Congress is going to vote a binding resolution to stop a hit on Iran, a la Nicaragua in the Contra war.” Not that that stopped Reagan and his gang of criminals from violating the law and financing the war by secretly selling arms to Iran and drugs here in the US to victims in the Black community.

With two years left in the BC imperium, and a clear rejection by a majority of the American people against the terrorist policies we are implementing in Iraq, will American policy qualitatively change? Hersh quotes Cheney from an interview last month in Time magazine: “I know what the President thinks. I know what I think. [Evidence of the same brain at work--tr]. And we’re not looking for an exit strategy. We’re looking for victory.” This is bad news for the reality based community since almost all the news reports of the thinking of people familiar with Iraq (retired and current military men, intelligence experts, academics, etc.,) is that “victory”, as articulated by BC [a pro-US puppet government in a stable Iraq,with a long term (reduced) US presence and representing a sort of Arab version of Israel, allowing us strategic control of middle eastern oil] is impossible, these quotes mean BC is dreaming the impossible dream which will in turn become a nightmare not only for the peoples of the region but will blow back on the American people as well.

Cheney is also quoted as telling a Zionist group: “The United States [i.e., BC] is keeping all options [including the most idiotic] on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime [this is not self-referential]. And we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Remember, there is no hard evidence Iran is actually building such a weapon. Also note how successful BC was in “not allowing” North Korea to have a nuclear weapon. By the way, its ok for buddies of BC, Israel. India, and Pakistan to have such weapons, all of whom have invaded and attacked their neighbors, but not Iran, which hasn’t invaded anyone for over two hundred years.

The removal of Rumsfeld and the convocation of the Baker-Hamilton “Iraq Study Group” indicates to many of the former players on the BC team that a move is underway to actually get out of Iraq and not to attack Iran. The old guard of the Republican party is afraid that the BC/Neoconservative devil’s pack will cost the party any chance of retaining the presidency in 2008 and they want to isolate Cheney and have Bush back Condoleezza Rice and a diplomatic solution to the problem with Iran, and to focus on a realistic policy [yet to be determined] towards Iraq and Afghanistan . This would require splitting BC apart and recombining the B gray matter with that of Ms Rice resulting in BR, C would still be blundering about as a loose cannon The question is if the new secdef, Robert Gates and his allies, can or have the will to, effectuate this recombinant splitting (metaphorically) of the President’s brain.

Hersh also reports on some clandestine activities against Iran that the US is up to (although they can't be all that clandestine if you can read about them in The New Yorker.) It seems that the US (along with Israel) is supporting an anti-Iranian "resistance" group called the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. Its difficult to believe that any authentic resistance group would be getting support from the US and Israel! Hersh says "this group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran." This might be a "terrorist group" except that it is funded by us and only groups that oppose us are "terrorist", otherwise they are "resistance" groups. We have also established contacts with different tribes in southeastern and northern Iran to stir up trouble for Tehran. These forays are an attempt to put pressure on the Iranian government by other means than direct military involvement.

What is interesting about this activity is that it is not the CIA but the Pentagon that is carrying out these covert operations. "Such activities," Hersh informs us, "if they are considered military rather than intelligence operations, do not require congressional briefings." True to the democratic spirit motivating BC's middle eastern adventures, the American people and their elected representatives will be kept in the dark about activities that amount to acts of war against Iran. How would we react to Mexico's funding armed resistance groups launching forays into New Mexico or Arizona? (Poncho Villa where are you?)

BC has a master plan for dealing with Iran. We are told that David Wurmser is the major Middle East "expert" on Cheney's staff. He is described as "a neoconservative who was a strident advocate for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein." Seeing as this advice has led to what many, if not most, people who know anything about it think is the worse foreign policy catastrophe for the US since the end of WW2 (although I think Vietnam deserves that honor), it would appear that Wurmser is not much of an expert. Would a doctor be an expert if he or she botched his or her operations. Would you go back to a doctor like that? Apparently so if you are BC because the "expert" Wurmser wants to now topple the government in Iran. Some people never learn.

There seems little doubt that BC has a strong desire, especially with all the prodding from Israel, to attack Iran-- a big bombing campaign since we are stuck, as Rumsfeld says, "with the army we have" commanded by incompetent careerists and too bogged down in Iraq to also take on Iran. Let's hope the new Congress can reign in the maniacs in the White House, especially as (Hersh reports), the CIA has not come up with any conclusive evidence "of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency." The lack of any evidence is proof for some of BC's advisors that Iran must have just such a program. I know the logic is completely crazy, but this is what Hersh reports.

A high level former CIA official was a source Hersh must have felt very comfortable with as the official is quoted several times. Here is his assessment of the CIA's conclusions on what the result would be of an American attack on Iran: "An American attack will paper over any differences in the Arab world, and we'll have Syrians, Iranians, Hamas, and Hezbollah fighting against us--- and the Saudis and the Egyptians questioning their ties to the West."

This may be a little too gloomy. Iran is not an Arab country and the contradictions between the countries mentioned might not lead to such united actions. But why risk it? The very possibility of BC's going it alone and attacking Iran is so serious that the House of Representatives should initiate impeachment proceedings if for no other reason that to throw the White House off balance and on the defensive for the next two years and hopefully prevent an expansion of the war that such an attack would entail.

In any event, an attack on Iran, with no clear evidence it is actually trying to make a bomb, and with no immediate threat to the US would be an act of folly and would demonstrate that the present administration is not only totally incompetent but a clear and present danger to the American people.

Thomas Riggins is a university lecturer in philosophy and ancient civilizations and can be reached at Thomas Riggins' Blog or at

Tuesday, November 21, 2006



There is an interesting book review essay by George Scialabba in the November 27, 2006 issue of The Nation (“The Business of America.”) In this essay Scialabba discusses two new books, one an apology for U.S. imperialism, the other a critique of it. The books are, respectively, “The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life,” by Michael Lind (Oxford, 294 pp.) and “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism,” by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan, 286 pp.). Let us see which of these two approaches better reflects reality.

Scialabba begins his essay by informing us that the view of most Americans, regular citizens and “respectable intellectuals” alike, is that the balance between material advantages and “idealism” in the history of U.S. foreign policy is “distinctive” and maybe even “unique.” Beware, for we are here in the presence of the tried and true philosophy of American “exceptionalism.”

Scialabba might benefit, by the way, in entertaining the possibility that the majority of regular Americans are completely ignorant of “the history of American foreign policy.” At the risk of being “unrespectable” I would also like to suggest many intellectuals do find that there is a lopsided relationship between “idealism” and material interests and advantages (in favor of the latter) in U.S. foreign policy. Idealists don’t have to lie, coverup and conceal their actions and motives-- an all too common characteristic of the practitioners of U.S. foreign policy.

To be fair, Scialabba doesn’t completely subscribe to this view, but allows that it contains several “grains of truth.” His examples of U.S. actions that have “earned it the permanent gratitude of humankind” are 1.) aiding the USSR in defeating Hitler (no doubt by delaying opening the Western Front in the hope that the Germans could take out as much of the Red Army as possible before being defeated.) 2.) Preventing the Red Army from advancing westward after it defeated Hitler (the USSR evidently doesn’t deserve any gratitude for this victory). There is, however, no convincing evidence that the Red Army desired to advance and take over the west. In fact it was Stalin who was most insistent that the Second Front be opened and that the allies, not the Soviets, be responsible for the liberation of western Europe. 3.) For allowing Taiwan and South Korea (“among others”) to become “stable democracies” and fore go the “horrors of Maoism and Stalinism.” Must we really have "eternal gratitude" for a foreign policy that led to the Korean War and vicious fascist dictatorships on Taiwan and South Korea that the people of those countries took forty years to get out from under?

Even if we grant that the U.S. deserves eternal gratitude for advancing its own perceived national interests, the question is, the author says, does this support the conclusion to be drawn by what he considers to be the above stated consensus: i.e., “that American foreign policy generally, including military interventions, deserves credit for good intentions, whatever mistakes were made in carrying them out.” In other words, should we take a Pollyanna like attitude toward U.S. imperialism?

Let us see what Lind’s book has to say about all this, according to Scialabba. We are told that in "The American Way of Strategy" Lind maintains, among other things, that: "The United States promotes national self-determination and basic human rights-- by example and exhortation rather than brute force, preferably,"

This is a ridiculous position. Any reading of contemporary history shows that the U.S. only promotes self-determination when it coincides with the economic interests of American corporations and U.S. imperial strategy. Let let the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, the Iran-Contra Affair, the present day attacks on the democratically elected Chavez government in Venezuela and the attempts to subvert the democratic process in the recent elections in Nicaragua which returned Daniel Ortega to the presidency stand as evidence against any such foolish notion regarding the promotion of human rights and "self-determination" by the United States.

Lind appears to think, according to the review, that the U.S. only reacts against the imperial ambitions of others while entertaining none of its own.
Lind is quoted as saying that: "For more than two centuries the main motive for American security strategy has been the fear, sometimes unreasonable but usually justified, of other great powers." From this it follows that we had to take over Texas and California, Oregon, Florida, Hawaii, Samoa, etc., to prevent their being taken over by others. In other words, for example, if we had not invaded Mexico and taken its territory someone else would have, and that's the only reason we did so. How completely ignorant of history does Lind think his readers must be?

It gets better. Both world wars and all our actions in the cold war were the
fault of others and we were forced to do whatever we did and if we did anything wrong its really ok because our intentions were always the best.
Our actions in the cold war were especially justified because after WW2 "Stalin," Lind writes, "was poised to inherit the world." It is astonishing to me that Oxford would publish such drivel.

Scialabba is somewhat critical of Lind's views. Lind holds, for example, that the U.S. was justified in overthrowing elected governments, subverting elections, helping to repress unions and workers and peasants in other countries, etc., even as it turned to waging horrendous colonial wars resulting in what amounted to genocidal [not Lind's or the author's word]
slaughter of third world peoples, but all this was justified because, "There was, after all, an international Communist conspiracy to rule the world."
That this fairy tale is still bandied about in 2006 is beyond incredible, it is simply stupid. No doubt twenty or thirty years hence Oxford will be publishing histories of the war in Iraq explaining how Saddam Hussein's attack on the U.S. on 9/11 and his weapons of mass destruction were the reasons for it.

Scialabba"s critical view amounts to the following. "I don't believe it was necessary for the United States to wage a savage war against democracy and independent development throughout the Third World-- as we did-- in order to keep the blight of Stalinism and Maoism from spreading. But since I don't know exactly how I would have kept it from spreading, I won't press the point." A brilliant analysis. It is precisely by supporting democracy and encouraging people's independent development that the "blight" could have been stopped from spreading. The fact that we did not do that indicates that something other than stopping the "blight" of Communism was behind out foreign policy, and that was our own desire to dominate the world and control its resources and markets. To paraphrase Pogo, we met the "blight" and it was us.

So much for Lind whose shallow cold war polemic appears not worthy of a read, except to see how bad such old think is in the new century, and this despite Scialabba's opinion that he is an "estimable" thinker!

Let us now turn our attention to Grandin's "Empire's Workshop." Scialabba begins his review with two great quotes from the book. The first informs us that the U.S. developed "a coherently sophisticated imperial project, one better suited for a world in which rising nationalism was making a formal colonialism of the kind European nations practiced unworkable." The second explains how this was done, i.e., by developing "a flexible system of extraterritorial administration, one that allowed the United States, in the name of fighting Communism and promoting development, to structure the internal political and economic relations of allied countries in ways that allowed it to accrue more and more power and to exercise effective control over the supply of oil, ore, minerals, and other primary resources-- all free from the burden of formal colonialism."

While this book focuses on Latin America, the reader will easily be able to relate it to the policies of U.S. imperialism in other parts of the world. Scialabba seems to prefer this book to the previous one. His misinformed anti-Communism has not blinded him to the real nature of U.S. foreign policy. He, in fact, in the course of his review, gives an excellent definition of the concept of "democracy" as it is used in the context of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it has a much broader use, being the tacit definition used in the media as well, as, for example, The New York Times and all other news dailies, the big news magazines, all the TV, radio and cable networks, and in all the schools and universities on the administrative level, and in the majority of the teaching levels.

This definition is that "democracy" equals "the freedom to vote for candidates who can be counted on to allow unrestricted capital flows; foreign ownership of vital resources; privatization of water, health, utility and banking systems; the opening of domestic markets to cheap (often subsidized) foreign imports; the repeal or lax enforcement of environmental, worker-safety, public-health and minimum-wage laws; an investor-friendly tax code; drastic reductions in social-welfare spending; the suppression of labor or peasant activism; and if asked, the provision of facilities for US military forces."

That is quite a long, if excellent, definition. I will only remark first that the Communist movement was historically opposed to all nine of the basic components of the aforegoing definition of "democracy" and that is the real reason it was seen as a "blight" and second, that the concept of "rule by the people" is completely absent in the definition.

Scialabba's essay was very informative. Based upon it, I would suggest that at least one of the two books discussed is well worth reading.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs magazine and can reached at

Thursday, November 16, 2006



by Thomas Riggins

The October issue of Harper’s Magazine contains an essay by George McGovern (the Democratic anti-war presidential candidate who ran against Nixon in 1972, he carried one state-- Massachusetts) and William Polk (founder of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago). This essay “The Way Out Of War: A Blueprint For Leaving Iraq Now” is an attempt to give a workable liberal democratic exit strategy to extricate the U.S. from the chaotic mess the Bush Administration has gotten us into in Iraq. Unfortunately the “blueprint” is unworkable and unrealistic.

The author’s state that a “phased withdrawal should begin on or before December 31, 2006, with the promise to make every effort to complete it by June 30, 2007.” Although the war is already lost and the U.S. (let alone its weak puppet government) has no prospects for pacifying the country, not to speak of even Baghdad, does anyone believe the unrealistic head in the sand Bush is about to start pulling out his troops in less than two months. He could at best make a token effort under this plan but the caveat, “make every effort” leaves room to stay on past the June 30 deadline and hence leaves the withdrawal open ended.

McGovern and Pope respond to the charge that so early an exit would result in chaos and upheaval being left behind in the wake of our withdrawal. They rightly point out that we already have chaos and upheaval and that much of the violence in Iraq is due to our unwanted presence. "We are as powerless to prevent the turmoil that will ensue when we withdraw," they write, "as we have been to stop the insurgency." But, they maintain, we can serve the interests of the Iraqi government (and our own) by "smoothing the edges of conflict" by engaging in a "bridging" strategy "between the occupation and complete independence."

Our peacemakers recommend that the Iraqi government and ourselves follow a six point plan. First the Iraqis should ask for "the temporary services of an international stabilization force" to provide security during and after the exit of the American troops. This is just wishful thinking. No other countries want to take over the mess we have created in Iraq and find themselves the target of the insurgency that drove us out.
They know that their services would be anything but "temporary."

The authors think that as soon as the Americans, British and private mercenary forces (basically paid for by U.S. tax payers and actually out numbering the British contingent) leave, the insurgency will have accomplished its aims and will "immediately begin to lose public support."
They claim that the "insurgent gunmen", their term for what the Iraqis may very well be thinking of as "heroic resistant fighters," "would either put down their weapons or become publicly identified as outlaws." This is another bit of wishful thinking. Like most other insurgent and resistance movements they would more than likely become the basis for a new Iraqi government and move to depose the remnants of the American dominated puppet government left behind by the fleeing Americans.

This is even more likely to happen because the second point on the McGovern-Polk blueprint is to eviscerate the already dysfunctional Iraqi army at the disposal of the present so-called Iraqi government (by their own admission not enjoying "complete independence.") "It is not in the interests of Iraq," they maintain, "to encourage the growth and heavy armament of a reconstituted Iraqi army." Who is going to protect the civilian pro-American civilian government? It must be the "international stabilization force." This force, by the way, they propose to be initially made up of 15,000 troops! After kicking out the Americans with 140 to 150,000 troops, the insurgency will disarm for these 15,000 made up of 3000 each from five different Islamic countries including Syria! What are the authors smoking?

They do not however propose to disband the Iraqi army completely. They don't want it to be a real army because Iraqi armies have acted badly in the past so it should be turned "into a national reconstruction corps modeled on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers " which can then repair damaged infrastructure. The U.S., by the way, can assist and train this Corps. It seems that we can stick around after all since this is a benign mission, the insurgents will have disarmed themselves, and the temporary international stabilization force will see to it that everything is, well, stable.

The third thing we should do is turn over all our military bases, including ones under construction-- at least 14 "enduring bases"-- to the Iraqis. Others have reported at least four permanent bases are being constructed as it seems the U.S. has plans to be in Iraq for a very long time (no doubt to make sure that the strategic balance in the Middle East vis a vis control of the oil remains subject to American power.) Our peace makers will have to get the Bush administration and the long term planners in the Pentagon to give up on The New American Century before this can happen.

We are also told that, "The Green Zone should be turned over to the Iraqi government no later than December 31, 2007." Since we are supposed to have gotten our troops out by June 30th of 2007, it is unclear how we expect to hang on to the Green Zone for an additional six months.

Step four of the blueprint entails that "America should immediately release all prisoners of war and close its detention centers." Do we have "prisoners of war" or are they "terrorists" and "enemy combatants" and "suspects" that Bush can hold indefinitely now that that pesky medieval holdover from the Magna Carta (habeas corpus) has been done away with?

Let's grant everyone prisoner of war status and immediately release them.
"Sorry guys, it was all a big mistake. You can go now, no hard feelings about the water boarding, ok." Are they going to forgive and forget, or, at least a substantial number of them, run off to join the insurgency or the militias in a spirit of revenge if not patriotism. I think we ought to give ourselves a big head start before we release the prisoners just to be on the safe side.

The fifth step in the withdrawal plan deals especially with the large force of mercenaries "euphemistically known as 'Personal Security Detail'." There are about 25,000 of them hired by over thirty different private security "contractors." They will have to go, and they should go, because they are hated by the Iraqis and are basically unanswerable to anyone except their immediate bosses. Since they are all paid for by the American tax payers, "either directly or indirectly," it should be easy enough for the U.S. to get rid of them: "all we need to do is stop payment." This is, for the foreseeable future, a pipe dream. The U.S. is not going to stop payment to the private firms they have contracts with (what type of capitalism is that) and, even more importantly, the many big shots in the U.S. puppet government who have these mercenaries as their body guards don't look forward to having to depend on their fellow country men for their security.

Step six is to remove all the land mines and unexploded ordinance that will be left behind, including shells with (cancer causing) depleted uranium, "where possible." Its too bad a lot of that uranium will hang around killing people for a couple of generations or so but, hey!, that's the cost of freedom. The authors note that this step is dangerous and that is one of the reasons, no doubt, they want to turn it over as fast as possible to "Iraqi labor." Their official reason is that it will provide jobs for the Iraqis.

That is the main plan and the major part of the blueprint. The authors go on for several more pages discussing what they call "second tier" policies to be adopted based on this basic "withdrawal package." We don't have to consider them since the basic "package" is unsound the policies following from it will be likewise. My only remark is that the whole article operates on the assumption that it is the U.S. that will decide the future of Iraqi. We went to war in Iraq so we could decide its future. Now we must leave, having lost that war and that right. It is the Iraqis and only the Iraqis that have a right to decide the future of their country after the withdrawal.
I think most people who have been following this unjustified war do want the U.S. out ASAP, but will also think this is an unworkable and impossible way to do it.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Online at:

Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation": A preview based on Walter Grimes' review
By Thomas Riggins

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 469 pp., reviewed by William Grimes in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Friday, April 21, 2006.

Grimes [WG] really likes this book; he calls it "splendid"-- his only reservation seems to be its ending which he calls "squishy". Armstrong [KA] is well known as a popularizer of religious history. She probably is most famous for "A History of God." She writes well, is very enjoyable to read and also very informative, but sometimes she lets her ideals, I think, distort the reality she is trying to describe.

Here she attempts to trace the origins and histories of four major religious traditions -- those coming out of India, China, Greece and Israel. Let’s see what WG says she is up to. He says that she begins 3,500 years ago (about 1500 BC) with the "Aryans" (an obsolete term these days, having been replaced by Indo-Europeans or even proto-Indo-Europeans) of "southern Russia," where he says we find "the first stirrings of religious consciousness... that would eventually lead humanity from nature worship and sacrifice to an inward-looking, self-critical and compassionate approach to life."

The only problem with this is the roots of this approach go back to several origin points, not just to the "Aryans," with a pedigree going well beyond 1500 BC. A "monotheistic" and compassionate religion had sprung up in Ancient Egypt several hundred years before this date, for example. Besides, if you look at any of the major spiritual traditions of today, many of their adherents have difficulties with being self-critical, inward looking or compassionate.

This great transformation supposedly "occurred independently in four different regions during the Axial Age, a pivotal period lasting from 900 B.C. to 200 B.C. ..." and resulting in Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and "the philosophic rationalism in Greece," WG reports. The "Axial Age" is, however, an unscientific concept cooked up in the 1930s to provide a "mystical" interpretation for these historical developments. Four extremely important "axial" figures, who were just as foundational to our world today as anything or anybody within the official "axial" parameters, actually fall outside of the 900 to 200 BC dates-- namely Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV, the "first monotheist") and Zoroaster (both before 900 BC), and Jesus and Mohammed (both after 200 BC).

The book is supposed to tell us how, WG says, "the crowded heaven of warring gods" lost out and the "human imagination" moved on to look "inward" rather than "upward" to find "enlightenment and transcendence." This just doesn't describe the real world, which is just as spiritually confused and "upward" looking with "warring gods" as it ever was.

WG says that "the military conflict and sectarian hatreds" of today are on KA's mind (they are "the powerful undertow to her book".) He quotes her as follows: "In times of spiritual and social crisis, men and women have constantly turned back to this period for guidance. They may have interpreted the Axial discoveries differently, but they have never succeeded in going beyond them."

There has never been a time, in my view, without its spiritual and social crisis, and these axial views have never and will never, I think, have any solutions for them. We have in fact gone beyond them. Modern science, Marxist economic theory, and the secular humanist values stemming from the Enlightenment are far more advanced "spiritual traditions" than anything left over from the "axial" age.

"The gradual elimination of violence from religion is one of Ms. Armstrong's great themes," according to WG. But the examples given are only cosmetic. Religion is even more violent today than in the past. From "kill a commie for Christ" to the inter-Islamic jihads of the Moslem world, the Holocaust (Christians exterminating Jews), to the Hindu-Islamic killings in India (where Kali worship still demands the sacrifice of children), as well as Christian-Muslim blood baths going on in Africa (Nigeria), there is nothing but religious violence. The contrary is Armstrong's dream as well as her theme.

KA writes, "The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, and our spiritual education is often undeveloped."

The problem is that the spirituality of the "Axial Age" is no longer relevant to our changed circumstances and the spirituality that would be relevant to us. The social values of Marxism, Darwinism and Einstein (for example) are stifled by a corrupt, ruling elite of capitalists whose power rests, in great measure, on perpetuating ignorance and superstition. Karen Armstrong has a good heart and clearly she finds solace in these outmoded beliefs, but I prefer to stick to Enlightenment values and modern science.

--Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at

Friday, November 10, 2006


Online at:

Book Review: Hugo Chávez, by Nikolas Kozloff
By Thomas Riggins

Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.
By Nikolas Kozloff
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

Kozloff's book is a good introduction to Chávez and is generally positive in its treatment of the man and his movement. Unfortunately, Palgrave Macmillan has chosen to market it as if it were a series of exposes in the tradition of the National Enquirer. The book jacket asks "Is Hugo Chávez the Messiah?" "Is George W. Bush afraid of him?" The publisher's press release tells us that Chávez is moving to "control post-Castro Cuba" and this book will give us an "expert analysis of this complicated and dangerous man."

After that come on, I was prepared for a right wing assault on Chávez and his policies. The book, however, turns out to be a reasoned historical presentation of Chávez's rise to power and the social context which produced him-- i.e., the racist pro-US Venezuelan elite and its alliance with US imperialism in an effort to keep the vast majority Venezuelans in poverty and substandard living conditions so that it can live a privileged first world life of luxury and comfort while the people struggle in third world conditions of squalor.

"A damning United Nations report in the early 1960s concluded," Kozloff writes, "that Venezuela has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world." The publisher's marketing department should not have promoted a scholarly book this way, especially as there is nothing in the book that resembles the statements and claims I quoted above from their promos.

Chávez believes one of the reasons for the poverty in his country is the implementation of the Washington Consensus by the IMF and the World Bank. "The consensus," the author states, " stressed deregulation, privatization of state industries, implementation of austerity plans and trade liberalization." In other words, it was a major instrument of class warfare utilized by US Imperialism and its allies in the Venezuelan ruling class.

It should also be noted that the people are supposed to just passively accept the consensus, but if they don't the US provides training and support for the military (the School of the Americas is just one example) to be used to repress any social movements that threaten US hegemony.

Chávez came to power as a result of elections in 1998 in which he won "56.2 percent of the vote, the largest margin won by any candidate in the nation's history." If the word "democracy" refers to anything at all then it refers to what the Chávez government represents in Venezuela. Yet, as we all know, the Bush administration and the US media constantly treat Chávez as some sort of authoritarian undemocratic tyrant. Bush can only dream of having the type of popular support for his policies as Chávez has for his.

Kozloff recounts the now familiar story of the 2002 coup attempt against the Chávez government, carried out by business interests and elements of the military close to the US, and how massive public demonstrations, as well as loyalist military factions, restored Chávez to power after two days. He and his party the MVR (Movimiento Quinta Republica) then consolidated power through national and regional state elections that left him with a solid majority.

A new popular constitution was adopted which has an article (115) that states that "private property must serve the public good and general interest." The government can give compensation and then expropriate any company that violates this article. This article has been used against both foreign companies and members of the Venezuelan elite and is one of the most progressive, and most hated, laws enacted by the Chávez government.

One of the reasons for Chávez success is the support he has in the military. The Venezuelan military is unique in South America in not having an officer caste made up almost exclusively of upper class elements from the ruling elite. "Indeed," the author points out, "in Venezuela most of the senior officers come from poor urban and rural backgrounds." They are sympathetic to Chávez both because he shares their social background and because his policies are popular with the people.

Another source of Chávez's success and popularity is due to the oil riches for which Venezuela is justly famous. The high oil prices since Chávez took office has allowed him to fund many programs to help the poor. "Oil wealth" has been "channeled into social programs for education, healthcare, and job creation."

Chávez has been greatly influenced by the thought of Simon Bolivar and even calls his project the "Bolivarian Revolution." Bolivar, the great South American liberator who led the struggle for independence from Spain, envisioned a large republic made of what are today Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama. Chávez wants to bring about closer alliances with this block, both economically and politically, as a way to counter balance U.S. domination in the region. Needless to say, the U.S. considers this to be a real threat to its "national interests" (code for U.S. corporate interests).

Another ideal Chávez has picked up from Bolivar is concern for the well being of the indigenous peoples of the area. Having effectively destroyed the independence of indigenous cultures and peoples in its own territory the US now exports its anti-Indian policies to South America where it colludes with both local and international capital to oppose the rights of the indigenous peoples. Indian's demands for autonomy and respect for their native territories and land and mineral rights pose problems to big American multinationals and their plans to exploit the oil and other natural resources of the region.

Kozloff writes that, "Washington views the Andean region as the 'hottest' area in Latin America, because of emerging indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador." The author also reports that "In the post- 9/11 world, the United States has equated indigenous movements with terrorism."

This is an amazing statement. That the U.S. government considers the local Indian peoples in Latin America as "terrorists" when they resist oil drilling by American companies in their forests and agricultural areas is truly outrageous and is a cynical and hypocritical use of 9/11 in support of corporate greed.

Kozloff cites the following as evidence: "In a December 2004 report issued by the U.S. National Intelligence Council entitled "Global Trends 2020-- Mapping the Global Future," the government depicts both indigenous activism and Islamic radicalism as threats to U.S. national security." The common link between Indians and Islamicists is, of course, the presence of oil in the regions where they live.

Are Latin American indigenous people really a threat to U.S. interests? Only if "threat" means democratic control of their own lives and "interests" mean "corporate interests." An indigenous legislator from Bolivia, Ricardo Diaz, is quoted as saying, "It's true that indigenous peoples are a threat, from the point of view of the political and economic powers-that-be but we aren't because our struggle is open, legal and legitimate." Anyway, how could open and legal struggle be a "terrorist threat" to the U.S. How can anyone take the pronouncements of our government seriously when it makes such claims?

Pedro Ciciliano, an anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico says that the U.S. intelligence report is "exaggerated and fraught with errors typical of U.S. intelligence based on biased information. Indigenous people can be considered a threat, because they are poor and are pressing for their rights, but they don't represent a terrorist threat." I think both Diaz and Ciciliano give away too much by using the word "threat." I, at least, want to claim that no one, and certainly no people, asserting their legitimate rights can pose a threat to U.S. interests. U.S. interests are the interests of the American people and only a U.S. government that has abandoned those interests can assert that it is "threatened" by the rights of others.

This book documents many other struggles besides those going on in Venezuela. There are sections dedicated to the revolutionary movements and people's fight backs in Columbia and Bolivia, as well as progressive developments in Brazil and Argentina. If you only have time to read one book on Hugo Chávez this one would be a good choice.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Book Review: The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey: Unearthing the Origins of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans, Chris Beard, University of California Press, 2004.

The progressive community can breathe a little easier with the roll back, for the time being, of the antievolutionary religious diehards who have recently caused so much trouble in Kansas and Pennsylvania. Now that the latest round seems to have gone to Darwin and science, it might be a propitious time to review just what our evolutionary status is.

That we have all evolved from the monkeys is not a new thought for Marxists. When Darwin first suggested this with the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species Marx and Engels were quick to give their support to his ideas. They hailed his book as a great scientific advance. A few years later Engels wrote about human origins himself, in an unfinished essay called "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" and now included in his The Dialectics of Nature.

What Engels had to say, while technically out of date, is not so far off the mark as many people might think. For example, in Engels’ day the Earth was thought to be about 100 or so million years old not the 4.5 billion years we think today. Thus Engels’ writes:

Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, during an epoch,
not yet definitely determinable,... the Tertiary period... a particularly highly-developed race of anthropoid apes lived somewhere in the tropical zone-- probably on a great continent that has now sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean..... They were completely covered with hair, they had beards and pointed ears, and they lived in bands in the trees.

German (in which Engels wrote) uses the same word for "monkey" and "ape." Engels is basing himself on Darwin and is describing the early anthropoid ancestors of what we now know to be the great apes and humans. The Tertiary period is today measured in millions not hundreds of thousands years, and there is no lost continent on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Engels wrote before we knew about continental drift. These bands did live in a tropical environment only it was in Asia, more specifically in places such as China and neighboring areas.

Engels further says that "Hundreds of thousands of years.... certainly elapsed before human society arose out of a troupe of tree climbing monkeys. Engels’ is correct if we substitute "tens of millions" for his "hundreds of thousands." Engels was definitely on the right tract, but we have learned a great deal more about this monkey troupe, these dawn monkeys, since the 1870s when his essay was written. It would be nice to have some updated information.

This has been done for us by Chris Beard notably the winner of a MacArthur "genius grant" but who makes his living by being the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The vertebrates he is especially interested in are us, or more particularly our relatives and fellow primates the apes and monkeys-- both the quick and the dead. His book is a well written, minimally technical, popular account of the most recent discoveries, many made by Dr. Beard himself, and theories concerning our origins and evolutionary development.

What we want to know is, who are these "dawn monkeys" and what have they it to do with us? Early on we are informed that "virtually all paleoanthropologists" believe that the lineage leading to humans developed in Africa between five and seven million years ago. It was in this two million year fuzzy time period, between the 7 and 5, that the animals that eventually became us split off from the common ancestor that we share with the chimpanzees. In other words J. Fred Muggs and President Reagan had the same great, great, etc., for many more greats, grandparents (as do we all).

Beard is interested in pushing back the knowledge of our origins to even more remote time periods. If human primates diverged from apes, where did those apes come from? Have we found enough fossils to answer this question? Not only the "where" question but how long ago as well-- certainly the apes and their ancestors must have developed many millions of years before we and the chimpanzees separated and went our different ways.

A little time perspective is needed here. The dominance of the Age of Dinosaurs ended about 65 million years ago (mya) at the end of the geologic period called the Mesozoic. The period called the Cenozoic (Recent Life ) then began. This period is divided into seven divisions: the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. The Eocene (dawn period) beginning about 55 mya and lasting until about 35 mya is where we are headed, incidentally, as the name of Beard’s book indicates.

There are around 35 species of living primates and the Eocene fossil primates mostly look like the "primitive" primates of today (the prosimians). But today we also have a group that, since it includes us, we like to call the "higher primates"-- these are the "anthropoids" and includes the monkeys, apes, and humans.

Now since we humans came from the apes, we have found that the apes came from the monkeys, so if we find the earliest monkey, that is if we find the earliest anthropoid we will push our family tree back to that point. Beard writes, "one of the most controversial issues in paleoanthropology today is how, when, and where the first anthropoids-- the common ancestors of monkeys, apes, and people-- evolved."

Beard has a "bold new hypothesis," based on recent fossil discoveries he has made in China, that will upset the hitherto existing scientific consensus regarding anthropoid origins. His theory moves the origin of the anthropoids from Africa to Asia and adds tens of millions of years to the age of this lineage. These new ideas all depend on the fossils Beard has called "the dawn monkey" (Eosimias) and how they are to be interpreted.

It appears that it won’t be an easy task that Beard has set himself since, as he says, for "the past several decades, all undisputed early anthropoids had been discovered in Africa" mostly due to the work of Dr. Elwyn Simons of Duke University working in the Fayum oasis in Egypt. So, a revolutionary new paradigm is afoot!

Beard says that his views are in the minority (this is because all new theories start out this way) but he gives three solid reasons to support his views. First, there is a small prosimian (pre-monkey like primate such as the lemur of today) known as a tarsier which seems to be closest in evolution to the first anthropoids. Beard thinks that their geological range points to an Asian origin for the first anthropoids. Based on the most recent DNA evidence he concludes that "the simplest hypothesis requires us to view tarsiers and anthropoids as descendants of a common ancestor." No tarsier or tarsier relatives "have ever been found in Africa. Second, there are fossils from Burma, found decades ago, which appear to be primitive anthropoids, and finally, Beard’s own discovery of Eosimias in China which he says is definitely a primitive anthropoid and is older than any African anthropoid discovery(except for one, as we shall see)..

The African anthropoids date from the next geological era, the Oligocene, while Eosimias dates from the Eocene era, many millions of years earlier. The dawn monkey’s remains show that it is intermediate between the prosimians of today and the modern monkeys. It is thus a real candidate as the ancestor of all modern anthropoids-- i.e., all living monkeys, apes, and humans.

After several chapters in which Beard discusses the ways in which primate fossils are classified and also their distribution in Asia, Europe, North America and Africa, he concludes that the AfricanOligocene anthropoid remains are too modern to represent the originating ancestors of modern anthropoids. Therefore we "have no choice but to plunge back into the mysterious void known as the Eocene." The void is "mysterious" because of the paucity of primate fossils in this era as compared with the Oligocene. Nevertheless, if the Oligocene remains are too advanced to represent transitional forms between the prosimians and the anthropoids, then it is to the Eocene that we must turn to look for such transitional forms. Here we should be mindful of a basic evolutionary rule, namely, "that similar features indicate descent from a common ancestor." This is a rule not a law but, except for examples of convergent and parallel evolution, it generally holds.

In two very interesting chapters ("Received Wisdom" and "The Birth of a Ghost Linage"), Beard discusses three of the most influential theories of anthropoid origins as well as more techniques used by paleontologists and paleoanthropologists in sorting out and classifying fossils. This is all very interesting and very nontechnical. A "ghost lineage" is a hypothetical set of fossils that should be intermediate between a "primitive" and an "advanced" form. This lineage gives us some idea of what we should expect to find in the deduction is correct. If we find such fossils-- very good-- it is evidence that our theory may be correct.

Beard claims that the tarsiers and the ur-anthropoids (ur= first) branched off from each other (that is from a common ancestor) at least 50 million years ago. So he needs to construct a ghost linage-- say from some early tarsier like creature to the Oligocene type monkeys and then see if he can find a fossil to verify the lineage. This is where Eosimias comes in.

It was in China that Beard and his associates and Chinese paleoanthropologists all working together came upon the fossil remains of a small marmoset sized primate with the distinctly hypostisized anthropoid characteristics they were on the lookout for. The remains predated the oldest African remains from the Fayum by at least 10 million years.

Beard waxes, I think, a little too poetically over this discovery:

China’s historic role as the cradle of one of the world’s great and enduring civilizations might now be extended tens of millions of years back in time, to an interval when the earliest members of the most diverse and successful branch of modern primates-- the anthropoids-- were just beginning to evolve the diagnostic features (like bigger brains, robustly constructed jaws, and associated changes in behavior and ecology) that would ensure their biological success.

In the world of the Eocene, when Africa, Europe, Asia, and India were separated from one another by water, the world of 50 million years ago, it doesn’t make much sense to talk of "China." Be that as it may, in today’s world, Chinese scientists can be proud of the essential role they played in this discovery-- which was actually made by Chinese members of the team.

Beard’s theory, however compelling, was not supported by a sufficient range of fossil evidence to convince the majority of scientists working in this field. Therefore, after its initial presentation, he and his collaborators and Chinese associates spent four years doing intensive field work in China. The result of this activity was the discovery of many new fossil primates, including anthropoids and different species of Eosimias. Now Beard had the evidence he needed to shore up his hypothesis of anthropoid origins.

"Our knowledge of Eosimias-- an animal that I had only recently ushered onto the scientific stage," he writes, "had improved rapidly and immensely. Eosimias had been introduced to the paleoanthropological community as a humble waif of a fossil whose claim to anthropoid status dangled by the thread of two scrappy jaws. Now, its place near the base of the great anthropoid branch of the primate family tree rested on a firm anatomical foundation.... No other fossil bearing on the very root of the anthropoid family tree can marshal such an extensive litany of anatomical features to support its pivotal evolutionary position."

This information, according to Beard, overthrows the heretofore established orthodoxy regarding the origin of the anthropoid line. The orthodox theory, based on the theories of Le Gros Clarke a generation ago, held that that the anthropoid line (and the hominid line eventually arising out of it) arose in Africa some 34 million years ago at the Eocene/Oligocene border. The ancestral ape that gave rise to gorillas, chimpanzees and humans dates from the Miocene, the next geological age. Beard’s evidence, however, transplants the origin of anthropoids in both time and place: to the Paleocene/Eocene border around 55 million years ago-- 20 million years earlier than previously thought. Now that several species of Eosimias have subsequently been discovered, Beard can confidently assert that eosimiids are "the most primitive anthropoids currently known."

Nevertheless, we should remember that while our ancestors originated in Asia, these "Asian anthropoids remained persistently primitive, while their African relatives evolved into increasingly advanced species" including us.

Now there is a fly in this ointment. Namely, the remains of an even older anthropoid than Eosimias have been found in Morocco. This is Altiatlasius koulchii from the Paleocene. How can Beard maintain that anthropoids originated in Asia if the oldest anthropoid remains ever discovered (Altiatlasius) are actually from Africa? The chapter "Into the African Melting Pot" deals with this problem. The short answer is that primitive anthropoids migrated from Asia to Africa earlier, by a factor of millions of years, than anyone had previously thought. Beard bases this on the fact that while Asia can show the development of the anthropoid line from the split with a common ancestor of the tarsiers, i.e., out of a tarsiod line, Africa not only doesn’t have any fossil tarsiers, it doesn’t have any primates at all antecedent to Altiatlasius. "Accordingly, Altiatlasius does not indicate that anthropoids originated in Africa. Rather, it signals that Asian anthropoids arrived there at a surprisingly early date."

Beard’s last chapter ("Paleoanthropology and Pithecophobia") reminds us that even though the anthropoids may have arisen first in Asia, our own branch of the anthropoid line has distinctly African origins. In this chapter the author recounts the history, basically in the early 20th Century, of trying to prove that humans evolved independently of the great apes, the early culmination if you will of the African anthropoids.

Because of DNA analysis the scientific consensus today is that humans and chimpanzees branched off from a common ancestor about seven million years ago. This would be just around the Miocene/Pliocene border-- the Pliocene would have begun about five or six mya and ended about 1mya with the start of the Pleistocene.

All of the early 20th Century programs to establish a non-ape ancestor for humans, Beard points out, were mostly motivated by racism, commitments to theories of eugenics, religious prejudices, and human arrogance. In a final coda Beard laments the fact that "pithecophobia" is still a force to be reckoned with. He suggests it may be behind the continuing human attitude of absolute superiority to and difference from all other animals. One of negative attitudes resulting from this is that there are not enough serious attempts being made to prevent the extinction of gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild (their numbers have declined by 50% in the last 20 years-- mostly killed by humans for the "bushmeat" trade). I will quote Beard’s parting words: "Humanity as a whole is embedded within a rich biological tapestry. The living legacy of that common evolutionary journey deserves to be celebrated rather than despised. Pithecophobia in all of its manifestations conflicts with our own deep roots."

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, November 06, 2006


Online at:

Is Hamas Hopeless? Who is Really Responsible For The Impasse In Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks?
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

The answers to the questions posed above are pretty obvious if all you read or see or listen to are the reports from the mass media in this country. Israel wants peace but the way is blocked due to the election of a terrorist group (Hamas) which now runs the government of Palestine and is devoted to the destruction of Israel. But what if this presentation of the current situation is false?

That is the only conclusion that can be reached after reading "Hamas: The Last Chance for Peace?" by Henry Siegman (The New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006). Siegman (HS) is a former head of the American Jewish Congress and a Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. I intend to review this article and then draw some, to me, obvious conclusions.

HS lists four main reasons why the "Muslim world" is angry at "the West." These are the occupation of Palestine, the occupation of Iraq, the treatment of prisoners in US military (and CIA) prisons, and, finally, US hypocrisy with regard to "democracy." It is in this context that we have to look at the rise of Hamas and its relation to "terrorism."

One thing we must not confuse is al-Qaeda's use of Islam, and Hamas' views. HS quotes an Hamas spokesman as saying that "Hamas believes that Islam is completely different" from the al-Qaeda view and that its "battle is against the Israeli occupation and [its] only concern is to restore our rights and serve our people." And, it should be noted, no serious person thinks Hamas won the elections in the Palestinian Authority, because of its religious doctrines. HS says "Palestinian society is among the most secular in the Arab world." Iraq was also a very secular society, unlike our ally Saudi Arabia which is closer to the Taliban. Polls taken after the election showed that 73% of Palestinians favor peace with Israel and the two state formula.

This means there is a real possibility for a negotiated peace, at least from the Palestinian point of view. But what does Hamas want? HS discussed this with a senior Hamas leader and came up with six points that Hamas was willing to let guide its program: recognition of Israel, negotiations with Israel, belief that God gave Palestine to the Muslims [ many Zionists think he really gave it to the Jews-- he should make up his mind] but "temporal realities" must not be ignored so both international law and the state of Israel can be lived with, a cease-fire, reforming Palestine (to get rid of corruption and build the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and the separation of powers), and lastly, not to impose religious behavior or observances on the people. So far this doesn't sound so bad.

HS, however, reminds us that this moderate position contrasts with Hamas' previous "odiousness" with respect to it founding documents (August 1988) which were anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. He also points out that the PLO originally used the same type of language until they engaged in negotiations and learned about the real world. This type of language is also found in the positions of "official Israeli political parties" some of whom advocate ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. It seems all sides have to step back from these types of extreme views. HS' point is that Hamas is doing so, or at least is ready to do so, as a result of its new found responsibilities as a governing power. It is in the best interests of Israel and the US to encourage this evolution, not discourage it.

So what about all the current talk about not dealing with Hamas, punishing the Palestinians for voting for them, etc., (US democratic values at work-- vote only the way we tell you to). Is this a good tactic?

HS quotes the former head of Mossad (the CIA of Israel), Efraim Halevy: "Hamas constitutes about a fifth of Palestinian society... Anyone who thinks Hamas will one day evaporate is [simply] mistaken... [I]n the end there will be no way around Hamas being a partner in the Palestinian government." That was said several years ago, now they are the Palestinian government.

Halevy also said "if they take a moderate approach... we will not view that as a negative development." So-- is the Hamas victory the "end of the peace process"? No, says HS. The peace process was ended in 2000 when Sharon became prime minister of Israel. "More correctly, it was killed-- with malice aforethought--- by Sharon's 'unilateralism'."

Sharon never had any intentions of being a peace partner with the Palestinians. He and his party found, and finds, fault with whomever the Palestinians put forth as leaders. Nor did Sharon even really want a two "state" solution. His West Bank policies, according to the Israeli paper Haaretz, as quoted by HS, mean "the Palestinians are left with no territory on which to establish a state."

All the blather about Hamas having to renounce terrorism, etc., is just a smoke screen. It is also hypocritical since Israel used raw terror itself to set up the state and to enlarge it. In fact, HS references Righteous Victims by Benny Morris (Vintage, 1999) to the effect that the Palestinians learned the "art" of mass terrorism against civilian targets from the Jewish resistance movement in Palestine dating back to 1937. This is not meant to validate the immoral and odious use of suicide bombers and other acts of violence against peaceful civilians by Hamas, but to put things in perspective. The behavior of some of Israel's founding fathers also shows that "terrorists can transform themselves if they have reason to believe that legitimate national goals can be achieved by political means." The US and Israel must, if they really want peace, and that is questionable, show the Palestinians that their legitimate demands can be realized without the use of violence. If they won't do that, who then is responsible for the consequences?

It seems that the US and Israel are talking about peace and fairness only for public consumption, and in reality are doing just the opposite. The real reason for the hostility to Hamas is that it demands real fairness and real negotiations on the grounds of an "uncompromising demand for reciprocity." What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Israel wants to be recognized but, as Hamas asked "Which Israel?" The Israel of the 1967 borders or the Israel which wants to keep large sections of the West Bank and East Jerusalem? As HS says, "If its the latter, Hamas will not recognize Israel." And why should it. If its the latter that means Israel is insincere about peace and only wants more of another people's land.

The bitter truth is, as HS affirms, "that if Hamas were to recognize Israel tomorrow and dismantled its 'terrorist infrastructure,' there would still not be the slightest prospect for a resumption of a peace process..." unless the US forced it (which it won't) on Israel. The sad fact is the present government of Israel has no intention of treating the Palestinians as equal partners in peace. It is building its wall of separation and making off with as much land as it thinks it can. You reap what you sow, and the Israeli government "threatens to foreclose what prospects for Hamas moderation may in fact exist."

POSTSCRIPT: Since the above was written there has been a war crime committed against the Israeli civilian population by Islamic Jihad (New York Times, 4-18-06, "Suicide Bombing In Israel Kills 9". The fact that Israeli state terrorism and war crimes have been committed against the Palestinian people in a far more extensive manner in no way excuses Islamic Jihad for its subhuman moronic attacks on innocent civilians. It puts them on the same level as those who killed Rachel Corrie in cold blood.

The President of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, quite rightly condemned this inhumane attack, it was unworthy of the Palestinian people who were not responsible for the actions of a small faction of fanatics. The Times pointed out Islamic Jihad is the only one of nine Palestinian resistance groups that has refused to engage in a ceasefire currently in effect by the other eight, including Hamas.

Unfortunately, Hamas has endorsed the actions of Islamic Jihad. It is not insignificant that the bombing took place in a working-class neighborhood and that the victims were mostly working people. It shows the immaturity of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad that terror against civilians is lauded in the first place. The fact that neither group sees the difference between the ruling elite and its military and the working people of Israel, potential allies in the struggle for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the peace process, shows that neither group is fit to assume a leadership role. Hamas, however, does have a leadership role and the enemies of peace will be using its incautious and foolish endorsement of the senseless killing of innocent people to further isolate and hurt the people of Palestine.

Already an Israeli government official is blaming Hamas for the attack: "They are responsible because their leaders are encouraging these attacks. It doesn't matter which group did this; it all comes from the same school of terrorism." It of course is never mentioned that the real School of Terrorism is the Occupation. Hamas should realize that the struggle of Palestinian people is both a national struggle and part of a world struggle against imperialism and oppression of all peoples. International solidarity is vital and may well be lost by the immoral endorsements of murderous acts of terrorism committed against working people and other innocent civilians.

Finally, for those who put all the blame for these acts on the Palestinians, they must be reminded, Its the Occupation stupid!

Thomas Riggins in the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at