Saturday, June 30, 2007


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [Part 3]
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an important work and over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter (more or less) at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

Chapter Four "A Ferment of 'Isms'"

Around the time of Mao's first article (1917) he and a group of his friends in the New People's Study Society left Hunan and went to Beijing. There Mao met Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) one of the two men to later found the CPC (the other was Li Dazhao), but at this time he was the editor of New Youth a magazine that contributed to the future May Fourth Movement. He was the CPC General Secretary 1921-1927 and later became a Trotskyist. Short quotes Mao as having said that Chen (whose view was that before China could become a modern country the old culture had to be completely superseded ) influenced him "perhaps more than anyone else."

In Beijing, Mao came under many influences both from the traditional culture and the new Western ideas penetrating China. He picked up what he later called "old fashioned liberalism" from reading Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley. Another major influence was the Ming Dynasty Neoconfucian Wang Yangming [1472-1529] who, according to Short, "inspired him to link man to society, theory to practice, knowledge to will, and thought to action." This is a little redundant since "theory to practice" is the same as "thought to action." Wang Yangming is sort of a prolegomena to Marxism where the unity of theory and practice is a basic premise.

Another Ming philosopher that Mao liked was Wang Fuzhi [1619-1693], another Neoconfucianist, for whom the world "was in constant flux" and "the mutability of things, driven by the dialectical contradictions inherent in the material world, was the basic principle moving history forward." Engels couldn't have put it any better.

In 1919 Mao was writing about anarchism and later said that at that time he "favored many of its proposals." It is Prince Kropotkin that he has in mind. He thought the followers of Marx were too violent. This is a big improvement in humanism for Mao, as Short notes-- in three years he has moved from Butcher Tang to Kropotkin! Mao is now 25 years old.

On May 4, 1919 a great demonstration of students and workers took place in Beijing to protest the fact that the former German concession of Shandong Province was ceded to Japan by the Versailles Treaty. This was the beginning of the May Fourth Movement which spread throughout many areas of China protesting the weakness of the government and the warlord system. Above all it demanded the modernization of China. Short says this movement "has been regarded ever since as one of the defining periods of modern Chinese history."

Mao was in Hunan at the time, in the capital Changsha. He participated in actions against the local warlord. He started a local paper and in the first issue published an article on the crisis followed up by a long article that became very influential ("The Great Union of the Popular Masses.") He said China had a great future, the youth would be the major agents of change and a practical program was proposed.

Mao became nationally known and Hu Shih [1891-1962]: the philosopher of Chinese liberalism, he ended up in Taiwan after 1948, called the article, according to Short, "one of the [truly] important articles" and that Mao had "exceedingly far-reaching vision and effective and well chosen arguments." Mao was on his way!

But he was not yet a Marxist. Mao told Edgar Snow that he was a Marxist by the summer of 1920, but Short says this was untrue. Actually, Short says, "Mao at that time considered Dewey, 'who taught that 'education is life, school is society', to be one of the "three great contemporary philosophers", along with Bertrand Russell and the French thinker, Henri Bergson."

[Short has 142 pages of end notes to back up his claims, but no bibliography. Practically, this means you can't really check his references unless you want to spend hours searching thru the notes for the first time he cites a source since all subsequent citations are abbreviated. This is a sloppy and inexcusable procedure.]

Later Mao described himself at this time [1920]: "I am too emotional and have the weakness of being vehement." He said he wished he had had time to study Buddhism. His mother, who had died the previous year (his father died soon after) would have been happy had he done so. I cannot help but think the rest of the world might have also benefited if Mao had had a dose of Buddhist compassion along the way. Who knows?

Short says Mao, even after he became a Marxist, never abandoned the influences of his youth. His "thinking developed by accretion... Nothing was ever lost." This meant that when he was older he could think outside the box. He resorted to "metaphor and lateral thinking."

Who can object to a Marxist who tempers his views with knowledge of a wide range of other opinions and outlooks? His "approach to Marxism," Short writes, "when finally he embraced it, was coloured by other, very different intellectual traditions." Including many traditional Chinese motifs. This should bode well. Who wants Johnny one note as a leader?

In June 1920 Hunan's war lord was forced out and a new leader, with more democratic aspirations took over. Because of the general situation in the country Mao as well as most others favored a form of "home rule" for Hunan and its 30 million people.

Mao was a leader in Hunan and wrote articles and gave speeches advocating a government based on the participation of the citizens, and a democratic government in favor of socialism. But Mao didn't really think this type of government was actually possible. Because of a 90 percent illiteracy rate in Hunan he didn't think either a Soviet type revolution was possible, nor a really democratic form of government. His solution was to "create a movement of the educated elite, 'to push things forward' from the outside."

In November of 1920 Mao found himself at a conference in Changsha discussing constitutional government. Both John Dewey and Bertrand Russell attended and gave speeches. So Mao had the opportunity to participate in a conference with two of the three men he considered the most important philosophers of the day. A few weeks later another military leader overthrew the new Hunan government.

Meanwhile, since October Mao had been participating in a Marxist study group. By the end of the year the study group had three "factions" debating each other. Those who wanted to follow Bolshevism, those who favored Kropotkin style anarchism, and those who thought they should just work in education to enlighten the masses.

Mao was leaning towards Kropotkin. He didn't like what he called the "terrorist methods" of the Leninists and thought the education program unrealistic. But "realism" carried the day. With the war lords increasing in power Mao was finally won over to the Russian model. It was, he said, "a last resort."

By the beginning of 1921 Mao and his fellow radicals in Hunan were getting ready to found a new political party based on Marxism. "His conversion," Short says, "was complete." Yet there would remain to the end "an anarchist tincture" to his Marxism.
from PAEditorsBlog

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

I propose to show that Russell's interpretation of Rousseau in The History of Western Philosophy (HWP), is both unfair and inaccurate and misrepresents Rousseau's historical legacy.

The chapter on Rousseau in HWP has three parts: a biographical ( based on his "Confessions", which I will not deal with), a discussion of his religious views, and one on his political philosophy.

At the outset of his chapter, Russell tells us that Rousseau's importance comes "mainly from his appeal to the heart, and to what, in his day, was called 'sensibility.' He is the father of the romantic movement, the initiator of systems of thought which infer non-human facts from human emotions, and the inventor of the political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorships as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies."

Russell further alleges that two groups of self styled "reformers" have come down to us from his time-- those who follow Locke (e.g., Roosevelt and Churchill) and those who follow Rousseau (Hitler). I intend to show that the notion that Hitler was a follower of Rousseau is absurd.

Russell's discussion of Rousseau's religious beliefs is based primarily ( but not exclusively) on his interpretation of a section of the novel "Emile" entitled "The Confession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar" and taken to represent Rousseau's views.

This "Confession" is in the tradition Enlightenment Deism. Rousseau accepts the God he finds in nature and basically rejects institutionalized religions as man made fabrications. In this respect he does not differ from thinkers such as Voltaire and Thomas Paine, although he is much more emotional about his form of Deism.

He says he believes "that the world is governed by a wise and powerful Will. I see it, or rather I feel it; and this is of importance for me to know." Further speculation about the Will is not necessary and there is no dogmatic attempt to get people to agree with him, "I am not dictating my sentiments to you, but only explaining what they are." Like every one in his times, including Locke and Newton, he saw design in nature as evidence of "that Being, in a word, whatever it be, that gives motion to all parts of the universe, and governs all things, I call GOD."

Rousseau throws in some attributes ( intelligence, will, power, goodness) that he finds personally convincing but doesn't insist on anyone else agreeing with him on specifics.

He also believes in life after death. Other Deists also have this hope (Paine). In the "Confession" he further reveals that he is a Cartesian dualist with his inner feeling (sentiment)-- i.e., self-consciousness, playing the role of the Cogito.

For some reason, Russell thinks all this is anti-rational on Rousseau's part.
"The rejection of reason in favour of the heart," Russell writes, "was not, to my mind, an advance."

Russell would never accuse Descartes of rejecting reason for basing his philosophy on the Cogito. This is Rousseau, but Descartes could have said the same thing. "I have only to know that matter is extended and divisible, to be assured that it cannot think... No material being can be self-active, and I perceive that I am so. It is vain to dispute with me so clear a point. My own sentiment carries with it a stronger conviction than any reason which can ever be brought." The wording is a little different, but the sentiment is the same as Descartes' statements about the Cogito.

Did Rousseau reject reason? Rousseau finds two contradictory principles in the nature of human consciousness: "one raising him to the study of eternal truths, the love of justice and moral beauty [this is very Kantian]--- bearing him aloft to the regions of the intellectual world, the contemplation of which yields the truest delight to the philosopher--- the other debasing him even below himself, subjecting him to the slavery of sense, the tyranny of the passions, and exciting these to counteract every noble and generous sentiment inspired by the former."

Rousseau is no irrationalist. The sentiments that he cultivates are inspired by reason (the intellectual realm) not the emotions (the passions). What could be clearer than the following. "I am active when I listen to my reason, and passive when hurried away by my passions."

Russell is making too much of Rousseau's belief that the moral rules are, found "in the depths " of the heart, "written by Nature in ineffaceable characters." Rousseau believes that we can trust our "conscience" to tell us what to do. In practice Rousseau seems to have some problems with this (especially in his personal life), but in principle it is an embryonic form of Kant's "moral world within."

Russell says there are two objections to "the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart." But I have shown above, I hope, that for Rousseau it is the intellectual realm, the realm of reason, which is to guide the heart, not the realm of emotions and passions, so we can skip these objections.

Russell now goes off the deep end, in my opinion. He says, "For my part, I prefer the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the rest of the stock-in-trade, to the sentimental illogicality that has sprung from Rousseau." We will see who is being illogical.

These very arguments which Russell prefers, he says of them, earlier in the chapter, that they "may not, to us seem very convincing, and we may feel that they would not have seemed cogent to anyone who did not already feel sure of the truth of the conclusion." In other words, they are not sound arguments. Rousseau tried to guide his sentiments by reason. it is only because Russell, wrongly, considered Rousseau an enemy of reason that he could prefer logically unsound arguments to Rousseau's open admission that he doesn't use these types of arguments because he doesn't think they prove anything.

What can one say about Russell being logical when he claims , "if I had to choose between Thomas Aquinas and Rousseau, I should unhesitatingly choose the saint." Unhesitatingly? Here is what Russell says about the good "saint" in HWP:

"There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas... Before he begins to philosophize he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading."

Why would Russell prefer "apparently rational special pleading" to the open honesty of Rousseau. Aquinas was a spokesman for a powerful institution that burned heretics and clamped down on free expression wherever it could. It burned books. Rousseau had his books burned. He, like Russell, was the victim of the followers of revelation. Rousseau at least thought for himself and fought against the tyranny of the absolute monarchical state. Doesn't honesty count? Russell thinks Aquinas not intellectually honest. It doesn't seem intellectually honest to prefer the dogma of the Catholic Church to the free thinking of Rousseau who rejected revelation and apparently rational arguments in favor of it.

How did Rousseau get the reputation as an "irrationalist"? I suggest that the answer can be found in Georg Lukacs's book "The Destruction of Reason." Lukacs, a Marxist, follows Engel's discussion of the British and French Enlightenment as tending towards "the metaphysical mode" of thinking. Engels means a type of mechanical "materialism" which he contrasts to dialectical thinking. He mentions Rousseau's "Discourse on the Origins of Inequality" as a "dialectical masterpiece."

Lukacs writes that the picture of "Rousseau as an 'irrationalist Romantic' is a product of polemics against the French Revolution." What Rousseau was trying to do in his social philosophy was to develop "the history of mankind and human society out of its autonomous movement, the deeds and sufferings of men themselves, and grasping the reason, i.e., the principles behind the movement." Lukacs also points out that, according to Engels the "Reason" that was lauded during the Enlightenment was the "Reason" of the rising bourgeois class not some abstract universal "Reason" and it was this bourgeois view of "Reason" that was the object of Rousseau's criticism.

Now lets look at what Russell says about Rousseau's political philosophy to see if it leads to Hitler. Russell admits that the "Social Contact" has "little sentimentality and much close intellectual reasoning," but that it only gives "lip-service to democracy" and bolsters the idea "of the totalitarian state."

Russell has problems with the concept of the "general will." Rousseau says that people who do not obey the "general will " must be "forced to be free." Russell remarks that, "The general will in the time of Galileo was certainly anti-Copernican, was Galileo 'forced to be free' when the Inquisition compelled him to recant?" This indicates, to me, that Russell didn't understand what the "general will" is.

What the social contact is supposed to do (it is a theoretical construct not an actual historical compact) is leave everybody as free as they were in the state of nature but without the inconveniences of that state. The whole contract boils down to one clause, according to Rousseau, "the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others." This is pure Rawls.

Basically, the general will is that we do what is best for the state and everyone in it. The general will represents the maximum freedom possible for every individual. As a citizen each wants what is best for the state in respect to the rights and freedoms of all. However, Rousseau points out the "each man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen."

Here is a real example of being forced to be free. The general will dictates that the state do all it can to ensure the health of the population. My particular will may want to make a fortune by marketing an adulterated medicine. This could lead to an outbreak of plague that could also spread to my own family or even myself. By preventing me having my way the state certainly denied me the freedom to act as an individual, but it has enforced my will as a citizen since as a citizen I agree with the general will.

The reason why Hitler cannot be an outgrowth of Rousseau's thought is because Hitler's particular will replaced the general will. For Rousseau the Sovereign is the body politic, the people, and not a single individual. "If then the people promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master exists, there is no longer a Sovereign, and from that moment the body politic has ceased to exist...."

Rousseau said for the general will to express itself "there should be no partial society" in the state and that "each citizen should think only his own thoughts...." Totalitarian governments do not encourage this type of thinking for oneself. A modern state cannot, however, really exist without partial societies (labor unions, employer's associations, small business owners, the AAUP, the AARP, the Bertrand Russell Society, etc.) Realizing this, Rousseau said "if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal... These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall be always enlightened, and that the people shall in no way deceive itself."

A lot more could be said about the "general will" and its contrast with "the will of all" (something very different) but I think I have accomplished my goal of showing that it is only a superficial reading of Rousseau that can judge him to be an irrationalist, and that there is nothing substantial to the charge that Hitler and his government grew out of the doctrines of Rousseau.

I should also note that Rousseau's paternalistic attitude towards women marred his political philosophy since the interests of half the human race were not taken into consideration in formulating the "general will." However that correction is easily made.

Finally, I think Russell, Engels, and Lukcas, but not Hitler, would agree with the following sentiment of Rousseau: "The noblest work of education is to make a reasoning man...."


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [PART 2]
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an important work. Over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

Chapter Two: "Revolution"

This chapter recounts the events leading up to the overthrow of the Manchus and the swearing in of Sun Yat-sen as the first president of China on 1 January 1912, and the aftermath.

Chapter Three "Lords of Misrule"

After China became a Republic, Mao spent about five years in school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan. He studied to become a teacher. Many of the views he would hold for the rest of his life were formed at this time. He read many books, including Rousseau's Social Contract, Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, Smith's Wealth of Nations and works by Herbert Spencer, Darwin, Huxley and John Stuart Mill.

It was a Chinese book, however, that was most influential: Si-Ma Guang's Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Those Who Govern. Si-Ma Guang was a minister to an emperor in the middle of the Song Dynasty who lived over seven hundred years ago. Mao kept this book and referred to it all his life. Its message was simple. Good and honest men were more important than the laws in ruling the Empire.

He also read the German thinker Paulsen's System of Ethics. Short says Mao retained three main principles from this book, First, the need for a powerful state; second, the centrality of the individual will; third, the ambiguous relationship between Chinese and Western culture.

He published his first article (in New Youth) in 1917 at age 24. He extolled the individual will. The quote from Short shows that Mao was far from Marxism at this time. "Ultimately, the individual comes first... Society is created by individuals, not individuals by society." At this time he also developed a "cardinal principle" that stayed with him the rest of his life. This was to ground "foreign ideas in Chinese reality to establish their relevance." This of course makes sense and is the origin of the later notion of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Mao also reflected on the view (Paulsen's) that cultures go through old age and then decline. "Revolution does not mean," he said, "using troops and arms, but replacing the old with the new." Yet, the basis of classical Chinese thought must be preserved. The future Cultural Revolution will test this idea, but it is 50 years in the future.

Short says "a chilling hint of future ruthlessness" can also be detected at this time. This is Mao's attitude of "focusing on what he considered the principle aspects of [a] problem... and disregarding what was secondary." An example was his support of a local warlord "Butcher Tang" who killed people all over the place in order to enforce "law and order" in his area (i.e., stability). Mao supported Butcher Tang since order was the main need at the time and the mass killings were therefore secondary. Later, however, he changed his mind about Butcher Tang-- but not the principle.

He also developed his life long views on education at this time. Short says he was against rote learning, anti-elitist and pro "open learning" and he supported Kant's dictum that "our understanding must come from the facts of experience." I should note that the future inspiration for The Little Red Book also had "an abhorrence of book-worship."

At this time, when most of the youth and radicals, were against China's traditional culture and only thinking in terms of the advantages of Western culture and science, Mao had a vision that Short calls "astonishingly modern." This was "a synthesis that would reconcile the traditional dialectic of the country's ancient ways of thought with Western radicalism."

Monday, June 25, 2007



MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp.
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins [Part 1]

This is an important work. Over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

CHAPTER ONE “A Confucian Childhood”

Short aptly begins with December 26, 1893 in Hunan with Mao’s birth. His mother was a practicing Buddhist and, Short says, was disappointed when the teenage Mao gave up the faith. Her name gives some idea of the status of women at the time, Her name was Wen Qimei “Sister Seven” as girls were not given names, just numbers.

Mao came from a well off peasant family and his father was able to send him to the village school to get a traditional Confucian education. Short tells us that Mao learned three main principles from Confucianism. First, every person and every society “must have a moral compass.” Second, “the primacy of right thinking” which means that one’s thoughts had to be morally right: this was what Confucius called “virtue.” Third, “self-cultivation” was very important. These are not, I think, bad precepts to inculcate in children.

Short says that all his life Mao was influenced by Confucius, Zhuangzi (a Daoist) and Mozi as well as Lenin and Marx. He thinks the Confucian element was “as least as important” as the Marxist.

One of the major influences on his life, according to Mao himself, happened when he was 16 years old. These were the food riots of 1910 in Changsha. There was plenty of food for the people of Changsha but it was all shipped out to other places where it could be sold for more money so the locals all died from famine. People died in droves, sold their children, and even practiced cannibalism to survive. A nice introduction to the capitalist market for the young Mao.

This chapter ends with a discussion of modernism in the 1890s. Chinese were studying abroad and returning to introduce Western ideas into China. Short mentions Kang Youwei who updated Confucianism for the modern world and Liang Qichao who “took Charles Darwin’s thesis ‘the survival of the fittest’ and applied it to China’s national struggle....” Mao’s world was one of ferment.

I should note that “survival of the fittest” was actually the slogan of Herbert Spencer not Charles Darwin. Spencer adapted Darwin’s ideas to society to get a form of “social Darwinism.” Darwin was only interested in biology and his term was “natural selection.”

Posted by Thomas Riggins
from PAEditorsBlog

Saturday, June 23, 2007



There is an interesting article by Susan J. Douglas in the July 2007 issue of In These Times, "The Enduring Lies of Ronald Reagan." I want to give a few highlights for the benefit of those who haven't seen it. It is important to have facts at hand in case you are unfortunate enough to run into someone who thinks Reagan was one our "great" presidents. If such a horrible fate should befall you, you can repel the evil influence by pointing out:

1. He was, according to polls at the time, one of the most unpopular modern presidents ever-- his ratings overall were lower than Kennedy's, Eisenhower's and Johnson's.

2. He was a big dunce-- trees cause more pollution than automobiles, the apartheid government in South Africa had eliminated "segregation" (also don't forget "ketchup is a vegetable" for the purpose of providing healthy food for poor children-- a hamburger with ketchup = meat, carbohydrate (bun), plus vegetable-- a perfectly healthy meal).

3. "Reaganomics" was a disaster-- one of the highest unemployment rates
since WW 2 (10.1% in 1981, 11.9 million out of work, 1982), 500,000 people (the majority children) fell into poverty due to welfare cuts while those making $80,000 plus got $15,000 more or less back from tax cuts, poverty rate went up to 15% the highest in 20 years.

4. His knowledge of foreign affairs was nil-- honoring Nazi war dead (Bitburg), Iran-Contra (who me?), [ and don't forget the Contras were the "moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers"], stupid actions in Lebanon and Beirut. [He gets credit for being in office and breathing when the USSR came apart].

5. Eight of his senior appointments were indicted, so he had one of the most corrupt administrations in living memory.

Just a few things to remember when St. Ronnie is conjured up from the vastly deep.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


By Thomas Riggins

Its getting harder and harder to believe U.S. government spokespersons when they imply that the killing of Afghan children is something we try to avoid. The more you read the news reports the more it looks like our policy is one of just not giving a hoot about children and other civilians. It seems like we just don’t care if we kill them or not.

Tuesday’s New York Times (6-19-07) has a story by Barry Bearak and Taimoor Shah (“7 Children Killed in Coalition Airstrike on Religious Compound in Afghanistan”) that shows what I mean.

The Times reports that the children were killed in an airstrike against a compound “thought” [therefore not known] to be a Qaeda sanctuary. Its nice to know we bomb the Hell out of people on a suspicion they might be enemies.

The paper also reports that up to 50 civilians may have been killed in combat between the U.S. led forces and the Taliban in Uruzgan province. The head of the provincial council said,”I have seen with my own eyes that women and children were badly hit by bombing. The fighting is inside the villages, so that’s why the civilians are suffering casualties. I have met some families who have lost almost everyone.”

Since when is it ok to bomb and kill everyone in sight just because some enemy troops hide out in a village. A rural village can be surrounded and starved out. It may take longer but its better than mass murder of women and children just to save some time. There are other non lethal ways to deal with this type of situation as well. US forces should not be engaging in mass murder.

The Times says that the compound with the children in it ( which was only “thought” to be an enemy compound) was a “targeted strike.” Keep that in mind when reading the totally insincere and hypocritical explanations of the US army spokesman trying to justify child murder.

“We are truly sorry,” army Major Chris Belcher said, “for the innocent lives lost in this attack. We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building.” Well, without X-Ray vision it would be pretty hard to see inside the building. This just means the US did not know who or what was in the target. It could have been anybody. It is criminal to blow up such a target. It is, in fact, a war crime and should be treated as such. Even the Afghan president Hamid Karzai has complained about the high (and unnecessary) number of civilian deaths.

Not content with his original statement, Maj. Belcher decided to blame the Afghans for the death of the children. It was due to the “cowardice” of Al Qaeda. “Witness statements taken early this morning clearly put the blame on the suspected [still only suspects?] terrorists, saying that if the children attempted to go outside they were beaten and pushed away from the door” according to a press release from the US led forces.

This is definitely a crock. This was a “targeted bombing” the whole point of which is catch the “enemy” with his pants down. So the “terrorists," not expecting a bomb, would have no motive to keep the children inside the compound. What for? To be safe? They would know from experience that mere children wouldn’t stop us from blowing them up. If they thought we were going to bomb they would have been long gone. So this press release doesn’t make sense.

Who could the witnesses have been? If they lived to tell about what they saw they must have been coming and going in and out of the compound. If the compound was under “surveillance” then either they were seen to be unarmed civilians so the strike was misdirected and should have been called off, or they were carrying weapons and were thus the enemy ( and so we need not use expressions such as “suspected” and “thought to be”).

In other words, the whole story and the press release have the mark of the usual cover up when trigger happy officers order their subordinates to shoot up a village regardless of what will happen to the civilian population. But there were seven dead “militants” found in the rubble. What about that proof? I can only remark that in every killing spree the US and Nato forces conduct all the bodies of men (and sometimes women) are chalked up to being “militants.”

The Times reported that it was impossible to get any independent confirmation of what happened. I, for one, won’t take the US govenment’s word for anything after all the lies that have been spread about what goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan. [Remember how Pat Tillman died fighting the Taliban?]

Khalid Farouqi, an MP, said, “Nobody can accept the killing of women and children. It is not acceptable in either Islam or international law.” The US ambassador, William B. Wood, basing himself on the utterly ridiculous aforementioned press release, said: “Unfortunately, when the Taliban [before it was al Qaeda] are using civilians in this tactical way, instances of casualties just like instances from friendly fire, cannot be completely avoided.” Especially since, as with “friendly fire”, we don’t know what we are shooting at and bombing but we do it any way.

Finally, a quote from a medical doctor from the region where the children were killed. “The aircraft is targeting the civilians inside and outside of their houses. There are many villagers under the rubble.”

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

Last Saturday, June 8, one of the most influential American thinkers died at his home in California. Richard Rorty was educated as a philosopher but in his later years abandoned that field for the humanities and culture studies. The purpose of this remembrance is to outline his thought and see what, if any relevance, it has for Marxism and a progressive world outlook.

Rorty grew up in a left wing household dedicated to the views of Leon Trotsky. He said that when he was 12 he “knew that the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting for social justice.” Well, he was off to a good start at any rate.

He was more or less known as a conventional analytic philosopher until his 1979 book (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) appeared. In this book he argued that both the British-American analytic and the European philosophical traditions from Descartes to the present were wrong to think that philosophy could reveal some sort on independently existing objective truth “out there” which we could then accurately reflect in our philosophical languages.

Rorty became more and more influenced by the kind of “deconstructionist” thought associated with the writings of Derrida. His thought is summarized by W. L. Reese as follows. Rorty rejects systems and thinks one should be an “ironist, who does not presume any finality in the vocabulary to which he or she is drawn.”

So far so good. If we make a presumption of finality with respect to our positions we run the risk of being dogmatists. Marxists, as well as many others, have fallen (and still fall) into that trap.

But Rorty goes too far. According to Reese he thinks an argument is “merely a rhetorical device” which simply proposes a “new vocabulary” to use for “redescription” of whatever we are arguing about. Since this is the case we should forget building theories about “reality” but, as Reese puts it, “poetize culture, rather than rationalize or scientize it, celebrating not truth but play and metaphor.”

In other words, If I argue with a neocon about the war in Iraq I find myself in the following position. Bush has just made a big speech about weapons of mass destruction and the need to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq, and that Iraq is an existential danger to the United States. When I attack this position what I am really doing is providing a new vocabulary for what Bush has said thus creating a “redescription.” I come up with this: there are no weapons of mass destruction, this is a war for geopolitical regional dominance and for control of Iraqi oil, it has nothing to do with freedom and democracy.

What are the neocon and I doing? We are “poetizing” each others views and playing with metaphors. Rorty may or may not agree with me completely (he was antiwar) but may support me because he is liberal and he thinks “liberals now agree in their abhorrence of cruelty, and hope for the future diminution of suffering and humiliation.”

“Yes,” say I. “That’s my position.” “Mine too,” says the neocon. But my narrative demands this be achieved by stopping the war and withdrawing the troops. “No. no,” replies the neocon. His narrative demands this be achieved by increasing the troops and winning the war. Both narratives, Reese says, for Rorty are “without foundation.” They are not about truth but about metaphor. And, if I think my view has some real foundation, then I am a “liberal metaphysician” in Rorty’s words. A metaphysician, for Rorty, is someone with a fictional view of the world.

A. Quinton, writing on Rorty, says this view is “something like the extreme point of Derrida’s rejection of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, which holds not only that there are no absolute foundations, but that no belief is more fundamental than any other.” So the belief that genocide is wrong is no more fundamental than its opposite. This is not a position likely to recommend itself to Marxists, or anyone else, for that matter, who values rationality and doesn’t think nothing is right or wrong save thinking makes it so.

Rorty himself said, “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons.” This certainly does not encourage thinking outside the box.

Using this criterion Spinoza would never bother to have developed his philosophy. Galileo should have realized the errors of his ways as well. Often new ideas have to fight against what one’s peers will let you get away with. But without some method which allows one to assert that not all narratives are equal and there is some method to discriminate between different and often contradictory truth claims you are forced to take this absurdist position of Rorty.

Daniel Dennett is quoted in the New York Times obituary as saying Rorty showed “a flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power.”

Rorty may have been a good fellow for having liberal ideas, but allowing reactionaries and fascists, racists and neocons to hold their narratives of reality with the same truth values as his own means he was no friend of the progressive community.

Friday, June 08, 2007


by Thomas Riggins

Personally I don’t think Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas has much of a chance of getting the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. But you never know. Who would have thought someone of such a low caliber as George Bush would have gotten it in 2000?

In the first debate of the Republican candidates, Brownback raised his hand when the question was put as to which candidates did not believe in “evolution.” Now he has written an article, “What I Think About Evolution”, in the New York Times published as an op-ed piece on 5-31-07.

Brownback wrote the article to clarify his views. It is not, I think, a good article for a man who wants to be president for it shows that he has no understanding of science and that he does not use valid evidence or reasons to ground his beliefs. We have just had two terms of such a president, who has left the country in a mess, and we can ill afford another president whose views are not grounded in reality.

Brownback thinks that the "premise" behind the question is-- either you come out for evolution or "one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24 hour days." For a man who says he wants to bring "seriousness" to the discussion, he is off to a bad start.

First we need a proper definition of "evolution." Scientifically speaking, the word refers to Darwin's theory of changes in species, and the development of new species, by random natural selection. This is the scientific biological evolutionary theory that has obscurantists, reactionaries and fundamentalists up in arms. There are other opponents besides these.

Anyone who believes in "design" is opposed to this theory-- not just the unsophisticated yokels who think every thing was made in six 24-hour days. The "premise" Brownback thinks the question entails is incorrect. He says so himself. But he set it up to make himself look more serious than he actually is, as we shall see.

Brownback says he believes there can be no contradiction between faith and reason. Let's see what he means by this and if he really does believe it.

The issue is: does science explain the origin of the universe and/or man, without the need to postulate a "creator", or is the postulate of a "creator" needed. Brownback's position that faith and reason (science) do not contradict each other is based upon the fact that he just assumes that there is a creator therefore, since that is a fact, what is there for science to contradict.

"The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." In reality, science seeks to understand the nature of the universe, in practice it does not appeal to a "creator" and Brownback's assumption of a "created order" has no scientific warrant at all. And he seems not to understand that "reason" has little to do with faith.

There is no contradiction because "the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God." Well, there is nothing like assuming in your premises the very conclusion you seek to support by your argument. Reason is obviously not being applied in this type of thinking (valid reason at any rate.)

Brownback fails to realize that there is a real antithesis between science and faith when it comes to trying to understand the physical world and the place of humans within it. "Faith," he says, "supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose." The problem here is a confusion between the descriptive function of science and the prescriptive role of faith.

For example, science can describe the values held by Christians and those held by different groups of non-Christians, what these values mean to the different groups, and what purpose (i.e., function) they play in different cultures. But if these are faith based values, science cannot say one faith based system is right and another wrong. If there was a compelling reason that showed one was right it would no longer be a matter of faith.

Brownback thinks he can reconcile the faith/science dichotomy, but he does it by rejecting science. Here is what he says about evolution. "If belief in evolution means simply assenting to micro evolution, small changes over time within a species [such as a diminishing ability to comprehend scientific theories in Kansans], I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true." But he knows that that is not at all what the theory of evolution is about.

He says he rejects the view that "holds no place for a guiding intelligence" and that is "exclusively materialistic" and "deterministic." But he seems to reject more than that. Some religious folk believe in a guiding intellect and also that, e.g., humans evolved from ape like ancestors. Brownback doesn't say if he goes for that. His concept of micro evolution ("small changes within a species") would seem to leave Lucy and Homo erectus out of our family tree.

Brownback says the question of "whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations-- go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology."

Here he is simply wrong. It is precisely due to advances in genetics, DNA research, physical anthropology, and a host of related sciences, that the question of human origins, and life on earth in general, is primarily a question for the empirical sciences. If there is to be no conflict between religion and science then theology will have to evaluate the discoveries of science not try to ignore them or reject them and pretend it is better suited to give answers based on faith (i.e., based on nothing but a traditional belief from the pre-scientific past).

Science demands an open minded attitude. It bases its conclusions on the best available evidence. Brownback is wholly lacking in the open minded spirit of science. Only if science agrees with his faith based opinions will he accept it. "Man," he says, "was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth [there are none] are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth [no matter how firmly established by modern science], should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."

An "atheistic theology" is a curious term. It is even more curious to think the modern science of evolutionary biology is any kind of theology at all. Brownback is a US Senator and could (God forbid!) become president. Be prepared for a new Dark Age. The faggot is not far from the fanatic.

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Thomas Riggins


The great debate rages on! Democrats are really different from Republicans. No, they are the same. I think the confusion results from not looking at this from a dialectical perspective. I am thinking of the dialectical ideas of the unity of opposites and identity in difference. I want to use a specific example not deal with abstract generalities.

It may seem paradoxical to speak of unity and identity being used in reference to concepts or objects that are ostensibly different. But I am thinking of the distinction between quantitative differences on one hand, and qualitative differences on the other. I think there is evidence that the Republicans are quantitatively different from the Democrats while at the same time they are qualitatively the same.

Both ultimately represent the interests of monopoly capital and hence are imperialist parties. What they argue about is how to best achieve the goals of US monopoly capital.

The war in Iraq is an example. This war, when all the patriotic hype is stripped away, was planned back in the 90s, 9/11 was the excuse not the cause, as a resource war to take over Iraq's oil and put the US in a commanding position in the Middle East. Victory will be the control of the oil.

Success or failure in the war cannot be judged by the number of people killed, by the level of sectarian violence, by the increase or decrease of troop levels, or how long the US must remain in Iraq. It can be judged by one thing, in the long run, and that is-- did we get control of the oil or not.

If we leave behind a democratic and prosperous Iraq with a free and happy people whose oil, however, remains owned and controlled by the Iraqi people themselves, then we have lost the war and all our sacrifice of troops and treasure will have been in vain.

On the other hand, if we leave behind a destroyed wasteland with five times as many troops lost as we have lost to date, if we have to maintain garrisoned outposts, and most of the Iraqi people have fled or been killed, but the oil is now controlled by our big oil companies, then we shall won a glorious victory.

How to get the oil? First, overthrow the government of Saddam which controls it. Mission accomplished. Second, install a regime that will be on friendly terms with the US. Mission accomplished. Third get that regime to pass a new oil law which favors the US. Their motivation? Well they need our troops to stay in power. Mission-- on hold.

The major bench mark (there are others, but this is numero uno) that we are demanding the government meet is the passage of the new Iraqi oil law. This law was devised and written by the Bush administration. The surge in troop levels is to impress the urgency of this benchmark on the government.

This law will effectively privatize 2/3rds of the oil giving ownership and then control of production (for the next 30 years) to foreign oil corporations such as Exxon-Mobile, Chevron, and (for Blair) British Petroleum [BP] among others. Since the Iraqi masses completely reject this benchmark (oil workers are striking against it at this very moment) it can be pushed through only with the presence of US troops. The recent talk out of Washington that Iraq will be like Korea, i.e., we will have to keep about 30,000 troops there for 50 years or so (!) is simply a realization that these troops will be needed to enforce this new oil law should the Iraqis pass it.
If they do Bush wins.

The Democrats, for all their anti-war talk (they have used the discontent of the American people to take over the Congress) have caved in to Bush on the funding of the war. They have abandoned a date certain to begin withdrawal and have also said that the Iraqi government must pass the oil law as a bench mark for continued support. Their leadership is also collaborating with Bush on trade policies favored by the big international corporations, including a sell out on the "fair trade" programs favored by the unions for "fast track" negotiating where big deals can be worked out by the executive branch which bypass the Congress. The Democrats, however want some slop thrown to the middle class and the workers and the poor.

Two peas in a pod? I think quantitatively NO (we get some slop after all) and qualitatively YES ( don't expect fundamental change in the goals of our corporate dominated government). Practically this boils down to, lets get rid of the Republicans, but then the real fun begins!

Monday, June 04, 2007



Thomas Riggins

Reading the June 8, 2007 issue of "The Week" reveals how completely out of control Iraq is. "The Week" is a magazine that gives snippets of opinions from the national and international press. Here is some of the reportage on Bush's "surge" and the war in general.

The New York Times reported on a government study that shows that Iraq is Al Qaida's best training ground, much better than Afghanistan because of the urban environment. Perfect, the US is responsible for providing the best training conditions for urban terrorists. Soon to be seen in a city near you (or maybe your own).

The Palm Beach Post has figured it out. It editorialized as follows; "The United States has to be in Iraq to fight the terrorists, who are in Iraq because the United States is in Iraq." The Post concludes we should get out.

The San Antonio Express-News is on the slow track to nowhere. This paper said a withdrawal would be a defeat for the US (so what, its wrong to be there in the first place, anyway we are already defeated, it just hasn't sunk in yet) and would leave behind "chaos". Chaos is what we already have. This paper wants to give Bush more time for his surge to provide "measurable security progress."

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times reported that US generals in Iraq don't think this summer surge will achieve any of the goals Bush said it would. Therefore they are going to "redefine success." Somebody should alert the good folks at the San Antonio Express-News that "measurable security progress" isn't likely to be in the new definition of "success."

Andrew Sullivan was reported as having written, in "The" that intelligence reports that Bush had before the invasion of Iraq told him an invasion would be "an al Qaida recruiter's dream." Sullivan opined that, "Al Qaida surely never had a more helpful man in such a powerful place."

Finally, while Bush continues to help out al Qaida and weaken the US defenses against another terror attack ( the above mentioned New York Times report also revealed, according to "The Week" that "Al Qaida is starting to use terrorists trained in Iraq to carry out missions in other countries")-- the dunderheads at "The Weekly Standard" have concluded, if columnist Frederick Kagan is any example, that al Qaida actually wants the US to withdraw.

Every report indicates that that is the last thing they want. They are slowly destroying us and they are growing and recruiting new members every day we stay. Kagan thinks they want us out so they can build a base for themselves in Iraq. If the Standard crowd could understand what they read in the press, they would have figured out that al Qaida already has a base in Iraq and is now exporting terror to other countries from it.

So is Bush nuts to stay in Iraq? The real reason we are there is for the oil. So, the so called "war on terror" is just a lot of infantile claptrap to occupy the minds of the American people and the press. We will, I think, eventually withdraw from Iraq. It will be as it was in Vietnam. The Iraqi people will drive us out.