Thursday, July 3, 2008

Farewell to FARC and the Far Left

I have been a leftwinger all of my adult life. As an undergraduate at UCLA, as I put it in an article I once wrote about my early activist days, I was a member of a group so far left that we thought Mao Tse-Tung was a revisionist capitalist roader. I wished for a Vietnamese victory against the U.S. military, and got it. My political activism continues to this day in various forms. On this blog, I have consistently criticized Barack Obama from a left perspective (although strongly supporting the need to elect him president.)

So why am I celebrating the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages by the Army of Colombia in an operation against the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)--an operation which, according to today's New York Times, was aided by U.S. intelligence services? Certainly not because I am sympathetic to the blood-stained government of President Alvaro Uribe, whose ties with paramilitaries and drug trafficking are well established. Simply because any left that kidnaps people and holds hostages is not a left I want to be part of. In fact, any left that feels justified, in the name of the "people" or the "revolution," in engaging in oppressive or brutal acts is a left alien to the humanistic values that I and many other decent lefists hold dear. That means I am not prepared to excuse the authoritarian nature of the Cuban regime because it brought literacy and better health care to its people--which it did--nor am I prepared to make excuses for Robert Mugabe's supporters beating and killing political opponents, as some leftists unbelievably have done, because Mugabe is hypocritically opposed by the same British and American governments that turn a blind eye to oppression in other parts of Africa and other parts of the world.

In Europe, where I spend most of my time, most leftists took notice of the fall of Communism and the corrupt, oppressive nature of so-called Marxist-Leninist states and have engaged in a lot of soul-searching since 1989. I don't agree with where some of this soul-searching has led, which in some cases has been right into the arms of Western capitalism with all of its social and economic injustices. But in the United States, too many leftists have failed to take serious stock of the fact that Marxism-Leninism has led to political oppression and murder from Russia to China to Eastern Europe and beyond. Communism is dead and buried. Its fall was not due to "mistakes" in an otherwise good plan, nor because Stalin somehow managed to maneuver his way into power and subvert Lenin's vision, nor because the "wrong" leaders got into power in China and are now restoring capitalism (and with a vengeance.) No, it's because the plan was all wrong to begin with.

What is to be done? I am still thinking about that, because despite all I say above I am not ready to join the Democratic Party and become a liberal, and I don't think that leftists in France should join the useless Socialist Party either. And it is certainly the case that in countries like Colombia, a mass, militant movement against the corrupt government is vitally necessary. But bands of revolutionaries in the jungle, kidnapping progressive politicians like Ingrid Betancourt (not to further the revolution, mind you, but to get their comrades out of jail) and trafficking in drugs to fund the "struggle"? You know, some days I would prefer to let the entire international proletariat rot in hell than see Ingrid Betancourt separated from her children one more week.

My old comrades on the far left need to come in from the cold and join the real struggle in the real world of real people. We need them: Despite his faults and errors, Karl Marx understood capitalism better than anyone of his time or ours, and many of today's Marxists--relics that they are in so many ways--have the fewest illusions about the system under which we live. Marx understood that capitalism is by nature exploitative and unjust, something that is just as true today as it was when he wrote Das Kapital. As for what to do about it: I don't have the answers, although I think about it every day. But I know what not to do, and kidnapping Ingrid Betancourt is high on that list.


herb fox said...

I find much in this article regarding the FARC with which i and my Columbian correspondents (all leftists) agree. At the same time i am irritated by the piece.

Michael presents a contradictory position. On the one hand he has on many occasions described the left as impotent while on the other hand he treats it as the main enemy. How can an impotent left be the main enemy? It is when he exposes his own impotence, his inability to determine what is to be done, that i begin to understand. Because he is unable to find a target for his anger and frustration and a genuine left activity and program for himself in this epoch of capitalist triumphalism, he attacks the left as being the ultra left to which he states he succumbed in his foolish youth.

So what is to be done and what is not to be done? Consider first one thing that is not to be done. If one feels compelled to criticize the Chinese Communist Party, the FARC, or the Cuban leadership, one should, but from the left. If the criticism in its essence is not too distinguishable from that of the supporters of capitalism, it is bad news. It further alienates from the cause of socialim those who know little of the socialist dream and its basis as an historical response to the reality of the capitalist horror. Far better to take the opportunity to reveal the socialist dream and expose the capitalist horror. On the other hand there is much to be done. I believe that what is to be done falls into three categories. (1) Actively participate in the struggles of oppressed people. For if one is not a dedicated participant in the existing struggles, how can one's criticism of capitalism and one's proposal for a socialist alternative have any credibility? (2) Whenever possible expose capitalism for what it is. For until the working people of the world realize that the self perpetuating economic system that requires the division of society into exploiters and the exploited is the root source of the pain, indignity, and meaninglessness imposed on them, they will not be able to remove that yoke. (3) Take up the undone intellectual work to continue the analysis initiated by Marx. Only if our understanding is developed of capitalism as it transforms itself, of what might be the means of eliminating it in the present, of what can be learned from the failed attempts, and of what can be learned from emerging attempts, can we advance the cause of socialism, can we avoid dogmatism. (Take the work of Michael Lebowitz or Istvan Meszaros in relationship to the Bolivarian revolution as examples of the latter.)

So Michael, if you would like your practise to reflect your self image as a leftist, keep focussed on the main enemy, the capitalist system. I know well the culture of the ultra left; for them the main enemies are the other sects that disagree with them. It appears that you learned well that approach. The FARC's practise deserves criticism, not because they are leftists, or Marxist-Leninists (whatever that means), or communists, but because their practise has become more like running a criminal capitalist enterprise than a socialist revolution, this in spite of the fine words of their program. You might want to write a blog piece that analyzes how an insurrection that once had great respect among the people of Columbia has been transformed into one that is rejected by most of them. Uribe is bad news, very bad; and the biggest sin of the FARC is that by their practise they made his election possible. Why do you imagine Hugo Chavez called on the FARC to give up the armed struggle and release its hostages ( )?

Anne Gilbert said...

Herb Fox and Michael:

I grew up in a family, some of whom were leftists like Michael describes. And I know "where they're coming from" whenever they open their mouths about something "political". This is one reason why "Marxist/Leninist" types have --- IMO --- tended to be absolutely deadly for any "left" program in the West. These leftists tend to be much too narrowly focused on their "political" goals. They are often, in my experience, very idealistic people, and think that "if only there was such and such. . . everything would be lovely". But the problem is, that they are so focused on what they think would work well, in broad, "institutonal" terms, that they fail to see what carrying out such ideas would do to actual people. And this is where I tend to disagree with them. I refuse to be supportive of repressive "regimes" like Cuba for precisely this reason, though I do have to admit that health care and education are strong points there. I won't even go into Farc and Mugabe. Mugabe and Farc are basically excresences, whatever political label they happen to slap on themselves.

I don't know exactly where to start, either, but before we jump into "struggles" against "capitalism" I would like to propose that, insted of narrowly "political" agendas, we start thinking in terms of what is humane before we start thinking political. To me, the "humane" is broader than, and basically subsumes the "political", athough again, this is where some "leftists" and I tend to part company. IOW, we have to think about people --- real people, and as indiviuals, with real lives, ahead of thinking of some political "fix" or "struggle". I don't think there are going to be any easy answers to this, but I propose that thinking "humanely" may be one place to start.
Anne G

herb fox said...

Dear Anne:
I not only agree that “we start thinking in terms of what is humane before we start thinking political.” I also agree that “we have to think about people --- real people, and as individuals, with real lives . . . .” That is where i began. I saw and experienced inhumane behavior. I saw people, individuals with real lives of pain and discouragement. I saw real people with the capacity to love, with feelings and all that makes one human horribly abuse other people with equally human qualities. No matter how upset or angry i was i could not sustain any hate for those responsible for the pain of others. I could not and still cannot accept a division of humans into good and evil.
I sought answers to explain the disparity in behavior. How could a loving husband and father, an employer of other humans put another human struggling to support a family out on the street on the day before Christmas? Over time, through my own experience, through the tutelage of others and through reading, i came to understand that the manner in which we humans have organized our society is what leads to most of the inhuman acts of humans. Then the anger that i could not fully express against other humans found its target. I am profoundly opposed to the current system that leads to some humans doing inhumane things to others, the dominant economic system in the world and the one we live under, the one that has destroyed and devalued more lives than any other.
This system is not the only source of injustice in the world; but it is the dominant one and the one we live under. There are other motivations for inhumane activity, in particular hate and violence motivated by ideology. These include Christians who because they are opposed to a woman’s right to an abortion kill Doctors, Jews who because they believe they have a right to take the land and homes of the Palestinians kill them, tribal antagonisms as in Darfur and in Rawanda, and many more as in Zimbawe, as with the FARC, etc. In the face of all this the bottom-line mentality promoted and developed by this system results in interventions, not to bring peace, harmony, tolerance, and preservation of the earth, but to find ways of increasing profits. This system that fundamentally and intrinsically motivates persons to seek the highest rate of return on investment and to hell with being humane has a name. It is capitalism. It is at best indifferent to what is humane and at worst a promoter of inhumanity.
So, dear Anne, do begin by being a human and treating others as the humans that they are; and, should you find that humans find themselves compelled to act in certain oppressive ways because of the social and economic structures around them, i would hope that you would not lose your humanity and hate them as “evil persons.” Better to realize that the road to a truly humane society of mutual respect and cooperation is impeded by the prison of capitalism in which we are confined. Like all prisoners we would best hate the oppressive confines and seek to free ourselves.


Richard said...

Here in the Philippines, we have our own version of FARC - the New People's Army, avowed communists who've been fighting the government for nearly 40 years.

Last Saturday night, they raided my little town, for the very first time.
See: for details. I sympathise with their agenda, which is mostly, now, to hinder exploitation of the forests and minerals around here.

We thought we were free from the troubles that plague Mindanao, from an ongoing "Christian" vs "Muslim" war in the south, to "lumads" vs immigrant Filipinos all over the Philippines. Lumads are what the majority Filipinos, and they themselves call the couple of waves of people who arrived here before them.

I could go on a lot more, but:

Anne and Herb:

Both of you have targets (humane-ity - positive) and (capitalism - negative)

(I'm not at all sure where Michael's got to - maybe Paris has got to him). It's a perfect place for sofa lefties.

So where do you go from here?

You can rant on about capitalism, but it ain't going to go away.

You can rant on about being humane, but Jesus tried that 2000 years ago, and just look at what's been done in his name since.



PS I've said a lot more than I should have done, but every little message helps Michael's blog to be noticed.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments, perhaps there will be more. I don't think any of us know the answer to the most important question for leftists: Is socialism in the classic sense actually possible, or are we condemned to have at best capitalism with a "human face" (what some would call social democracy.) I don't have the answer, but the far left won't discuss the issue at all, and the American left in particular has yet to come to grips with the fall of Communism and what it means. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine any other course than to continue to fight for reforms and justice under capitalism. The answer may not come in any of our lifetimes.

Michael Balter said...

One more thought, and Herb, I do appreciate your attempts to save my lefty soul! :-)

One of the KEY reasons that a socialist solution to capitalism is not embraced by the majority of people in the world, and certainly not in a country like the United States, is the perception that socialist/Communist (not everyone sees the difference) regimes are repressive. Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Albania, all of Eastern Europe (did you travel in countries like Czechoslovakia under Communism? What a travesty.) But too many leftists at best treat this as some sort of embarrassment, and at worst defend such societies. Just imagine if the CPUSA had thoroughly condemned Stalinism during the 1930s, how much influence it would have had (and might still have) in the US. And yet large swathes of the left are still making excuses for governments like that of Cuba, Chavez, etc. As John Lennon wrote, if you go around carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

best, M

Richard said...

" - did you travel in countries like Czechoslovakia under Communism?"

Well, yes I did, actually, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not the politics, it's the people. I can't even imagine a New York taxi driver helping me to beat the official exchange rate, but a Prague one drove out of his way to help me do so. (Mind you, he didn't do badly out of the deal).

" large swathes of the left are still making excuses for governments like that of Cuba, Chavez, etc."

They should be lauding them, not making excuses. Castro and Chavez have achieved more than anyone in getting their continent out from under the yoke of the Monroe Doctrine. Chavez looks and sounds like a thug, but he's doing a helluva lot to give his fellow South Americans some guts, and he's spreading his country's wealth around.

Why are some Americans complaining about not being allowed to go to Cuba for health care? Enough to provoke stories like:

I live in a country (Philippines) that is voluntarily enslaved to American capitalist ideals. It exports its human capital (doctors, nurses, engineers) abroad, and relies on their strong family loyalty to ensure that some of their earnings come back.

It's a great shame, Michael, that Americans deliberately ignore history (like any other teenager) and are so badly served by their media.

I don't know what it's like in France now, but walk into any dirty little Spanish bar, and you'll pick up a newspaper that gives in-depth, thoughtful coverage, opinion and analysis of the world.

American newspapers, (with the exception of McClatchy, and they don't do so well) just don't bother. The big guns, like the NY Times and WaPo, have been taken over by the kooks.

Try tonight, Michael, to watch your local Paris CNN, and then look at to find what America is seeing of the same reports, twisted and turned to fit.

The biggest problem with America is that it didn't grow out out of its provincialist roots before it found itself in charge of the world.



Michael Balter said...

Richard, I will just pick up on your last comment: I have been spending a lot of time in the US lately and so I get to compare CNN International with CNN's USA addition quite often. As you say, provincial, self-absorbed, and thoroughly depressing. It's like giving a patient a placebo instead of the medicine he or she really needs.

Michael Balter said...

That's edition, not addition, even the preview button doesn't help sometimes!