May 30, 2009
The conversion of the ‘pagan’ countries to Christianity is an interesting question in the context of the current conflicts with regard to religion and religious conversions and their political dimensions. Despite the way it is often portrayed by Christian apologetics, there was nothing inevitable about the conversion process, nor was it necessarily a popular one. Much has been said about the conversion of ancient Rome to Christianity as a state religion, from Gibbon onward often seen as a contributor to its decline. Although this is said with dubious justification, yet the conversions of the early Middle Ages are somewhat under-considered. It is these to which we now turn.
Indeed even the conversion to Christianity of the Romans began at the top, with the fable of Constantine’s conversion after his victory over his opponent on the Pons Milvius, and this pattern is seen everywhere in the early Middle Ages. Missionaries sent by the Church would convert some King of a ‘barbarian’ people, and from that point on they are counted in the ranks of the Christians. However, this is clearly a tale all too simple, and it does not explain the motives involved. From a political point of view, the main questions are:
– Why was the focus of conversion at the top, not at the bottom, as seems to be the norm today in terms of missionary activity?
– What could have been the motives of the rulers to adopt Christianity rather than the extant religions?
– What might the response of the subjects of these rulers have been?
We will try to answer all of these questions.
First it is necessary to get an idea of what ‘the Church’ as such was and how it developed by means of some examples and chronology. Christianity had been a state religion, and the only permitted religion, in the Roman Empire from the time of Theodosius on, and in its proto-orthodox form (which refers to the variety of Christianity that later developed into Roman Catholicism as well as its offshoots in Protestantism and the Eastern Orthodox church). When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantine successor empire in the east maintained Christianity, but in their own form, which over time increasingly diverged from that which was dominant in Western Europe. It must be noted, as an aside, that for most of the early Middle Ages Western Europe must be seen as, globally speaking, a fairly backward and provincial area, and certainly compared to the Byzantines despite their setbacks.
The most powerful church that developed under the first converted peoples was that of the Merovingian and Carolingian Franks, whose King Clovis I (466-511) converted to ‘Catholic’ Christianity around 500. (Some peoples, such as the Vandals, had been Christian already, but in the form of Arianism, which the church that operated in Rome and which carried the authority of the Roman ideology in the West did not accept.) The Frankish Kings from then on made a purposeful policy to ‘inherit’ the prestige as well as the administration, mutatis mutandis, of the Roman Empire, and since their realm was very large and relatively organized in the early Middle Ages, their political influence was great. It is through this that the ‘orthodox’, non-Arian form of Christianity came to dominate the continent, especially as it seems to have been more popular among the non-elites than the Arian form, even though it is now suspected Clovis had considered the merits of Arianism also.1 Through the power of the Frankish realm, Christianity spread to Kent, to Ireland, to parts of Germany, Scandinavia, and Spain, all of whom had fairly regular trade relations with the Franks.
‘Paganism’ as such was not of course one religion, nor did it clearly have any identifiable center. It is more a name given by the later Christian writers of the early Middle Ages, who are often unfortunately our only source, to the many different forms of religion that they contrasted to Christianity itself and which they associated with backwardness and superstition.2 In fact, what the scant evidence can tell us about the different beliefs of the different regions, it seems to have been a popular animism related to the magical and holy powers of certain natural sites as well as spirits and the like, supplemented with a pantheon of deities representing, as with the Hellenic religion, certain realms of human life as well as certain natural phenomena. Many of the popular practices of religion in fact continued after supposed conversion, not just because Christianity once officially the religion of the people was often not more than skin-deep, but also because spiritual practices unrelated to any specific organized religion as such could well be continued or reinvented within Christianity. That it was necessary for the Christian church in its different forms and locales to cater to this may be attested by the many saints, relics, votives, amulets and whatnot of this period, as well as by the practice of building Christian temples on sites already considered holy.3 The pantheons of the ‘pagan’ religions in the North and East of Europe are unclear, and we often lack accurate information on the details, but generally they seem to have had the same structure as the Greco-Roman ones: a theogony, a polytheistic structure with an all-powerful leading God at the head, and chiefs and kings having powers to lead in the form of their worship and in the sacrificial (and other) rituals, often deriving their authority in this from a family connection to the Gods.4
Why then the conversion of these same ‘pagan’ Kings? Several reasons may be proposed that seem credible. The first is the already mentioned authority of the church, whether Roman-Frankish or Byzantine, and its prestige derived from the Roman Empire, either by inheritance (as in the West) or by descent (as in the East). Especially those kings whose realms were close to the major Christian powers must have felt strong pressure to adopt their religion. This would remove a cause for war against them, which they will have feared, as well as making trade and diplomacy easier and promoting integration into their political structures and alliances, desirable for kings who wished to ensure their own power at the expense of their relative independence. Yet of itself this cannot have been sufficient, since there are too many counter-examples that could be given, in particular since Christian powers have not waged war on each other less than realms with any other religion.
A stronger explanation can be sought in the class relations between the monarch and his subjects. One of the explanations for the seemingly superior powers of conversion on the part of monotheisms generally over polytheist and animist systems of religion can be sought in the fact that rulers wish to integrate the ideology of their realm with their own position in a top-down hierarchy, and if possible wish to reinforce this hierarchy. Even Christian kings in the early Middle Ages had a far from absolute power and were very reliant on their nobility,5 but Christianity’s monotheistic system with one supreme God ruling all subject to him equally, as well as the church’s interpretation of the same as legitimizing the king as steward of people on behalf of God, can easily be seen to reinforce the central power of the early monarch. In fact, there is some evidence that the ‘pagan’ religions themselves underwent a development from animism toward an increasingly strong structure of divine superiority, which we may surmise is a sign of the same process taking place before Christianity presented an ideal opportunity.6 In the case of the latest conversions, we can add to this a development in the theory of the Christian church in which the explicit division of medieval society into the classes of laborers, warriors (rulers) and clergy was defended, this being a product of the process from early feudalism to high feudalism. Such a viewpoint would have been even more convenient to monarchs for their conversion in terms of its explicit endorsement of the hierarchy.7
Then there is what one might call the political problem of the ‘pagan’ theology: namely, their acceptance of the multiplicity of religious forms, precisely because of its own decentralized and particular nature. Monotheist religions necessarily are universalizing and aggressive, because their God ‘is a jealous God’. Polytheist-animist religions however recognize in the world many different loci of holiness and divine or magical powers and many possible Gods, and as such it poses no problem to the belief of the polytheist that some groups worship Jesus when they worship, among others, Perun or Odin. Local Gods would have been difficult to control and the religion relatively hard to centrally dictate and shape by any king, making him prefer a more top-down monotheist approach where the religious rules and forms would be organized and taught by the church system of centrally regulated monasteries and churches. Indeed in practice this centralization had to be enforced by successive series of enforcements of uniformity by Rome (even onto the Counter-Reformation), and often this later also led to fights between the monarchs and the church authority over the right to rule local churches and their doctrine, but for a king seeking to centralize power and establish a regulated administration, polytheistic animism must have been a headache compared to Christianity. As mentioned, ‘pagan’ kings and nobility often supported their claims to power by reference to descent from Gods or giants (as the Ynglinga saga tells us), but the also referred to development of proto-monotheist forms in even these religions before Christianity shows that this must not have been a sufficient guard against the decentralizing egalitarianism of ‘pagan’ animism. This egalitarian animism itself was clearly difficult to wipe out, as shown by the persistence of countless forms of magic, of local saints, of old rites and habits re-interpreted in Christian forms, even to the extent of old imagery and sacrifices, at least among the masses of the people; but the tolerance of polytheism became its undoing, as those proposing a single jealous God would not allow any other, whereas the polytheists were often willing to admit theirs, which alone would ensure the eventual defeat by attrition of the polytheists.
As a final point the influence must be mentioned of the difference between revealed religion and natural religion. Christianity, as a religion ‘of the Book’, relied on writing for its spread, whereas in those days only the elite was capable of reading and writing at all. This control over the rites and the access to the religion on the part of the elite must have been highly tempting to kings even when they could not read and write either (such as Charlemagne), as they could entrust their bureaucracy with it in the form of the literate clergy. Moreover, it is a well-known phenomenon that oral traditions, once in competition with writing, do not survive well, even when it comes to religion. After all, the written form means an orthodoxy is established, there is a single Truth which can be appealed to and which can potentially govern all occasions, whereas the natural religions in their oral traditions rely on the integration of local customs with local circumstances, and are constantly subject to alteration as the circumstances change. It is in a sense too flexible for its own good when faced with written competition; lack of uniformity and localism allows a bureaucracy relying on uniform orthodoxy to impose its will against relatively weak resistance each time, simply by converting each place in turn or stamping out any resistance locally where it would not survive a challenge at hegemonic level. That the clergy involved were often the only form of ‘education’ available, not least in reading and writing, would have been just an added incentive.8 The resistance of people against the new religion of monotheism would have been mostly passive therefore, by maintaining animist beliefs, by lacking interest in the new religion (we know that Christianity in Britain almost died out after the Romans withdrew and a new mission had to be sent much later to rekindle it9), and perhaps by occasional violent revolt; but on the whole, despite the more egalitarian and decentralized nature of the animist-polytheist views, in their original form they were simply no match for the increasingly central bureaucratic powers in Northern and Eastern Europe as feudalism progressed, especially since they had little power to re-establish ‘paganism’ once conversion had officially taken place, even if this did not happen through violence. Indeed, Sir Jack Goody has even gone so far as to say that ‘paganism’ when reliant on oral traditions and local practices alone is incapable of converting anyone itself at all.10
Nowadays, there is something of a small revival of ‘paganism’ in various forms, most of them for want of sources reliant on 19th and 20th Century inventions of tradition and various syntheses of practices from widely differing places and periods. In terms of its appeal to the old paganism, it has little intellectual merit. But perhaps with the demise of the monotheist organized religions and their enforced hierarchy in the developed world, any remaining current of religious and spiritual feeling can be channeled into new forms of this kind, more egalitarian in nature and more permissive of power-subverting politics. If so, it must be careful to learn the lessons of the demise of the old ‘paganisms’ and strengthen itself accordingly.
1. Mayke de Jong, “Religion”, in: Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), p. 134. It must be noted Rome itself had been hostile to Arianism from the very start, as Theodosius I repressed it.->
2. Ibid., p. 146-147.->
3. Ibid., p. 148.->
4. E.g. Barbara Yorke, “The Adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon Royal Courts to Christianity”, in: Martin Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (York 2003), p. 255.->
5. Rosamond McKitterick, “Politics”, in: McKitterick (op. cit.), p. 33-34.->
6. Przemyslaw Urbanczyk, “Politics of Conversion in North Central Europe”, in: Carver (op. cit.), p. 21-22.->
7. Ibid., p. 24.->
8. Ibid. Sir Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge 1986), p. 4-18.->
9. Ibid. William Frend, “Roman Britain: A Failed Promise”, in: Carver (op. cit.), p. 79-91.->
10. Goody, p. 4-5.->
May 21, 2009
A Bomb Plot in New York
News of today indicates that the FBI has proceeded to arrest in New York City a number of conspirators, prisoner converts to islam, who are alleged to have attempted to buy heavy weaponry to undertake terrorist attacks on various targets in the city.
The FBI arrested four men Wednesday in what authorities called a plot to detonate a bomb outside a Jewish temple and to shoot military planes with guided missiles.
Officials told The Associated Press the arrests came after a long-running undercover operation that began in Newburgh, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City.
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, all of Newburgh, were charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction within the United States and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The men had planned to detonate a car with plastic explosives outside a temple in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale and to shoot military planes at the New York Air National Guard base at Stewart Airport in Newburgh with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles, authorities said.
In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert explosives to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.
The investigation had been under way for about a year.
In June 2008, the informant met Cromitie in Newburgh and Cromitie complained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the war there and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces, officials said.
Cromitie also expressed an interest in doing “something to America,” they said in the complaint.
Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, was briefed on the case following the arrests.
“This was a long, well-planned investigation, and it shows how real the threat is from homegrown terrorists,” said King, of New York.
The defendants, all arrested in New York City, were expected to appear in federal court in suburban White Plains on Thursday. They were jailed Wednesday night and couldn’t be contacted for comment. The FBI didn’t immediately return a telephone message Wednesday night seeking information on whether the men had lawyers.
It may immediately be emphasized that regardless of our quarrel with American policy at home and abroad, and perhaps with the structure of American society as it is now, nobody can expect the American government or its people to let themselves be targeted by terrorist groups seeking to ‘make a point’. Indeed, such activities are under current circumstances useless, as they do nothing to seriously damage American imperialism, they are likely to provoke a reactionary shift in American politics as a response to a perceived level of threat from inside and outside, and they are additionally likely to increase the general hostility towards the followers of Islam within the United States. All of these results are undesirable.
What it however also proves is the inanity of the supposed policy of the United States and its allies in waging war in Afghanistan and elsewhere in an attempt to wage ‘war on terror’, or to ward off the threat of terror. As the quote from the arrested themselves shows, the war in Afghanistan has provoked many, even safely inside the United States itself, to see the United States as such a menace to world peace and the survival of numerous peoples in the wider world, that they are as a result concluding that it is a legitimate target for terrorist strategies. In this way, the terror of sudden death from the air in Afghanistan today is translated into terror of sudden death by explosion for the inhabitants of New York City. Those who would take the ‘war on terror’ to the wider world are warned that if you inflame popular resentment against the United States and its allies, those fires may come to burn you. Wiser was the author of the Gospel of Matthew when he wrote: Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.2
The Lament of the Dongria Kondh
In other news, the native rights organization Survival International reports that the government of India has given permission to the British mining company Vedanta International to expropriate a holy mountain of the small Dongria Kondh people.3 The Dongria Kondh, about 8000 strong, live of hunting and gathering in a remote region of India, in which Vedanta is planning to undertake mining for bauxite, the valuable ore that is used in the production of aluminium.
This case is representative for countless such cases all over the world. While it must be said that it is not likely that peoples such as the Dongria Kondh can maintain their lifestyle in isolation from the world market and capitalist modernity forever, there is little reason nonetheless to applaud this blatant case of ‘primitive accumulation’ on the part of British capital and Indian government alike. The Dongria Kondh will not benefit by the creation of a bauxite mine, as it is likely that the expropriation of their customary land will cast them into the ever-swelling ranks of the proletariat of the underdeveloped nations.
Possibly they shall be forced by sheer necessity of survival to work in the same factory which has is the cause of their expropriation; here as ever capital acts as a vampire, sucking the blood of the living and ever seeking fresh bodies to exsanguinate. The productive capacities of modern society appear to the Dongria Kondh as Faustian machinery, to which they are to be sacrificed as were they ever so many victims of the Aztec sun gods, sacrificed so the sun of capital may ever bestow its light upon the world. The alternative is the disappearance entirely of the Dongria Kondh as they are pulled from their ancient fixed ways and thrown onto the dustbin of history. Being suddenly thrown into circulation as yet a fresh source of ‘free’ labor will be no blessing to these people, as it has never been to natives so uprooted from their land. The loss of land and the cohesion of community offered by the ancient ways of living destroys the independence and dignity of the communities involved as well as their means of survival.4 Few will adapt in time to the relentless machinery of capitalism, and those are likely to become Indian proletarians indistinguishable from any other of that great mass in time; all others shall die out, lamented and remembered only by anthropologists. Capitalism, after all, leaves not even a permanent tombstone for those it crushes under its wheels, a stronger Juggernaut than any hitherto seen in India. Much may be said about the backwardness of the tribal peoples in this region of the world as well as others, and we must not idolize their ossified isolation and neglect the often brutal and immovable internal hierarchies within the tribe, but if they are to be taken up into the ‘competition of peoples’, it must be done upon terms that can achieve a true Aufhebung, not Enclosure or destruction.
Earlier, tribal peoples were succesful in resisting another plan in the state of Orissa to mine the Gandhamardan mountain range, thanks to the solidarity of the Dalits, who have no reason to be enthousiastic about the ‘progress’ brought by foreign investment.5 That their objections often wore the cloak of mysticism and spiritualist superstition is to be rejected, but he who cannot stand naked before his enemies must go in the most effective battle-dress, which in many parts of the world is still religion.
An End to the Civil War in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan government has jubilantly announced to the world their victory over their long-standing enemies of the LTTE, the nationalist insurgency of the Tamils of the north of the island. Photographs have been shown of the dead body of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE (generally known as the Tamil Tigers).6 The Tamil Tigers had a poor reputation, based on their use of suicide bombing, assassinations as well as recruitment of young soldiers, but the successive Sri Lankan governments often responded with equal violence and terror, even during the last stages of their recent campaign indiscriminately bombing Tamil fugitives, killing hundreds.
The origins of the conflict lie as usual in the history of British colonialism in the area. The British took Ceylon in 1796 from the Dutch, and transformed it from merely a fortified trading post into a veritable plantation for tea and indigo. Since the indigenous Sinhalese were resistant and considered untrustworthy workers, the British imported scores of Tamil from the south of India as plantation workers, and educated a small number of them to fill lower administrative colonial posts. This served the double advantage of lowering the costs of administration (a British official in the colonies being endlessly more demanding than a local and therefore unsuited for rote clerical tasks) as well as dividing the population of the island into two camps, making one dependent on British protection against the indigenous majority. Divide et impera has ever been the motto of imperial rule, especially in the direct exercise of sovereignty over colonies. Much harm has come from it in postcolonial times, as the disappearance of the old colonial power has given governments and militants in many a newly independent nation free rein to settle old ethnic and economic scores. Much here is worsened by religious bigotry between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Tamil, who are majority Hindu with a Christian minority. Both sides have treated the Muslims on Ceylon with contempt.
After the independence of the country in 1948, the Sinhalese majority increasingly sought to supplant the Tamil minority as rulers over the island, jealous of their privileged position relative to their numbers. Anti-colonial nationalism went hand in hand here, as often, with repression of minorities in the process of forging a strong national unity by the dominant ethnicity. The name of Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972 as part of this, although it must be noted the British have continued to use the island for military purposes, as was officially enshrining the dominance of the Sinhalese language. The Tamil resisted, initially politically, but voting along ethnic lines did nothing to diminish the potential for strife. The LTTE formed as a result of this repression of the Tamil and a subsequent search for a separate national state in the north, facing the Tamil region of India. The violence of the hammer of Sinhalese nationalism upon the anvil of Sri Lanka was countered by the LTTE with an equally fierce hammering of Tamil politicians and officials inclined to reconcile themselves to the situation, mostly in the form of assassinations. LTTE jealousy of any alternative Tamil organization and anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo and elsewhere led to a cycle of civil war that has lasted 26 years.
The main victims of this civil war have been the Sinhalese and Tamil populations of Sri Lanka both, neither of whom have gained much and both of whom have lost much in the endless strife. The civil war in Sri Lanka is but one example of the ways in which anti-colonialism has of necessity generally taken on nationalist forms, since only in the form of the nation-state can a people in the current political framework of capital claim and enforce their independence. Few indeed are inclined to federalism or power-sharing with any other group after centuries of oppression by outsiders, lack of self-determination and the dignity of independence, and purposeful policies of division by the colonial powers besides. Almost every ethnic-religious group in the underdeveloped world has followed the historical path of nationalist formation, with the advantage that the strength of the peoples in this vast majority of the world to resist imperialism and exploitation has greatly increased. But the price has been a steep one, and has been paid in the blood of many, especially by minority ethnic and religious groups in the respective newly minted states. These wars constitute the painful birth of the postcolonial world, and although lamentable cannot entirely be avoided. However, if the cycle of civil war, ethnic strife and militarist corruption is to end, the people of Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere must organize themselves on the basis of an internationalism that shows that they are no longer too insecure about their status as an independent people to extend a hand to their fellow exploited humans. Only when this is done and the workers of the world truly unite against exploitation, and fight for their emancipation not against each other but against capital, can the real development of their societies begin.
1. Associated Press (May 20, 2009).->
2. Matthew 26:52.->
3. Survival International, “Government approves controversial mine” (18 May 2009). http://www.survival-international.org/news/4561.->
4. There is much evidence on the negative impact of loss of native land claims on the peoples involved, in terms of survival as well as perception of well-being. See e.g. Survival International, “Progress Can Kill: How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples”. http://www.survival-international.org/lib/downloads/source/progresscankill/full_report.pdf->
5. Peter Foster, “Mining in Orissa threatens Dongria Kondh tribe”, in: The Daily Telegraph (21 April 2008).->
6. “Sri Lanka’s 26-year war ends as LTTE leader Prabhakaran killed”. Indo Asian News Service (May 18, 2009).->
By now it is a familiar trope that Lenin is to have stated that the workers do not on their own achieve a Communist class consciousness, but cannot without intellectual input from the outside achieve anything but ‘trade union consciousness’. As he put it in What Is To Be Done?:
The history of all countries testifies that workers left exclusively to their own strength can cultivate only a trade union consciousness– that is the belief in the need to unite into a union, struggle against the bosses, press the government to pass needed labor legislation, etc. The doctrine of Socialism grew out of philosophic, historical, and economic theories which were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia.1
If we accept the merits of this thesis, perhaps the same can be said of politicians. After all, in those countries that have the name of being democratic, politicians are generally accepted to represent their constituents, whoever those may be. Often those constituents are a great medley of different classes, sub-classes and interest groups, but that does not diminish the truth of this principle. This means in turn that the level at which their politicians operate depends also on the level of consciousness arrived at by their constituents; for example, in settler nations, white workers at a low level of consciousness vote for right-wing and racist politics, whereas at a high level of consciousness they vote for exclusivist social-democracy and reformism, the so-called ‘social fascism’. However, we may readily assume by analogy of the above thesis, which seems well-enough confirmed by historical experience, that the politicians operate at a higher level of consciousness in theoretical terms than their average constituency does (which is likely true even in tyrannies). After all, they are not only on the whole better educated and so forth, but also tend to be professionals with significant experience molding the stuff of politics – and politics itself is a great tester of theories and whittles many a blunt notion into a sharp understanding.
In countries like the United States, where politics is dominated by two great, if sometimes barely distinguishable, alliances of interest groups, lobbies and clientele, this principle is all the more relevant. With so many different groups being represented by the Mahayana of the Democratic Party, it is inevitable that those politicians which are not directly in the pockets of one or another interest or for parochial reasons (for example due to the district system) have one clear constituency, will have to juggle the different groups’ interests, play them against each other, and strive to obtain a certain ‘average’. In the cowardly American media, always ready to garner valuable attention by making great headlines out of minor political affairs but equally frightened of any challenge to the establishment upon which it is parasitic, the inherent ‘moderation’, ‘centrism’ and ‘stability’ of this function of the American system has been much praised. What has been less noticed however, besides the enormous resulting corruption and stock-jobbing, is the need for high-ranking American politicians and in particular the President to learn a strategy for managing politics beyond the actual interests of his constituents. This is in particular true for the Democratic Party politicians, since their party represents a much greater number of constituent groups and less defined ones at that, since more often than not the party functions as the party of non-reaction, much like the similarly named Democrats did on the continent in the days of 1848. The Republican Party is easily summed up by the interests of the military, industrial capital, the religious bigots, and certain threatened sections of the white petty bourgeoisie and white workers, but the Democratic Party represents ‘everyone else’, which makes great demands on the consciousness of the President and Congress in times when the pendulum swings in favor of the latter party.
Such a time is now, with the newly elected President Barack Obama having just finished his first 100 days in office, which in American political lore is considered an important milestone. Already he has earned the well-deserved ire of the progressive forces in the United States for his wavering, his reluctance to push through any of the greatly necessary social and economic reforms (from abolishing religious bigotry in the armed forces to uprooting the extortionist healthcare system), and his seeming lack of recognition of his strong historical position vis-à-vis the right. Yet it is too early to support declaring him the black incarnation of Andrew Johnson, since many of his critics do not yet seem to understand what his consciousness is and where it comes from, unlike in the case of the latter.
In Barack Obama’s case, much can be learned about his political consciousness from his background as a professional agitator in Chicago, which in the usual sugary euphemisms of American parlance is called a ‘community organizer’. In this work, Obama has been much influenced by the great paradigmatic figure of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s approach to political activism has been laid down in his standardwork Rules for Radicals, which he published in 1971, one year before his death.2 In this book, we find the prescriptions that Obama is still taking to heart and which infuriate the American left wing, especially its more impatient and skeptical segments. Obama, for example, always prefers using the rhetoric of ‘trusted American values’ rather than the rhetoric of challenge to establishment (other than the political core in Washington, which is a poorly disguised way of rejecting the other party only), as he describes in his political statement and autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.3 In this book, Obama describes how he tired of being on the left-wing, arguing against imperialism, and desired to reconnect to ‘the values of my grandparents’, and so on and so forth. Whereas this does no wonders for anyone’s impression of his political courage and constancy, his ardent desire to drape any real desire for political reform he may have in the colors of the American flag is quite like Alinsky’s commentary on a similar note:
Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates with the experience of his audience – and gives full respect to the other’s values – would rule out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations.4
It is not immediately clear whether we are to believe that Alinsky truly subscribed to this patriotic showmanship or merely had a cynical impression of his fellow citizens, but in any case this well describes the patriotic timidity of the Obama administration. Even when they have all the cards in their hand, as they do now, the Democratic Party is always deadly afraid of the patriotism trump being played against them, because they know that even the workers of an empire such as the American one are bound to see their own strength as being bound up with the strength of its patriotic institutions. Alinsky’s emphasis on “working within the system”, on the sequence of organization-reformation-revolution (which he understands in a very broad sense indeed) fits precisely the mold of the professional organizer of communities, one who is striving to build up power out of weakness and who has little political material to work with.5
That is not to say that this organizer’s consciousness is of itself problematic; on the contrary, it is of the greatest use for any political party or movement, especially the Communists, to have people capable of grasping a political situation, to work within that situation to organize power, and to not let themselves be baited either by authorities or by impatience into adventurism and posturing. Obama, however, shows that within the Democratic Party, especially the supposed ‘left wing’ to which he was said to belong (much was made of this during the campaign by his opponents, who thereby revealed their incompetence at measuring from which side the wind was blowing), is not capable of transcending this organizer consciousness. Even when in an exceedingly strong position, they are unable to make any decisive moves or reforms. They are essentially a political equivalent of the trade union consciousness: forever trying to make inroads against a system which by their very attempts at doing so they strengthen, because they play within their bounds and are not capable of challenging the rules of the game itself. Only when those rules themselves are fundamentally challenged does change, Obama’s campaign theme, truly become possible, but the Democratic Party cannot do this without destroying the system of spoil-sharing with the Republican Party. Therefore, if Obama is to become a transformer of American politics, he must first transform his party’s consciousness, and this he cannot do.
1. See: V.I. Ulyanov (Lenin), “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement”, in: Collected Works (Moscow 1961), Vol. V, p. 347-530.->
2. Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York, NY 1971).->
3. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, NY 2006).->
4. Alinsky, p. xviii.->
5. Alinsky, p. xxi.->
May 13, 2009
While the American government has decided to prematurely discharge their commander in Afghanistan, McKiernan, from his job and to replace him with a special forces specialist, the army of Pakistan is undertaking a renewed offensive against the Taliban-identified forces in the tribal areas and the Swat valley. This valley used to be an idyllic holiday spot for the Pakistani elite – the entire region is known for its natural beauty due to its rugged characteristics, which greatly hinder operations by modern conventional armies, but give it a great romantic charm – but now some 800.000 are said to have fled as the hammer of war beats the population on the anvil of tribal fanaticism. We can safely assume that the Pakistani army will succeed in driving the Taliban from the areas in the Swat valley that are accessible and relatively close to the capital, since if only for reasons of prestige they cannot fail at this. But Pakistan’s central authority has not had real control over the tribal lands and border area with Afghanistan for a great length of time, and the Taliban resurgence is for an important part to be credited to precisely this; the totally ineffective nature of central government and its bureaucracy in the area has led to passive local support for tribal leaders and clerical authorities resorting to their own measures, which are invariably based on the strictest and cruelest forms of implementation of Islamic religious law and local customs.
Of itself, there is nothing whatever positive to report about either the ideology or the measures of the Taliban (or the medley of tribal-clerical forces operating under this name), neither in Afghanistan nor in Pakistan. But some counter-points must be made.
First of all, the Western presence in Afghanistan is not justified by the ferociousness and cruelty of the Taliban, since not only does the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the population increase rather than decrease support for the insurgents, but the West as always to retain control is forced to make opportunistic alliances with warlords, sometimes reincarnated as provincial Governors, many of whom are no better than the Taliban. The commander of the Afghan National Army is the feared Tajik warlord Rashid Dostum, whose violent and cruel nature surely matches that of his opponents. With Afghanistan’s reform-minded central government having a very weak urban base in this backward and rural country, reliance on one criminal to defeat the other is inevitable. It does nobody any good for the Western troops to be involved in this.
Secondly, tales of the cruelty of the old leaders, the tyranny of the rulers and the immorality of the barbarian laws have been a pretext for imperialist activity and occupation since the Enlightenment, if not before. Many will perhaps remember still the use of the practice of suttee, or widow-burning, in certain Hindu upper classes being a pretext for British occupation of India. V.G. Kiernan in his excellent history The Lords of Human Kind gives many examples of this. The Mahdi revolt, finally repressed by Kitchener, was described as “unparallelled for horror and human depravity”.1 The disbanding of the Turkish empire was permitted because of its “centuries of unremitting misrule”, its “roguery, corruption and falsehood and deep anti-social selfishness”.2 Bukkhara was to be conquered by Russia because its ruler, the Emir Nasrulla Khan, was “an embodiment of all the country’s degeneracy, an unredeemed tyrant kept going by a swarm of spies, reactionary clergy, and executioners”, and the Khanate of Khiva “weighed down by the most course and unbridled despotism”, its people known for “treachery, mendacity, cruelty and rapacity”.3 The Malays were “the most fierce, treacherous, ignorant and inflexible of barbarians”, which practically begged for conquest; as a certain Major McNair therefore concluded, “it may be taken for granted that amongst the most enlightened Malays there is a disposition to welcome the English”.4 Indeed, no surprise then that a certain George Borrow remarked about the campaign to conquer Sarawak: “What a crown of glory, to carry the blessings of civilization and religion to barbarous, yet at the same time beautiful and romantic lands…”5 This might as well have been a relatively eloquent American officer in Afghanistan today.
Of course, we may have every cause to be enthousiastic about the defeat of such reactionary clergy, local landlords and tribal robber chieftains as can be found among the Taliban. Compared to the feudal serf relations and the religious darkness of old, capitalism and the world market are beyond any doubt an advance. But things are no longer as clear in that regard as they may have been in the 1800s. After all, Afghanistan is already in the world market, as is proven by the agricultural produce of the country, in particular in those areas occupied by the Pashtun landlords favoring the Taliban. If religion is the opium of the people, then in Afghanistan opium surely is the religion of the people. It is by far the most valuable cash crop that the country can produce under current circumstances, and its integration in the world market is shown by the opium of Kandahar becoming the heroin of Los Angeles.
Moreover, as will be shown in a later article on this topic, capitalism does not always relieve the peasantry of semi-feudal burdens or the yoke of feudalistic landlordism. A greater social revolution among the peasantry is needed to achieve this, destroying the landlord class and turning peasants into farmers, while pushing the excess rural population into the cities. This process is the only guarantee of modernization having staying-power in formerly backward areas, as even now Russia shows: impoverished, battered but modern in outlook, despite the recent resurgence of racism out of despair. During the times of the Soviet Union, Russia underwent this process irreversibly, and this has been the guarantee of its future being free of the ignominious backwardness and ignorance of Czarist times. While we encourage the Pakistani government to defeat the Taliban in their regions, and we also hope that after the departure of the Western occupiers the Afghan people will be able to do the same to their variegated warlord groups locked in struggle, from a Marxist perspective it is inevitable that any government to have lasting success in the region must force this revolution upon the peasantry of the mountains of Central Asia, or the peasantry must do this themselves and free themselves of landlordism. The failure of the Babrak Karmal government and its successors to do the former indicates that perhaps the best chance would be the latter, but historical evidence seems to indicate that more often than not the peasantry, when not yet pulled out of ancient tribal and religious modes of thought, is self-defeatingly stubborn, and may require a ‘push’. This is the challenge the Taliban poses: can the countryside of these regions, among the most backwards on the planet, undergo social revolution on its own strength? For it to do this, it requires the oxygen of self-determination, and continued occupation of Afghanistan by Western powers strangles it.
1.V.G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire (Boston, MA 1969), p. 216.->
2.Ibid., p. 114.->
3.Ibid., p. 100-101.->
4.Ibid., p. 83.->
5.Ibid., p. 86.->