Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 30, 2015

Against Manichaeism

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

Manichean art


Now, it would seem that the geopolitical/chess game left is ready to throw Syriza under the bus. The battle against austerity matters less than how Tsipras stands on sanctions. Just look at MRZine that is festooned today with anti-Syriza tweets.

EU wins Greek backing to extend Russia sanctions, delays decision on new steps


For the past few years, and largely as a result of the wars in the Middle East and the Ukraine, there has been a tendency to view everybody fighting as proxies of Washington or Moscow. For most of the left, this means taking a position on those fighting based on where they stand in relationship to the rival powers. Like a chess game in which the black pieces are pure evil and the white pure good, geopolitics matters much more than the individual pieces. If a pawn is forced to align itself with the West, it matters little whether its cause is just.

Ironically, Manichaeism was born in Persia, a country seen by most of the left as certainly pale in hue and pure as the driven snow. After all, how could a country be bad if it is hated so much by the USA? This, of course, is the same logic that drove so many new leftists into Maoist sects in the 60s and 70s. If Mao was such a universally despised figure, didn’t it make sense to follow Bob Avakian or Mike Klonsky? For some, Nixon’s trip to China complicated things to the point that these sects began to disintegrate in the 1980s.

Manicheanism got its name from its founder—Mani. Mani is not a name like Louis but an honorific like “Sri” or “Bey”. Scholars view the religion as an offshoot of Gnosticism, a religion that fascinated me when I was a religion major at Bard. For the Gnostics, the world was divided between good and evil. You tended to dwell in the evil until you learned the truth about the world’s dualism. You can easily understand how Gnosticism was traceable back to Neo-Platonism, a philosophical cult and semi-religion that was inspired by Plato’s notion that philosophical reflections by philosopher-kings was a precondition for understanding the world. If you trace back geopolitical/chess game thinking to its Platonic roots, you can see how little has changed. Instead of reading Plato’s Republic, the key to enlightenment is Robert Parry’s ConsortiumNews or WSWS.org

All this came to mind nearly hours after it was announced that Syriza had formed a government in a bloc with ANEL, a small ultraright party that disagreed on all issues with Syriza except the need to fight against austerity. Facebook lit up with revelations on its head guy who came across as a typical Alex Jones interviewee. Kevin Ovenden, a staunch supporter of Syriza and someone prone to geopolitical ways of thinking, was candid about ANEL’s leader:

Kammenos is a kooky conspiracy theorist (with added anti-semitism to boot). For example, he maintained that the vapour trails left by passenger jets were in fact chemtrails the kind left by low-lying crop-spraying and comprised a soporific drug which had made the Greek people go along with a new German occupation of their country.

The immediate reaction of those upset with such an alliance was to say, “ah-ha, this is what you could have expected all along—Syriza is moving to the right”. Only a day later, things quieted down about the ANEL bloc when Tsipras and his top cabinet appointees showed a flinty determination to tell Germany to take its austerity and shove it up its ass.

It was obvious to me at this point that some people were anxious to indict Syriza on the same basis as the Maidan activists or the FSA were condemned but from the opposite side of the coin. If Tsipras can unite with such a slug, that’s all you need to know. It was the same kind of logic that allows so many on the left to take Putin’s side because Victoria Nuland’s phone call to the American ambassador to Ukraine revealed Washington’s support for Maidan. What Maidan protesters were for hardly mattered. In fact, the whole mission of the Manichean left became one of dredging up every piece of evidence that would condemn Maidan after the fashion of a district attorney.

In the latest development, the same people ready to throw Maidan under the bus are now all the more ready to back Syriza because it appears to coincide with their own support for the Kremlin. Tsipras has declared that he opposes sanctions against Russia over its intervention in the Ukraine and his foreign minister Nikos Kotzias is apparently a colleague of Alexander Dugin, the ultranationalist philosopher of Novorossia, the Kremlin’s bid to reconstitute Katherine the Great’s Empire.

I have a totally different take on ANEL, Dugin and any other litmus test applied to Syriza outside of its stance on the all-important question of austerity. If Greece moves forward and successfully beats back the austerity regime imposed by Western European elites, it will encourage mass movements everywhere, including Russia. Russia, like Greece, is run by oligarchs who enjoy obscene incomes while ordinary people’s income stagnate. Furthermore, as oil revenues decline Russia’s social divide will become more acute. Putin was able to draw a “silent majority” to his side because incomes were rising. People put up with corruption because it did not necessarily affect them directly.

If you step back and look at all the protests and civil wars taking place around the world, they are driven by the same causes whether they line up on Washington or Moscow’s side of the ledger book. Crony capitalism is the target even if people marching in the streets don’t have an analysis of capitalism. Every successful hammer blow against a Bashar al-Assad or a Greek billionaire hiding his money in a Swiss bank will flow like streams into an ocean of resistance that will make the radical movement of the 1930s or 60s look pale by comparison. Our role as socialists is to encourage rebellion against the malefactors of great wealth, whether they are on the black or white side of the chessboard.

If any confirmation was necessary of the inadvisability of applying a litmus test to Syriza based on such considerations, I refer you to a column by James Bloodworth that appears in today’s Independent. Bloodworth, a long-time opponent of the Bolivarian revolution and Bashar al-Assad, likes to speak in the name of the left but is basically a liberal, not to speak of his shoddy journalism that plays fast and loose with Venezuelan statistics.

Never one for understatement, Bloodworth titles his hatchet job: “Syriza’s victory in Greece might not be the radical revolution you were hoping for. The party has got its head nestled in the lap of the Kremlin, but apparently that’s fine.”

He claims that Syriza and ANEL are “light years” apart based on questions such as immigration as if sheer opportunism rather than agreement on the need to resist austerity made their alliance possible. It would seem that Syriza falls short of Bloodworth’s lofty standards since its opposition to the EU bosses only looks leftist in a context of politics shifting so far to the right.

Put another way, it would be a mistake to assume that the people of Greece shifted decisively to the left in electing Syriza. In reality economic orthodoxy has moved so far to the right that an unwillingness to let a generation of young Greeks wither on the vine is now considered utopian.

This is a distinction without a difference. The election was not a referendum on the wisdom of the labor theory of value. It was not about ideology but about survival. With a suicide epidemic based on despair, people were voting for a party that offered an alternative to austerity. For our young pundit, this is not good enough apparently.

Applying a litmus test of Ukraine on Syriza, Bloodworth has a hissy fit over the fact that people on the left, including me, are not ready to cast it down to hell:

Enough to quicken the pulse of any far-right ideologue, you would think. Only this isn’t the far-right but the radical left, the living embodiment of the “hope” that is supposed to inspire Europe’s genuinely beleaguered poor.

He makes sure to get in a dig about Venezuela and the new pope:

This is why you will see left-wingers board charter flights to Caracas and laud the Venezuelan regime while journalists are locked up and student protesters watercannoned. It’s why the reactionary Vatican is praised as a vessel of progressive thought for mouthing platitudes about “the poor”.

What a cheap smear. The fact that the pope is going around the world blasting economic inequality leaves him cold. What else is the pope supposed to do except give speeches? Throw Molotov cocktails like the lilywhite Venezuelan student protesters?

The article concludes with a Hitchensesque anti-Communist rant that makes you wonder how the people running Jacobin would have ever given him a bully pulpit:

And it’s why the spectre of 20th century Communism still casts a long shadow over Syriza and their admirers in Britain. So long as you nationalise a few things and spout some anti-colonialist rhetoric, you’re a made man on the left. If you’re in the omelette making business there is after all no time to coddle the eggs.

Actually it is the specter of 21st century socialism that casts a shadow over Syriza. What it is doing in Greece is far more important than how it lines up on the Ukraine. Venezuela and Cuba are also on the right side of history despite their mistakes on Syria. They are to be judged on the stand they took on the class struggle within their borders. States often make foreign policy choices based on exigency, going back to the USSR’s decision to make deals with Mustafa Kemal at the very time he had the leaders of the Turkish CP assassinated. Politics is a messy business. For those who prefer Manichean simplicities, I recommend the legions of the simpleminded led by James Bloodworth on one hand and Robert Parry on the other. For the rest of us, it is useful to recall what Lenin said about the Easter Rebellion of 1916:

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song is Over” and signed with the initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.


  1. I don’t get your sympatico with the US/CIA-backed Maidan/Kiev fascists. It WAS a democratically-elected government that was thrown out as was Allende’s Mossadegh’s and Sukarno’s. And Zalaya was a democratically elected president as was Chavez and is Maduro, Correa and Morales. At least as far as “democratic” goes…or we could just replace all current Dear Leaders with Putins or whomever is the current Putin of China or the current Wall Street capitalist figurehead of the US?

    Comment by thom prentice — January 30, 2015 @ 10:15 pm

  2. Thomas, my views on Ukraine are influenced by Lenin’s. If you (and others) check what I have written using the link “Ukraine” on the right panel, you will find material that places the current conflict into context. This is about colonialism. Russia colonized Ukraine in the 1700s and has always resisted it becoming independent. What is happening now is merely the latest battle in a long war.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 30, 2015 @ 10:23 pm

  3. Important comment, Louis, for dialectical thinking versus simple logic. Complexity and internal contradiction are to be expected. Ultraleftism (the flip side of reformism) is a seedbed for the development of simplistic, one-dimensional perspectives. I think another dimension of the simplistic thinking that drove many of the new radicals of the sixties and early seventies into the Maoist camp was that the Mao government *appeared* to be the most ultra-revolutionary force in the world. Wasn’t Mao attacking the CPSU as revisionist, conservative and ‘class-collaborationist with world imperialism?’ All hail the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!” And, as you say, didn’t the U.S. government seem to see Mao’s government as its worst enemy.

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — January 30, 2015 @ 11:10 pm

  4. Syriza is operating in a parliamentary system where the mainstream parties embrace neoliberal austerity. An alliance with ANEL is preferable to one with a more mainstream party that would require it to water down its opposition to Germany and the EU.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 31, 2015 @ 1:46 am

  5. Thank you Louis for this wonderful piece. Only one point of contention however, which in fact is a point of addition and supplemental to the article’s main point.

    This has been a pet peeve for me for some years, since in my understanding of Mani’s ideas, it seems that the western reader has been mis-understanding Manichaeistic thinking. In western thinking, Manichaeistic thinking is thinking in absolute terms and in black and white; in absolute dualisms.

    The irony of ironies is that Mani’s contributions to philosophy and religion in Persia/Iran of his day (in the Third Cent. AD) was actually an attempt to inject *complexity* and *dynamism* into, by then, an already ossifying worldview of Zoroastrianism.

    Zoroastrians were the first monotheistic religious movement which became institutionalized and organized as a state religion, and their basic tenets describe the social and moral world as divided between the regions of light and darkness (good and evil in Judeo-Christian conceptualization). Its most basic teaching (mantra) is: Do well, think well, speak well. The regions of dark and light in its dualisms were posited as absolutes; as in, each area of this dualism was completely exclusive to and outside the other sphere.

    Mani’s purpose was primarily to combine and update certain principles of Zoroastrians’ beliefs with certain principles of Buddhists and Christians (he declared himself as a disciple of Christ). In his historical moment, he was trying to critique and go beyond the static dualisms of his contemporary intellectuals; he was writing in response to, in opposition to and as a critique of the dominant ideology of his days, namely Zoroastrianism and the thinking of Zoroastrian priests of his day, who were the ideological priests of the ruling classes. He was doing so in hopes of reforming the mentality of the people of his and following generations.

    What he brought to the previous *static* dualism between light and darkness of the Zoroastrians was the concept that the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ are in a *dynamic* struggle and they interpenetrate each other: in the sense that even the ‘good’ is in part good and potentially evil at the same time, and likewise the ‘evil’ is in part evil and in part potentially good.

    This formulation is perhaps the closest formulation of what centuries later would be expressed by the logic formally called dialectics, which allows for the fact that all X’s contain within themselves the non-X, with which all X’s are in constant struggle, and out of each stage of their ongoing struggle, out of the back forth, another X (X’, X” and so on) arises which is also pregnant with its own antithesis, and so on. First, the first Negation, then negation of the negation, ad infinitum.

    So, it is ironic that Mani’s legacy has actually turned his original intent upside down, backwards and back to front, and ascribes to him a black and white type of mechanical thinking, capable only of inversion, exhibited by superficial anti-imperialists of our day; a type of thinking that Mani in fact was fighting against in his day.

    Comment by Reza F. — January 31, 2015 @ 2:56 am

  6. “Our role as socialists is to encourage rebellion against the malefactors of great wealth, whether they are on the black or white side of the chessboard.” Well put.

    Comment by Shane H — January 31, 2015 @ 4:15 am

  7. There is a fine line between dualistic, conspiratorial thinking and paranoia .La Rouche is an example , building an imaginary network of “good” and “bad” networks, going back thousand of years. Great post, Louis

    Comment by Peter Myers — January 31, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  8. “I think another dimension of the simplistic thinking that drove many of the new radicals of the sixties and early seventies into the Maoist camp was that the Mao government *appeared* to be the most ultra-revolutionary force in the world.”

    As a side note, it is also worth noting that Mao supported Pakistan after elections around 1970 lead to the succession of what was called “East Pakistan” at the time, now Bangladesh, with the troops and police chanting “Chairman Mao is with us!” as they attacked leftist students. Could it be that radicalism at home tends towards conservatism abroad?

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 31, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  9. All this reminds me of the Danish television series Borgen which I have been watching because a close relative gave me the DVDs. I don’t accept the political outlook the show seems to represent (the idea that socialism is impossible and the Welfare State an infantile error that Europe must leave behind by compromising with neoliberalism), but the depiction of the snares and pitfalls of less-than-majority government in a parliamentary system strikes me as beautifully done and highly applicable to the Syriza situation.

    Let’s hope that this well-charted whirlpool and the external pressures on a small and weak nation do not suck Syriza down before they get started.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 31, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

  10. “Complexity and internal contradiction are to be expected. Ultraleftism (the flip side of reformism) is a seedbed for the development of simplistic, one-dimensional perspectives.”

    God forbid that Proyect would ever give us a one sided view of the situation in the Ukraine.

    Where would we be without his complexity?!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — February 1, 2015 @ 11:41 am

  11. Frankly, the issue of Ukraine has to do with avoiding an open confrontation between two major nuclear states. Gorbachev was sent out by Russia as a warning, and it is not an idle one. Anyone advocating an escalation of tensions in the name of political zealotry is going to be judged harshly by history.

    Comment by jeff — February 3, 2015 @ 4:46 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: