Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 10, 2015

Two other members of the Syria amen corner: Slavoj Zizek and the Nation Magazine

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

The Elvis Superstar of Marxism

I wonder how I became so perversely obstinate on the question of Syria when so many people were united on the belief that it was a US “regime change” operation such as the one that plunged Iraq into misery. Why were so few willing to agree with me that the root of the crisis was Baathist determination to make good on the promise that “without Assad, we burn down the nation”? Surely, if such a broad array of influential analysts such as Alex Jones, Patrick Cockburn, Ron Paul, George Galloway, the Angry Arab, Robert Fisk and Jacobin Magazine can agree on the need for a “war on terror” in Syria while disagreeing on other matters, what stopped me from joining the amen corner myself? I guess it boils down to having made up my mind four years ago that they were all full of shit.

Speaking of the amen corner, let’s hear from some of its other members who have weighed in on the refugee crisis.

Turning first to Slavoj Zizek, whose LRB article “The Non-Existence of Norway” on the refugee crisis can be described as toxic formulations covered with a progressive patina, we should not be surprised by the venue. The LRB has been pumping out a steady stream of Baathist propaganda for the better part of four years and surely finds Zizek amenable to its amen corner editorial outlook. As for Zizek, he is an old hand at denigrating the Syrian revolt having written a piece in the Guardian two years ago referring to it as a “pseudo-struggle”. The Elvis superstar of Marxism wrote:

All that was false in the idea and practice of humanitarian interventions exploded in a condensed form apropos Syria. OK, there is a bad dictator who is (allegedly) using poisonous gas against the population of his own state – but who is opposing his regime? It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qaida in the shadows.

Interesting to see the prolix philosopher summing up the amen corner analysis in so few words.

Zizek strikes a disgusting plague on both your houses pose in the LRB:

Public opinion is sharply divided. Left liberals express their outrage that Europe is allowing thousands to drown in the Mediterranean: Europe, they say, should show solidarity and throw open its doors. Anti-immigrant populists say we need to protect our way of life: foreigners should solve their own problems. Both solutions sound bad, but which is worse? To paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse.

Well, what can you say? I would have thought the superstar of Marxism would have at least found the call for solidarity and throwing open the doors of Europe for those fleeing barrel bombs to be better than the nativist, ultraright parties that would have them drown in the sea. Of course, since most of these ultraright parties (probably all of them) are closer to Zizek than they are to me, he might see some merit to their racism.

So what is the cause of the refugee crisis? It is American intervention that resulted in “failed states”:

If we really want to stem the flow of refugees, then, it is crucial to recognise that most of them come from ‘failed states’, where public authority is more or less inoperative: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, DRC and so on.

This poses an interesting question. What does it mean to say that “public authority is more or less inoperative” in Syria? I would love to ask the Elvis superstar of Marxism if there was ever any such thing as “public authority” in Syria if that rests on the consent of the governed.

He does allow that refugees should be accepted but only by promising to behave themselves. They must accept the “social norms of European states”, which can mean practically anything. Even if Zizek is on record as opposing French laws that ban the scarf in public schools, his statement that “it is not inherently racist or proto-fascist for host populations to talk of protecting their ‘way of life’” makes you wonder if he has any clue what UKIP, Le Pen are up to at all.

Finally, there is the question of “open borders” that he has apparently not given much thought to. An examination of the history of passports, visas and the like will reveal that they were institutions created by class society just as prisons were. In an article for Swans five years ago, I tried to sketch out the largely neglected history:

The first blow delivered to such feudal encumbrances was the great French Revolution of 1789, or at least that was the hope. A delegate to the Estates General pleaded that each citizen “must be free to move about or to come, within and outside the Kingdom, without permissions, passports, or other formalities that end to hamper the liberty of its citizens…” Such hopes were in vain since the bourgeois republic reflecting the class interests of those who made it retained passports as a means of controlling the poor who were pouring into Paris.

It was not just the poor who were kept on a tight leash. When King Louis XVI was caught trying to flee the country disguised as a valet, the republicans cracked down. Anybody trying to flee the country without authorization would be subject to arrest, thus making the sublime sentiments of the conclusion of Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca ring a bit hollow.

Worries over counter-revolution did not only stem from flights from the country. There was also a consensus that foreigners might find their way into France harboring subversive ideas. Subversive in this context, it should be added, meant a belief in the divine rights of Kings. France eventually resolved this problem by abolishing internal passports — in deference to the hopes of the democratically minded and a burgeoning capitalist class in need of “free” labor while institutionalizing them at the border. Henceforth, the concept of “foreigner” would be enshrined in the piece of paper that defined one in relationship to the bourgeois republic.

By and large, the 19th century was marked by a more permissive attitude toward the right to travel without restriction since a capitalist industrial revolution would not be possible without mobile pools of labor, in the same way that California agribusiness relies on an ample supply of Mexican stoop labor today.

Prussia, a state that symbolized absolutism, enacted legislation in 1817 that permitted its citizens to “travel freely and unhindered” without papers, but only within its borders. Leaving the country without a passport was strictly verboten, however.

If Prussia’s restrictions mirrored its inability to break cleanly with the feudal system, how does Britain — an exemplar of liberal free trade — stack up by comparison? As was always the case with Britain, the right to emigrate was joined at the hip to the capitalist economy. An economic downturn in the period 1810 to 1820 prompted bread riots by the poor. In face of such troubles, the ruling class decided to relax restrictions. That explains the enormous migration to Australia and other former colonies that would follow.

Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) also led to increased mobility by the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.

Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate a sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.

While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.

The fact that some sectors of the capitalist class favor labor mobility today as a way to undermine trade unions in places like the United States and France, just as was the case in Germany in the 1860s, should not stand in the way of our call for freedom of movement.

Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he wrote:

Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.

For the past four years I have heard that American liberalism has called for the “right to protect” in Syria just as it did in Yugoslavia. If that is so, someone must have failed to remind the Nation about their “humanitarian intervention” responsibilities based on a couple of items that appeared on the magazine’s website.

An editorial titled “Europe’s Refugee Crisis Was Made in America” puts them pretty much in the same territory as Jacobin and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. It states:

The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS—now terrorizing Syria and Iraq and threatening neighboring countries—was sparked by the aftermath of the Iraq invasion and further fueled by the misguided tactics of the United States and Britain in Syria.

While I am in accord that ISIS was midwifed by Shiite sectarianism in Iraq, what exactly were the American and British “misguided tactics” that fueled its growth in Syria? For the past four years Anglo-American imperialism has pretty much adopted a hands off policy reminiscent in many ways of FDR’s attitude toward the Spanish Civil War that effectively helped Franco take power. Indeed, it was the Baathist tolerance of ISIS in its early stages that allowed it to take root and become such a menace. A report appeared in February 2015 Time Magazine that reveals the continuing collaboration between the fascists in neckties and the fascists in beards:

The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has long had a pragmatic approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), says a Syrian businessman with close ties to the government. Even from the early days the regime purchased fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities, and it has maintained that relationship throughout the conflict. “Honestly speaking, the regime has always had dealings with ISIS, out of necessity.”

Assad does not see ISIS as his primary problem, the businessman says. “The regime fears the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, not ISIS. They [the FSA and Nusra] state their goal is to remove the President. But ISIS doesn’t say that. They have never directly threatened Damascus.” As the businessman notes, the strikes on ISIS targets are minimal. “If the regime were serious about getting rid of ISIS, they would have bombed Raqqa by now. Instead they bomb other cities, where the FSA is strong.” That said, the businessman does not believe that the regime has a formal relationship with ISIS, just a pragmatic one. “The more powerful ISIS grows, the more they are useful for the regime. They make America nervous, and the Americans in turn see the regime as a kind of bulwark against ISIS.”

Finally, falling smack dab in the middle of the Red-Brown alliance, there’s an article by Stephen F. Cohen titled “Has Russia Been Right All Along About the ‘Arab Spring’?” that is consistent with his nonstop advocacy on behalf of the separatist cause in Ukraine. After all, if Russia is playing a progressive role in Novorossiya fending off fascists, wouldn’t you expect it to play the same sort of enlightened role in the Middle East?

Stephen F. Cohen

The article contains a link to John Batchelor’s WABC radio show where Cohen has become a weekly guest. Nowadays the professor emeritus seems incapable of writing an article (and even if he was, it is doubtful that it would be published in scholarly journals) and relies on his excursions to the WABC studio where his host eats up his every word.

Batchelor is the author of “Aren’t You Glad You are a Republican” and is a diehard Likudnik whose other favorite guest next to Cohen is Malcolm Hoenlein, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Batchelor and Hoenlein have co-hosted shows from Israel on numerous occasions, including during the wars on Gaza where they cheered on Israeli jets. I suppose that Cohen is aware of all this but does not really care. For that matter, Putin himself is a friend of Israel despite the impressions to the contrary of our “anti-imperialist” friends.

I really don’t have the time or the stomach to listen to Cohen and Batchelor schmoozing it up but assume that the audio clip is faithful to this description. You can have it:

Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian cold war. Heading this installment is the Obama administration’s vehement opposition to Moscow’s suggestion that it might deploy Russian air power to Syria against ISIS forces. Cohen argues that this is due to a number of irrational positions in Washington: the new American cold-war reflex of seeing every Russian proposal in a negative light; the Obama administration’s determination to fight a two-fight war in Syria—against ISIS and against Syrian President Assad, whom Moscow supports; and an unwillingness to consider Russian President Putin’s longstanding argument that the US policy of regime change in the Middle East invariably worsens conditions there, as already evidenced by events in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya.


  1. “For the past four years Anglo-American imperialism has pretty much adopted a hands off policy reminiscent in many ways of FDR’s attitude toward the Spanish Civil War that effectively helped Franco take power.”

    I have now worked it all out, you are a goddam comedian!

    Why didn’t I spot it earlier?

    PS You are not that funny

    Comment by Simon Provertier — September 10, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

  2. If you think ISIS is fascist you better go read Trotsky again.

    Comment by Cliff — September 11, 2015 @ 5:33 am

  3. Actually I don’t think that ISIS is fascist. It is just that the formulation about fascists in beards versus fascists in neckties has a certain literary punch.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 11, 2015 @ 11:50 am

  4. Despite all his accolades I’ve always found Cohen’s writing on Russia in general and the USSR in particular to be mostly putrid schlock so it’s no surprise he’s largely quit writing and degenerated into a pundit on a Zionist radio show. What a schmuck!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 12, 2015 @ 12:49 am

  5. thanks Stephen F. Cohen for qouting Zizek and mentioning his article ‘Syria is a pseudo-struggle’ and the Non-Existence of Norway.. Everyone should read them if wants to know about the real issue. Other thoughts in Cohen’s article are just ‘ no thought’

    Comment by Saleem Shah — January 15, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

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