[OPE-L] Taking Debate Seriously: A Response to M. Junaid Alam

From: Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM
Date: Tue May 17 2005 - 17:05:18 EDT

M. Junaid Alam, co-editor of "Left Hook",  wrote a critique of John
Holloway's book _How to Change the World Without Taking Power_
for Zmag:
As the title of his contribution makes clear, Alam believes that John H.
has not taken _power_ seriously.   In seeking clarification from John on his
perspective on the ongoing revolutionary process in Venezuela, Alam
(like Paul Z and Michael L on OPE-L) helps to advance the debate among
leftists on the character of the Bolivarian revolution.  I agree that the
questions that Alam raises are important and need to be discussed.

However,  there are some important problems with Alam's perspective
and approach to this debate.  These problems,  which were not visible in
his widely-circulated Zmag article, can be seen in the following:
< http://lists.riseup.net/www/arc/lefthook/2005-04/msg00083.html >

I.  Defending the Bolivarian Revolution Shouldn't Mean Opposing
         the Zapatistas

Alam is certainly within his rights  to defend Chavez's approach as being
"far more useful than Holloway's model" (although why does Chavez
have an approach, whereas John H and the Zapatistas have a "model"?
-- this is a subtle example of loaded terminology, I believe).

Why, though, does Alam dismiss the Zapatista experience in such a
contemptuous way?    Isn't  calling the Zapatistas a "motley collection
of indigenous groups" being dismissive towards their struggle?   The
Zapatistas, Alam claims, are "quite a marginalized force" which is
"really just surviving".    Not only that -- the Zappatista movement,
Alam claims, is  "dangerous".   On that point, at least, he would find
much agreement -- from the state and federal government in Mexico,
local ranchers, the bourgeoisie, and US imperialism.

By claiming that the Zapatistas are a "motley collection", a "marginalized
force" and "dangerous",  he gives aid and comfort not to revolutionaries.
Is this his perspective of what "solidarity" with the Zapatistas means?
If so, you can appreciate why they might not welcome such "solidarity"
from leftists who share this perspective.

Why is it necessary for Alam -- or others -- in supporting the
revolutionary process in Venezuela to demean and undervalue
the experience of the autonomous communities in Chiapas?
Is it really "useful" to counterpose one "model" to another? Useful
to whom?  I think that these leftists need to do a little soul-searching
and  critical self-evaluation.

II.  The Zapatista and Bolivarian experiences are not "models"

Wherever and whenever there is a revolutionary experience, those
who claim to be revolutionaries should evaluate that experience.
To make the claim, though, that an individual experience represents
a "model"  requires one to _demonstrate_ that the conditions and
characteristics which gave rise to and nourished a revolution in one
country can be replicated in other countries.  As I have in another
post to OPE-L
(http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/ope/archive/0505/0084.html >)
suggested why the experience in Venezuela is in
many ways exceptional (i.e. specific to that social formation), I will
not  repeat those points now.  But I do want to make a couple of
additional points here:

i)   The way in which events unfolded in Venezuela were crucially
related to the particular nature of the Venezuelan military.  In how
many other nations in Latin America is the military a source of
support for revolutionary change?  In how many other nations in
Latin America or elsewhere has a career military officer -- running
on a radical democratic platform and with the support of the poor
and working class -- been elected president?   Isn't it _far_ more
often the case that the military is a _reactionary_ social institution
and that its ranks -- _especially_ the military -- are composed of
right-wingers?   Alam recognizes that the coup in Venezuela was
defeated, in part,  by "leftist military elements" but he does not go
on to ask the obvious question regarding the extent to which
Chavez's "approach" can be generalized in other nations -- where
else are "leftists military elements" so strong that they have
prevented a coup from being successful?

ii)   Hasn't Chavez's challenge to US imperialism and struggle for
economic self-determination been at least _partially_ related to
the fact that Venezuela is an import oil-producing and oil-
exporting nation?    While this by no means _defines_  Chavez or
the national economic policy of Venezuela, it would be absurd
to deny that the national economic strategy is _related_ to this
condition -- a condition that no other country in Latin America
shares to the same extent.

As for the Zapatistas, I think they would be the _first_ to say
that they are _not_ advocating a "model".   Nor do I think that  for
John H  the Zapatistas are a "model".   For revolutionaries in
many countries they are an _inspiration_, but this does not mean
that we should "model" our praxis on their experience.  Indeed,
I would go so far as to suggest that an implied principle of
autonomists Marxists and anarchists is that _all_ models -- and
other expressions of authoritarianism -- should be rejected;
we should not let our thought be imprisoned by "models" drawn
from the past or specific social formations.

III. Alam's Main Beef

Alam tells us in his post what his "main beef"  with "Holloway
et al" is.

My main beef with Alam is that in his Zmag article he didn't
tell the readers of that magazine what his main beef was.  By
doing so, he showed a great disrespect for the readers of that
magazine.  Doesn't he believe that in an article which alleges
to be a critique of John's perspective that he honestly tells the
readers what his main complaint is?    Those readers, though,
would not discover that from a reading of his article -- they
would have to read instead a post he sent to the Left Hook
Discussion List.

This is an important debate which needs to be taken seriously.
Yet, Alam has not taken debate itself seriously since he hasn't
even honestly represented his own position in Zmag.

The "main beef", it turns out, concerns the perspective of John
H "et al" on;
a) the character of "really existing socialism"; and
b)  social-democratic movements.

Alam claims that John  H  (and autonomists and anarchists, more
generally) look at these historical experiences and movements
"one-sidedly as simply one of betrayal".   From Alam's perspective,
John H "shits on all this", i.e. the alleged positive aspects of
"really existing socialism" and social democracy.

Yet, much of what Alam claims as the "partially good things" that
came out of "really existing socialism"  are at best debatable.  Does
he really believe, for instance,  that the USSR helped anti-
colonial forces to defeat imperialism,  et. al?    Many of those anti-
colonial and anti-imperialist fighters would disagree with him
on that evaluation.

While he mentions that a "good thing" was the USSR helping
to defeat Nazism, he doesn't mention some rather important
historical details such as the Stalin-Hitler pact,  the fact that
Stalin  opposed the war until the day that the Nazis invaded
the USSR, and that Stalin ignored military intelligence about
that attach and botched the defense of the Soviet Republic
(in many ways, which I will not catalog here).

Alam's defense -- of sorts -- of social democracy is odd.
Indeed, he even implies that social democracy (like 'really
existing socialism') is a "baby" that shouldn't be thrown out with
the bathwater.  Whatever else can be said about Lula -- he
is no "baby"!    While it is, of course, true that in some capitalist
nations that are led by social-democrats, such as Sweden, workers
have often won significant reforms, it is _also_ true that they
_have_ been betrayed.    Let us recall that social democracy
when it was led by Marx and Lasalle was a revolutionary anti-
capitalist political movement.  It has long since ceased to
be revolutionary -- instead it is a political force which in power
seeks to maintain capitalism.  That _is_ a betrayal.  Similarly,
the social-democratic "leadership" of trade unions -- because
it embraces "labor-management cooperation" -- _does_ betray
rank-and-file trade union members.  When, in the US, social
democratic leaders support liberal (or conservative!) bourgeois
political candidates or took positions in the Clinton administration,
that also was a betrayal.  To say this is not to be one-sided: it's
speaking truth to power.

It is not that "Holloway et al shit on"  social democrats and the
leaders of really existing socialism.  Rather, the social dems and
most of the leadership of those nations have shat upon workers
and peasants everywhere!

While he probably does not recognize it, Alam's argument could
also be used as a defense of *liberalism*.  After all,  didn't some
liberals like FDR make some "concrete improvements in people's
lives"?  Are we then to say that we should be more even-handed
and less "one-sided" in our evaluation of liberalism?  No.  "Concrete
improvements" notwithstanding (which were not gifts from liberals
or social democrats but were fought for by the working-class),
social democrats betrayed the working class and liberals faithfully
serve the bourgeoisie and the preservation of capitalism.  Indeed,
some of those same "concrete improvements" happened as a
way of diffusing mass mobilizations, thwarting radicalization,
and defending capitalist relations of production.

Of course, Alam has every right to disagree with John on
"really existing socialism" and social democracy.  He has every
right to state and defend his perspective.  But, he didn't do that
-- he held something back, a _crucial_ part of his own perspective
-- his "main beef".   I hope that he does better in the future.  There
should be a debate, but it should be a _genuine_ debate.

In solidarity, Jerry

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