Category Archives: Obituary

Paul Volcker’s Long Shadow

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called Paul Volcker “the most effective chairman in the history of the Federal Reserve.” But while Volcker, who passed away December 8 at age 92, probably did have the greatest historical impact of any Fed chairman, his legacy is, at best, controversial.

“He restored credibility to the Federal Reserve at a time it had been greatly diminished,” wrote his biographer, William Silber. Volcker’s policies led to what was called “the New Keynesian revolution,” putting the Fed in charge of controlling the amount of money available to consumers and businesses by manipulating the federal funds rate (the interest rate at which banks borrow from each other). All this was because Volcker’s “shock therapy” of the early 1980s – raising the federal funds rate to an unheard of 20% – was credited with reversing the stagflation of the 1970s. But did it? Or was something else going on?

Less discussed was Volcker’s role at the behest of President Richard Nixon in taking the dollar off the gold standard, which he called “the single most important event of his career.” He evidently intended for another form of stable exchange system to replace the Bretton Woods system it destroyed, but that did not happen. Instead, freeing the dollar from gold unleashed an unaccountable central banking system that went wild printing money for the benefit of private Wall Street and London financial interests.

The power to create money can be a good and necessary tool in the hands of benevolent leaders working on behalf of the people and the economy. But like with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s “Fantasia,” if it falls in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc on the world. Unfortunately for Volcker’s legacy and the well-being of the rest of us, his signature policies led to the devastation of the American working class in the 1980s and ultimately set the stage for the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Official Story and Where It Breaks Down

According to a December 9 obituary in The Washington Post:

Mr. Volcker’s greatest historical mark was in eight years as Fed chairman. When he took the reins of the central bank, the nation was mired in a decade-long period of rapidly rising prices and weak economic growth. Mr. Volcker, overcoming the objections of many of his colleagues, raised interest rates to an unprecedented 20%, drastically reducing the supply of money and credit.

The Post acknowledges that the effect on the economy was devastating, triggering what was then the deepest economic downturn since the Depression of the 1930s, driving thousands of businesses and farms to bankruptcy and propelling the unemployment rate past 10%:

Mr. Volcker was pilloried by industry, labor unions and lawmakers of all ideological stripes. He took the abuse, convinced that this shock therapy would finally break Americans’ expectations that prices would forever rise rapidly and that the result would be a stronger economy over the longer run.

On this he was right, contends the author:

Soon after Mr. Volcker took his foot off the brake of the U.S. economy in 1981, and the Fed began lowering interest rates, the nation began a quarter century of low inflation, steady growth, and rare and mild recessions. Economists attribute that period, one of the sunniest in economic history, at least in part to the newfound credibility as an inflation-fighter that Mr. Volcker earned for the Fed.

That is the conventional version, but the stagflation of the 1970s and its sharp reversal in the early 1980s appears more likely to have been due to a correspondingly sharp rise and fall in the price of oil. There is evidence this oil shortage was intentionally engineered for the purpose of restoring the global dominance of the U.S. dollar, which had dropped precipitously in international markets after it was taken off the gold standard in 1971.

The Other Side of the Story

How the inflation rate directly followed the price of oil was tracked by Benjamin Studebaker in a 2012 article titled “Stagflation: What Really Happened in the 70’s”:

We see that the problem begins in 1973 with the ’73-’75 recession – that’s when growth first dives. In October of 1973, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo upon the supporters of Israel – western nations. The ’73-’75 recession begins in November of 1973, immediately after. During normal recessions, inflation does not rise – it shrinks, as people spend less and prices fall. So why does inflation rise from ’73-’75? Because this recession is not a normal recession – it is sparked by an oil shortage. The price of oil more than doubles in the space of a mere few months from ’73-’74. Oil is involved in the manufacturing of plastics, in gasoline, in sneakers, it’s everywhere. When the price of oil goes up, the price of most things go up. The spike in the oil price is so large that it drives up the costs of consumer goods throughout the rest of the economy so fast that wages fail to keep up with it. As a result, you get both inflation and a recession at once.

… Terrified by the double-digit inflation rate in 1974, the Federal Reserve switches gears and jacks the interest rate up to near 14%. … The economy slips back into the throws of the recession for another year or so, and the unemployment rate takes off, rising to around 9% by 1975. …

Then, in 1979, the economy gets another oil price shock (this time caused by the Revolution in Iran in January of that year) in which the price of oil again more than doubles. The result is a fall in growth and inflation knocked all the way up into the teens. The Federal Reserve tries to fight the oil-driven inflation by raising interest rates high into the teens, peaking out at 20% in 1980.

… [B]y 1983, the unemployment rate has peaked at nearly 11%. To fight this, the Federal Reserve knocks the interest rate back below 10%, and meanwhile, alongside all of this, Ronald Reagan spends lots of money and expands the state in ’82/83. … Why does inflation not respond by returning? Because oil prices are falling throughout this period, and by 1985 have collapsed utterly.

The federal funds rate was just below 10% in 1975 at the height of the early stagflation crisis. How could the same rate that was responsible for inflation in the 1970s drop the consumer price index to acceptable levels after 1983? And if the federal funds rate has that much effect on inflation, why is the extremely low 1.55% rate today not causing hyperinflation? What Fed Chairman Jerome Powell is now fighting instead is deflation, a lack of consumer demand causing stagnant growth in the real, producing economy.

Thus it looks as if oil, not the federal funds rate, was the critical factor in the rise and fall of consumer prices in the 1970s and 1980s. “Stagflation” was just a predictable result of the shortage of this essential commodity at a time when the country was not energy-independent. The following chart from Business Insider Australia shows the historical correlations:

The Plot Thickens

But there’s more. The subplot is detailed by William Engdahl in The Gods of Money (2009). To counter the falling dollar after it was taken off the gold standard, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon held a clandestine meeting in 1972 with the Shah of Iran. Then, in 1973, a group of powerful financiers and politicians met secretly in Sweden to discuss how the dollar might effectively be “backed” by oil. An arrangement was finalized in which the oil-producing countries of OPEC would sell their oil only in U.S. dollars, and the dollars would wind up in Wall Street and London banks, where they would fund the burgeoning U.S. debt.

For the OPEC countries, the quid pro quo was military protection, along with windfall profits from a dramatic boost in oil prices. In 1974, according to plan, an oil embargo caused the price of oil to quadruple, forcing countries without sufficient dollar reserves to borrow from Wall Street and London banks to buy the oil they needed. Increased costs then drove up prices worldwide.

The story is continued by Matthieu Auzanneau in Oil, Power, and War: A Dark History:

The panic caused by the Iranian Revolution raised a new tsunami of inflation that was violently unleashed on the world economy, whose consequences were even greater than what took place in 1973. Once again, the sharp, unexpected increase in the price of crude oil instantly affected transportation, construction, and agriculture – confirming oil’s ubiquity. … The time of draconian monetarist policies advocated by economist Milton Friedman, David Rockefeller’s protégé, had arrived. The Bank of England’s interest rate was around 16% in 1980. The impact on the economy was brutal. …

Appointed by President Carter in August 1979, Paul Volcker, the new chief of the Federal Reserve, administered the same shock treatment [drastically raising interest rates] to the American economy. Carter had initially offered the position to David Rockefeller; Chase Manhattan’s president politely declined the offer and “strongly” recommended that Carter appeal to Volcker (who had been a Chase vice president in the 1960s). To stop the spiral of inflation that endangered the profitability and stability of all banks, the Federal Reserve increased its benchmark rate to 20% in 1980 and 1981. The following year, 1982, the American economy experienced a 2% recession, much more severe than the recession of 1974.

In an article in American Opinion in 19179, Gary Allen, author of None Dare Call It Conspiracy: The Rockefeller Files (1971), observed that both Volcker and Henry Kissinger were David Rockefeller protégés. Volcker had worked for Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan Bank and was a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 1971, when he was Treasury undersecretary for monetary affairs, Volcker played an instrumental role in the top-secret Camp David meeting at which the president approved taking the dollar off the gold standard. Allen wrote that it was Volcker who “led the effort to demonetize gold in favor of bookkeeping entries as part of another international banking grab. His appointment now threatens an economic bust.”

Volcker’s Real Legacy

Allen went on:

How important is the post to which Paul Volcker has been appointed? The New York Times tells us: “As the nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve System, which by law is independent of the Administration and Congress, has exclusive authority to control the amount of money available to consumers and businesses.” … This means that the Federal Reserve Board has life-and-death power over the economy.

And that is Paul Volcker’s true legacy. At a time when the Fed’s credibility was “greatly diminished,” he restored to it the life-and-death power over the economy that it continues to exercise today. His “shock therapy” of the early 1980s broke the backs of labor and the unions, bankrupted the savings and loans, and laid the groundwork for the “liberalization” of the banking laws that allowed securitization, derivatives, and the repo market to take center stage. As noted by Jeff Spross in The Week, Volcker’s chosen strategy essentially loaded all the pain onto the working class, an approach to monetary policy that has shaped Fed policy ever since.

In 2008-09, the Fed was an opaque accessory to the bank heist in which massive fraud was covered up and the banks were made whole despite their criminality. Taking the dollar off the gold standard allowed the Fed to engage in the “quantitative easing” that underwrote this heist. Bolstered by OPEC oil backing, uncoupling the dollar from gold also allowed it to maintain and expand its status as global reserve currency.

What was Volcker’s role in all this? He is described by those who knew him as a personable man who lived modestly and didn’t capitalize on his powerful position to accumulate personal wealth. He held a lifelong skepticism of financial elites and financial “innovation.” He proposed a key restriction on speculative activity by banks that would become known as the “Volcker Rule.” In the late 1960s, he opposed allowing global exchange rates to float freely, which he said would allow speculators to “pounce on a depreciating currency, pushing it even lower.” And he evidently regretted the calamity caused by his 1980s shock treatment, saying if he could do it over again, he would do it differently.

It could be said that Volcker was a good man, who spent his life trying to rectify that defining moment when he helped free the dollar from gold. Ultimately, eliminating the gold standard was a necessary step in allowing the money supply to expand to meet the needs of trade. The power to create money can be a useful tool in the right hands. It just needs to be recaptured and wielded in the public interest, following the lead of the American colonial governments that first demonstrated its very productive potential.

This article was first posted on Truthdig.com.

Reflections on Elijah Cummings

There aren’t many politicians in America who deserve the praise that Elijah Cummings had earned over the years. He was respected by all in Congress, and by many of his Republican rivals. He was a fighter for civil right all his life, and represented the most economically exploited citizens of Baltimore, first as a member of the State House of Delegates and then in the US Congress. Yes, he did represent part of Baltimore City that is ‘rat-infested’, as President Trump liked to equate all of Baltimore (at least where black Americans lived) and by extension Mr. Cummings himself. Donald Trump has a lifetime history of racism.

In 2016 I ran against Mr. Cummings for Congress as a Green Party candidate. I garnered only 3%, but it was the largest vote for the Green Party in the Baltimore area for a candidate for the House of Representatives. I did not run against Mr. Cummings because I thought his politics was too right-wing. In fact, every time as a constituent when I called his office to voice my concern over an issue I knew I would be speaking to one who supported my views. The problem I had with Congressman Cummings is that he stopped long ago from representing the people of the 7th Congressional District and nearly exclusively represented and advocated for the Democratic Party, often at the expense of me and other constituents.

Cummings signed on to sponsorship of Medicare for All. Yet he never advocated for it and instead, supported the Affordable Care Act, which put the nail in the Medicare for All coffin.

He opposed President Bush’s bailout of the banks but to preserve the prestige of the newly elected president Obama, and based on false promises from Obama, supported a new set of bailouts for the banks. Who but his constituents who were most affected, and whose lives were destroyed by the banking industry, were betrayed by Congressman Cummings?

Elijah Cummings’s death has certainly left a hole, a void, in Congress that will be difficult to fill. And it is very likely that his replacement, before an actual election, will be another sycophant of the Democratic Party. What is needed is the Old Cummings, the one who fought an establishment, not the one who lived the remaining years serving it.

Jacques Chirac: The Art of Being Vague

The tributes have been dripping in heavy praise: former French president Jacques Chirac and mayor of Paris, the great statesman; the man who said no to the US-led war juggernaut into Iraq; the man loved for being loved.  Many of these should have raised the odd eyebrow here and there. “We French have lost a statesman whom we loved as much as he loved us,” claimed current French president Emmanuel Macron.

When greatness is tossed around as a term in French commemorations, there is always a sense of merging the corporeal flesh with the non-corporeal state.  The person thereby “embodies” France, inhabiting that rather complex shell that passes for a state. But the comparisons are all too loose and ready, showing an awkward accommodation.

Eulogies are often the poorly chosen instruments to express the mood of an occasion rather than the reality of a life.  Given the crises facing the European Union, the pro-European sentiment of Chirac was cause for nostalgia. (He had encouraged a United Europe of States rather than a United States of Europe, moving France away from the Gaullist credo of self-sufficiency.)  “Europe is not only losing a great statesman, but the president is losing a great friend,” claimed Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission in a statement.  Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt saw his Europhilia and interest in Europe as the making of the man, “the real statesman that we will miss.”

Terms of amity were also reiterated by former French President François Hollande, whom Chirac had described in previous political battles as “Mitterrand’s labrador”.  “I know that today, the French people, whatever their convictions, have just lost a friend.”  Smaller figures of history were also effusive in their praise: Boris Johnson, current British prime minister flailing in the Brexit imbroglio, expressed his admiration for that “formidable political leader who shaped the destiny of his nation in a career that spanned four decades”; one term UK prime minister John Major also doffed his cap.

Where Chirac excelled without question was in his role as political hypocrite (a kinder term would be political gymnast, or a weathervane, as he was sometimes associated with).  Mayor of Paris for a touch under two decades, two stints as prime minister and two presidential terms suggest ample opportunity to master it.  It also suggests shifts, adjustments and moving across hardened political divisions, the pragmatist rather than the polemicist.

His customary in that regard could be exquisite.  He could readily give the “le bruit et l’odeur” address in 1991 yet become the anti-racist option in the 2002 election, in which shell-shocked progressives were urged to vote for the crook rather than the fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen.  In foreign affairs, he did something memorable: fabricate the image of France as suspicious of war and interventions, a peaceful state above reproach and self-interest.  This enabled him to lead the anti-war effort against Iraq mounted by the United States and Britain in 2003.

The populist jab is worth noting for its current relevance: the terror of an overcrowded Europe, the fear of tax-payer funded marauders – often of the swarthy persuasion – that has been played upon from Nigel Farage in Britain to Viktor Orbán in Hungary.  Imagine, posed Chirac, the humble French worker with his wife who sees next to his council house a father with three or four spouses with some twenty children all supported by welfare.  “If you add to that the noise and the smell, well the French worker, he goes crazy.”

He was also a creature of a brand of politics that would wear against the regulations.  Mountainous ambition will do that to you, and the rust on Le Bulldozer was bound to be discovered at some point.  In 2011, he was handed a two-year suspended sentence on two counts of embezzling public funds, something he did during his time as Paris’s mayor.  The specifics centred around the creation of fake jobs at his RPR party and suggested no grand scheme of self-enrichment.  Even after his conviction, Chirac the amiable, Chirac the admired, was a theme pressed home by his lawyer, Georges Kiejman.  “What I hope is that this ruling doesn’t change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac.”  Kiejman had little reason to worry.

While hardly virtuoso, he advanced the uncomfortable question of French complicity in Nazi crimes, the otherwise great untouchable subject of post-war identity.  The measure was significant, sinking, at least in some way, the notion that the French republic somehow retained its purity in abolition during German occupation and Vichy rule.  That rule had resulted in a mutant political creation and monster; France the Republic could not be blamed, having ceased to exist.  As former French President François Mitterrand claimed, rather unconvincingly, “In 1940, there was the French state, this was the Vichy regime, it was not the Republic.”  Mitterrand, as with many in his position, did not feel an urging to join the French resistance till 1943; prior to that, he had been a civil servant in Vichy.

On July 16, 1995, Chirac noted how “the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French by the French state.”  In July 1942 in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, 13,000 Parisian Jews were arrested by 4,500 French police in preparation for their murderous end in Auschwitz. “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome asylum, on that day committed the irreparable.”  The country had broken “its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.”

Court historians will be kept busy wondering about the man’s ideologies and beliefs.  They will ponder legacies left, and things unachieved.  Structural and social divisions, for instance, remained unaddressed.  With Chirac, appearances and demeanour had their distorting effects.  Chirac, wrote French journalist Anne-Élisabeth Moutet, sported a “forceful manner” that concealed “terminal policy indecision”.  While leaving no lasting legacy, he had one up over the current, struggling leader.  Despite being a chateau-owner, in the pink as far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, and married to an aristocrat, he had the common touch.  For Professor Pascal Perrineau of the Paris School of International Affairs, he was a president who jogged and rode a Vespa, and appreciated for that fact.  His lasting skill, however, was to immortalise the art of being vague in politics.

Remembering Hisham Ahmed

Portrait

Hisham Ahmed was born in Deheisheh refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Palestine in 1963. Blind from birth, Hisham somehow surmounted all odds and ultimately earned a Ph.D from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He taught for many years at Birzeit University in Palestine, before coming to Saint Mary’s College of California in 2006. He died of cancer in July 2019, age 56. The following remembrance was given at his memorial service held on 25 September 2019 at St Mary’s College.

*****

Sometimes you meet someone who is unforgettable.   Hisham Ahmed was such a person.

I recall the first time I met him. It was about twelve years ago, soon after he came to the Bay Area. He was speaking about the reality of Palestine before a big crowd. The other guest speaker was the Jewish American activist Anna Baltzer. I remember him with his braille computer, reading his prepared speech as his fingers slid across the computer which he kept by his side, supported by his shoulder strap.

That scene of Hisham with his computer and shoulder strap became very familiar. Hisham was always willing to speak at our events, never asking for anything in return. He was an important part of our community outreach and education about Palestine and the Middle East.  We were especially happy when he agreed to join the board of the Mt Diablo Peace & Justice Center.  He immediately made a mark with his positive suggestions and ideas. He was that kind of person.

Hisham and Yassar Arafat

Hisham was sensitive to others. In the hospital he would always ask and remember the name of  different nurses and doctors. If time permitted, he would inquire about the background of a nurse or doctor.  Hisham would make some insightful comments and suddenly the staff would realize this blind person was very sharp. One of the night nurses was from Florida and was shocked and delighted to learn that Hisham had previously taught at his university there. Suddenly Hisham was not just another patient.

At the same time, Hisham stood up for himself and was unafraid to challenge authority.  Whether it was Israeli regime, the PA, or the Kaiser medical bureaucracy …. Hisham was unafraid to speak out.  And he got the attention of Kaiser; his constructive criticisms made a difference.

Hisham was diplomatic and full of humor.  I noticed that his academic advisor at UC Santa Barbara, from 25 years ago, recommended him highly. In addition to commenting on his academic work and achievements, the professor remarked that Hisham was …. “a live wire”.    A live wire ….. Hisham lived life to the full, bicycling dangerously around the UC Santa Barbara campus.

Two years ago we had a forum in Orinda. It was ambitiously titled “Stop the War Machine / Save the Planet”.  And we ambitiously had 16 excellent speakers. It was a terrific lineup including the lead organizer from the California Nurses Union, the former Green Party mayor of Richmond, etc.  But, of course we had to strictly limit the time of each speaker. When his turn came, Hisham warmed up the audience by saying,  “If you ever want to know how to punish a professor I will tell you how.  Just limit their speaking time to seven to ten minutes …” The audience loved it.   Hisham went on to deliver a sharp and prescient analysis of events. He described how Arab Spring had become Arab Hell with the destruction of Libya and war on Syria. He warned of the danger of all out war.

Hisham and Mam

Hisham showed his political courage and insight when he invited Mother Agnes Mariam to speak at St Mary’s College and to meet college leaders. Mother Agnes was a Palestinian Lebanese nun who lived in Syria. She had been demonized in the media for saying the sarin gas attacks in Syria in 2013 were not done by the government. She was later proven correct by the research of Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry, Theodor Postol and others with track records of accuracy and objectivity. But at the time she was viciously attacked in western media, including by some on the so-called Left.  Those who wanted the US to intervene directly attacked Mother Agnes and threatened to disrupt her program at St Mary’s.  The opposition even threatened violence at the college.  Hisham told me there was enormous pressure to cancel the event.  But Hisham was not deterred. The program went ahead and was outstanding.

Hisham was most devoted to his family. He always talked admiringly of his wife Amneh, how he was worried because she was doing so much. When their son Ahmed was graduating from elementary  school, Hisham was in the hospital.  They did not want him to leave but he said “Hell no …. I am going to Ahmed’s graduation!”  And he did. Later, when Hisham was home and monitoring his own health, his daughter Nour was at his side taking his blood pressure and temperature. Hisham loved it and proudly called her Dr. Nour.

Because he was so articulate I assumed that Hisham came from the Palestinian upper class. Thus I was surprised to learn that his father was day laborer. Another surprise: Because Hisham taught at St Mary’s College and supported the Palestinian Christian Sabeel movement, I assumed he was Christian.  Thus I was surprised to hear the Muslim call to prayer playing on his cell phone when we were in the hospital at 4:30 am.  Hisham’s body rests at the Islamic cemetery in Livermore. His spirit and actions represent the best of the religion of peace and the best of all religions because Hisham did not discriminate.

My last memory of Hisham is the night before he passed away. He had arranged for his wife Amneh to have a barbecue dinner at their home.  Nancy and Wendy were there, who had helped so much.  He said we are missing Marty. I was happy that he said I was like a brother.  It was a wonderful feast and party. Hisham ate with gusto, laughing and having a good time. I think he knew it was going to be his last chance to do that. And it was.

But that is how I remember Hisham. Full of fun. Wanting other people to have fun. And living life to the maximum. He was a man of principle, resolute but fun loving, polite but strong.

In some ways, Hisham embodied the Palestinian cause: overcoming huge challenges, resilient, proud, undaunted, steadfast. Let us do as he would want:  continue the fight for peace with justice in Palestine and beyond.

Robert Mugabe’s Legacy: Revolution, Amity and Decline

Robert Mugabe is the sort of figure that always caused discomfort.  He was a permanent revolutionary, becoming, in time, the despotic ruler who frittered away revolutionary gain.  He played multiple roles in international political consciousness.  As Zimbabwe’s strongman, he was demonised and lionised in equal measure for a good deal of his time in power.  His role from the 1990s – Mugabe, the West’s all-too-convenient bogeyman and hobgoblin – tended to outweigh other considerations. In the end, even his supporters had to concede that he had outstayed his welcome, another African leader gone to seed.

In 2008, Mahmood Mamdani noted the generally held view in publications ranging from The Economist to The Guardian that Mugabe the Thug reigned.  Yes, he had helped in laying waste to the economy, refusing to share power with a more vocal and present opposition, and created an internal crisis with his land distribution policy.  But this did little to explain his longevity, his recipe of partial coercion and consent, the teacher-visionary and the bribing mob leader.  “In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved.”

The obsession with character – one of Mephistophelian bargain and decay – is found in both the literature and the popular culture depicting Mugabe.  The stock story is this: he taught in Ghana in 1963, a key figure in the nationalist movement split in what was then Rhodesia, becoming secretary general of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).  The Shona dominated ZANU was formed from the original Ndebele ethnic minority dominated Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Prison followed in 1964; Mugabe fled to Mozambique in 1974 though not before a spell of imprisonment at the hands of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda (his escape was probably engineered by Zambians); by 1977, he had assumed control of the organisation, though Mozambique’s President Samora Machel never quite trusted him, taking a leaf out of Kaunda’s book in detailing the mischief maker, albeit briefly.  Military victory was sought against the Smith regime in what was then white-controlled Rhodesia, and it was with some reluctance that Mugabe found himself a signatory to the British-sponsored settlement in 1979, one assisted by Lord Carrington, Kaunda, the Commonwealth Secretary General, Shridath Ramphal, and, ironically enough, white apartheid South Africa.

On becoming leader, he was deliciously accommodating in his rhetoric, despite having entertained the prospect of confiscating land owned by whites a la Marx-Lenin and wishing to hold white leaders to account in war crimes trials.  In his national address in 1980, he spoke of the bonds of amity; he wished for bygones to be bygones.  “If you were my enemy, you are now my friend.  If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me.”

Initially, Mugabe, the progressive, shone through: healthcare and education programs were expanded; literary rates and living standards rose; white farmers were reassured that mobs would not be knocking on their doors.  Whites were included in a mixed cabinet; heads reappointed in the army, the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation. But he had his eye on dealing with rivals.

In 1983, former members of ZAPU’s military outfit attacked targets in Matabeleland.  The result was uncompromisingly bloody: anywhere upwards of 20,000 civilians killed; many more tortured, maimed, tormented.  In four years, ZAPU had been defeated, absorbed into the ZANU-PF structure.  The extinguishment of such rivalry paved the way for a Mugabe presidency and near-absolute rule.

By the 1990s, economic conditions were biting.  Real wages fell; the International Monetary Fund demanded domestic readjustments to the economy.  Economic stagnation kept company with increasingly repressive policies against journalists, students and opponents.  Calculatingly, Mugabe propitiated war veterans by awarding them generous pensions in 1997.  Then came the next threat: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

In February 2000, a national vote on a redesigned draft constitution, the progeny of ZANU-PF, proposed British compensation for land; absent that, white farms would be seized without due compensation.  Its defeat by a narrow margin saw Mugabe step up his campaign, featuring farm occupations and the sponsorship of veterans to assist in invasions of farms owned by white farmers.  Mugabe was returning to an old platform.

The prevailing psycho-portraiture for such behaviour is never consistent.  One variant finds its culprit in a decision Mugabe made in 1996.  Secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years Mugabe’s junior, became his wife, considered within certain circles a less than worthy replacement for Sally, who died in 1992.  Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper spared no punches, seeing in Marufu a lever pulling, power hungry creature akin to Lady Macbeth.  “He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger.”

His former home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa, pinpointed a different year when the great compromiser and negotiator changed: 2000.  There are no gold-digging suggestions, merely political manipulations filtered with a bit of paranoia.  “He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him.”

Overwhelmingly, the narrative is of the great hope that failed, the rebel who trips.  This echo of the good man gone bad is detectable in celluloid, with the fictional state of Matobo in The Interpreter, featuring as its political backdrop a bookish schoolteacher who defeated a white-minority regime but fouled up matters by turning into a tyrant.  “The CIA-backed film,” suggested the then acting Minister for Information and Publicity, Chen Chimutengwende, “showed that Zimbabwe’s enemies did not rest.”

Mugabe was every bit the contradiction of the colonial-postcolonial figure, supported one day as the romantic revolutionary to be praised, reviled as the authoritarian figure to condemn, the next.  The revolutionary to be feted was a motif that continued through the 1980s, despite signs that the hero was getting particularly bloodthirsty.  A string of honours were bestowed like floral tributes to a conquering warrior: an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Massachusetts in 1984, despite the butchering of the Ndebele; an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh (subsequently revoked in July 2007); a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.

Accounts such as Martin Meredith’s Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, point to the aphrodisiac of power, violence as currency, the cultivated links with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Laurent Kabila, and the creation of a crony state. The DRC connection softened the blows of international sanctions, at least to some extent, keeping rural voters in clover and the security forces content.  Such arrangements, involving a juggling of loot and measuring out the spoils, is rarely indefinite.

The narrative of the power mad creature runs through as a counter to the liberal thesis that Mugabe started with promise, and went sour.  This would have been tantamount to suggesting that Lenin insisted on changing the world through even-tempered tea ceremonies and soft voiced mediation, only to endorse revolutionary violence at a later date.  James Kirchick, oft fascinated by the wiles of demagoguery, saw the strains of brutality early: Mugabe’s time in prison, as with other revolutionaries, led to a certain pupilage with power, a sense of its necessity.  Degrees in law and economics were earned via correspondence from the University of London, a way to pass carceral time for subversive actions against the white Smith regime in 1964.  All that time, he nursed Marxist-Leninist dreams.

As leader of the movement to oust the white regime, Mugabe was not sparing with his use of violence.  In this, he differed from the founder of the ZANU founder Ndabaningi Sithole, who renounced terrorism and subversion after his 1969 sentence for incitement.  Nor was he averse to internal suppression: his cadres had to be trustworthy in the cause.

Over time, the distance between Mugabe the ruler, and the Zimbabwean citizenry, grew.  International sanctions, applied with much callousness, bit.  Hyperinflation set in.  The state was left bankrupt.  Food shortages in 2004 did not sway him.  “We are not hungry,” Mugabe told Sky News.  “Why foist this food upon us?  We don’t want to be choked.  We have enough.”

In November 2017, a coup by senior military personnel was launched in terms that seemed almost polite, a sort of dinner party seizure.  Mugabe was placed under house arrest; his ZANU-PF party had decided that the time had come.  The risk of Marufu coming to power was becoming all too real, though this femme fatale rationale can only be pushed so far.  There were celebrations in the streets.  Thirty-seven years prior, there were similar calls of jubilation for the new leader. Left with his medical ailments, Mugabe died at Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore on Friday, farewelled by his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa as “an icon of liberation, a pan Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation of his people.”  The muse of history can be atrociously fickle.

Justifications for Inequality: The Neuroses of Kochland

One of the brothers Koch, David, has shuffled off this mortal coil, and the pious few looking at his passing may well think he is making it tough for camels passing through needles.  As part of the Brothers Koch, he presided over a corporate empire that did its pinching best to wrest control from the purses of public accountability in the US republic.  At his death, he was the eleventh richest person on the planet, on par with his dominant brother, Charles.

David K, however, went beyond the narrower spending interests of brother Charles, the one with the sharpest of eyes for business who elevated the family’s Wichita oil company into a mammoth entity worth $110 billion.

The pet projects of right wing think tanks and campaign funding for libertarian causes did interest David, but he wished for more. Medicine and the arts tickled his interest, turning him into a philanthropist.  His particular funding-from-high approach was something that was bound to earn praise in some cases: the powerful can be benevolent to the arts and various good causes, even if it comes with a presumption of innate inequality.  Take the New York ballet, which can count some $100 million in donations from the family, and such institutions as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such recipients spent little time philosophising about the origins of the loot.  As President Theodore Roosevelt said dismissively of John D. Rockefeller’s establishment of a foundation to manage and disseminate his wealth, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

It was precisely such gestures that made David Koch a difficult one to pin down, at least for a certain breed of conservative.  Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, for instance, has suggested that this particular Koch brother could not be meaningfully slotted into a niche of blue-blood conservatism, being himself “a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights, drug legalisation, and much else that does not fit very comfortably on the current ‘right wing’ agenda”.

Politics generates its own distinct tics; Charles and David were left heavy with the anti-socialist sentiments of their bruising father, Fred, who supervised the building of refineries in a Soviet Union hungry for petroleum engineering.  This was a temporary measure: when the Soviets felt competent enough to proceed without his help, Fred Koch wound his disgruntled way to a more accommodating Nazi Germany, where his firm, Winkler-Koch, prospered from 1934.  (This latter point is not mentioned on the website of an organisation Fred joined as an early national council member, The John Birch Society.)

A form of natural selection in the family was encouraged, with Charles edging David out in the pecking order.  David would find his way.  MIT engineering, basketball for which he showed more than an aptitude for, and presidency of Koch Engineering, and executive vice-president of Koch Industries in 1981.  While brother Charles always took primary polling in building the empire, turning Fred’s bricks into family marble, it was David who proved a consistent ally in subsequent family disputes, notably against mischievous brother Bill.

To study the Kochs is to study the US republic as an ailing patient saddled with profound neuroses.  To that end, few studies on the Kochs, or any other US corporation, match Christopher Leonard’s Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America.  “The Koch brothers derived their wealth through a patient, long-term strategy of seizing opportunities in complex and often opaque corners of the economic system.”  That toenail growing patience was underpinned by an ideological observance of free-market economy, specifically those of the Austrian school.  Out of this worship of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek came Market-Based Management, not much short of a cult’s affirmation.

The name Koch is associated with the realisation of political platforms and the disruption of others.  The same year David found himself running as vice-president, Richard Fink, long considered the steering force of the “Kochtopus”, suggested a three stage process in the field of activism. The idea would be germinated by intellectual hothouses and allowed to flourish.  Selected think tanks would treat these ideas as a convertible and exportable commodity: the activists and advocacy groups, suitably bankrolled with Koch cash, would fashion such raw material, using it to pressure elected officials.

As Jane Mayer, a keen student of the Koch phenomenon has noted, the brothers “built a kind of an assembly line to manufacture political change.” In Dark Money, she would call it “a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on.”  Some conservatives preferred to simply see such operating means with gushing envy: the Kochs, according to an admiring Jim Geraghty, were engaged in “effective activism”, targeting “state legislatures, local tax initiatives and the political races that aren’t ‘sexy’.”

That production line had its favourite targets: the supposedly galloping away power of the state (by the end of the 1970s, abolishing the Energy Department had become a platform of the Libertarian Party), unwanted regulations, and fetters on corporate behaviour. In recent years, a clearer picture of the Koch contribution to a big ticket issue – climate change denial – has emerged.  This has been characterised by an insatiable, and uninterrupted hunger, for natural resources.  As David Koch explained to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Alaska in 1980, the US, “in its own self-interest should be actively promoting development of natural resources in Alaska and assisting in placing more land in private ownership.”  Good for Koch; good for the United States.

In 1991, a coterie of individuals who have become part of the usual suspect list of climate change scepticism, underpinned by the need for continued environmental exploitation, gathered at a Cato conference titled “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?”  The theme was clear enough: plunder as there was no danger of perishing; extract as there was no fear of environmental degradation.  Meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen was a headline act, dismissing global warming as having “very little evidence at all”.  According to Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigation Center, such gatherings proved indispensable in stifling any chances of a carbon tax.

In 1980, David Koch attempted a foray into US politics, an effort to come from behind the screen of power. In a sense, it seemed to contradict the secrecy and opacity of the Koch modus operandi: to influence US politics was to do so in the foggy background of assiduously gathered intelligence, targeted donations and backroom manipulations.   Running as US vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, with Ed Clark as the mainstay, did not come to much: the brothers ultimately knew that their mark would be best made as puppet masters rather than openly elected puppets. Inequality, smoothed by various disgorges of largesse, would always be key.

Perhaps unwittingly, the statement from the family on David’s passing suggested the triumph of a certain type of raw American value, distant, unattainable, and ultimately hostile to the commonweal.  Life is nasty, brutish and short, but it has the softening of moneyed self-interest.  “David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.”  How good of him, and his family, to embrace a view of the evils of state-sponsored health care and welfare; to the rich go the lecturing spoils.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and semantic gymnast for President Donald Trump, was keen to do his bit of weeding of negative opinions.  “David Koch,” he peevishly tweeted at Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, “was a good man who had a different ideology than you or to some extent me.  But it’s cruel to attack a dead man who was doing what he believed was best for our country.  Stop demonizing.”

The case here is less one of demonization than sorrow.  The success of Koch Industries, and even taking into account David’s calculatingly philanthropic streak, has signalled a failure, and failing, of the US republic.  The citizen has been anatomised; the corporation reigns with impunity.  Charles, and his philosophy, remains ascendant.

They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!

In his 22 years in Congress (1960-1982), Paul Findley achieved a sterling record for fundamental positions, proposals and breakthroughs that revealed a great man, pure and simple. He never stopped learning and applying his knowledge to advance the right course of action, regardless of political party, ideology or pressure from various groups.

Findley, a courteous, kindly, ex-World War II navy veteran passed away earlier this month at the age of 98 in his home town of Jacksonville, Illinois. The District he represented was the one Abraham Lincoln was elected from for his one term in the House of Representatives. Findley was a student of Lincoln’s life, and embraced Lincoln’s view that “a politician should be willing to reject outmoded ways of thinking that no longer fit the times.”

Findley was a thoughtful, studious legislator with a superb sense of justice. He was an early civil rights champion. His opposition to runaway Presidential war-making was reflected in his leading support for the War Powers Act of 1973, though he wanted stronger curbs on the White House’s unilateral militarism.

Having been a journalist and owner of a small-town newspaper – the Pike Press, before going to Congress in 1960, Findley used his writing skills to explain issues regarding agricultural policies, a foreign policy of diplomacy and peace, and nuclear arms controls. He was an outspoken early opponent of the Vietnam War and a critic of the Pentagon’s chronically wasteful spending. He was not a “press-release” legislator, staking out his opinions and leaving it at that. He worked hard and smart to lead, to persuade, to get down to the minute details of coalition-building, lawmaking and legislating.

Back in Jacksonville, after his Congressional career ended in 1982, Findley wrote books and articles and lectured around the country. He courageously defended Americans of the Islamic faith, after 9/11, from bias, exclusion and intimidation. He did his civic duties with local associations. He also started the Lucille Findley Educational Foundation, in memory of his beloved wife – an Army nurse – he met in war-time Guam. They had two children. He always found time to be helpful, to serve others both locally and nationally. He also played tennis daily into his mid-eighties.

Findley possessed more than a streak of mid-west populism. Agricultural subsidies disproportionately going to a few wealthy landowners upset him greatly. He got through the House, after years of rejection, and over the objections of the Republican leadership, a $20,000 yearly limit of such subsidies per farm. The measure failed in the Senate.

Once again, in 1973, he bucked his Party and introduced an impeachment resolution against Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew, who later resigned in disgrace over a bribery scandal.

It was Findley’s interest in U.S. policies and operations in the Middle East, following his 1973 successful effort to obtain the release of a constituent from South Yemen that showed his moral courage, his belief in dialogue between adversaries and his commitment to the treatment of all people with dignity and respect. It also led to his defeat by Democrat Richard J. Durbin, now Illinois’s senior Senator.

Findley learned that the dispossessed and occupied Palestinian people were being treated unfairly and deprived of their human rights and self-determination. He visited refugee camps in the region. He met with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and he urged peaceful diplomatic resolution of that conflict. For this sensible, though rare outreach by a Congressional lawmaker, he earned the immense enmity of U.S. partisans of the Israeli government. How dare he speak out on behalf of Palestinians, even though, he continued to vote for foreign aid to a prosperous militarily advanced Israeli superpower?

As the New York Times reported: “He became convinced that the influential pro-Israel lobby known as Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had a stranglehold on American politicians that prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state and prevented rational dealings with Arab leaders in general.”

AIPAC activists, nationally and with their local affiliates, openly mobilized to defeat Findley in the 1980 election. They failed to do so. In 1982, they tried again, helping his Democratic opponent, Richard Durbin, to end Findley’s Congressional career by a margin of less than 1500 votes. AIPAC took credit for the win, raising over 80 percent of Durbin’s $750,000 in campaign funds from around the country. AIPAC’s executive director told a gathering in Texas: “We beat the odds and defeated Findley.”

Three years later, in 1985, Findley wrote and published his bold book They Dare to Speak Out, that described his efforts at peaceful advocacy for a two-state solution, which is now supported by many Israelis and Jewish Americans. In his book, he profiled other Americans who dared to speak out, and who endured intimidating slander and ostracism. Findley’s documentation of the suppression of their freedom of speech was an early precursor of what is going on now.

It was acceptable for the early patriots to boycott British tea, for civil rights leaders to boycott certain businesses in the South, for opponents of South Africa’s apartheid to launch a worldwide economic boycott. But some state governments impose sanctions on their contractors if they merely speak out in favor of the call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine and its millions of Palestinians. (Today, Palestine is only twenty two percent the size of the original Palestine).

Findley wrote his autobiography in 2011. But it will take a fuller biography to place this modest lawmaker/public citizen, and wager of peace over unlawful wars and rampant militarism, in the conforming context of his times. His career contrasts with the present big business, Wall Street over Main Street, militaristic GOP and shows that the Republican Party didn’t always demand rigid unanimity.

To his credit, Senator Durbin eulogized Paul Findley, as “An exceptional public servant and friend.” He added that the man he defeated was “an elected official who showed exceptional courage in tackling the age old controversies in the Middle East.”

Senator Durbin could not say this about a single Republican in either the Senate or the House today, nor of over 95 percent of the Democrats.

Bassam Shakaa: The Making of a Palestinian “Organic Intellectual”

It would be unfair to claim that Palestine has not produced great leaders. It has, and Bassam Shakaa, the former Mayor of Nablus, who passed away on July 22 at the age of 89, was living proof of this.

The supposed deficit in good Palestinian leadership can be attributed to the fact that many great leaders have been either assassinated, languish in prison or are politically marginalized by Palestinian factions.

What was unique about Shakaa is that he was a true nationalist leader who struggled on behalf of all Palestinians without harboring any ideological, factionalist or religious prejudice. Shakaa was an inclusive Palestinian leader, with profound affinity to pan-Arabism and constant awareness of the global class struggle.

In a way, Shakaa exemplified the ‘organic intellectual’ as described by Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, Shakaa was not a mere “mover of feelings and passions” but an “active participant in practical life, as constructor and organizer – a permanent persuader, not just a simple orator”.

Shakaa’s base of support was, and remained, the people – ordinary Palestinians from Nablus and throughout Palestine who always stood by his side, most memorably when the Israeli government attempted to exile him in 1975; when the Palestinian Authority (PA) placed him under house arrest in 1999 and when he was finally laid to rest in his beloved home town of Nablus, a few days ago.

Between his birth in Nablus in 1930 and his death, Shakaa fought a relentless struggle for Palestinian rights. He challenged Israel, the PA, US imperialism and reactionary Arab governments. Throughout this arduous journey, he survived exile, prison and an assassination attempt.

But there is more to Shakaa than his intellect, eloquence, and morally-guided positions. The man represented the rise of a true democratic Palestinian leadership, one that sprang from, spoke and fought for the people.

It was in the mid-1970s that Shakaa rose to prominence as a Palestinian nationalist leader, an event that changed the face of Palestinian politics to this day.

Following its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, the Israeli government moved quickly to fashion a new status quo, where the Occupation became permanent and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was denied any political base in the newly-occupied territories.

Among other things, the Israeli government aimed at creating an ‘alternative‘ Palestinian leadership that would engage with Israel with trivial, non-political matters, therefore marginalizing the PLO and its inclusive political program.

In April 1976, the Israeli government, then led by Yitzhak Rabin, conducted local elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel had, by then, assembled another group of Palestinian ‘leaders’, which consisted mostly of traditional heads of clans – a small, self-seeking oligarchy that historically accommodated whatever foreign power happened to be ruling over Palestinians.

Israel was almost certain that its hand-picked allies were ready to sweep the local elections. But the Occupation had its unintended consequences, which surprised the Israelis themselves. For the first time since Israel’s creation, all of historic Palestine was now under Israeli control. This also meant that the Palestinian people were, once again, part of the same demographic unit, which allowed for coordinated political mobilization and popular resistance.

These efforts were largely facilitated by the Palestinian National Front (PNF) which was founded in 1973 and comprised all Palestinian groups throughout Occupied Palestine. What irked Israel most is that the PNF had developed a political line that was largely parallel to that of the PLO.

To Israel’s dismay, the PNF decided to take part in the local elections, hoping that its victory could defeat the Israeli stratagem entirely. To thwart the PNF’s initiative, the Israeli army carried out a massive campaign of arrests and deportation of the group’s members, which included intellectuals, academics and local leaders.

But all had failed as Palestine’s new leaders won decisive victories, claiming most mayoral offices and bravely articulating an anti-occupation, pro-PLO agenda.

“We are for the PLO, and we say this in our electoral speeches,” the elected Mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, said at the time. “The people who come along to our meetings do not ask about road improvements and new factories; we want an end to the Occupation.”

Bassam Shakaa was at the forefront of that nascent movement, whose ideals and slogans spread out to all Palestinian communities, including those inside Israel.

Despite decades of exile, fragmentation and Occupation, the Palestinian national identity was now at its zenith, an outcome the Israeli government could never have anticipated.

In October 1978, Shakaa, Khalaf and the other empowered mayors were joined by city councilors and leaders of various nationalist institutions to form the National Leadership Committee, the main objective of which was to challenge the disastrous Camp David agreement and the resulting marginalization of the Palestinian people and their leadership.

On July 2, 1980, a bomb planted by a Jewish terrorist group, blew up Shakaa’s car, costing him both of his legs. Another targeted Khalaf, who had one of his legs amputated. The leaders emerged even stronger following the assassination attempts.

“They ripped off both my legs, but this only means that I am closer to my land,” said Shakaa from his hospital bed. “I have my heart, my intellect and a just aim to fight for, I don’t need my legs.”

In November 1981, the Israeli government dismissed the nationalist mayors, including Shakaa. But that was not the end of his struggle which, following the formation of the PA in Ramallah in 1994, acquired a new impetus.

Shakaa challenged the PA’s corruption and subservience to Israel. His frustration with the PA led him to help draft and to sign, in 1999, a “Cry from the Homeland”, which denounced the PA for its “systematic methodology of corruption, humiliation and abuse against the people.” As a result, the PA placed Shakaa, then 70, under house arrest.

However, it was that very movement created by Shakaa, Khalaf and their peers that sowed the seeds for the popular Palestinian uprising in 1987. In fact, the ‘First Intifada’ remains the most powerful popular movement in modern Palestinian history.

May Shakaa rest in peace and power, now that he has fulfilled his historic mission as one of Palestine’s most beloved leaders and true organic intellectuals of all times.

Marta Harnecker, the Fighter

Marta Harnecker

Comrade Marta Harnecker passed away of cancer on June 15, 2019, in Canada.

A relentless fighter, comrade Marta Harnecker (1937 – 2019) made valuable contributions in the areas of theory related to revolution for socialism in the broader Latin American perspective.

Her struggle was for a humane world.

Marta Hernecker was not an adventurist-head and not an adventurist-voice, which made her a leading theoretician for people of her time. Rather, years of learning from struggles helped her take an approach linking to reality and perspective, alignment of classes and balance of power of hostile classes. This led her to say:

We need a left that realizes that being radical does not consist of raising the most militant slogan or carrying out the most extreme actions — with which only a few agree, and which scare off the majority — but rather in being capable of creating spaces for the broadest possible sectors to meet and join forces in struggle. The realization that there are many of us in the same struggle is what makes us strong; it is what radicalizes us. We need a left that understands that we must obtain hegemony, that is to say, that we have to convince instead of imposing. We need a left that understands that, more important than what we have done in the past, is what we will do together in the future to win our sovereignty — to build a society that makes possible the full development of all human beings: the socialist society of the twenty-first century.1

It’s a lesson to be taken into consideration.

“Radical […] raising the most militant slogan or carrying out the most extreme actions” mean nothing, but simply a juvenile effort to establish self as the “hero”, in real sense a zero, the character class enemies of the exploited prefer most.

The sociologist, political scientist, and activist from Chile was a close comrade of Hugo Chavez, the Bolivarian revolutionary leader of Venezuela and one of the most hated figures to the imperialists.

To Marta, today’s Venezuela is a laboratory of the Bolivarian revolution. By type of a number of works, she was also a journalist. But, her work took her away from the political fight of people for a humane world. She was not without any idea which is devoid of political action.

Marta writes:

In order for political action to be effective, so that protests, resistance and struggles are genuinely able to change things, to convert mass uprisings into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required: one that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.2

It’s an essential line of approach today; because the bourgeoisie are fragmenting the exploited with different colors – the tact that weakens the exploited and strengthens the exploiters.

The theoretician was always at the front-line, from country to country.

She summarized lessons from successful revolutions:

The history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when a political instrument exists that is capable of raising an alternative national program to unify the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal […]3

And, she emphasized:

[…] actions be carried out at the right place and the right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.3

It’s the same lesson Lenin taught through the Great October Revolution: right place, right time, enemy’s weakest link.

Marta talks about political instrument:

The political instrument is like a piston in a locomotive which transforms steam power into the motion that is transmitted to the wheels, driving the locomotive forward, and with it, the whole train. Strong organizational cohesion does not alone provide the major objective capacity for acting, but at the same time, it creates an internal climate that makes possible energetic interventions into events, profiting from the opportunities these offer. It must be remembered that in politics, one does not only have to be right but one must also be timely and rely on strength to achieve success.

Her idea of political instrument of today is in the context of existing reality.

She admits:

This task needs time, research and knowledge of the national and international situation. It is not something that can be improvised overnight, much less so in the complex world in which we live. There are “heroes” who don’t have time to learn and research but have more than enough time for slogan-mongering, and have enough time to indulge in ignorance. But, Marx, emphatically said: Ignorance brings no good. Rather, ignorance compresses one into anarchism, and encourages to declining looking at social process. The bourgeoisie want super-production of ignorant “heroes” spewing only slogans, and no effort for spadework, and no humbleness to learn. For these “heroes”, the point Marta raises is a lesson, if they like.

Marta doesn’t ignore the question of political organization:

The initial preparation will always have to be done by the political organization […].

Political organization should take the lead. For spearheading people’s political struggle, whoever dreams of relying on NGOs, rights organizations and organizations submerged into marginal forces missing the class question should take into consideration Marta’s point – political organization.

There are questions of strategy and tactics. So, Marta writes:

The political instrument is necessary, not only to coordinate the popular movement and promote theoretical thinking, but also for defining strategy.

All successful revolutions correctly defined the question of strategy and tactics.

However, Marta doesn’t forget the aspect related to broader spectrum. She writes:

[…] I believe we must be very mindful that, as it progresses, this project should be enriched and modified by social practice, with opinions and suggestions from the social actors because, as previously stated, socialism cannot be decreed from on high, it has to be built with the people.

Therefore, there’s no scope for sectarianism.

Marta discusses the question of popular struggle with specific characteristics and specific context:

[…] at this time in our countries, the popular struggle is developing in very different circumstances from those of czarist Russia. But it is also obvious that Venezuela is not Cuba nor Nicaragua, nor is Bolivia the same as Ecuador. In each country, there are different circumstances that mediate the strategy and modify the forms of popular struggle. Consequently, I do not believe it is useful to propose a template with a formal structure that the revolutionary instrument would have to be.

Thus, it appears, she was free from dogma, free from the machine-made-theory approach for all countries.

Marta Harnecker participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973 in Chile. After studying with Louis Althusser in Paris, she returned to Chile in 1968, and joined the Socialist Party of Chile.

In 1973, after the overthrow of the government of president Salvador Allende by the US-backed coup d’état led by General Pinochet Marta was forced into exile in Cuba.

She has written extensively on the Cuban Revolution. She also lived in Caracas and was a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.

Marta Harnecker was the director of research institute Memoria Popular Latinoamericana (MEPLA).

In 2002, Marta interviewed Chavez for fifteen hours, the longest interview Chavez has given since 1997, before he was elected president.

One of her famous books is A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism.

Marta’s Fidel: la estrategia política de la victoria (Fidel: The Political Strategy of Victory) discusses the revolutionary process in Cuba.

Marta was entrusted the editing and indexation of the booklet El nuevo mapa estratégico (The New Strategic Map), a collection of speeches by Chavez in November 2004. This booklet contains the condensed doctrine of the Bolivarian Revolution.

In Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI (Making Possible the Impossible: the left on the threshold of the 21st century), initially published in Cuba and later in Chile, Colombia, México, Portugal and Spain, Marta presents a wide view of popular movements Latin America.

Marta discusses the question of hegemony of different types:

Popular movements and, more generally, the different social protagonists who to-day are engaged in the struggle against neoliberal globalization both at the international and national levels reject, with good reason, attitudes that aim to impose hegemony or control over movements. They don’t accept the steamroller policy that some political and social organizations tended to use that, taking advantage of their position of strength and monopolizing political positions, attempt to manipulate the movement. They don’t accept the authoritarian imposition of a leadership from above; they don’t accept attempts made to lead movements by simply giving orders, no matter how correct they are. Such attitudes, instead of bringing forces together, have the opposite effect. On the one hand, it creates discontent in the other organizations; they feel manipulated and obligated to accept decisions in which they’ve had no participation; and on the other hand, it reduces the number of potential allies, given that an organization that assumes such positions is incapable of representing the real interests of all sectors of the population and often provokes mistrust and skepticism among them. But to fight against positions that seek to impose hegemony does not mean renouncing the fight to win hegemony, which is nothing else but attempting to win over, to persuade others of the correctness of our criteria and the validity of our proposals.4

Her practical proposal was:

If we want to truly be radicals and not just radicals in name, we must immerse ourselves in the daily work of constructing a social and political force that permits us to bring forth the changes that we want. How much more fruitful would it be if those who spoke out were those who were committed to this daily militancy instead of those who practice their militancy from a desk. (“Interview with Marta Harnecker: In the laboratory of a revolution.5

Facebook “revolutionaries” – persons deluging Facebook with revolutionary slogans and undisciplined statements and arguments, and doing no elementary work essential for building up people’s organization and struggle – may learn from this statement: “immerse ourselves in the daily work of constructing a social and political force.”

On building up a counter-position to capitalism in Latin America, Marta said:

We are beginning a new cycle of revolutionary advancement and we must accelerate the construction of the subjective factors that circumvent new historical frustrations. Unfortunately, there are few countries where the social and political forces of the left work harmoniously reinforcing each other. Egoism and political ambition usually prevails among their leaders. They have not sufficiently understood that power is in unity and that unity is constructed by respecting each other’s differences. They have not sufficiently understood that the art of politics is to construct a political and social force capable of making that which appears impossible today, possible in the near future; that in order to construct political strength you must construct social strength.

Here is a statement that should be taken seriously:

We are beginning a new cycle of revolutionary advancement. However, there are a few theoreticians in the camp of the people, who only see rise of the right, only see a rightward tilt of the time – “victory” of neoliberalism. They miss the dialectics – people’s struggles are building up in countries, imperialism is finding its tactics are failing in countries at times, imperialism’s assessments are turning wrong at times, a few theories imperialism asserted with are turning outdated in regions.

So, with revolutionary spirit, Marta lives, lives in places far away from those timid scholars.

Marta Harnecker is author of more than 60 books that include:

– The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism
– The Left after Seattle
– Hugo Chávez Frias: un hombre, un pueblo, Venezuela: Militares junto al pueblo and Venezuela: una revolución sui generis A World to Build (Monthly Review Press, 2015)
– Ideas for the Struggle, (Socialist Interventions Pamphlet Series, 2010)
– Haciendo posible lo imposible: La izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 429 Seiten, 1999)
– América Latina, izquerda y crisis actual: Izquierda y crisis actual, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 305 Seiten, 1990)
– La Revolución Social: Lenin y América Latina, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 307 Seiten, 1986)

Comrade Marta Harnecker’s march along people will not cease as the people are building up and intensifying their struggles in countries in Latin America, as political activists in countries go through her works to chart a respective path of revolution – the path to emancipation and freedom.

  1. “Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes,” Monthly Review, July-August, 2010.
  2. “A Political Instrument Appropriate for Each Reality”, The Bullet, January 25, 2019, The Socialist Project, Toronto, Ontario.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Ideas for the Struggle, pamphlet, Socialist Project, Toronto, Ontario, August 2010, notes omitted.
  5. Cuba Diglo XXI.

Remembering Gerd Berlev

I got word last weekend, on the afternoon of June 1st, 2019, Denmark time, that my friend and comrade, extremely talented organizer and much-loved grandmother and horn player, Gerd Berlev, died. There is so much that can be said about her, but as I sat in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, taking in this news, I wrote these words.

When I met Gerd, she was around the age I am now, in her early fifties. There were still teenagers in her life, who are now accomplished young adults with children of their own. I wasn’t around for the raising of Gerd’s children, but most of my visits to Gerd and her husband, Jan, in recent years have involved multiple grandchildren present. She was a highly engaged and very enthusiastic, ebullient grandmother, just as she was highly engaged and enthusiastic about everything else that mattered. Gerd is one of the many people in the world who I have known in a sort of snapshot form.  One of many people who I’ll see a lot of for a few hours or a few days, and then I won’t see again for several months or more, until the next time.  But Denmark is a country that I have often visited or toured in more than twice in a given year, over the past two decades or so, and most of those visits included seeing Gerd for one reason or another — usually for several reasons.

I believe I first met her at an annual Communist Party festival that used to happen in Copenhagen, called K-Fest.  In any case, it was soon after my first tour of Denmark that she became, for many years, the most consistent organizer of protests, peace festivals — and concerts for me as well as for other indy left wing musicians from Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere.

When Gerd first offered to organize a gig for me in Copenhagen, sometime in the early Naughties, another Danish communist I knew cautioned me, making sure I knew that Gerd was a member of the smallest communist organization in the country — the last one that still believed in the violent overthrow of the Danish government. I have no idea if this is true, I’ve never read the party platform, but I did, in fact, confirm Gerd’s desire to overthrow the Danish government. However, I never saw her lift a finger to hurt a fly, let alone take up arms. But she may have just been waiting for the right moment.

While she never organized the revolution, she organized a hell of a lot else, and always with an infectious joy for the small things in life, and the kind of dedication to the broader cause that inspired others to feel it, too.  She organized very small events frequently, at her party’s book store, October Books, but for many other bigger events, few people knew in what ways she had been involved.  She was very sensitive to politics, so she would frequently give me a union official’s name and number and say things like, “he’ll probably be interested, but don’t tell him I recommended that you contact him.”

Unusually for communist-oriented types, Gerd was very familiar with and really in her own way part of what often gets dismissed with terms like “the counterculture.”  Her brother was a member of a very well-known Danish rock band called Gasoline.  I got some idea of how mis-spent her youth may have been when she mentioned that as a teenager she slept through a live Jimi Hendrix concert.  She was friends with, and worked actively with, a lot of other people coming out of the more counter-cultural parts of Danish society.  It was through one of the small peace festivals Gerd organized where I first met the core members of the iconic Danish band, Savage Rose, Thomas and Annisette, who gave a spell-binding performance that day, just as a duo.  I would later see Annisette singing at most of the demos Gerd organized.  Thomas would have been at them, too, but he had died by 2006.  The shirt Gerd is wearing as she’s receiving the local peace award, pictured with this post, is about Thomas Koppel, a “message from the grassroots,” a campaign she was involved with, both in his memory and looking forward to a better world, taking Thomas’s thoughts and music to help navigate.

It was Gerd’s completely open, ecumenical orientation towards organizing a real people’s movement that set her apart from the sorts of people who are more like functionaries, more interested in getting more people to sign up to their party’s email list than in building a broader movement.  Gerd always had much higher aims than the email list.

Though I first met her in her capacity as an organizer, for me she and her husband, Jan, became more just friends, and the people I usually stayed with when I was in Copenhagen, for many years.  When their teenagers moved out of the house, the little shack in the backyard that had for so long housed a chain-smoking Danish punk kid was empty, and became the home away from home for this touring musician for many years of frequent visits to Copenhagen.

So my main recollections are the little ones — waking up in the morning, coming out of the shack and talking about the news of the day over an edition of Politiken or the Daily Worker in Gerd and Jan’s little kitchen, or coming home late at night after a gig and talking beneath the open skies in their very well-tended and well-loved backyard garden.  I was able to bring my daughter, Leila, to Denmark once, when she was four, and she had a great time swinging on the swing on the back porch, that they set up when there are small children about.

Gerd applied all her grandmotherly skills during Leila’s visit, and I particularly remember one wonderful little intervention.  I had to go off to play somewhere, which involved taking our rental car.  But Leila wanted to sit in the stroller.  I explained to her that we needed to take the car, so if she could walk with me to the car, that would be great.  But she was steadfast, and sat in the stroller anyway.  It was one of those little conflicts that can arise between a parent in a hurry and a small child who quite understandably doesn’t want to go along with the program being forced on her.  It could have gone in a number of different ways, one likely possibility involving a crying child and sad parents, too.  But Gerd knew just what to do.  She grabbed the handles of the stroller Leila was sitting in and took her for a walk — a walk of about three meters, the distance from the house to the car.  But it was a walk in the stroller, and for Leila, it turned out to be just what she needed.  Happy at this point that her desire to walk in the stroller had been sufficiently acknowledged, she got out of it on her own accord and sat in the backseat of the car as her papa had demanded.  If I had thought a three-meter walk in the stroller could have made everything better, I might have tried that, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

Gerd’s partner for all the time I knew her has been Jan Nielsen, who is very much still with us.  Every spring, Gerd would get some kind of spring fever, and fall in love with Jan all over again.  She would tell me about it every spring, how she was falling in love with her husband all over again, but it was the sort of thing that hardly needed to be expressed verbally to be abundantly clear.  Her face would turn red and she would act like a puppy.  It was a beautiful relationship to witness, also because it persisted so well despite the fact that she never succeeded in getting Jan to join her party.  He, instead, had settled for the furthest-left party that has actual representation in the Danish parliament, Enhedslisten.

Gerd’s antiwar organizing efforts often involved opposing NATO’s wars, NATO’s expansion, and NATO generally.  The least well-liked Danish prime minister in recent decades among my friends, Fogh Rasmussen, was NATO Secretary-General for a good chunk of NATO’s recent expansionist and especially actively militaristic period.  In 2005, when NATO was having a summit in Sweden — oddly enough, a non-NATO country — Gerd and I, along with rabble-rousing songwriter Anne Feeney and other folks, traveled up to northern Sweden to protest.

I suppose it’s in times of relative crisis that the most enduring memories are formed, so probably the vision of Gerd Berlev that I will always remember the most will be from December, 2009.  It was during the climate summit that was happening that year in Copenhagen.  Laws had been temporarily modified to basically suspend civil liberties in Denmark for the duration of the summit.  Anyone was liable to be arrested anywhere, anytime, basically.  This was especially true one night at Christiania, where some of the counter-summit types of activities were taking place.

A police raid turned into a riot, there were burning barricades, thousands of bottles and other things transported and thrown, and then, unusually for Denmark, there was a water cannon.  This changed the equation for the usual Copenhagen riot, and soon the riot police had put out the burning barricades, thus allowing them to drive onto Christiania with their armored vehicles.  A crowd of people smelling strongly of tear gas flooded into the Opera House, where I was playing that night.  We tensely awaited the next wave of people to enter the building, who we expected to be riot police intent on taking revenge on whoever it was who might have been throwing all those many bottles at them not long before.

Word quickly got out about what was going on then in Christiania.  My friend Carsten, a teacher from Hellebaek I had been marching with the other day, texted me, that he was waiting in his car just outside Christiania, to take me away from the riot zone, once I managed to get out of the Free State.  But it was Gerd who marched on her own through the ranks of the riot police as they stood in their helmets, menacingly gripping their truncheons, to the Opera House.  She fetched me and I think a couple other folks, and led us back through the ranks of the riot police and out of Christiania, to Carsten’s waiting car.  She had a sort of militant, communist, grandmotherly halo around her as she walked.  Although she was a little woman, a full head shorter than me or the average Dane, she inspired fear and obedience in the typical riot cop.

I last saw Gerd a couple months ago, last time I was in Denmark.  It was a brief visit of not more than a half hour or so, due to logistical issues.  She had had something mailed to me in Portland that was from the US, just to save postage and such, because she knew I was just about to come to Denmark.  I was just delivering a bottle of vitamins.  One of a variety of ways she was trying to get healthy again, after being diagnosed with cancer.

Gerd played in a group called Red Horns — the horn version of the Socialist Choirs you’ll find in some towns in England, or the Labor Choruses you’ll find here and there in the US.  Gerd will be missed by her fellow musicians, her fellow organizers, her husband, children, grandchildren, and her many friends and comrades.  Many others in Denmark will miss her, but they won’t know it, because so much of the work she did was behind the scenes, like all the best organizers, among the ranks of whom Gerd Berlev most definitely belongs.

For those of you in the region, her funeral will be in Copenhagen on June 15th. I won’t be getting to Denmark for the summer until ten days later, so I’ll have to settle for being there in spirit.
Good-bye, Gerd.  I miss you already.