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Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Response to Obama’s Speech “On Race”:
“Historic.” “Unprecedented.” In such terms, Barack Obama’s March 18 speech is being compared both in the establishment media and on the streets to “classic American speeches” like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The immediate impetus for the speech was pressure on Obama to condemn statements by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The statements under attack were basically incontrovertible facts: Wright said, for example, speaking of Black people, that “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and wants us to sing God Bless America.” And, “We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.”
By contrast, John McCain’s trip to “kiss the ring” of the now-dead Christian fascist Jerry Falwell and others of his ilk is just treated as politics as usual. Falwell, remember, claimed after the 9/11 attacks that “the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
Obama’s speech also came as his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, was increasingly appealing to white racism. For example, her fundraiser and supporter, former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, made and refused to apologize for the Archie Bunkerish statement that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”
Obama’s speech was not just a campaign speech. It was a major event in American politics. And with its unusual acknowledgement of some of the history and even present-day reality of discrimination and inequality, it connected with the aspirations of many who feel alienated by the direction of things, and who want real change. But Obama’s speech poses an upside-down and seriously wrong analysis of the character and causes of the oppression of Black people and, flowing from that, a very deadly trap rather than a road forward.
In Part I of our response, we focus on the nature of what Obama called “America’s improbable experiment with democracy,” up through and past the Civil War. In Part II, we’ll examine Obama’s call to get beyond the ’60s and how this speech fits into the real “larger meaning” of the Obama candidacy.
Flanked by no less than eight American flags, Barack Obama chose to speak on March 18 directly across the street from the place where the U.S. Constitution was signed. His speech begins by invoking the opening of the U.S. Constitution: “We the People…in Order to form a more perfect Union….”
He said, “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The “Perfect Union” and Slavery
Obama avoided mentioning that in addition to “farmers and scholars…,” 12 of the 39 signers of the Constitution owned or managed slave-operated plantations. The principal “founding fathers” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slaves.
Obama does acknowledge what he calls the “stain” of the “original sin of slavery.” In Part II of this response, we will speak to Obama’s continued use of religion to mystify and mislead people. But here it is necessary to say specifically that this “original sin” invocation—with its implication that slavery was a violation of the commandments of (the non-existent) god—is both a whitewash of slavery and of the role of religion in sanctifying it. Slavery is not a “sin” according to the Bible. Slavery as a system is accepted and justified throughout the Bible. In all of Jesus’ many so-called miracles, not once did he ever free a slave from bondage. The only time slavery is condemned in the Bible is when “god’s” so-called chosen people are enslaved by non-believers. Further, the implication of “original sin” is that everyone shared in it. In fact, slavery was a horrific and foundational crime, committed against tens of millions of African and African-American people, instituted by and carried out in the interests of the original ruling classes of the United States, as we shall examine more closely in a moment.
Obama goes on to say that, “Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.”
The enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution reflected something fundamental about the nature of U.S. society at the time. In “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, Part 1: Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right” (available at revcom.us), Bob Avakian identifies that “[T]he laws themselves (and the Constitution which sets the basis for the laws) reflect and reinforce the essential relations in society, and most fundamentally the economic (production) relations of capitalism.” And later in that talk, Avakian emphasizes one of the most fundamental contributions of Karl Marx: “...Marx brought forward the materialist and dialectical understanding that the most basic and essential of all human activity is the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life, and that people can only carry out the struggle to produce, and reproduce, the material requirements of life by entering into very definite relations of production, and that on the basis of these production relations there arises a definite legal, political and ideological superstructure.”
In that light, we can solve the apparent paradox of why the Constitution of the United States did, at one and the same time, uphold slavery and the ideal of equal citizenship under the law. The answer lies in the fact that the British colonies in North America that rebelled against British rule were based on two different modes of exploitation.
In the southern states especially (but not exclusively), exploitation mainly took the form of slavery. Slaves were the literal property of their owners. Given only enough food and shelter to work and reproduce, they labored under the overseer’s whip, growing cotton, sugar, tobacco, indigo and rice on the plantations of the South.
In the North, the main mode of exploitation was capitalist wage slavery. Here, workers were—and had to be—“free” to sell their ability to work to a capitalist. That capitalist had to be “free” to appropriate the product of that worker’s labor, paying him only enough to live and reproduce. Capital had to be free to invest—now in shipping, now in manufacturing—to hire, fire, and move on in a dog-eat-dog quest for profit. The dynamic merchant and manufacturing capital in the North would not have been able to function based on slaves, or a constitution that systematized slave relations. Capitalism required a more flexible, more competitive, and in that sense more “free” market, including a “free” labor market. As Bob Avakian points out in Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, “If you buy a slave, and you don’t get back your initial investment, plus an additional amount, you will be in trouble economically. If you get rid of that slave before you’ve made back what you’ve invested in buying the slave, you’ve lost on your investment.”
These two modes of exploitation—capitalist wage slavery and chattel slavery—conflicted with each other but they also fed each other. And that is why the same Constitution that defined laws, a vision of society, and ideas suited to the “free” exchange of a worker’s labor power for an employer’s wages also legalized slavery, where the laborer was the literal property of the slavemaster.
The emergence of capitalism in the U.S. was built to a great degree on the wealth extracted from slaves. “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” a virtual display of the New York Historical Society (nydivided.org) gives a glimpse of the particular role of New York City in all this: “Raw cotton dominated the role of the United States in world trade. In some years, it constituted 60% of the nation’s total exports. Southern cotton supplied 7/8 of the world supply. Shrewdly, New York merchants became middlemen between planters in the American South and the cloth-making mills of Britain and France. Although slavery in New York ended in 1827, the city profited from slave-grown cotton.”
The coexistence (even with tension) of capitalist wage slavery with chattel slavery in the South had a profound impact not just in the realm of the economics, but also in the politics and collective mentality of whites in the United States. The literal dehumanization of Black slaves was accompanied by and enforced through pervasive white supremacist laws and racist thinking. The “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War” display exposes how all this was reflected in the laws and ideas of the time: “Economic interest slanted New York politics and public opinion toward the South. White newspaper editors praised slavery as a benevolent system of labor and the only fit condition for people of African descent in America. Discrimination and ridicule greeted black New Yorkers every day.”
Here we see how, on the economic foundation of slavery, laws were passed, and thinking promoted through the media and so on, that justified slavery on the basis of lies about Black people being inferior. And that all permeated society very broadly, to the extent that a Black man walking down the street of New York City was subjected to both overt discrimination and racist ridicule “every day.”
Obscuring Class Divisions
The stamp of slavery impacted everything in developing U.S. society. In the South, and the North, it ameliorated and blurred the distinctions between oppressed and oppressor among whites. Even though in some cases free Blacks and white workers toiled together, the branding of Native Americans and Blacks as subhumans and pariahs (social outcasts), contributed to exploited white workers and other whites identifying with the system.
In fact, if you want to talk about the real “genius” of the U.S. Constitution, much of that lies in the ability of Jefferson and others, as ideologues of upholders of slavery, to fashion a coherent shared “we the people” mentality and sense of community between exploited whites and the U.S. ruling class based on both the economic enslavement of Black people and the pariah status of Blacks (and Native Americans) who were not part of “we the people.” And in doing so, Jefferson obscured the foundational divide in society between the classes that own and monopolize the means of producing great wealth on the one hand, and those who do not and were forced, either by whip or by hunger, to produce that wealth. That foundational divide in society remains today, around the world. (For an in-depth exposure of the nature of Jeffersonian democracy and its role in the history and present day reality of the United States, listen to Bob Avakian’s talk “Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy” available at bobavakian.net and at revcom.us.)
In short, the appearance of a relatively harmonious “we the people,” in search of a “perfect union” was not stained by slavery, as Obama claims, it was sustained by slavery—that is, it was framed by, conditioned by, and built on slavery (and the brutal dispossession of and near genocide of Native Americans). And this had economic, legal, and ideological implications.
This was true in spite of the fact that there were real and even violent divisions between the new U.S. ruling class and white workers as well as other strata of whites. Shay’s Rebellion, for example, was an armed uprising of poor white farmers against egregious taxation in 1786 and 1787. It was brutally suppressed by over 4,000 troops. That uprising served as something of a wake-up call to the new American ruling class to the need for a unified national government and army to “ensure domestic tranquility.”
And yet, conflicts like this were in large part subsumed by the fact that even such poor white farmers were supposedly part of the “we” in “we the people.” Shay’s Rebellion was violently suppressed, but the reaction to Shay’s Rebellion was not to paint white farmers with the kind of brush applied to Blacks and Native Americans. They were not slaughtered wholesale and dehumanized as a people (as in the case of Native Americans). They did not face the level of institutionalized terror and pariah status that was applied to Blacks.
The Civil War
In his speech Obama says: “[W]ords on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
First, it must be noted that Obama leaves out rebellions that went up against slavery from the onset. Rebelling slaves were subjected to the most horrific beatings and brutal deaths. South Carolina authorities arrested Denmark Vesey, accused him of plotting an uprising, and hung him and 35 of his followers. And yet, again and again, slaves rose up against slavery. As opposed to the official narrative that Black slaves were passive, there were over 200 slave revolts. This very critical part of the struggle is apparently something Obama does not want to include in the “national conversation about race.”
Later movements against the oppression of Black people, the protests and civil disobedience Obama acknowledges (and the uprisings and rebellions he does not), were met with Klan terror (often orchestrated by the FBI), police dogs, and overt government repression. Many of those who “were willing to do their part” did so at the cost of their lives. And while some of those who rebelled against this may have seen this as an attempt to “narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time,” as Obama says, many others gravitated to and came to take up and develop a very radical critique of this society and the need for revolution in one form or another. In 1964, for example, Malcolm X said, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system.”
Obama claims that “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
In fact, the “answer to the slavery question” was exactly NOT“embedded in our Constitution”—that’s why a Civil War had to be fought! The Constitution—which laid out the legitimating norms and rules of politics—could no longer contain the way that antagonisms that had been intensifying between capitalism and the southern slaveholding system were finding expression in the political sphere. This crisis finally had to be settled in the realm of political power; and when the Civil War broke out, the battle in the military sphere became decisive. Underlying the political crisis, and the subsequent war, was the developing antagonism between the two modes of production.
For example, the huge cotton crop produced in the slave South—60% of all exports from the U.S.—went to the textile mills in Europe instead of the growing textile industry in New England. An even more fundamental contradiction was that the slave system was driven to expand to find new land. The primitive nature of slave agriculture did not involve significant investment in technology or modern farming techniques; it depended on the brutal exploitation of slaves—the most important “tool” in the process. Further, as these primitive forms of agriculture depleted farmland, slave states where the land was exhausted had a tendency to become areas for breeding slaves who were “sold down the river” to regions where slave agriculture had not yet exhausted the land. And all this created tremendous pressure on the slave system to expand west. It was this westward expansion of slavery that was behind the U.S. war on Mexico—“Remember the Alamo”—and the theft by the U.S. of a huge portion of Mexico.
Meanwhile, capitalist manufacturing advanced rapidly in the North. In a ten-year span, from 1850 to 1860, the amount of capital invested in U.S. factories doubled—to one billion dollars in 1860. The capitalists—centered in the North—also felt tremendous pressure to expand west, to claim new markets for their products, and to exploit the land and resources—especially gold. The slave system and the rapidly developing capitalist system were bumping into each other. For example, in “Bloody Kansas,” abolitionists clashed violently with pro-slavery forces in a protracted guerrilla war during the 1850s, in which John Brown played an important role on the anti-slavery side. The battle focused on whether Kansas would enter the union as a “free state” or a slave state—the decision of which would affect the balance of political power in Congress and the Electoral College.
When war finally broke out, the northern capitalists pursued the Civil War initially to save the Union with their mode of exploitation in the dominant position and slavery subordinate to that, and to firmly settle the question of political power—with themselves in the dominant position. But once things go to war, new dynamics come into play and new things emerge, and as the war went on with the ferocity and duration unexpected by any of the original parties, the northern ruling class came to the conclusion that the Confederacy would have to be thoroughly defeated. It was not until 1863, nearly two years into the war, that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (that freed the slaves in the Confederate states) went into effect. And the North did not launch decisive military assaults on the South until late in the war.
On the other hand, Blacks, as well as many whites, made great sacrifices in the Civil War, fighting to end slavery. Former slaves ran away from their plantations at great risk in order to enlist in the Union Army. Many white farmers, workers, and anti-slavery intellectuals enlisted to end slavery. Initially Lincoln refused to allow Blacks to fight. When he did, they were paid—for most of the war—less than half the pay of white soldiers. But Black soldiers fought with unique determination and courage. By the end of the Civil War, 200,000 Blacks fought and almost a fifth of them died—a much higher death rate than white soldiers in the Union Army.
The Civil War set loose far greater societal changes than either the southern slave owners or the northern capitalists aimed for or envisioned. A war launched to settle the conflict between oppressive ruling classes provided an opening for the masses to fight in their own interests, although their ability to do that was hindered by the still nascent nature of the proletariat, the class whose interests lie in overthrowing all oppression, as well as the lack of organized communist leadership. It was this struggle of different classes, in contention, and not the “gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time”—as Obama claims—that drove forward this Civil War.
Obama wraps up his version of the Civil War by saying, “This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign—to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
The Civil War did, for the last time in the history of the United States, represent, in part, a convergence of the struggle against oppression, the interests of the proletariat—the oppressed and exploited workers of all nationalities—with the interests (conflicted as they were) of the U.S. ruling class. But that momentary convergence of interests came to an end with the end of the Civil War.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, Union troops remained in the South for about ten years. During that period, those troops backed up Black ex-slaves and some poor whites in their struggle for land and political rights. But once northern capital had secured new terms for its arrangement with the overseers of southern agriculture, and established its dominant position politically in the United States, they withdrew their troops. A new, “more perfect union” was formed: capitalism was to dominate the entire country; the white plantation owners were to be given free reign in the South within that larger economy; and Black people were to be reduced to semi-feudal, near-slave conditions as sharecroppers.
The oppression of Black people evolved into new, but still ferociously exploitive, forms. The sharecropping system that followed the Civil War was barely a cut above slavery. Black people still worked from “can’t see to can’t see” for white masters and lived in abject poverty. After the withdrawal of federal troops, Black people again lost all rights, including the right to vote. And these conditions were enforced by law and lynch mob—over 5,000 people were lynched in this era in gruesome barbaric spectacles often involving thousands of whites. The racist mythology that justified the enslavement of Black people, including invoking Biblical scripture, continued—now to justify segregationist terror and Jim Crow inequality. The history of the Civil War was rewritten in the North to be a “tragic fight between brothers”; while in the South, it was recast as a trial by “god” for his (new) “chosen people,” the southern whites.
And this went on for decades, until another wave of dramatic changes in the mode of exploitation drove Black people off the land in the South and into the cities and factories of the North.
All this got challenged during the turbulent years of the 1960s. Through that rebellious era, racist attitudes were broadly and sharply challenged. Society split down the middle. You were either part of the problem—the system—or you were part of the solution. Millions of whites “deserted” the system, and as part of that, supported and took up the struggle against the oppression of Black people.
In Part II of this response to Obama’s speech, we’ll address his central claim that especially now, the legacy of the ’60s is “divisive” and must be moved beyond. We will bring out why it is that between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the ruling class and the people, there can be no “perfect union.” And we’ll take up how Obama’s candidacy, far from promising any sort of “better day” for the people, is actually designed to, and working to, put the chains on even more tightly.
Revolution newspaper suggested further reading:
Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Chicago, Banner Press, 1986).
People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes.
V. I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Components of Marxism, 1913
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
In Part II of our response to Barack Obama’s March 19, 2008 “speech on race,” we will address his claim that the legacy of the 1960s is “divisive.” Including responding to Obama’s argument that “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land …[W]hat we know—what we have seen is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
Obviously, there has been change since the ’60s; but the character of that change has not been some sort of linear progress for Black people as a people, but a polarization in which, as a result of the people’s struggle, some opportunities have been opened up to a small slice of African Americans, while conditions have become much worse, in truly nightmarish ways, for a much broader section. As one indication of this, a recent study revealed that between 1980, as the inner cities were being systematically emptied of jobs and social services, and 1997, the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. for nonviolent offenses tripled. The number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased elevenfold.
The study painted a stark picture of how this has been concentrated in incarceration rates for Black people: “The extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any other major arena of American social life: At eight to one, the black-white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the two-to-one ratio of unemployment rates…the two-to-one ratio of infant-mortality rates, and one-to-five ratio of net worth. While three out of 200 young white men were incarcerated in 2000, the rate for young black males was one in nine. A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.” (All statistics from “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the Transformation of Criminal Justice,” Boston Review, July/August 2007.)
Think about these numbers for a moment. In the year 2000, Black people faced twice the unemployment rate of whites. The rate of death for Black babies was twice that of white babies. And eight times as many Black people went to jail compared to whites (as compared to their percentage of the total population). And the vastly disproportionate number of Black people in jail was in the context of a massive increase in the prison population overall—the number of people jailed for drugs increased by more than 1000% over the 17 years from 1980 to 1997.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine
Joel Kovel is both a scholar and an activist. In the former capacity he has published nine books and over a hundred articles and reviews. His books include White Racism, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972; A Complete Guide to Therapy; The Age of Desire (in which his work in the psychiatric-psychoanalytic system is detailed); Against the State of Nuclear Terror; In Nicaragua; The Radical Spirit; History and Spirit (1991); Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), a study of anticommunist repression in America; and The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World (Zed, 2002). Since 2003 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. His most recent book, Overcoming Zionism, created a censorship struggle when the University of Michigan Press temporarily banned its distribution.
Revolution: Many people today are familiar with the state of Israel. They are also acquainted with Jewish people and know something about the Jewish religion. But what is Zionism?
Joel Kovel: The word has a very long history, Zion being the land promised to the Israelites in the Bible by their god. Once the Jews lost their temple in the first century and scattered over the earth, the idea of returning to some sort of homeland was always present. The modern history of Zionism begins late in the 19th century when it took the form given to it by Theodore Herzl: that the destiny of the Jewish people could only be fulfilled in a nation-state, which, as it turned out, had to be in historic Palestine. So Zionism is an ideology that supposes that notion, and ties it to the well-being and fulfillment of Jews everywhere. It caused the Jews who believe in it to embark upon state-building in historic Palestine. It still is the organizing ideology of the state of Israel and of great portions of the Jewish community in our country and elsewhere.
Revolution: In your book you make a major point that Zionism is a racist ideology. Could you explain that?
Kovel: It is necessarily a racist ideology if you think about it, but most people aren’t allowed to think about it thanks to powerful Zionist repression. If you are building a state on land that is not yours, and the land is habitable, then it’s going to have inhabitants, and these people are not going to enjoy your presence and are not going to turn over their land voluntarily to you. So the state-building for the Zionists is a question of conquest of indigenous peoples, which parallels in many ways the entire imperial-colonial movement of Western civilization. And typically, when you gain such a state through violence and illegal means, you then have to make it seem legitimate. And the best way of doing that is to claim that you are conquering an inferior people who weren’t entitled to full human rights, or who are barbarians, who are not civilized, or who are terrorists by nature. In any event, it involves imposing a kind of degraded human nature to the people you are displacing and conquering, and that’s the essence of racism. Racism plays out in the entire history of the state of Israel, which entails a continuous project of ethic cleansing and the racist reaction to that, which seeps throughout Israeli society as a whole.
Revolution: What about critics who say that criticism of the state of Israel is anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic?
Kovel: There is no a priori reason for equating the two. I’m by no means the only person of Jewish extraction who dislikes the state of Israel. In fact, it’s been odious to many, many Jews, including many highly religious Jews. I’m not one of them, of course; nevertheless many orthodox Jews feel the state of Israel is an abomination for various reasons that I don’t necessarily share. The point is that you don’t have to be non-Jewish to be against Israel. The charge of anti-Semitism derives from the Zionist belief that Israel is the only real fulfillment of being Jewish; yet that’s a very dubious proposition, and to go against it is has nothing to do with the existential hatred of Jewishness (“Judaeophobia”) which underlies real anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism, like all racisms, removes people from their history. Yet real criticism of Israel is a method of adding history, of looking at Israel historically, of looking at the Jewish people historically. So it’s non-racist at the core to criticize Israel if you do so in the spirit of open inquiry. Of course, anti-Semites will criticize Israel also, but not in the spirit of an open, historically grounded critique.
Revolution: What do you say to people who say that because of their own history of persecution, Jews need a state to which they can go and live in safety?
Kovel: Well, I think it’s a terrible idea. Even if it was a reasonable idea at one time, sixty years of the state of Israel have certainly demolished it. You just have to look at the history of Israel and the sixty years of blood and fire it has brought about. It’s the only part of the earth where Jews are actually in danger now--a direct result of the necessity of conquest and ethnic cleansing and the reaction on the part of those conquered. Zionism can never have any moral legitimacy, simply because it requires taking somebody else’s country for the purposes of your so-called “god-given space.” Jews have indeed often been traumatized, and the trauma reached a crescendo in the great Holocaust, but there is no moral justification for treating somebody else badly just because you yourself have been treated badly, especially when the party you are treating badly is innocent of any history of hurting you, which has certainly been the case with the Palestinians. It may be understandable, especially after the Holocaust, that the Jewish people would arrive at the idea about needing a state for security purposes and a haven against persecution. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right, intellectually, historically, or morally. It’s not.
Revolution: You have made the charge that Israel treats Holocaust survivors living there worse than almost any other country in the world. Can you amplify on that?
Kovel: It’s not in Overcoming Zionism because I only learned of it since publication. Last summer charges were made by Holocaust survivors, almost 250,000 of them in Israel, that they have been treated abominably by the Jewish state. This despite the fact that the state of Israel legitimates itself on the grounds that it is a place where Jewish victims of persecution can live safely and happily in their later years. But one of the things that marks Israel is an increasing neo-liberalization, which translates into a widening of the gap between rich and poor, with an accompanying increased heartlessness. The Holocaust survivors do not contribute to what Israel needs, which is military power and technical prowess: they are just useless old people. Israeli society is deeply indicted by the neglect of these people, whose survival was the occasion for the establishment of Jewish state in the first place.
Another level of irony is that as Israeli Holocaust survivors protest their own government, they find reason to praise Germany. Many have stated that they prefer to go back to Germany to finish their years in a country that would at least recognize their human rights. Furthermore, Germany gave Israel about $80 billion to take care of its Holocaust survivors—guilt money—and apparently Israel has siphoned off a lot of that and used it for military purposes. They took the money that was supposed to be for Auschwitz survivors and built their weapons systems. It’s a phenomenally corrupt place.
Revolution: Do you see any relationship between Zionism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?
Kovel: If you take those two phenomena, you can see that Zionism preceded Islamic fundamentalism, but it doesn’t explain Islamic fundamentalism. There is no doubt that it is a major contributing factor in the growth of Islamic Fundamentalism, probably the leading factor in that it generated widespread hatred and distrust across the great swath of people who comprise the Islamic world—over a billion people in all of whose countries—there is this burning resentment first at Israel and second at the United States for being Israel’s patron. People like Osama bin Laden, he is very explicit in saying that what he is doing is to punish the U.S. and Israel for what they have done to the Arab world. It’s a very abiding emotion, quite understandable, and the emotion itself is quite legitimate, although it doesn’t excuse violent behavior, but it’s perfectly understandable to feel this way. Understandable to try to build your own purified society, Islamic fundamentalist society, since the Western model has been proven to be treacherous and destructive to their form of life. Yes, it’s not that Zionism caused Islamic fundamentalism, but of the factors that did cause it, I would give Zionism primary place.
Revolution: The United States government has taken enormous interest in the development and protection of Israel and spent enormous amounts of money in its support. How do you see that? Is this something that is caused fundamentally by what’s known as the Zionist lobby in the United States? Or is it also something that relates to the fundamental interests of the United States in the Middle East? How do those things fit together in your view?
Kovel: It’s a very difficult, complex question. It’s a complex question that has no clear-cut, clean answer. It’s the interaction of many factors, including mistakes that were made. In the early years of the state of Israel, there was a certain amount of sympathy for it, to be sure, but also great opposition to the state as a cat’s paw of the U.S. because it’s made American imperialism’s job in that part of the world with its great oil wells very, very difficult. We just discussed how Israel inflamed the Arab masses and the Arab nation states.
This also was a component of the cold war, where the U.S. and Russia were vying for favor in that part of the world. It should be pointed out that the Soviet bloc was also a supporter of Israel in its first years, so there was some competition on that ground. Later Israel was seen as a counterpoise to Soviet power in the region and began to achieve legitimacy on that account. Also, when the war of 1967 revealed Israel to be by far the dominant military power in the region, U.S. security elites decided that this would a very useful partnership on many different levels.
Throughout all of this, you had the operations of what is roughly called the Israeli lobby or the Zionist lobby, but it’s no simple organization. It is a network of organizations with very powerful currents flowing through the base of U.S. society, which consider the Jews and Israel to be one of the “us,” because the U.S. was actually founded on the same Old Testament mode. At the same time there was very little sympathy for the Arab world. The antagonisms between Europe and the Arab world that go back at least to the Crusades had by no means diminished and Israel became a rallying point for going that antagonism yet further.
And throughout all this you find these extremely powerful Zionist groups that are growing by leaps and bounds in this country, taking a tremendous role in manipulation and invasion of the U.S. state apparatus, and many levels of civil society including the media and entertainment industry, academia, and the like. It’s highly, highly organized, but it’s not the case that they are determining U.S. foreign policy. That kind of policy is determined by the basic strategic interests of the U.S. ruling class. But it is the case that they are a very important component in the mixture that determines that foreign policy, including in the composition of the U.S. ruling class, which over the last 15 years, and certainly during the second Bush administration, has itself become increasingly Zionist.
So you have a very intricate issue. There is no question that there is a huge interpenetration of the security elites of both Israel and the United States—people who serve across the lines. The actual formulation of foreign policy is made at a level where geo-strategic necessities are very much subject to patterns of belief and ideology. A ruling class doesn’t simply act on a materialist foundation, they also believe in certain things. And the things they belief in in this case are highly determined by the affinity between Zionism in general and Zionism in Israel, and also the fundamental ethos of the United States.
Revolution: You referred to the growing Zionism of the Bush administration. One phenomenon we have seen recently is the development of Christian Zionism in this country. Can you comment on the relationship between Zionism and the whole Christian fascist movement in the U.S.?
Kovel: The right has become increasingly driven by religious themes. This was not the case with the traditional “paleo-conservatives,” who were hostile to evangelical movements and often anti-Semitic. But for complex socio-political reasons, this has become greatly changed. There is no question that the Bush II administration rests on a political basis of hard-core Christian fundamentalists, exemplified by Mike Huckabee, prancing around the country talking about creationism and the literal truth of the Bible. Fundamentalists have played a major role in U.S. politics since 1980. And they play a huge role in the George W. Bush administration partly because the second Bush shares fundamentalist beliefs. He himself is very sympathetic to that point of view and has surrounded himself with people of like mind.
As the present Bush regime embarked upon its policy of aggressive preventive wars, it needed a cadre within the administration who saw things the same way. After all, Bush and Cheney can’t implement their policy if their immediate underlings don’t have the same opinion. So they recruited a network of so-called neo-conservatives, some of whom are Christians, many of whom are Jewish, and all of whom are ultra-Zionists. Zionism is the glue that holds together the infrastructure of the U.S. foreign policy elites, and has been a necessary factor in the planning and execution of the Iraq war. There is no question about it. Now we are seeing the coming decline of that Christian fundamentalist movement in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how and whether this reverberates within Jewish Zionism itself.
Revolution: The news around Israel and Palestine recently has been dominated by speculation over the creation of a Palestinian mini-state. Your book, Overcoming Zionism, opposes any two-state solution. Why?
Kovel: First of all, this is a matter that has ultimately to be resolved by the people on the ground, the Palestinians and Jewish Israelis themselves. But in my view, the two-state solution is politically wrong and morally wrong, and in any case, impossible. The alternative, which is the transformation of Israel along the lines of what befell apartheid South Africa, is extremely difficult, and not on the immediate horizon. But interest in a “single democratic state” is growing, and the goal is quite feasible if there is enough arousal around the world.
The two-state solution is unworkable in the first place because Israel has destroyed the physical and political possibilities of building a coherent state for the Palestinian people, thanks to its brutal occupation. This has entailed the invasion of Palestinian land by 450,000 Israeli settlers, along with putting up monstrous walls and Jews-only roads that simply reduce the ever-diminishing Palestinian lands to fragments. To build a viable Palestinian state on such a basis is impossible; or, from another angle, would require dismantling Israel.
In addition, the logic of the two-state solution proposed by ruling powers is not one in which the Palestinians get a genuine state with sovereignty and its own foreign policy. It is better seen along the lines of the “Bantustans” such as South Africa installed during its apartheid era, which were reservations where the indigenous people could live in relative quiet as a controllable labor force. This of course would be better than the present occupation; for all its awfulness, South African apartheid was less inhuman than Israeli Zionism, whose goal is the annihilation of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, the indigenous would live a life of extreme poverty and powerlessness in the given two-state proposals. Israel is already very much in the category of apartheid South Africa; and if it gets its two-state solution, it will go even further in that direction. The two-state solution that is proposed is along the lines of a Bantustan solution that merely raises Israel to an approximation of the South African apartheid regime.
What’s basically wrong to my view is preserving the state of Israel in the Jewish-Zionist form that has evolved over the last 60 years. As I have tried to explore in my book, this is an inherently contradictory formation that can only survive by attacking its neighbors, and through an expanding racism. So a two-state solution which retains the Jewish state as it is now may well become a prelude to the transfer of the Palestinian Arabs out of Israel proper into the Palestinian state, a horrific situation.
The one-state solution poses many difficult problems, and nobody knows exactly how to bring it about. But it has one huge advantage over the two-state solution, namely, that it builds the notion of universal human rights and democracy into the foundation, so that you can place ends and means into a logical connection to each other. The one-state solution demands, however, that the state of Israel be transformed into a state that is no longer of, by, and for the Jewish people, but for all its citizens. And I think this is a very good thing. I think it would be good for the Jewish people themselves, who have been harmed by years of Zionist triumph. This has turned them into brutal conquerors who have lost a great deal of the civilizing values acquired over the centuries as a persecuted minority in Europe. At least there were great accomplishments and achievements among the European Jews, especially after emancipation in the early nineteenth century. The main accomplishments of the state of Israel, however, have been militarism, conquest, and racism. This is as bad for everyone.
I want to emphasize that for me the one-state solution should be a transition to a no-state solution. The example of apartheid South Africa’s transformation is a very cogent one and poses serious questions. South Africans overcame a racist form of society in good measure through a pact with transnational capital, especially the International Monetary Fund, with ruinous aftereffects. So the larger question I want to pose is this: In building a single state, we must work to make sure that state has a socialist content. It needs to be a state beyond capitalism, which means it will be a state beyond class, and therefore will ultimately cease to be a state. We understand that such a development is not around the corner, but it has to be the kind of thinking that animates us as we plan ahead for a society worthy of human beings in Palestine and Israel.
Revolution: What’s been the reception to your book, Overcoming Zionism? Both the positive and the attempts to censor it.
Kovel: The “official reception,” including that of the left press and left-liberal press, has been to ignore it. As of this date, Overcoming Zionism has not had any kind of review in any publication with a widespread circulation. This exclusion was aggravated last summer when the book was overtly attacked by the Zionist lobbies in Michigan, where it is distributed by the University of Michigan Press. As a result of that attack, the book was actually taken out of circulation, in other words, banned. This provoked a highly successful campaign from people on the left. Through pressure from the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism [codz.org] we succeeded in getting the book restored, and also securing the contract with the actual publisher, Pluto Press of London, though this threat is ongoing. On the whole, this proved a good development. It meant my book was dangerous to people I wanted it to be dangerous to—namely Zionists and the Zionist lobby—and they took it seriously enough to try to ban it, most likely because they thought that simply ignoring it wouldn’t work.
It should be said also that the book has been widely read. People are constantly coming up to me saying that they like it, and that it has made a difference in their lives. It has appealed emotionally to them and it gives a chance to become conscious of certain thoughts that had been tabooed, namely, that Israel does not have the right to exist—because no state has an inherent right to exist—or that Zionism is a racist doctrine. These are two ideas that are not supposed to be thought, much less talked about. There are serious consequences to say that Zionism is racism or that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. But now people are increasingly able to talk about that. To help bring these ideas forward is a big advance, and so I’m quite happy with the book’s reception.
Revolution: What further do you think needs to be done to put an end to this outlawing of any critique aimed at getting at the truth? How can people work together to break through this climate of repression?
Kovel: You need a widespread network of groups in civil society, local groups that challenge the local suppression, send speakers into high schools, and then, when as often happens when someone in the local Zionist, pro-Israeli community tries to stop, then you protest it. It’s a constant fight. It’s a very worthwhile fight that’s now getting to the point where we are beginning to win these issues. It’s a very widespread fight. I just learned the other day that at a school called McMaster University, the student union has banned the use the word apartheid in connection with Israel. It’s like the Middle Ages out there. You can’t talk about the devil. It’s fantastic, the extent to which repression is mobilized in the defense of the fundamentally illegitimate, in my view crumbling, Zionist consensus.
Each instance has to be met by resolute counterattacks. By protesting out in the streets, by writing letters, holding public meetings, using community radio stations, the Internet, a lot of powerful tools. There is a great deal that can be done, and it’s already having an effect. I spoke recently in Berkeley, California, to a really large audience that was extremely enthusiastic. There were no Zionist protesters anywhere. Of course, this was Berkeley, but they couldn’t have done that a couple years ago. So the more you do it, the more it can be done.
On top of that, we have to begin to introduce the suppressed question of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel, to make Israel suffer for its persecutions of Palestinians. Build a court of public opinion on an international basis that brings Israel to heel concerning injustices and criminal activities. This requires the internationalization of the struggle. So the first point is that the struggle should be done locally. Then there should be connection across national boundaries. There should be a growing movement that leaps across national boundaries and connects people, particularly with the UK and Canada, and increasingly elsewhere. There is a movement in India starting to form. The internationalization of a movement against Israel that takes the form of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions.
And the last thing you need, is you have to support UN Resolution 194, which is to insist on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, which is a very basic principle of international law, something the powers-that-be, Israel and the United States, would never contemplate; the Zionists fight every inch of the way. But, again, it’s something that can be fought for. If you fight on all these fronts, you can begin to see a change
Revolution: Looking ahead now to the future, and from the standpoint of the liberation of all humankind, what do you think would actually need to happen in Israel in order to bring about the possibility of a secular democratic state?
Kovel: First of all, the situation at this moment is not favorable to that within Israel. The Israeli left is weaker than it has been. One reason is that increasing numbers of progressive people are emigrating from Israel, leaving behind a more backward section of the population. There are quite a few in-migrants from Russia, many of whom are not even Jewish, about 300,000 non-Jewish Russians, some of whom have started anti-Semitic activities. The basic point is that Israel has a very weak left. But I think links have to be kept to that left. There are still a lot of very good people, and very good movements among younger people in Israel, who are taking a great deal of action into their own hands in solidarity with the persecuted Palestinians in the territories, especially the West Bank.
There is a great deal of movement of Israeli youth. Not tightly organized, but nonetheless expressing a better human sympathy, going out there and helping Palestinians with their olive harvest—the settlers try to tear that down—helping Palestinian kids to school or setting up alternative schools, or building cultural organizations. That’s the saving remnant in Israel. I think that as the worldwide movement against Zionism grows and takes on an increasingly organized form, it will induce changes within Israel. It’s tough to say what these will be, because it’s a very, very right-wing militarized state. But one thing is for sure. There is a sense of tremendous crisis in Israeli society. They don’t really know where they are heading. They have all the power and strength in the world, but they are a spiritually barren, brutalized society, riddled with racism.
It’s an open question: can this very, very backward, confused people somehow be rallied to take on its own liberation? The situation in South Africa, for instance, featured a much more highly organized left during the anti-apartheid struggle than we see now in Israel. Nothing of the sort of the ANC, nothing of the sort of Communist Party, trade union movements which were very powerful. There is a peace movement, but it’s very weak. However, I think it is safe to say that there will be major changes ahead and if we work faithfully, we will induce those changes in a good direction.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Across the U.S.:
In large cities and small towns across the U.S., thousands of people protested in mid-March against 5 years of U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. It was on March 19, 2003 that the U.S. launched the unjust, illegitimate, and immoral war on Iraq. The organization World Can’t Wait said about the protests: “Much more is urgently needed, but the events of this week indicate the basis for the opposition to the wars of the Bush Regime to grow in breadth and determination, giving more powerful expression to our demand that This Must End!” The World Can’t Wait website (worldcantwait.org) has reports from around the country.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
It was a routine Easter service in one of the most prestigious Catholic churches in Chicago. Moments into Cardinal George’s homily, voices called out, “The sixth commandment says thou shalt not kill…and yet more than a million Iraqis have been killed during the …invasion of Iraq.” In an aisle stood six young peace activists, who go under the name of Catholic Schoolgirls Against the War. Another activist shouted out, “On January 7, Cardinal George met for lunch with George W. Bush.” As they were quickly surrounded by ushers and church security, another protester let out a scream and collapsed to the floor in fake “blood,” beginning a very short-lived die-in on the church floor. They were quickly hustled out, chanting “even the pope calls for peace.” They were charged with felony destruction to property and battery, with possible jail time of up to 5 years if convicted. They are all currently out on bonds that range from $25,000 to $35,000, after funds were raised from those supporting the action.
The whole event lasted less than a minute. But as the protest was broadcast on the network news, it became a source of intense controversy in the city. The message coming through in the press was primarily a negative one. “It was shocking,” said a man whose pants and jacket had some spots of the fake blood used by the protesters. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” lectured one parishioner, while another accused the activists of scaring children. Cardinal George, who had first told the congregation that “we can be grateful to those who interrupted this holiday,” later denounced the action to the press as “an act of violence.” Even some anti-war activists considered the act well intentioned but counter-productive.
“Remarkable,” was how Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence and activist with Catholic Worker Movement, described the action. She told Revolution, “I’m kind of humbled by it really. I’ve been part of different groupings of people who’ve been experimenting with 30-day fasts, and cross country walks, and assembling peace teams in the war zones as the bombs were falling in various parts of Iraq, and nothing I’ve ever seen has accomplished so much outreach, if you will, and discussion as this 50-second activity inside Holy Name Cathedral.…
“I think the reason that so many people have said anything is because this is clearly something that the corporate media decided to report on. And so it’s a story that’s gone far and wide. And I think that I’ve mainly been in touch with people who’ve taken it to heart, as an occasion for some thoughtful consideration, and to ask some real questions—why are people in our country so readily disturbed by stage blood that sullies clothing and carpets and yet, really not so readily disturbed by the reality of bodies broken because of bombing and bullets, and inadequate health care now in Iraq today? Terrific bloodletting and bloodshed and suffering and bereavement and misery and impoverishment has gone on, and it hasn’t really awakened so much emotion in people, as the fact of within 50 seconds of stage blood squeezed out of a tube…by young people who felt that they simply couldn’t sit by without trying to do something, and so had decided to use the time [of] Easter Sunday, when they knew Christians would be gathering and celebrating inside the cathedral, as a time to really ask people to take a closer look at what was happening in terms of blood being shed in Iraq.”
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Starting March 14, days of protests and rebellion broke out in Tibet against the reactionary Chinese government. It is difficult to get reliable news about these developments because most reports are from the Chinese government or unverified individual accounts. But this appears to be the biggest outbreak of anti-government protests in Tibet in 20 years.
This conflict in Tibet is very complex, involving different class forces and interests and different political forces, including religious reactionary groups tied to U.S. imperialism.
On the one hand this struggle is about the national oppression of the Tibetan people by a regime that calls itself “socialist” and “communist”—which it is NOT. The Chinese government is reactionary and capitalist. On the other hand, this struggle is taking place against a bigger international backdrop. The United States is aggressively setting out to extend and tighten the global dominance of U.S. imperialism. And Tibet is in a geostrategically important region of the world where there are big stakes for the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The U.S. has a long history of backing reactionary forces in Tibet – the CIA has worked with and directly supported the Dalai Lama. And today, sections of the U.S. ruling class are championing the Dalai Lama and using his movement to try and pressure, destabilize, and even tear China apart because they consider it a long-term strategic, economic, political, and military rival to U.S. global power. Attempts by U.S. imperialism to interfere in Tibet must be opposed.
Several reports say things started when hundreds of Buddhist monks began marching from the Drepung Loseling Monastery to the city center in the capital city of Lhasa. They were stopped by the police, and 50 to 60 monks were arrested. Then a sit-down strike was joined by additional monks from Drepung.
The next day, on Saturday morning, in a busy market area, monks and other ethnic Tibetans continued to protest, and violent clashes broke out with Chinese security forces. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, angry Tibetans burned cars and military vehicles and attacked government buildings and Han Chinese-owned shops. By nightfall, the authorities had clamped down, imposing a curfew, and military police officers were blocking city streets.
Protests continued for several days, with thousands of Tibetans clashing with riot police. And there were reports of demonstrations by Tibetans living in other parts of China and in India. While reports of the number of casualties are mostly unreliable, it seems pretty clear that there have been deaths among protesters, shopkeepers and security forces. On March 24, 11 days after the first protest broke out, the New York Times reported that Lhasa was occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and army troops of the Chinese central government.
Three Stages in Modern History of Tibet
The Tibetan people are an ethnic minority in China that is oppressed by the capitalist system in China—and this oppression has greatly intensified in recent years. To understand this, it is first of all important to understand that the history of Tibet (officially designated as the Tibetan Autonomous Region) is NOT, as most mainstream news reports would have us believe, one unbroken history where the Tibetan people have faced the same government since 1949.
There are basically three distinct stages in the modern history of Tibet. Before 1949 Tibet was not, as is sometimes portrayed, a Shangri-la of harmony and peace. It was a brutal theocracy where Buddhist doctrine reinforced class order and social oppression. From 1951-1976, with the victory of the Chinese communist revolution, Tibet became part of the revolutionary process of building socialism with sweeping and liberating economic and social changes. Then since 1976, with the restoration of capitalism in China, the Tibetan people have been subjected to exploitation, subjugation as a people, and suppression of their culture and fast-paced capitalist development that threatens the environment. (See accompanying article, “Tibet: From Brutal Theocracy to Socialist Liberation to Capitalist Nightmare.”)
What Is the Discontent About?
Many people think the struggle going on in Tibet is about “a communist government oppressing religious forces.” But this is a misperception because again, the Chinese government is NOT socialist or communist. Also, while the Chinese government is repressing Buddhist religious forces (including reactionary theocratic supporters of the Dalai Lama who are tied to U.S. imperialism), this is part of and in the context of the larger, overall national oppression and suppression the Tibetan people face.
A lot of what people in the United States know and think about Tibet comes from what they have read in the news about the Dalai Lama. And a lot of people see the Dalai Lama as a symbol of “peace and non-violence.” But in reality, the Dalai Lama and his family were feudal owners and oppressors in Tibet. And since he fled Tibet in 1959 he has been the religious leader of a pro-U.S., pro-imperialist movement among exiled Tibetans. His vision for Tibet today is one that straddles the fence between accommodation with the Chinese regime (and its program of capitalist development); and more direct integration of Tibet into the designs of western, particularly U.S., imperialism.
Again, the main character and contours of these protests are hard to determine at this point because of the difficulty in getting reliable reports. And an analysis of this is beyond the scope of this article. But some things can be said at this point about the different class forces that are a part of this upsurge.
Support for the Dalai Lama and the issue of religious freedom is only one factor in the current upheaval in Tibet. There is real repression of those who support the Dalai Lama and call for independence. For example, Tibetan government employees are reportedly pressured (or even required) to denounce the Dalai Lama, and it is illegal to fly the Tibetan flag. As a part of the overall oppression of the Tibetan people, there is certainly suppression of Tibetan Buddhist religion and Tibetan culture. And the different religious and independence forces, which includes those who support the Dalai Lama, have clearly been a big part of those who have been protesting. But what is not mainly covered in the mainstream press, and what is not so immediately apparent, is that there are bigger and deeper economic and political issues that are giving rise to the massive, widespread discontent in Tibet, now erupting into violent confrontations with the Chinese government forces.
The crowds of angry Tibetans, which included unemployed youth, attacked and burned symbols of capitalist development, like a branch of the Bank of China. They targeted hotels and other facilities that cater to tourists. And they also targeted Han and Hui Chinese shopkeepers, which can seem like the most visible and immediate reflection of the discrimination Tibetans face. The Han Chinese are the majority people in China, and the Hui are Muslim Chinese who also play a prominent role in Tibetan commercial life. And over the last two decades, and especially in the last few years, Han and Hui Chinese have been coming into Tibet as a key part of building up a capitalist economic infrastructure and social structure in which the Tibetan people are highly discriminated against. And the more than a million tourists a year who come to Tibet are mainly Han Chinese.
In Tibet and the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, the Tibetan people intersect with and live near the thousands of Han people who have been moving in, enticed by a wave of state-driven investment and state subsidies for capitalist ventures. But there are two separate and unequal worlds—where many Han have blatant disdain and distrust for Tibetans, who they consider inferior. And among the Tibetan people there are deep feelings of resentment and anger against the oppression and subjugation they face. Privilege and power in Tibet is overwhelmingly the preserve of the Han, and a lot of businesses are owned by Han and Hui Chinese. Meanwhile the masses of Tibetans are subjected to discrimination, treated as inferior, and largely confined to poor districts in the cities and impoverished villages in the rural areas.
The Nightmare of Capitalist “Modernization” in Tibet
Capitalist China, even as it is dependent upon and subordinate to imperialism, has regional and larger world ambitions. And the program of the Chinese government for Tibet is in line with the economic and social program being implemented throughout the whole country—a program of fast-paced capitalist “modernization.”
For the masses of Tibetan people, as with the masses of people throughout China, this means increased exploitation and misery. And it means a widening gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The restoration of capitalism has been and continues to be a nightmare for the masses of people living in China, including and especially for oppressed nationalities like the Tibetan people. And it will take nothing less than another revolution and the establishment of a genuine socialist society to liberate all the people living in China.
There are many dimensions to how capitalist exploitation and oppression, along with national oppression, is taking place in Tibet. But one thing that illustrates this very sharply is the much-celebrated railroad that now links Tibet to the rest of China. This railway, completed in 2006 at a cost of $4.1 billion, was touted as vital to developing the Tibetan economy. There were hopes among the Tibetan people that this would bring jobs, lower prices for consumer goods, and a higher standard of living. But in fact, unemployment among Tibetans remains very high — as is generally the case, most new jobs (or at least the good ones) went to Han Chinese. There has been little improvement for the majority of the Tibetan people who mainly live in the rural areas. Reckless economic development in the area is also intensifying threats to the environment. And as a number of analysts have pointed out, along with all this has come the usual and unbridled corruption among government officials and businessmen.
A big part of the reason for building the railway is that the central government, with an eye towards developing cheap sources of raw materials for a profit-driven development, wants to create a more efficient transport system to be able to extract and transport the rich deposits of copper, iron, lead and other minerals in the large unspoiled Tibetan highlands.
In the past, mining in Tibet was largely carried out on a small scale by world standards. But Chinese metal and processing industries are now operating according to competitive world scale standards and are looking to world markets and importing vast quantities of minerals. Gabriel Laffitte is a development consultant who works with reactionary Tibetan exiles around the Dalai Lama who support capitalist development. But an article he wrote about the mining industry in Tibet is revealing. He says: “Chinese steel mills and copper smelters, in deciding whether to locate a mine and perhaps a smelter as well, in Tibet, will make their choice by comparing costs of extraction from Tibet with the costs of a similar plant in Brazil or Canada or Australia or Orissa... Tibetan mineral deposits that until now seemed too distant, expensive and complicated for China’s largely coastal metal manufacturers, may now be profitable, due to the worldwide price rises and shortages of energy and minerals.” (“China’s 100 billion spending spree in Tibet,” Tibetan Bulletin, January-April 2007, available at tibet.net)
The development of mining is only one snapshot of the kinds of interests and demands that globalized capitalism are imposing and that are setting the terms for investment in Tibet – and driving and shaping economic development. In addition, the central government is pushing tourism as a major component of profit-based development in Tibet. And here too, the results are harmful to the Tibetan people, with industry that caters to non-Tibetans and a lot of development focused in the city. All of this contributes to greater inequalities, like between city and countryside and between those working in the cities and peasants in the poor countryside.
For the Tibetan people, all this has meant a deepening of super exploitation, inequality, and discrimination. And this is giving rise to profound discontent and anger which has erupted in the streets.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
The communist revolution led by Mao Tsetung liberated China in 1949. Before this, Tibet (located in the remote, far western part of China) was ruled by a feudal Buddhist theocracy—headed by the Dalai Lama—that brutally exploited and suppressed the people. Most land suitable for farming was owned by high-ranking lamas (Buddhist clerics) and non-Lamaist aristocracy. Fewer than 700 of these top monks and other secular feudal lords controlled 93 percent of the land and wealth.
Most of the people in Tibet’s rural areas were serfs who were bonded for life to the top monks and secular aristocracy. The feudal owners dictated what crops the serfs could grow, and then took most of the harvested grain while driving the peasants ever deeper into debt. They demanded unpaid forced labor from the serfs and subjected them to onerous taxes, like taxes on newborn children. Girls were often taken from serf families to serve as servants for the aristocrats, and many boys were forced into monasteries to be trained as monks. (Accounts of pre-1949 Tibet can be found, among other works, in A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, M.E. Sharpe, 1996; Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews, Peking New World Press, 1929; Michael Parenti, “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” July 7, 2003, swans.com)
About five percent of Tibetans were outright slaves (mainly domestic servants) who had no right to grow anything for themselves and who were often worked or beaten to death. The lower-level monks (about a tenth of the population) were also basically slaves, bound to the monasteries and forced to serve the high-ranking lamas.
The feudal lords enforced the social order with their small professional army and armed gangs. Any non-compliance, let alone open resistance, was met with sadistic punishment that included torture and mutilation, such as gouging out of eyes.
The reactionary ideology of Lamaism, the form of Buddhism in Tibet, was key in this whole setup. Central to Lamaism is the belief that humans have a soul that is born and reborn many times (reincarnation), and that a person’s position in the world has been predetermined by what he/she did in a previous life (karma). Being born a woman, for example, was considered punishment for sinful behavior in the past life. Such religious untrue myths and superstitions were used by the rulers to justify extreme oppression and to keep the masses of people resigned to their situation.
Pre-liberation Tibet as a whole was a very isolated, backward place. There were no roads that wheeled vehicles could travel on. Most children died before their first birthday. Over 70% of the people were infected with venereal disease and 20% with smallpox.
Feudal Tibet was no “Shangri-la” where benevolent monk-rulers lived in peaceful harmony with contented masses. It was a nightmarish horror for the great majority of people, and the feudal relations and ideas kept the whole society in an extremely backward state.
Revolution Comes to Tibet
The victory of the revolution led by Mao in 1949 brought a new day to China. The U.S. and other imperialists quickly moved to try to crush this revolution. By 1950, for example, U.S. invasion forces had landed in Korea and were moving toward the Chinese border.
The Maoists aimed to bring Tibet (and other remote regions of China) into the revolutionary process—to transform the oppressive relations there, and to prevent imperialist intrigue and intervention on China’s borders. In 1951, China’s revolutionary state signed a treaty with Tibet’s rulers, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched peacefully into Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Under the agreement, there was self-government for Tibet under the Dalai Lama, while the central government controlled military and foreign affairs (like in other national minority autonomous areas) and could promote social reforms. The monastic properties remained intact and the feudal lords continued to dominate the peasants. But usury was abolished, roads and hospitals were built, and a secular school system began to take root. (Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, Doubleday, 1961; Pradyumna P. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet: The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape, Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1976)
In 1956-57, feudal landowners—backed by the CIA—organized armed revolts. This was part of the intensifying imperialist encirclement of and pressures on the People’s Republic of China. In 1959 armed monks and Tibetan soldiers launched a full-scale counter-revolutionary uprising, which had little support among the people and crumbled fairly quickly. The Dalai Lama escaped to India in a CIA covert operation, taking with him enormous wealth that represented the blood of oppressed people. Large sections of the top clergy and feudal aristocracy followed him into exile. (Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet, U of Kansas Press, 2002; Richard M. Bennett, “Tibet, the ‘great game’ and the CIA,” Asia Times, March 25, 2008)
A new phase of radical and sweeping changes followed. There were mass meetings and mobilizations of peasants, with women taking an active role. Slavery and unpaid serf labor were abolished. Large tracts of land controlled by the feudal owners were distributed to former serfs and landless peasants. Roads, schools, the medical system, and other infrastructure were further built up. There was new freedom to not believe in mind-enslaving religious dogma. (Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, Doubleday, 1961; Grunfeld, The Makng of Modern Tibet)
Beginning in the mid-1960s, momentous upheavals rocked all of China—the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Revisionist (phony “communist”) forces right within the Communist Party had seized key positions of power and were threatening to bring capitalism back to China. Mao’s answer was a revolution within the revolution—he called on the masses in the hundreds of millions to seize power back from the capitalist-roaders and in the process further revolutionize society.
The Cultural Revolution brought profound changes to Tibet. Agricultural communes were organized, irrigation projects were undertaken, and food production was expanded. “Barefoot doctors”—medical workers trained from among the masses—brought regular health care to many rural areas for the first time. Half the barefoot doctors were women, previously forbidden under Buddhist doctrine to practice medicine. Literacy and basic scientific knowledge were spread among the people, and ideological struggle was waged against feudal customs and values.
There is much distortion spread by various forces about “cultural genocide” in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. One charge leveled against the Cultural Revolution is that Mao ordered the large-scale desecration and destruction by Han Chinese Red Guards. But the truth of the matter is different. While there was destruction of monasteries and shrines, this was largely carried out by native Tibetan activists and Red Guard youth, not (as often alleged) by “invading” non-Tibetan Red Guards. (Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past, Pluto, 2008) While there were excesses, it is important to understand this in the context of the larger struggle against the past and continuing influence of the reactionary Lamaist superstitions and their symbols, as well as the remaining wealth of the feudal masters in the form of monastic holdings. And there were attempts to rein in some of these kind of excesses by the Maoist forces.
The revolutionary forces were confronted with a complex contradiction. On the one hand there was the right of minority nationalities, like the Tibetans, to their national culture. But in Tibet, this culture was very closely intertwined with the Lamaist religion which was a heavy chain on the people. There is much more to be learned about how the Maoists handled this contradiction, and there is need to further synthesize what was done right and what mistakes were made in order to do better with contradictions like this in future socialist societies. What can be said is that the Maoist forces waged struggle against Han (the majority nationality in China) chauvinism and for equality among the various nationalities and cultures. At the same time, they led the struggle against the “four olds”—the old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of the reactionary feudal society. There was a blossoming of Tibetan culture during the Cultural Revolution: a single Tibetan dialect was promoted; Tibetan typewriters were developed; traditional Tibetan medicine was studied; there was research into Tibetan history. By 1975, half the top leaders in Tibet were native Tibetans.
The standard claim spread from “Free Tibet” organizations is that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed since 1950, and especially during the Cultural Revolution. Writing in a New York Times Op-ed, Patrick French, former head of the pro-Dalai Lama group Free Tibet Campaign, said that after extensive research, he “found that there was no evidence to support that figure.” And contrary to claims about forced sterilization in Tibet during the Mao years, the actual policy was that there was education about family planning and that birth control was made available on a voluntary basis. There was recognition of the particular situation of minority nationality areas which had suffered much greater infant mortality rates and epidemic diseases than Han areas. Tibet’s population—which had been markedly declining before liberation—seems to have increased during the Mao years. (Han Suyin, Lhasa, the Open City—A Journey to Tibet, Putnam, 1977; China Reconstructs, “Tibet—From Serfdom to Socialism,” March 1976; Peking Review, “Tibet’s Big Leap—No Return to the Old System,” July 4, 1975)
The death of Mao in 1976 brought another big change in China—this time, a giant reactionary leap backward. The revisionists seized power through a coup and restored capitalism to China—even as they continued to call themselves “communist” and claimed that China was still “socialist.” In Tibet, as throughout China, the capitalist rulers have dismantled collective farming and other socialist relations and institutions. Polarization has intensified throughout society—between rich and poor, between urban and rural areas, between men and women, and so on. Semi-feudal agriculture has re-emerged along with capitalism linked to international capital. Development of mining and timber industries has led to devastating ecological consequences. And there has been an uncorking of Han chauvinism, as the capitalist rulers and their government have moved to step up domination of Tibet and other minority areas.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
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Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity by Bob Avakian. Part 2: Everything We’re Doing is About Revolution. Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution.
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In the wake of the March 22nd presentation on "Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: What IS Bob Avakian's New Synthesis?" more discussion with focus on the experience of the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions with Raymond Lotta.
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Video Showing of testimony from Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan
Followed by discussion with members of World Can't Wait-Drive Out the Bush Regime and Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist, the latter of whom attended Winter Soldier 2008.
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan was four-day event in mid-March that brought together veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan - and present video and photographic evidence.
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Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Fourteen-Year-Old Atheist Dawn Sherman:
Revolution correspondent Alice Woodward interviewed Dawn Sherman, a 14-year-old Chicago-area high school student who filed a lawsuit challenging the Illinois mandatory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.
Revolution: Tell us why you filed a lawsuit against the Illinois mandatory Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.
Dawn Sherman: The original law, before it was amended from “may” to “shall,” said that the teacher of the class would have the opportunity to have a moment of silence in which the students would either silently reflect or pray. The law that my father and I fought against was the act where the word “may” was turned into “shall,” so it became a requirement that every morning the teacher would perform a brief period of silence where the students would either pray or silently reflect. And we know that is an endorsement of religion, which the government can’t do because it specifically required a student to consider, at the very least, prayer as an option, and for those of you who chose not to pray you can just silently reflect. So it’s an endorsement of prayer and religion, and so we didn’t want an injection of religion into public school.
We filed a lawsuit against School District 214. Our judge was Judge Gettleman. Our first goal was to get an injunction on District 214 doing the moment of silence, and our ultimate goal was to extend it statewide and get it declared unconstitutional so that no school or school district would be able to do it. And the judge said that it was probably unconstitutional so he gave us the emergency injunction, but he hasn’t extended it statewide so we’re still doing the legal briefs and stuff.
Revolution: Tell us why you feel this is important.
Dawn Sherman: It’s important because my rights as a citizen of the United States are backed by the Constitution; my First Amendment right is freedom of religion and freedom from religion. To allow anyone to get away with even a small or one violation of that right indicates that I can let them get away with other bigger violations of my rights. So, 15 seconds of silence for something, which is endorsing prayer and religion, may not seem like a big deal to other people, but it’s a big deal to me because, if I let that go by, it indicates that anyone can violate my constitutional rights of freedom from religion. It’s also a huge waste of my time, it wastes a good four hours like a year from my education, and it’s still an endorsement of prayer.
Revolution: What has been the reaction of students and teachers at school?
Dawn Sherman: Most of the discussion and debate has come from students. I know there’s some teachers who think the act is ridiculous; I think there are some teachers who just don’t care. With students, a lot of people—this doesn’t happen very often anymore, it happened more initially when we sued District 214—but back then students would come up to me and ask me why it was such a deal to me, it was only 15 seconds to them, it wasn’t a big deal to them; a couple people thought it was great that I was doing this, they congratulated me on winning the emergency injunction. A couple students were really ticked off at me. Most students don’t really care.
Revolution: Have you come under attack at all for taking this stand?
Dawn Sherman: No teacher or administrator has really said anything to me about it, but it was a subject of debate amongst me and a couple other students and several students would ask me about it, but no one’s really harassed me about it, except for the students who will say “God bless you” unnecessarily loudly in front of me whenever someone makes an incredibly fake sneeze. And sometimes I walk past people and they say, “God Bless America” or “I love God” to their friends; they were just doing it to annoy me. It doesn’t really work.
Revolution: What has been the reaction of people elsewhere?
Dawn Sherman: Most of the information I’ve gotten about people’s opinions around the country or from the neighborhood were letters to the editor to the Daily Herald, and occasionally to the Tribune and Sun-Times. The [Chicago] Tribune, their article was posted on a website with comments, and there were over a thousand comments on it. It was pretty evenly divided; about half of the people think that this was great what I’m doing and half the people think that I’m an idiot that’s been brainwashed by her father and we’re a tag team that just waste other people’s time and we should get a life. And those came from around the world, like the very first comment came from Albania. Although all the foreign ones seemed to agree with me. The one from Albania said good for me for standing up for my rights and being so strong-minded at such a young age. Someone from France got into this really intense discussion with a couple other people about how we were turning into a theocracy and that I was standing in the way of the United States becoming a theocracy, which was so incredibly great for him.
Revolution: At what point did you decide that you were an atheist?
Dawn Sherman: When I was, like, five, everybody kept saying that the only reason I was an atheist is that I was just sucking down all the stuff my dad taught me—and I was a real brat when I was five—so I was like, “I’m gonna prove you wrong!” I went to the library, it was just happenstance that one day I happened to see a Bible, and I wanted to actually look through it and see what was in it—which was fine with my parents, they think its perfectly fine for me to look through the Bible and I’ve actually read it. I looked through it when I was five—I had just learned how to read actually—and the first thing I read was the Ten Commandments, and I said to myself, this doesn’t make sense, this is terrible, why would someone who is so omnipotent and so wonderful and so good and so loving punish people for things that are within human nature?! Don’t feel jealous, don’t feel anger, don’t want to take revenge against someone who’s done you wrong, who’s like, your mortal enemy? That doesn’t make sense, that’s within human nature. And that’s how god was supposed to have created us according to Christians and Catholics and Jews and every other believer, they believe that god created us as we are right now and we have our own independent way of making what it is of it. And if he made us with human nature then that’s just not fair for him to punish us for that! And punish us for the qualities that he himself gave us, so that’s why I don’t believe that he exists because someone that wonderful and that loving wouldn’t do that.
Revolution: A lot of times when I tell people I don’t believe in god, one of the first questions they ask is where do you think you came from then? How do you answer that?
Dawn Sherman: Actually, I do have an answer for that question that I just learned recently! I do believe that we came from evolution and just recently I read an article from sciencenews.org, “Seafloor Chemistry: Life’s building blocks made inorganically” [sciencenews.org/articles/ 20080202/fob1.asp], that says that the origins of life may have been found from hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean! There are inorganic reactions that are creating organic materials in hydrothermal vents in a place called the Lost City. So I used to be able to only say, I believe we came from evolution and I’m not sure where the first cells of life came from, but I know they came from somewhere and I don’t believe that was from god. Now I have an answer!
Revolution: Tell us more about that.
Dawn Sherman: Hydrothermal vents. They are little things in the bottom of the ocean and they spew very hot acidic material and they often contain a lot of gasses. Not very many organisms can live there, only bacteria known as archae bacteria can live there and survive and yeah, it’s just an extremely extreme climate, and they result in these towers because the materials kind of clump together and create these towers and what’s unique about the Lost City is that it’s the only hydrothermal vent that they know of that actually behaves the way it does in having inorganic reactions that create organic molecules and having towers that are so enormous—it’s just not common for hydrothermal vents—but it’s one of the largest hydrothermal vent systems in the world and it’s right near the center of the Atlantic Ocean.
Revolution: What other discussions have you had with people about the Bible?
Dawn Sherman: I’ve occasionally discussed the Bible and ideas and concepts that people have about god, the fact that god sends these hardships down to us to teach us and to lead us to accept him, and guide us along the right path, and my immediate response to that is, well now you’re being left the victim, why would a loving and wonderful god make you a victim of something just to prove your loyalty to him? That’s one of the main conversations I’ve had with really intense believers. A lot of people ask if I worship the devil, and that is just the most perpendicular question anyone has ever asked me, even though it’s a really common question I get, because god and the devil are two very related topics: if you can’t believe in one, you can’t believe in the other; so if I don’t believe in god, I can’t believe in the devil; so I can’t worship him either.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Winter Soldier Investigation, March 13-16
The following letter is from Joe Urgo, a Vietnam vet:
I thought I knew about what the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has meant to these countries and their people. But the real horror of this was vividly brought home to me when I attended the March 13-16 Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan, organized by the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Over four days, almost 50 American veterans testified about what they had been trained to do and what they did to the people and land of Iraq and Afghanistan. These hearings were broadcast around the world over the Internet, television and radio, and could be seen by the troops on U.S. bases and ships all over the world. Interspersed throughout the testimony were videos of Iraqi men, women, and kids describing the terror of living under American military occupation.
The audience, about 350 people at any time, were mostly American veterans, military families, and parents whose children were killed in the war.
Those testifying tried to expose how the policies and orders came from the very top levels of their military chain of command, up to Gen. Petraeus and beyond. Some of the terms will be familiar to Vietnam veterans: “Free Fire Zones,” and “Recon By Fire”—both of which give you permission to fire on anyone you please without consequences. There was testimony about policies developed for these wars today, new counterinsurgency doctrine in urban situations like the massive number of home invasions, many in the middle of the night, and whole families are terrorized, beaten, living quarters ransacked, and the young men and boys carted off to jail and worse.
Some of the starkest testimony was on the Rules of Engagement panels. Jason Washburn testified, “We were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted. We opened fire on everything. There were no rules governing the amount of force we were allowed to use. This is what we were expected to do. We were told to fuck them up.” He described several incidents of killing civilians, that they were common and were encouraged. He and other vets also described how “with a wink and a nudge we were encouraged to carry ‘drop weapons’ or shovels. In case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, toss the weapon or shovel on the body to make them look like an insurgent.”
It was also on this panel that Jon Turner began his testimony by repeating one of the Marine Corps slogans, pausing and saying, “and then there is ‘fuck the apple, eat the Corps.’” Then he ripped his medals off his chest, threw them on the and floor and said, “I don’t work for you anymore!” In half a second, the entire audience was on their feet cheering Jon’s defiance of the Marines and their medals. He then went on to describe his senior officers commending him for his first kill, what it was like doing house raids at three in the morning, “kicking in doors and terrorizing families.” Trying to hold his emotions in check, Jon ended his testimony saying, “I am no longer the monster I once was.” The post traumatic stress among many of the vets as they tried to come to grips with what they had done to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan made it necessary to have a team of therapists on call during the conference.
As you listen to or read the testimony, a picture begins to emerge: These crimes are not mistakes, “misuse” of the Rules of Engagement, or “strategic incompetence.” This is the way imperialism and its military fight their wars. Kill the people; the only valuable lives are American lives. One vet started his testimony by saying, “To the people of the world ..."
We need to act with the courage and determination demanded by those people of the world—to put a stop to this. These vets, driven by guilt, anger, and a growing sense of betrayal that they had been lied to and used to commit a great crime against humanity, made powerful statements that need to be heard by all who are not yet convinced that these occupations are wrong, by those sitting on the fence, by those who, yes, like me, think they know what’s happening over there.
In future issues, Revolution will publish transcripts of testimony from the Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan. Readers can hear testimony at: ivaw.org/wintersoldier/testimony
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
Philadelphia, March 27—A divided three-judge panel of the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its decision on the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. By a vote of 2 to 1, the appeals court let stand Mumia’s original conviction, but upheld a lower court decision that overturned his death sentence because of a misleading jury verdict form.
This decision continues the 27-year railroad of a Black revolutionary writer and activist, framed by the infamous racist court system of Philadelphia. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been held in isolation on Pennsylvania’s death row since his 1982 trial that was a travesty of justice.
This latest development in Mumia’s case is serious and dangerous. Not only has Mumia’s appeal been turned down by a federal appeals court, the state of Pennsylvania could take this as a green light to have another crack at sentencing him to death by correcting the “error” in the original trial.
Shortly before dawn, on December 9, 1981, Mumia was driving his cab on a downtown Philadelphia street. He saw a cop viciously beating his brother, William Cook, with a metal flashlight. Mumia rushed to help his brother, and there was a confrontation. When the smoke cleared, Mumia was on the curb in a pool of his own blood. The cop lay on the street nearby, dying from bullet wounds. Although others were at the scene, the police immediately charged Mumia, who was well known to them as a revolutionary journalist and a former Black Panther, with the murder of the cop.
At his 1982 trial, Mumia was denied the right to serve as his own attorney and was barred from the courtroom for half his trial. The prosecution claimed that Mumia had confessed—a confession that cops only “remembered” months after the incident. Witnesses were coerced into giving false testimony. Key evidence was never seen by the jury. A court reporter overheard the trial judge saying that he was going to help the cops “fry the n****r.” Mumia was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 1995, when a death warrant was signed for Mumia, an international mass movement arose and made his case a major question in society—it became a dividing line and rallying point for many thousands of people, including prominent intellectuals and artists. The European Parliament, Amnesty International, and others called for a new trial. In 2001 a federal district court judge upheld Mumia’s conviction but overturned his death sentence because of the misleading jury verdict form in the original trial. But he was still denied justice—not only kept in prison but on death row.
The principal issue in Mumia’s appeal was the use by prosecutors of “peremptory” challenges to knock Black people off the jury at his original trial. (Each side can knock a certain number of jurors off without giving a reason.) The practice of using peremptory challenges to keep minorities off juries was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. But Philadelphia is infamous for this practice. The District Attorney’s office even produced a training video for new prosecutors on how to do it.
The new appeals court decision throws out Mumia’s appeal on the grounds that he failed to raise the issue of the peremptory challenges at his trial and that there were no valid statistics on the race of the whole jury pool.
But wait a minute! Why didn’t Mumia raise this issue at his trial? Because he was represented by an incompetent court-appointed attorney who begged the court to be dismissed from the case, and because Mumia himself was kicked out of the courtroom for continuing to demand the right to represent himself. Yet in the current appeal, Mumia was not allowed to raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel. So there you have the “Catch 22”: Mumia can’t appeal the racist exclusions because his lawyer didn’t raise the issue at the trial, but Mumia is not allowed to base his appeal on the very failure of counsel that the appeals court is pointing out.
In a spirited dissent from the majority on the court, Judge Thomas L. Ambro stated: “Excluding even a single person from a jury because of race violates the Equal Protection Clause of our Constitution.” He went on to point out that the majority seemed have made up a whole new set of rules just for the Mumia case because this same court had granted new trials in a number of similar cases where the defendants had not raised the issue of racially stacked juries at trial.
The appeals court decision leaves the state of Pennsylvania with the options of convening a new jury to rerun the penalty phase of Mumia’s trial (in which Mumia could again be sentenced to death) or commuting Mumia’s sentence to life in prison. Mumia’s attorney has announced that the decision will be appealed to the full 3rd Circuit—a procedure where all the judges of the circuit court rehear the case as a group to review the decision made by only three judges.
Mumia has held firm through 26 years in solitary confinement and repeated threats of execution. His books, weekly columns, and radio commentaries inspire people across the globe. People everywhere need to continue to demand the freedom of this revolutionary political prisoner.
Revolution #125, April 6, 2008
From A World to Win News Service
March 17 2008. A World to Win News Service. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the March 8 Women’s Detachment of Afghanistan held a meeting in Quetta, a city in northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, to commemorate the founding of this day of protest a century ago and condemn the worsening violence against women in Afghanistan. The mass meeting was held with the active cooperation of another Afghan group, the Revolutionary Youth Movement. More than 800 people filled the hall and another 200 could not get in because there was no more room.
Most of the participants were women and girls, most of whom were students. Among the male participants, the majority were students as well. The young women speakers from the two organizations made presentations about the deteriorating situation for women in Afghanistan under the U.S.-led occupation.
Afghanistan has become one of the worst places in the world in terms of violence against women. In addition to suffering from the general atmosphere of insecurity, they have been raped and kidnapped by the armed forces. They are the victims or threatened victims of rape in the prisons and women’s shelters. They face death by stoning for non-Islamic behavior. They also suffer violence in their home and from their family, such as beating and murder by their husbands and so-called honor killings at the hands of male family members. Not only has the occupation of the country by the U.S. and its allies in the name of liberating women not improved the situation; in many aspects, in particular regarding the violent oppression of women, things have gotten worse. Nothing speaks more eloquently to this reality than the fact that the number of cases of women committing suicide by burning themselves to death has skyrocketed over the last five years.
The program also included instrumental music, songs, paintings and poems denouncing the violence against women by the occupiers, the Afghanistan armed forces, and women’s families. Several teenage girls and boys put on a performance. The program was well received by the participants.
The afternoon-long meeting, held on March 9, received solidarity and support messages from nearly all the local schools and educational institutions on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
The March 8 Women’s Detachment has celebrated IWD by holding mass meetings in Quetta every year since 1998 under different circumstances. This year was one of the best received by the poor masses of the neighborhoods in Quetta where tens of thousands of Afghanis live.
The March 8 Women’s Detachment blog: nabardezan.persianblog.ir
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.