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Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
This is a message to those who got behind Barack Obama because they have been horrified and furious with the direction this society has taken over the past eight years. To those who put their deep felt desires for change in the hope that Obama will take society in a different direction.
Revolution has made the argument about why such hopes are misplaced and illusory, why the direction Barack Obama will take society is diametrically opposed to the direction you want to go, and why supporting Obama is harmful. But we can’t help but raise one more time to those who know the system is rotten: the logic of getting behind Obama boils down to saying: if we can’t do away with this system now, we have to strengthen that system by putting resources into and/or working to elect someone who doesn’t even pretend he’s going to work to bring about a real change in the nature of that system.
And if you don’t think we need a revolution—then you need to explain how voting for Obama will address the things you do care about. How, from within the confines and framework of this system, can Obama begin to solve all the horrors facing humanity today, from global warming to the food crisis to the vicious discrimination in this society?
But with all that, here we are. As we go to press, the outcome of this election is undecided, and is unpredictable. Not just in how the votes add up, but even whether they will be added up. But, no matter what the outcome, when the dust clears the question will be posed for all those who genuinely desire changes so desperately needed by the people of the world:
What are you going to do now?
Will you fight for the changes in society and its direction—and the role the U.S. plays in the world—that you yourself care deeply about? And, if you voted for Obama, will you fight for the things that got you to put your hopes for change in Obama?
If Obama is elected, many will try to “wait and see” what happens.
But how long will you wait and how much will you have to see? What will you find intolerable? What is that line that you will not cross? At what point will you step up and resist?
And consider this: McCain could win, just as Bush “won” the elections. What would that prove? Only that there is a section of society that can be whipped up around “small town” values of ignorance, intolerance, white supremacy, and patriotism—and that refusing to take this on, head-on, will only embolden these fascist elements. And it may once again prove that elections can be fixed and stolen. But then what? You knew the game was rigged when you sat down to play. It is impermissible to then retreat into cynicism and despair just because they cheated you. Will you let the open fascists then rule unchallenged? Or will you stand up and join with others to resist the juggernaut he will unleash, including going into the streets in massive political resistance if they do in some way once again try to steal the elections?
Whoever steps into the Oval Office after this election will get behind the wheel of a whole system, and in particular, a system whose trajectory has been defined by the Bush regime, with its world ambitions—and the way it has fought to remake all of society in a fascist way. And whoever steps into the Oval Office will do so at a moment when there is tremendous turmoil and dislocation as the financial crisis destabilizes the global economy—with the prospect of much worse to come. The future of millions hangs in the balance.
However this election turns out, there are going to be profound “changes.” This upheaval could result in a leap in the remaking of society in a fascist way. But at the same time, if there is a growing revolutionary movement and a growing culture of resistance, it could open the way for and set different terms…and the balance of forces in society can be dramatically realigned.
The call from World Can’t Wait remains true: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN. WHICH ONE WE GET IS UP TO US. There’s going to be storms. You can sit and let it pour down on the people, here and all over the world, or you can do something to wrench a whole better future out of it.
Many people are getting behind Obama because they feel he is all that stands between them and the imposition of an increasingly fascist Republican agenda. But the Democrats—and specifically Obama—are not going to stand up and forcefully call out and oppose what is going on. Time and time again, they tell us this—and demonstrate this through their actions. Even while the McCain/Palin rallies grew uglier and more threatening in the weeks before the election, Obama continued to call for “conciliation” and “overcoming our differences.” And let’s be clear, the unleashing of this narrow minded, right-wing populist movement now is not merely a campaign tactic. It is not just ugly; it is dangerous. When the specter of Obama being the anti-Christ is run out there in the way this campaign has done, it is just one ominous signal that the Christian fascist forces are on the move—and mobilizing and congealing their base to fight for their reactionary programs and ideas to govern the society.
Why? Because in these tumultuous times, Obama’s message and role is to bring people “into the fold.” He has won so much support from the ruling class—and make no mistake about it, he would not be leading in the polls and raking in the donations if he did not have tremendous ruling class backing—because they feel he has the best program to get the people in America to hold still and hold tight for the hell they are about to be put through. And they also feel that he is the best person to sell the bloody program of aggression and murder that they need to continue all over the globe to people of the world. He is a “fresh face.” But these rulers also agree that the Christian fascists who now slobber over Sarah Palin must also be part of the mix and must not be called out for what they really are. It follows, then, that in response to every attack from these dark forces of obscurantism, woman-enslaving theocracy, racism, and “USA #1” chauvinism, Obama has preached accommodation and capitulation. And this won’t change if he is president. Because to mobilize people to fight in opposition to the current agenda of the rulers holds within it the potential of unleashing the masses in a way which could lead to the further unraveling of a situation the ruling class is desperately trying to pull together. And calling forward the masses could contribute to the rise of a radical challenge to the whole set-up coming from below.
But while Obama does not want to and will not call forth a mass movement from below which goes up against all the reaction and injustice, and, in fact, as many Obama supporters will soon find out to their chagrin, he will use the machinery of state against any such movement—this is exactly what needs to happen.
Is this going to be a time of great change? How could it be otherwise given what is happening in the world? But the question is: what kind of change and in whose interests? The rulers of this country are not going to sit idly by and watch this system fall apart. In the face of powerful centrifugal forces pulling at the fabric of society—the rulers are going to try to bludgeon and hammer their way through this crisis. And if they are successful, they will do this on the basis of greatly and egregiously intensifying the suffering and exploitation of the people. But this outcome is not inevitable.
These heavy times also hold the potential for radical and dramatic shifts and an even more profound crisis that could pose the possibility for revolutionary change...and we must be preparing for such times.
To those who ask, “But until the revolution comes, what can we do?” the answer is that right now is the time to be building a revolutionary movement. Revolutions can only be made when the time is ripe, but in a real way, revolutions are “made” all along the way. Our Party is and will be out there, spreading revolution and building resistance. Our Party is and will be out in the world, working to bring forward a revolutionary people through all the twists and turns of this struggle so that when the situation develops where revolution has a real chance, the people will be ready to seize the time.
And when you realize you’ve been played...when you have had enough and decide to fight for the change the world needs, and not the change we’re told we have to settle for...when you decide it is time to stand up, step up, and resist—join with our Party in working for change that really matters.
To state it in a single sentence, elections: are controlled by the bourgeoisie; are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case; and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a “popular mandate,” and of channeling, confining, and controlling the political activity of the masses of people.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
In Relation to the "Lesser Evil" Election Trap, and the Argument: "Someone is Going to be President."
Imagine a slave plantation, where the slave-owner is clever enough to allow the slaves to vote, every few years, on who will be the Overseer, who will administer, regulate and enforce the exploitation, brutality and humiliation to which the slaves are subjected. Imagine somebody arguing that it is important to get caught up in such elections--because, after all, "Someone is going to be Overseer"--rather than focusing people's attention and efforts on rising up to break free from the slave plantation and finally put an end to the whole system of slavery!
Or imagine a prison full of thousands and thousands of people wrongly incarcerated, where once again the prison administration is clever enough to allow the wrongly imprisoned inmates to vote, every few years, on who will be the Warden. Imagine someone arguing that it is important to get involved in these elections--because, after all, "Someone is going to be Warden"--rather than focusing people's attention and efforts on ending this wrongful imprisonment and sweeping away the whole system that continually perpetuates all this injustice!
Once Again: FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Letter from a reader:
I thought the cover article in the latest issue, “What Are You Gonna Do Now” is very good in speaking to and challenging—what ARE people going to do in the face of the continuation and even escalation of many things that deeply concern them, in particular people who are being swept into voting for Barack Obama. And the article really situates this election in the whole context and high stakes of the times and addresses what is the real solution? It also points to other possible scenarios besides Obama winning the election and the dangerousness of reactionaries labeling Obama the anti-christ; the possibility of a stolen election, etc. These questions are ideologically extremely critical to get into with people.
Secondarily, I wanted to raise questions about how oriented and prepared those who read Revolution newspaper regularly are for the range of possible outcomes to this election (and not just assume that the most likely outcome is the only one to think about). In particular, I think we have to consider what would happen if the elections are stolen from Obama in one form or another (real or perceived) and what such an outcome could give rise to—in particular, the kind of outrage this would give rise to, outrage which would be very justified even if based in large part on feelings that bourgeois-democratic ideals and rules had been betrayed. We can certainly unite with such outrage, even as we dig into WHY these kinds of things keep happening, why these fascists are so aggressive, and HOW a whole different program is needed to speak to the big underlying questions that continue to assert themselves in various acute forms. It is far from impossible that such an outcome to the election could lead to a constitutional crisis and even a potential legitimacy crisis. There is the added element of the national question in such a scenario, similar but even heavier than the disenfranchisement of the Black vote that went on in the last two elections as a way of “shaping” the outcome of the vote. I saw Chris Rock on TV and he raised the specter of the “rules being changed” to prevent Obama from winning and hinting at the outrage this would provoke among the base of the Democratic party, especially (but certainly not only) among the Black masses. Including among those who are not seeing Obama as ultimately THE answer to the oppression faced by Black people.
As Communists we should be orienting and preparing people for the full range of what could be the outcome of the election. Right now, really getting way out there with the special issue, “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of the System and the Revolution We Need” and the new pamphlet by Bob Avakian, “Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy,” and this current issue of the newspaper and all the other important ways that a revolutionary movement is being built—all this will have a lot to do with how people look at all these questions and respond to developments expected or unexpected—this is the key and fundamental orientation.
On that foundation, I think we have to be alert for various developments, including the unexpected and what that could give rise to among different sections of the people and be prepared and able to speak to large numbers of people. There is a great deal of polarization around the elections. At the base of the Democratic party, it seems like there is a combination of rising expectations alongside unsettledness about what can actually change if Obama wins given the enormity of the problems that the imperialists have dragged the country into—for instance around the economy, the war in Iraq, etc. And among these same people, there is a fair amount of fear of the election being stolen in various ways. On the other side, there is a viciousness and animosity coming from right wing fascist types. I recently got a copy of an email written by a cousin which accused Obama of being a Marxist out to overthrow the government and institute socialism etc. The orientation to expect the unexpected and even unanticipatable needs to be part of how we are preparing to relate to the situation it seems to me.
In Chicago, Obama’s campaign has lined up Grant Park (the greater area of the park) for a victory celebration on the night of the election and they expect 100's of thousands to come there for it. I think we should turn the article “What Are You Gonna Do Now” into a leaflet to distribute widely at as well as the special issue of Revolution on “The Oppression of Black people...” in massive numbers. On November 4th, we should be out all day in key polling areas with the newspaper. IF the election is stolen or perceived to be stolen, it seems likely that the planned victory party could have a very different character and we should be oriented to speak to the developments and be in the mix and certainly not standing off to the side of what people will be going through. We need to help lead them—and here I don’t mean in a tactical sense—but in an ideological and political sense—the revolutionaries and those grouped around them could be thrown into having to fight against the stealing of the elections and yet do it from the standpoint of making a revolution and handle that difficult contradiction and tension well. Revolution newspaper having its own “election central” and being able to post analysis and leaflets on the web in real time the night of the election could be a major way to take this on in as big a way as possible.
Post election: I have seen that various forces are planning things in the immediate wake of the elections—possibly either exposing or attempting to influence Obama’s agenda as well as provide analysis and direction. For instance, on November 7th in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is giving a speech at Northwestern University that is being advertised on different campuses billed as the State of the Black Nation. Also the NY Review of Books has an ad for a panel discussion on November 10th in NYC “What Happens Now? A Conversation on the 2008 election”. These events will be important to learn about how others are looking at the election results and to go to people with a real way out—revolution. Again, the issue on the Oppression of Black People would be very good to distribute, along with leaflets etc.
A potential fundraiser for the newspaper which someone came up with and which struck me as a great idea. Where there are a lot of the infamous “Wanted” t-shirts with Bush/Cheney/Rice/Rumsfeld on them – take them to the crowds exiting the movie W. since many people leave it wanting to indict the Bush regime for war crimes.
The S word – socialism is the word of the day as a result of the bailout and the attacks on Obama as a socialist by McCain/Palin (generally referring to taxes for social spending). This gives a big opening to speak to what socialism IS and what it is NOT. I could picture a sticker appearing on bathroom stalls, newspaper boxes, bus stops, phone poles – food for public thought. Maybe something like this:
WHAT IS SOCIALISM?
Is the bailout socialist? NO
Is Barak Obama socialist? NO
Is Venezuela or today’s China socialist? NO
WHAT IS SOCIALISM? After the socialist revolution made by a revolutionary people in their millions, the capitalist/imperialist class is stripped of its property and command over society. Socialism is a radically new and different kind of state power. Socialism as the transition to communism, leads to the emancipation of ALL humanity.
Socialism for the first time in history makes it possible to take hold of the collectively produced resources of society and use them in a rational, planned and society—wide way to meet human need and safeguard the planet. It is rooted in the conscious activity of tens of millions of people embarking on a road to dig up the roots of exploitation and oppression in every sphere, from production to social institutions to ideas in a process full of monumental challenges and real vitality and diversity. These are relevant and urgent questions.
Check out Revcom.us (Revolution newspaper) for a new Communist Manifesto for our times.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
To our readers:
From the holds of the slave ships to the locked-down penitentiaries and desperate street corners of today, the bitter oppression of Black people, and the struggle against that oppression, has been central to the history and current-day reality of this society. But now some claim that this is all a question of the distant past. Some go so far as to say that the nomination of Barack Obama signals the “transcendence of race” in America. Others may acknowledge the desperate straits of the majority of Black people, only to then blame the masses themselves for this situation. And meanwhile, the grinding and horrific oppression of the African-American people continues. To take but one outrageous example, one in nine young Black men are locked down in prison—while crises like the collapse of the housing market and the new epidemic of homelessness hit hardest in minority communities.
Issue #144 of Revolution is a special 20-page issue on the emancipation of humanity and the struggle for the liberation of Black people. It goes deeply into the history from slavery through the struggles of the 1960s to the present-day reality of Black people in America...how the oppression and brutal exploitation of Black people is rooted in and a pillar of this criminal system...and it makes the case for the necessity…and the possibility…of revolution.
This issue, speaking the truth about the oppression of Black people and the road to liberation of all humanity in a way that no one else is speaking it, should be debated and discussed and passed from hand to hand. There is a way out of this—revolution—and this issue is all about that!
In the weeks ahead let’s go all out to get this important issue out to many, many more people in many, many more places, including neighborhoods, cities and towns where Revolution has not reached before.
We want to hear from you. What do you think about this issue? What do others think and what are you finding out when you take this issue out? What are your experiences in taking it out? What questions are we encountering...and what are the debates and controversies...and what creative ways have people found to get this issue into the hands of different kinds of people? How is this issue getting taken up in the prisons and to the families of prisoners? What insights can prisoners add to this discussion? What kind of arguments is it provoking in barber shops? What about on the campuses?
We know there are a lot of people out there who have strong feelings and thoughts about these questions and we want to hear about this. Write to Revolution so everyone can learn from positive experiences, and let’s collectively wrangle—including in the pages of the paper—with the sharp questions people raise and the debates this issue touches off and dig into these questions deeper.
These are tumultuous times. Millions are worried about the very future of society and the planet. Many are wondering if capitalism really is “the best of all possible worlds” or if maybe things could be another way. In such a situation, it is even more urgent to get this special issue of Revolution: “The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System, and the Revolution We Need” out in the world. And every week this newspaper needs to be read by many, many more people—out in the mix of all kinds of scenes, stirring up the debate and spreading revolution.
Write to us at: Revolution c/o RCP Publications, Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654-0486 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get copies of the issue at your local Revolution Books store, or order from RCP Publications.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Revolution is a serious matter. It is not something to be played at.
Exactly because revolution means bringing to an end the power held by the capitalist-imperialists over the lives of billions, those who hold that power will oppose it in every way they can—via direct representatives of the state and working with other “freelance” operatives. There will also be organized reactionary forces who uphold the system and are threatened by the possibility of revolutionary change—they too will actively work against revolution and revolutionary organizations. This is to be expected. Revolution will bring counter-revolution. But then there is another type of counter-revolution—people who emerge from within the camp of opposition to the present order and pose as revolutionaries, but whose sole, or essential, purpose and reason for existence is to destroy genuine revolutionary organizations and revolutionary leaders—leadership that is necessary if there is to be a revolution.
To be clear, then, counter-revolution means active opposition to revolution, with the intent to destroy the revolution, revolutionary group, or individual.
Those serious about making revolution must set and insist on standards for the revolutionary movement that favor revolution and oppose all forms of counter-revolution.
There is a very important distinction that must be made between struggle, even sharp struggle, carried out in a principled way over differences in line and approach as opposed to wrecking activity which is objectively counter-revolutionary. Carrying out principled struggle is very different from efforts centered on spreading lies, innuendos, provocations which not only do not bring clarity but are designed to spread confusion and derail revolution—and can only benefit the state.
In the world today, revolution led by communists is both desperately needed and as yet still too rare. Different communist parties who have taken responsibility for making revolution in the particular countries they work in have to distinguish between the friends and the enemies of the revolution. In making revolution there is real importance to bending every effort to forge the broadest unity on a principled basis as these parties carry out struggle to determine what line, what road, what course of action can lead to freeing the people from the very real shackles this system has trapped them in.
There are and will be differences among the communists over how to sum up the previous experience of socialist revolution, what lessons to draw from that, how to go forward in the next stage, how to analyze the conditions for revolution and what strategy to follow. And there will be differences and principled struggle between communists and others who disagree that communism is the road forward, but who still wish to see radical or progressive social change and/or to resist the attacks of the ruling classes. There needs to be a lot of debate and ferment over these questions now and in the future.
This kind of principled struggle, which at times may include sharp polemics over ideology and line—polemics aimed at getting at the heart of disagreements over what is the real problem and solution—is a key element of making revolution. This is a necessary part of understanding the reality that we are dealing with and working to change; it’s important for drawing the masses into the process of determining how to go forward toward revolution and the emancipation of humanity—and steering clear of false paths. And genuine revolutionary communists who are trying to lead humanity to get to communism will seek to learn even from those who are in opposition to the goals and direction that communists are leading society, both from the insights and valid, or even partially valid, criticisms that those in opposition may have and, at times, through learning from their negative example. In this sort of criticism, the following standard should be applied: If people have disagreements on the level of line they should take on the best representation of the line they are criticizing, based on what groups and individuals publish about their views, and then state their differences as clearly and sharply as possible.
So principled struggle over line and even basic principles that, in reality, can make the difference between revolution and defeat in one form or another is very important and essential. And it is also qualitatively different from the kind of wrecking work done by those forces who in the name of revolution make it their business to traffic in anti-communism, and encourage animosity directed at communists and especially communist leaders who are insisting that the world can and must be radically changed—and are dedicating their lives to that end. Those who speculate on and foment differences, putting themselves forward as the voice of so-called “authoritative information” regarding matters that they either know nothing about or consciously distort, not only do not contribute to achieving clarity on line and the path forward—they aid the efforts of enemies of the revolution to isolate and attack revolutionary leadership.
The world of cyberspace has made it all the more possible for vicious attacks on revolutionary organizations and leadership to circulate and find a foothold. While there are many positive things that have been made possible with the Internet—like the ability of people all over the world to have access to information and the thinking of people today as well as from the past, and the ability to communicate with speed all over the globe—there are also very dangerous trends that have come with this new freedom. For example, anyone with a computer can make up whatever “truth” they want, can write fantasies and string things together and then send them all over the world. They can establish themselves as a so-called authority and drop their poison on all kinds of websites, blogs and listservs—it’s all bytes of data equally available, equally valid. There are the direct agencies of the government, imperialist oriented think tanks—from left to right—and various freelance reactionaries who make it their business to troll the Internet for tidbits they can utilize in order to oppose revolutionary forces. And note well that in the 1960s the government—even without the ease of the Internet—took such “information” and speculation and literally destroyed lives, as they worked to disrupt and destroy revolutionary organizations. Lessons paid in blood led to a broad understanding at that time, among those seeking change, of the need for high standards.
The whole culture these days is shaped way too much by tabloid voyeurism, made up of superficiality plus “narratives”—my personal story, my personal reality, “the more sensational the better.” We live in a culture which makes hounding and exposing the lives of prominent cultural and political figures a national pastime; unfortunately this same mentality also has been taken up by people playing at revolution. We get National Enquirer sensationalism in the “movement” fired by personal careerists who build themselves up by posturing as “those in the know”—which fosters a climate where people think it is OK to publish and broadcast lies about people, to ask about people’s whereabouts, to speculate and gossip about the role of different individuals, and try to provoke people into responding to this level of discourse.
All this may be disconcerting to people who are new to the revolutionary movement. Why would people who claim to be for revolution act in such a way? Unfortunately this type of counter-revolutionary activity is an inevitable part of making revolution—but that does not mean it should be excused, or shrugged off. While not getting pulled off course or disoriented, we have to be clear that this kind of thing does real damage, providing a climate where the forces of the state in power can bring down vicious repression on the revolution. This is one way you can tell the difference between people who are raising, even sharply, principled differences with revolutionaries, on the one hand, and counter-revolutionaries on the other. Rather than dedicating their efforts toward bringing forward any kind of revolutionary line, program or strategy, their sole unifying feature is to attack and tear down revolutionary leadership. These are life and death matters which affect the lives of millions. Serious revolutionary movements have to raise their standards and learn to reject and have nothing to do with anyone who carries out these kinds of counter-revolutionary activities.
All those who want to see the end of the rule of the monsters who run this country and wreak havoc all over the globe need to draw clear lines of distinction between honest, principled struggle over line and program and the wrecking activities of those who can only take pleasure in vilifying and tearing down the only party that the masses have, the only party in the U.S. that is determined to stick to the principles of communism and to make that liberating vision a material force in society—something that people who yearn and hope for a radically different and better world can work toward, with leadership that knows how to go there.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Memos of Torture:
Over the last few weeks new evidence has come to light about the extent to which top-level White House officials were directly and intimately involved in the decisions to authorize and use torture against prisoners held by the U.S. in the so-called “war on terror.” An October 15 front page article in the Washington Post—“CIA Tactics Endorsed in Secret Memos”—revealed that in 2003 and 2004 the White House issued two memos which explicitly endorsed the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
The actual content of the memos, which remain classified, were not revealed by the Post’s source. The source told the Post that the memos are the first “tangible expressions of the administration’s consent for the CIA’s use of harsh measures to extract information from captured al-Qaeda leaders.” While much evidence has come to light revealing the role of high level government officials in the authorization, planning and implementation of torture, up until now the government has denied a direct role by officials at the highest levels. “As recently as last month,” the Post writes in the article, “the administration had never publicly acknowledged that its policymakers knew about the specific techniques, such as waterboarding.”
Now, these memos reveal direct knowledge and official White House approval of not only torture in general, but specific torture techniques. And in addition to the memos, other evidence has also recently come to light regarding the widespread use of torture, this time from an Air Force Colonel sent to instruct special forces troops in interrogating detainees. On September 25, Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman testified before a Congressional committee about the torture that he had witnessed while on a mission to Iraq in 2003. He described interrogations taking place in a former ammunition bunker, which he described as “underground, cold and dark.” According to his testimony, one detainee “was forced to kneel under a spotlight, flanked by guards toting iron bars, while interrogators shouted questions at him. Each answer automatically elicited a hard slap across the face—a pattern that was repeated without pause for 30 minutes.” A second detainee interrogated in Kleinman’s presence was subjected to sleep deprivation and painful stress positions. A third had all his clothes physically torn from his body and was ordered to stand continuously for 12 hours, “or until he passed out.” (“Air Force Instructor Details Harsh Interrogations,” Washington Post, September 26, 2008). This was happening around the same time as the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib—which became infamous worldwide because of the leaked photos showing U.S. troops brutalizing and humiliating detainees.
The recent revelations come on top of exposures in April that the CIA’s use of water-boarding and other forms of torture on detainees in the wake of September 11, 2001 were deliberately and meticulously planned by top White House officials in dozens of meetings. A source told ABC News that the tortures “were almost choreographed.” The torture-planning cabal included Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA head George Tenet, and Attorney General John Ashcroft. After the meetings were disclosed in April of this year, Bush told ABC News, “Yes, I’m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”
In U.S. military detention centers (including Guantánamo) and secret CIA prisons around the world for the last seven years: Prisoners are beaten, sometimes to the point of death. They are forced to stand until they pass out. They are prevented from sleeping, kept in cells that are lit with bright lights 24 hours a day, and subjected to constant unbearably loud noise. They are threatened with dogs and snakes. They are kept naked and shivering in frigid cells. Their hands and feet are chained to a cell floor, or they are hung by their wrists from the walls of their cells, which results in slow and extremely painful dislocation of their shoulders. They are sexually humiliated. They are told their family members will be killed or raped. Some are subjected to “waterboarding,” a medieval torture of controlled drowning. Some are kept in complete darkness and silence in sensory deprivation cells for weeks and months. Some are driven insane by this torture. Hundreds of Guantánamo detainees have been let free after years of abuse to live with the nightmares—others continue to be held in these conditions or face kangaroo trials at the hands of their torturers where the evidence extracted from their torture can be admitted.
This is how thousands of human beings have been treated by the U.S. government.
The White House memos disclosed by the Post grew out of fears from the CIA that the government’s torture program would be exposed and that CIA agents who participated in the torture could be charged with war crimes. The CIA had been carrying out the post-9/11 torture for more than a year before the first memo in 2003.
Bush regime lawyers had produced documents saying the torture was legal. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (who was later promoted to the position of Bush’s Attorney General) wrote shortly after 9/11 that the Geneva Conventions against torture was “quaint” and didn’t apply to the U.S. government’s “war on terror.”
And a team of lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel produced a series of infamous secret memos designed to give legal cover for the torturing of detainees under American control. One memo, written by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and signed by his boss, Jay Bybee, declared that what CIA interrogators did to prisoners did not meet the legal definition of torture unless it was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions or even death.” (See “Controversy Over Berkeley Law School’s Refusal to Fire Bush’s ‘Enabler’: Professor John Yoo Has Blood On His Hands!” in Revolution #130, May 25, 2008, available at revcom.us)
Recently disclosed testimony from John Bellinger, formerly the chief legal advisor to the National Security Council, disclosed that at the White House meetings where torture was discussed, Justice Department lawyers, in particular John Yoo, frequently gave guidance and approval to the CIA about the interrogations.
Despite all this, the CIA was apparently concerned that there wasn’t enough of a direct paper trail authorizing the torture to cover their asses—because they knew that what was being done to the detainees was in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and international laws against torture, as well as U.S. anti-torture laws. One top intelligence official told the Post, “It came up in the daily meetings. We heard it from our field officers. We were already worried that we were going to be blamed.” A CIA lawyer said, “The question was whether we had enough ‘top cover.’” The CIA requested the second torture-authorizing memo from the White House after the horrors of Abu Ghraib came to light in 2004.
The torture—and the justification of torture—continues. In 2006 Congress passed the Military Commissions Act which institutionalizes the use of torture by the U.S.—and gives retroactive immunity to government and military officials for torture that had already been carried out before then. In March of this year, Bush vetoed a Congressional bill that would have outlawed the CIA’s use of waterboarding and certain other forms of torture.
“What these recent revelations have really done is to begin to lay out the documentation of the crime and make it clear that there is no mystery here,” Lynne Kates of the Center for Constitutional Rights told Revolution. “There’s no question of who knew and when did they know. These aren’t questions about -torture as a war crime committed at the highest levels of the administration and the highest levels of the government. In fact that’s a question that can be answered with their own words and their own memos. Not only did they know all along but they planned it and they authorized it in a systematic way.… This is beginning to create the evidentiary record that really speaks to the need for a prosecution of these people for the crimes that they have committed against humanity.”
While the disclosure of the White House memos was on the front page of the Washington Post, overall the mainstream media has not made a big deal about top-level government involvement in torture, this hasn’t become a big issue in the presidential election, and no mainstream politician is talking about impeaching the Bush regime for war crimes. As the evidence of war crimes and the role of the administration has mounted, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to a question about impeachment, saying: “I took it off the table a long time ago. You can’t talk about impeachment unless you have the facts.” (“10 Questions for Nancy Pelosi,” Time magazine, July 31, 2008). Pelosi herself was told of the government’s torture policy in 2002 as the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and did nothing to oppose it.
Bush regime lawyers who gave legal cover for torture have gone on to top positions in academia and the courts: John Yoo is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jay Bybee was appointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with bipartisan Congressional support.
The fact that there has been no society-wide uproar about the Bush team’s authorization of torture speaks to how much the open use of torture by the U.S. has become legitimized in official American politics, policy, and discourse. This has been part of very dangerous moves by the U.S. rulers to set up new, fascistic norms.
Back in the day, Bob Dylan wrote a song about the death of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was brutally murdered by racist whites in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Dylan sings of the murder and how the legal system let the killers go free. In the penultimate verse Dylan speaks to those who would turn their head on this great injustice:
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
Today, if anyone acts like they don’t know that their government is torturing people systematically and on a widespread scale, they are choosing NOT to know. Too many people have learned to accept living under a state where inflicting extreme physical and mental pain on human beings has become the norm. For those who are speaking out and protesting, there is a challenge to mobilize many others to confront reality, act with moral clarity, and politically resist the horrendous crimes of the rulers.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
The Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF) sent Revolution the following letters from prisoners
First let me say I really love the work you positive folks are doing!! Also, I want to thank you all for the papers I was receiving. However, I only received one paper for the month of September of 08. As I’m aware the staff for the most part here are small minded and I’m of the mind they are holding the “R” back. I’m wishing to hear from the “R”, on how many times a month I should receive the “R”? And how many times the “R” sent me the “R” in Sept, 08? Thanks. I’ll send a $5.00 money order for the work. I only receive $8.50 monthly.
I’ll have you all to know I (overstand) the “R”s position on folks [who] want to believe in the insignificant change that Obama is representing. I wanted to believe that Obama would be what this U.S. Government needs to turn it away from the horrific crimes it continues to unleash on the world! As the “R” is very aware of Africans’ history in the U.S.—and many Africans the world over is only grasping at this pipe dream from the stance of Race. Which is going to be a let down on so many fronts. Considering the horrific crimes that have and is being put forward by the select few whose goals are to dominate the world, I say to this and those who so foolishly want to believe that Obama is the change we should believe in, “If you all think for a sad second that the select few is going to hand any significant power over to a African, considering Africans History dealing the world over with the U.S. and most so-called white countries, you’re sad. Further, the select few will not put a so-called white person in a position of power who’s in opposition to their (select few power).”
I’m in fact [sure] that the “R” is on the right road to bring about the right change the world needs. I have disagreements with good intention inmates about the change that’s needed the world over. Far too many of these inmates look at the conditions that folks are suffering under in other countries and use this suffering of these unfortunate people to prove that the U.S. is the best and therefore should be supported by all residing in the U.S. No matter how many ways I point out the facts that directly and indirectly the U.S. plays its hands in said murder and suffering, these unfortunate people, i.e. inmates, say I’m lucky to be in the U.S. Some even tell me if I don’t like it get out of the country!! It’s ironic that these same inmates are sitting in long term ad-seg, i.e. the hole, not knowing when they’re going to get out, even so many of them are in the hole on minor violations that does not require long term ad-seg. However, the ones that have the good sense to file a complaint on said issue are likely to still find themselves locked away way over the time required by said policies of the DOC. Just to name one injustice out of many. However, for the most part I find that most of these inmates are willing to go along with our continued oppression in the false hope things will change their self. I must say I’m impressed with how the “R” can encourage high school students to make a stand in the face of dangers!! However, I find that some of these inmates who says the “R” is on the wrong road to change, has yet to encourage any of these inmates to take steps in the right direction against our constant oppressions.
Much love to all whom struggle for true change for the oppressed of the world.
Revolutionary Greetings to you comrades of RCP Publications. May this missive discover you in beautiful spirits. I am a social prisoner that has come to be a political prisoner. I’m held hostage in one of amerika’s many gulags in the south. In fact, in the slave state of XXX here, I have established a political study group that’s designed to raise the level of awareness of my fellow prisoners to get them involved with the struggle that will liberate humanity from the epoch of exploitation and oppression. As for us being in the belly of this prison beast, we are confronted with the reality of racism, sexism, and classism, unjust conditions and the epitome of oppression.
We represent the class that Karl Marx stated are capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices. We shall stake our lives on the revolution so let the ruling class tremble at the communist revolution. Yes, I’m a learning communist. I want to use all of my intelligence and energy on the making of this revolution. I am writing to request the plan and programme of your party. Also for a copy of your Constitution of the party. Can you please send to me. Thank you for your time and consideration.
dare to struggle
dare to win
P.S. I would like to continue receiving Revolution
“Revolution newspaper is a vital resource that needs to be in the hands of many, many prisoners”
Prisoner, Oregon State Penitentiary
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
We received the following correspondence from a reader:
The last presidential candidates debate was held on October 15 in Hempstead, New York at Hofstra University. That afternoon a march called by Iraq Veterans Against the War went down Hempstead’s main streets. Protesters included immigrants’ rights activists from Long Island (Hempstead is a center of Salvadoran immigrants); local middle school students with their teacher; college students from Brooklyn and Hunter College; Veterans for Peace, Peace Action, Pax Christi, Code Pink, and World Can’t Wait–Drive Out the Bush Regime with a banner saying “No War on Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran…or Pakistan!”
In the evening, two hours before the debate, 15 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and 350 anti-war protesters gathered outside Hofstra. IVAW had sent a letter asking debate moderator Bob Schieffer to let two veterans question McCain and Obama about ending the occupation of Iraq and the treatment of war veterans, but received no answer. 100 riot police, some on horseback, blocked the campus entrance to keep protesters out.
Matthis Chiroux and Kris Goldsmith, two IVAW members, had been chosen as speakers to go into the debate. (Last May Chiroux refused “stop-loss” orders to Iraq [orders to return to duty after being discharged from the military].) The two vets stepped towards the gate. The crowd chanted “let them in!” and Chiroux and Goldsmith were immediately arrested. Then mounted police pushed everyone across a street to the opposite sidewalk. The police charged into the IVAW members, pushing several to the ground. Army veteran Nick Morgan was stepped on by a horse and had his cheekbone broken. Ten IVAW members and five other protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
IVAW member Jabar Magruder said, “I have not seen injuries like that since Iraq, seeing people laying on the ground like that. I don’t need to go through that here in the streets. I don’t need to go through that here in America. And this is what I got tonight for trying to peacefully bring a message to these candidates. Both of them claim that they support veterans, and this is how we got supported tonight. By being pushed back and trampled and arrested.”
A New School University student from Jamaica said this was the most significant protest so far in her life. She was very angry at the brutality of the police attack and screamed at the police about it for an hour. Her brother taunted, “Obama! What do you have to say about this?” Anti-war activists from Long Island were shocked and angered. For many, this was a first experience seeing protesters being bloodied and some yelled at the police, “Don’t you know you work for us?”
African-American and West Indian people from the Hempstead neighborhood came out on the street as this whole scene unfolded. Some were there to support Obama and others had come out because of the confrontation. Several older women said they had never seen white people beaten by police before, although everyone said they had seen plenty of Black and Latino people pulled over, pulled out of their cars and beaten, or stopped and frisked on the street. A Black veteran spoke about how U.S. troops act towards people in Iraq, “Like they aren’t human. Like they don’t have any rights, just like us.” Some bystanders asked why would people protest if this meant risking getting beaten and arrested. Intense conversations broke out among people, including distributors of Revolution newspaper, about what rights people have in a “democracy” that’s really a capitalist-imperialist dictatorship; how Black and Latino people do get treated differently than whites; how a socialist society would change this.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
The U.S. in Afghanistan:
The war in Afghanistan is not a “good war” gone bad. It’s been an unjust, imperialist war of conquest and empire from its inception. Part 1 documents the U.S. rulers’ efforts in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, to begin forging an unchallengeable global empire, which laid the groundwork for the so-called “war on terror.” Part 2 details how, immediately after 9/11, the Bush regime conceived and launched the so-called “war on terror” in order to achieve these imperialist aims, which had been a decade in the making.
About five hours after hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned to an aide and told him to begin drawing up plans for war. His instructions: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related [to the attacks] and not.”
In many ways, Rumsfeld’s orientation came to encapsulate the U.S. imperialists’ response to 9/11. They seized on these attacks to launch an unbounded and unjust war of empire, waged under the rubric of a so-called “war on terror,” beginning with Afghanistan, then moving to Iraq, with at least five other countries on the hit list. So none of these wars—not Afghanistan and not Iraq—were “good wars” gone bad. From the start, they were part of a single and sweeping imperialist war of conquest and greater empire. And they continue to be unjust, imperialist wars of aggression today.
All this is clearly shown by the discussions and sequence of decisions made by the Bush regime in the days and weeks after 9/11.
Beginning hours after the 9/11 attacks and continuing over the ensuing week, top Bush officials began a series of secret discussions to hammer out their response. Bob Woodward’s reports on this in the Washington Post, along with other reports and insider accounts, make clear that the invasion of Afghanistan and the whole “war on terror” were not fundamentally responses to the attacks of 9/11. Nor were they aimed primarily at either punishing those responsible for the attacks or preventing future attacks on the U.S.
Instead, the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 (and then of Iraq in March 2003) were conceived as opening salvos in a long-term “war on terror” whose actual, inter-connected goals included defeating anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalist forces (including ideologically), overthrowing states not fully under U.S. control or fueling anti-U.S. Islamist movements, restructuring the entire Middle East and Central Asian regions, and seizing deeper control of key sources and shipment routes of strategic energy supplies. These various objectives were stitched together by the overarching goal of expanding and fortifying U.S. power and creating an unchallenged and unchallengeable global imperialist empire. This “war on terror” congealed a decade of neocon planning into a new global grand strategy, and subsumed earlier planning, including around Afghanistan in particular.
From the beginning, the Bush “war cabinet,” which included Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, and often Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, felt an acute necessity to lash back massively and violently against those who attacked the U.S. in order to maintain U.S. global credibility. And they felt that the attacks reflected a deeper and broader danger to U.S. global power: the growth of militant, anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism as well as ongoing instability in the Middle East and Central Asian regions that threatened U.S. hegemony.
But they also saw a rare and historic opportunity to launch a broad war and achieve major strategic objectives they’d long sought. Their focus, even from the start, was never on simply responding to the attacks, finding those responsible, or preventing future attacks.
Some neocons predicted, a year earlier, that it would take just this kind of sudden jolt to jumpstart their plans for greater empire: “[T]he process of transformation [of America’s global posture], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor,” the Project for a New American Century wrote in September 2000. On the night of September 11, 2001, Bush wrote in his diary “the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.”
Bush and company discussed the need to act quickly “to capitalize on international outrage about the terrorist attack.” They realized the attacks gave them a political opportunity to act forcefully to “shift the tectonic plates” of global power, as Secretary of State Rice put it, calling the post-Soviet period one “not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity.” One top Bush official who wished to remain anonymous told the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann that 9/11 was a “transformative moment” not because it “revealed the existence of a threat of which officials had previously been unaware,” but because it “drastically reduced the American public’s usual resistance to American military involvement overseas, at least for a while.... Now that the United States has been attacked, the options are much broader.” So the Bush team consciously worked to translate the shock and grief generated by 9/11 into a mandate for unbounded war.
From the start, the Bush team conceived of this offensive as a broad, global war. It was never simply a campaign against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. rhetoric and planning reflected that, quickly escalating far beyond the events of 9/11. On the morning of September 11 Bush had stated simply that the U.S. would “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks.” By the end of the day, Bush’s war cabinet had already decided to strike out against a number of governments and anti-U.S. political forces.
The evening of September 11 Bush escalated his rhetoric: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The next day he upped the ante again, saying the attacks “were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” A week later, on September 20, 2001, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and pushed the envelope further still by committing the U.S. to an ongoing “war on terror” against “every terrorist group of global reach,” and “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism.” He then issued an ultimatum to the Taliban government of Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had a base of operations. The U.S. initiated war on Afghanistan October 7, 2001.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Bush team had been secretly debating whether or not to immediately attack Iraq—even though they knew Iraq was not involved in 9/11. By September 17, 2001, they had decided to start with Afghanistan, but not to strike Iraq—yet.
The enormity of their emerging agenda demanded a step-by-step approach, and according to the Washington Post, they felt they would “need successes early in any war to maintain domestic and international support.” Bush told Woodward, “[I]f we could prove that we could be successful in this theater [Afghanistan], then the rest of the task would be easier. If we tried to do too many things—two things, for example, or three things—militarily, then...the lack of focus would have been a huge risk.” That day Bush signed secret orders authorizing war on Afghanistan and instructing the Pentagon to begin planning for war on Iraq—even before his ultimatum had been issued to the Taliban.
The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were conceived as part of an even broader agenda. The 9/11 attacks had underscored the increasing instability in the Middle East/Central Asian regions and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as a destabilizing pole of opposition to U.S. hegemony—and an ideology putting itself forward as an alternative to U.S.-led capitalist globalization and bourgeois democracy. These forces—which are completely reactionary and represent the old order, both feudal and bourgeois—don’t fundamentally oppose foreign capital, but their interests clash in various ways, and often sharply, with the U.S. and its regional clients.
On September 18, 2001, Rumsfeld said the best way to get at the terrorist networks is to “drain the swamp they live in.” A week or so later, Wolfowitz joined in, “We are going to try and find every snake in the swamp we can but the essence of the strategy is to drain the swamp.” (Independent, September 27, 2001)
Just think about these statements. The U.S. rulers were targeting as a “swamp,” entire regions, home to hundreds of millions of people, which are unstable and not fully under U.S. control. And they were setting out to “drain” that “swamp”—to violently conquer and restructure these regions in order to crush any who oppose U.S. domination, to reshape and transform them to both undercut the social forces giving rise to anti-U.S. fundamentalism and to integrate them more fully and directly into the U.S. imperium.
Retired General Wesley Clark told Democracy Now (March 2, 2008) that 10 days after September 11, 2001, he was in the Pentagon and was told by a top official, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq,” and that a few weeks later the same official told him a memo was circulating (probably Rumsfeld’s) “that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”
Such thinking was further consolidated at a secret meeting in late November 2001, documented by Bob Woodward in his book State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006). According to Woodward, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, felt that the U.S. faced a “crisis” and that it needed a deeper understanding of its adversaries—“Who are the terrorists? Where did this come from? How does it relate to Islamic history, the history of the Middle East, and contemporary Middle East tensions? What are we up against here?”
Wolfowitz pulled together a dozen imperialist strategists and former officials for a secret seminar to discuss these issues and devise a broad, aggressive response. The result, Woodward reports, was a “seven-page, single-spaced document, called ‘Delta of Terrorism.’ ‘Delta’ was used in the sense of the mouth of a river from which everything flowed.” The analysis and vision contained in this still-secret memo seems to have guided much of the Bush regime’s thinking ever since.
It concluded that 9/11 wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a broader, deeper issue confronting the U.S. in the Middle East and globally: “9/11 was not an isolated action that called for policing and crime fighting,” one participant told Woodward. Instead, the U.S. faced a “two-generation battle with radical Islam” to maintain control of the Middle East/Central Asian regions.
The meeting concluded that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran were the most important sources of the radical Islamic trend the U.S. confronted, but they were difficult to deal with. Iraq, however, was another matter, “weaker, more vulnerable,” Woodward summed up. “We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable,” a participant said. “He was a gathering threat—the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed.” Another participant told Woodward that the plan was to start with Iraq, and success there would lead to “Iranian overthrow.”
So from the beginning, the Bush regime conceived of the war in Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq in the context of overall U.S. imperialist objectives and as part of a larger unjust war for greater empire. That’s why much greater resources were allocated to the invasion of Iraq than to securing or rebuilding Afghanistan (or finding Osama bin Laden). Iraq was considered more strategically central—both in terms of the “demonstration effect” of taking down a major regime; because the imperialists thought Iraq could be turned into a stepping stone and a model for regime changes and U.S.-driven transformations across the Middle East; and because Iraq has huge oil reserves.
Next: Part 3 - U.S. War in Afghanistan, Nightmare for the People
The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism.
What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Right now, in Black and Latino neighborhoods all over this country, children are being robbed of their childhoods, afraid to go to the corner store or outside to play or to ride the bus to school. Some studies have shown that the number one fear among school children is getting shot. 36 Chicago Public School children have been killed since last September as a result of violence among the people. These shootings come on top of (and are largely used as a justification for) widespread terrorization and brutality on the part of the police, including a recent murderous rampage by the Chicago police who shot 12 people in 4 weeks this summer, 6 fatal and at least 6 shot in the back.
How did we get into this hellish situation where parents watch young children shot down in crossfire, kids grow up haunted by nightmares of gunfire, sure they won’t make it past 18? This is a horror for the people—with a feeling of desperation that comes from knowing it’s your neighbors, cousins and friends doing this to each other. And it gives rise to a deep despair that this is an endless spiral with no way out.
People from different perspectives are seeking out answers and solutions to this, from research projects to marches to intervention groups. In a New York Times article last May, “Blocking the Transmission of Violence” (5/4/2008), Alex Kotlowitz makes one such argument, likening violence to an epidemic disease plaguing many communities.1 Kotlowitz clearly has great concern for the lives and conditions of the people locked to the bottom of society. But despite his best intentions, his argument concentrates a dangerous logic that reverses cause and effect.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to speak to everything Kotlowitz raises, we want to speak here to his central argument—that stopping the violence among the people is the necessary first step to changing the larger economic and social conditions among the oppressed masses. An underlying assumption in the article is that this can be done without changing the fundamental economic and political relations of society which, as we will go on to show, is the brutal source of this whole situation. This same line of thinking is echoed by many people who hate the ways in which they’re forced to live but feel the answer to this is for us to “clean up our own backyard” before there can be any positive change for the communities.
In discussing the position of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin (who, as the founder of the Chicago-based CeaseFire organization, is largely the focus of Kotlowitz’ article), Kotlowitz uses an analogy between stopping violence and curing an infectious disease which has a big source in a community’s water supply:
“Slutkin says that it makes sense to purify the water supply if—and only if—you acknowledge and treat the epidemic at hand. In other words, antipoverty measures will work only if you treat violence. It would seem intuitive that violence is a result of economic deprivation, but the relationship between the two is not static. People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly. On the other side of the coin, a community in which arguments are settled by gunshots is unlikely to experience economic growth and opportunity.”
Kotlowitz himself begins to explore some of the limitations of this argument on one level, but does not go further to examine what is “poisoning the water supply” in the first place. In talking about people who are trying to get out of the logic of gang retribution, he writes, “Leaving town is not an option for most. And for those who have walked away from a shooting…if there are no jobs, or lousy schools, or decrepit housing, what’s to keep them from drifting back into their former lives? It’s like cholera: you may cure everyone, you may contain the epidemic, but if you don’t clean up the water supply, people will soon get sick again.”
Kotlowitz does not pose the basic, and necessary question: why are the schools concentrated in the Black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately “lousy,” why is the housing “decrepit,” or at this point, nonexistent? And to step even further back, why are Black people concentrated in urban slums in the first place? How did this develop, and what gave rise to a situation where there are now several generations of youth who have been criminalized—killed by the police, killed by each other or warehoused in prisons in the tens and tens of thousands? The violence people commit against each other is the symptom of a larger problem—but if you don’t diagnose the problem correctly and if you don’t know what caused it, then the treatment you attempt to come up with will actually make it worse.
The oppression of Black people, and other minorities, has been a feature of the development of capitalism in U.S. society from its founding—on the bones of slavery and genocide against Native peoples. After the Civil War and the short period of Reconstruction, instead of being integrated into the larger American society, a wave of terror was unleashed against Black people—they were in the main confined to the plantations in a new form of slavery, and African-American people were formed into an oppressed nation in the south within the larger, dominant Euro-American U.S. In the early 1900s, heavy industry began to greatly expand. In the North, especially with the gearing up for World War 2, the defense industry was booming, creating a demand for labor, while in the South, the mechanization of cotton production (and tobacco before it) made sharecropping less profitable. There was a push and a pull from the South that sent millions of Black people migrating to the North—the push of poverty, Jim Crow racism and KKK terror and the pull of work and hopes for a better life. But while the forms of oppression were different in the North, the fact of the oppression remained. Black workers who were brought into the workforce, on the basis of their oppression as a people, were put into the dirtiest and most dangerous, lowest paying jobs, they were the “last hired” and “first fired.” Black people were refused the housing subsidies that white people received to buy suburban homes and even when they had the money were prevented, either by unspoken agreements or straight-up mob violence, from buying homes in “white” neighborhoods. Instead they were shunted—by government policy—into poorly built high rise housing projects in the inner cities. Black people of all classes and strata faced segregation and discrimination everywhere they turned, and Black workers were super-exploited to give the capitalists extra profits.
The effects of all this—along with the situation internationally, where there were uprisings against imperialism and colonial domination and where socialist countries like China posed the prospect of a revolutionary resolution to oppression, and the U.S. was also locked in contention with other powers for a bigger share of the plunder of the formerly colonial world—gave rise here to the earth-shaking revolutionary movement of the 1960s. With this upsurge and especially with the powerful urban rebellions in over 100 U.S. cities, some barriers Black people faced did fall. Black people were brought into some better jobs, affirmative action enabled thousands of Black students to enter college and professional careers, social programs like welfare and early education programs were provided.
Many people, especially among the younger generation, began to see themselves differently in relation to the world. Through struggle, people were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of relating. There was broad unity among many that they weren’t going to fight and die for the oppressors, but to bring a whole new future for people all around the world into being. In fact, one of the most inspiring accomplishments of groups like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party (a revolutionary group based mainly among Puerto Ricans) was the way they got many former gang-bangers out of that life and into making revolution and serving the people, and the ways in which many prisoners (like George Jackson) went over from “criminal-minded” to “revolutionary-minded.”
But all of this ran up against limitations. Even the most advanced forces for revolution didn’t have a deep enough understanding of what a different future would or should be all about or how a revolution could be fought and won in this country against such a powerful enemy. There was not a leadership with a developed strategy of how to unite the many streams of resistance and radical sentiments politically, culturally, and ideologically into a powerful force behind that revolution. Or with an understanding of how to not just withstand, but advance through the brutal repression that came down with a vengeance from the state—over 20 members of the Black Panther Party (including leaders like Fred Hampton and George Jackson) were assassinated, hundreds of revolutionaries were jailed, the National Guard was called out against the righteous rebellions, students were shot down in the street and the movements broadly were surveilled and harassed. In addition, there were major changes and challenges going on in the revolutionary movement internationally and the global high tide of the ’60s was ebbing, which also had a powerful effect. It was in the face of the real limitations in understanding how to meet all these challenges, and of the brutal repression by the ruling class, that the majority of the movement of that time turned away from revolution.
By the early ’80s, most of what had been the movement of the ’60s had either been crushed, was directionless or co-opted. At the same time, there were tremendous changes going on in the world politically and economically. The revolutionary leadership of China had been overturned in a coup after Mao Tsetung died, and this demoralized and disoriented many who had seen in revolutionary China a source of hope and support. Meanwhile, many jobs were relocated to the suburbs or shipped overseas where people could be exploited even more brutally. The inner cities became economic wastelands. This was a result of both policy (including the conscious decision in many cases to locate jobs away from the now more rebellious and defiant Black workforce) and more fundamentally, the drive of the restless, never-ceasing compulsion on capital to constantly expand or die—to seek out higher rates of profit or go under to competition.
The concessions that had been wrenched through the struggle of the ’60s were being reversed—the end of affirmative action, integration to all intents and purposes dead and welfare was soon to be entirely gutted. Today, more than one generation faces conditions where many have never had a job and there is no prospect (through no action of their own) that they ever will. The government flooded the ghettos with drugs which became the main economic life in these neighborhoods, a certain foundation which “set the terms” for all other economic and social activity. At the same time, the so-called “war on drugs” was unleashed, which was nothing but a war on the people—with arrests and imprisonments skyrocketing. 330,000 were in prison in 1970 compared to 2.3 million in prison today. Today, nearly half of the people in prison in America are Black. In fact, the incarceration rate for Black people is the highest in the world.
Understanding all this, it becomes clear that these conditions were not caused by violence among the people. Nor is the violence among the people a “virus”—it is a reaction to conditions of relentless oppression where there seems to be no real hope of change. It is the system, with its dog-eat-dog mentality, that creates and perpetuates these conditions. This whole capitalist-imperialist setup is propelled by an endless drive for profit and more profit, with systematic super-exploitation and the oppression of Black and other oppressed peoples as a key dynamic element. Those two things—the capitalist system at the foundation of this country, and the white supremacy which runs all through this society and has been inextricably interlinked with it since Day One—are what caused the problem, not some make-believe “virus.”
And, these conditions don’t just “exist” in the air. They are brutally enforced by a whole state apparatus of cops, courts, and prisons. Some people out there tell us the cops are “just another gang.” No they’re not! Some individual cops may be in gangs, but as an institution, they are the hired enforcers of a whole system of exploitation and oppression.
Step back once again, what comes through is the utter criminality of this system, which keeps people in the inner city penned in and locked down, left to rot and kill each other off, and then to be killed and imprisoned when they walk into this trap.
Kotlowitz’ and Slutkin’s argument will not make anything better. And even worse, whatever the intent, it justifies and strengthens the hand of an oppressive state with its brutal, murdering police and prisons.
We have two questions we’d like to ask Kotlowitz: First, if every young Black man in a gang in East St. Louis, or Chicago, or Harlem, or Oakland quit their gang affiliation, renounced violence and crime, and showed up at a community college to enroll in a digital design program or a computer networking certification program, what would happen? The simple fact is that there would not be work for the vast majority of them. In fact, a recent study showed that the rate and numbers of Black people in information technology declined relative to eight years ago—not because people were unqualified, but because, according to Gina Billings, president of the National Black Data Processing Association, globalization has led to outsourcing to third world countries, and Black professionals once again found themselves caught in the “last hired, first fired” trap.
So even if you were to suddenly qualify every gang member for a good job, they would only be hired if employing them would be profitable for capital. And those jobs are not out there—not because society doesn’t need them, but because they are not profitable. And precisely because the ruling class of capitalists knows this, they do NOT offer training programs, etc. in any serious way because they do not want to raise people’s expectations and risk social rebellion when those expectations are not satisfied.
And, second, conversely, what would happen if, after a revolution, with a new socialist economy that was based on transforming conditions to overcome the age-old oppressive divisions of society and meeting the needs of the people, while rendering support to revolution worldwide, society DID offer every young Black person a chance at education and a job with meaning that they could live on? In a revolutionary society, there would be no unemployment because employment would not be based on whether it was profitable for capital; people would immediately be given work, to deal with the many pressing problems facing society. In that totally new society, the violence that people lash out with against each other would rapidly diminish as a whole new ethos and view of one another took root.
Only if we correctly understand the source of the conditions that people find themselves in, which Slutkin and Kotlowitz leave out, can we understand that the relationship between people’s conditions, ideas, and actions aren’t “static,” as Kotlowitz states, and even more fundamentally, that things do not have to be this way! It is in the process of confronting the real problem and radically changing conditions that people can transform qualitatively and in a liberating way.
Under this system, people are forced to live based on “what’s in it for me” and they are thrust into competition with others. This is the logic and dynamics of capitalism overall, and gets sharp when people are fighting over crumbs in a situation where every crumb counts. People are forced to hustle to survive, and while there are important examples of the ways in which people come together to help each other, how things are set up with people set against each other works to undermine even that.2
Just like in the larger society, there’s a whole culture and outlook bound up with this—“I got to get mine, I got to get what I can get within this.” And this logic has a pull and coherence.
A youth from Chicago's south side, who's been agonizing about the violence all around him, has been arguing that it's not just the economic necessity that leads youth to get into the gangs—this is also a deeply felt aspiration.
Yes, many do aspire to not just be part of, but to be on top of this game, and those aspirations are shaped by and confined within the larger material conditions that people are presented with.
The gangs and “the life” is just that—a whole way of life, with economics and morality which infuses whole neighborhoods with a “code of the streets” ethos and outlook. This divides sharply into two because on the one hand, this is a reflection writ small of the larger relations and dog-eat-dog dynamics and morality in society. But it has an “outlaw fuck the world” element—where people desire to be and are seemingly up against the system as a whole.
Within these dynamics, mirroring the dominant capitalist ethos of society, you’re prey or a predator—someone takes down one of yours, you have to take down one of theirs. In this gangster logic, if you don’t, you haven’t stood up for your people and you come out looking weak. The “code of the streets” comes with a “kill or be killed” mentality and a vicious cycle of seemingly never-ending shootings against others in the same conditions as you.
There’s also the attraction that you can “be somebody” in a way you can’t in any other part of American society. Besides making it in the NBA or in hip-hop (which is about as likely as winning the lottery), how else can you make your mark on the world? One youth on Chicago’s west side described “the life” as just another form of “chasing the American dream.” They see someone with a nice car and they want it because that’s how they can say something about who they are and “what they’re worth.” Again, reflecting a society where people’s value is measured by the commodities they do or don’t own.
All this is enforced and maintained a million times in a million ways by the broader culture and the workings of the system. In There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz describes a young kid who gets arrested for nothing except for the fact that he’s Black, he goes on to talk about his experience with lawyers and unjust courts and the impact this has on him—“fuck it, they treat me like a criminal, I may as well get something from it too.” In the culture, this has been promoted in movies like Superfly in the ’70s and then Scarface in the ’80s which has an ongoing impact today. Along with this, the promotion of gangsta rap with the message that one should aspire to “get rich or die trying.”
This whole way of life and the outlook that comes with it is a trap. Even where people do “make it to the top,” this is still only the top of a game that’s been given to them by this system, which is at the expense of, and dripping with the blood of others who this system has cast off.
Kotlowitz is correct in saying “[p]eople who have little expectation for the future live recklessly.” Now once again, let’s ask, what kind of system, what kind of society is it which provides little or no expectation for the future to generations of youth?
There is a way out of all this today—sweeping this system aside once and for all, through revolution and bringing into being a radically different system—socialism on the road to a communist world.
With state power in the hands of the people, society can be reorganized based on meeting the needs and unleashing the creativity and potential of millions of people that is destroyed by the kind of system we live under today. In this new society, the state—rather than being a force for exploitation, oppression, and repression—will back people up in working to solve all kinds of problems, not only for themselves but for all of humanity and as a part of the world revolution. As opposed to the society in which we live, which provides nothing but a hellish future or no future for the youth, in a socialist society, the youth will be a dynamic force for shaping the future. What they think and how they struggle will be valued, learned from, further unleashed…and led, with the aim of continuing to revolutionize all of society and bring a communist world, free of all exploitation and oppression, into being.
This is what is worth living and dying for. But it can only be based on FIGHTING the power, and not “working with it” to somehow keep a lid on things. There is an urgent need right now to bring forward a revolutionary movement which breaks out of the killing confines of the way things are, challenging the terms in the neighborhoods and society more broadly, and with it, leading the masses to forge a revolutionary movement and culture that can actually begin to change the tide.
The enormous potential for this must be wrenched from the horrors of today. The fact that these youth are largely alienated from this system and the whole “American way of life” and the very real sense that there is no future for them—is both part of why we need a revolution to sweep all of this away once and for all, and a critical part of where the basis for that revolution lies. All of these factors that especially young people are responding to—the fact that these youth really have nothing to lose, under this system—are the very same driving forces that could compel them in a whole other direction if that anger, alienation, and rebelliousness were channeled at the source of the problem and tempered and transformed with revolutionary science and a morality of liberation. Such a revolution can only take place when conditions radically change—when all of society is in a profound crisis and a revolutionary people emerge on to the scene, in the millions and tens of millions—but there is urgent work to carry out now, to hasten while awaiting such a situation, working now to bring forward a revolutionary people through waging political battle and carrying out ideological work, and transforming the current unfavorable political polarization in society through struggle.
This means that a minority has to be the first to step forward today. Even a relative handful with substance and revolutionary backbone can have an electrifying effect — not only in a neighborhood but in society overall. And it is in this process—of fighting to change the larger circumstances while learning about the underlying dynamics that gives rise to those circumstances, that people transform themselves.
The leadership, vision, science and organization necessary exists right now in the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. This Party came forward through the struggles of the ’60s and it persevered in building a revolutionary movement and seeking answers to the vexing questions. Its leader, Bob Avakian, has led the way in “charting the uncharted course” of how to make a revolution in a country like this—and more, he’s further developed the scientific theory and liberating vision of communism, deeply summing up the experience of the past, learning from the great achievements of previous revolutions, deeply interrogating their shortcomings and mistakes, and in doing all of this, he’s taken communism to a whole new place. And Avakian is leading a Party that is serious about revolution, serious about protecting its leadership, and seriously taking responsibility to lead the masses to make revolution in the real world.
Whether revolution will once again be in the air in this society (and around the world) in the way it needs to be, depends on people taking it up. The time is urgent for people from all walks of life to step forward. To all those who dare to dream of a better world where all of these horrors have been left behind for all of humanity: get down with the revolution, become an emancipator of humanity.
Fight the Power, and Transform the People, For Revolution
1. Kotlowitz is well known for his important book, There Are No Children Here, where he exposed the brutal living conditions for youth in Henry Horner Homes, one of the many since demolished housing projects. He wrote with great compassion about what it was like for two young Black children to grow up in these conditions and the ways in which the whole system was set up for these kids to fail—from the schools to the courts. [back]
2. For an inspiring example of where people help each other in brutal conditions, the film Trouble the Water shows how rival gang youth in New Orleans joined together to save people during Katrina, at the risk of their own lives. [back]
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
We’re entering the final weeks of this highly charged election season. Even while the Obama candidacy is reinforcing deadly illusions and drawing people into supporting this new face for the American empire, there is at the same time a certain opening as millions of people are being drawn into political life with the hope of real change.
We need to be out in the midst of this with Bob Avakian’s new book, Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy—injecting it into the mix of this highly contradictory political ferment and struggling for people to engage with this provocative book. No one else speaks to the political realities of this system the way Bob Avakian does in this book!
Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy needs to get out broadly into many streams of political and academic life: campuses, high schools, progressive movements, the legal community and intellectuals, and among the oppressed people in this country, opening up debate about the real nature of this system and the need for communist revolution. The profoundly wrong view that the full realization of this country’s democratic ideals should be at the heart of the struggle of people for a better world runs very deep in this country among all sections of the people.
How many people need to read and engage with this analysis?! How much difference can it make for people broadly to begin to really confront what it means that the material foundation of these very ideals of democracy rest on the back-breaking and soul-stealing labor and enslavement of millions of Black people and on the continued exploitation today of millions upon millions working in slave-like conditions here and around the world?
Broadly and boldly challenging the material and philosophical underpinnings of this system is a critical component of building a revolutionary communist movement.
This book needs to get out in a big way in the major universities of this country. Organize outings to visit law schools and key academic departments—political science, history, African American studies, and others. This is both a very scholarly and a very radical work which challenges the foundations of political thought in this country—something that professors and teaching assistants should be engaging with, debating among themselves, and including in their curriculum. Talk to them about organizing salons and opening up their classroom to a presentation and discussion of the book. Set up a table on campus and get this book out widely among the students.
This book needs to get out in the high schools as well, challenging the lies and official narrative about the history of this country and its great democratic traditions that are being crammed down students’ throats. Talk to high school teachers you know and ask them to open up their classroom for a presentation and discussion.
Get the book out at academic and professional conferences. In one area a workshop on Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy was organized at a conference of progressive teachers.
At the same time this should be accompanied by efforts to get this book into bookstores and libraries everywhere. Organize a crew to get out to campus bookstores, bookstores which serve the Black community and other progressive and alternative bookstores. Talk to the librarians and get them excited about this book and the unique perspective it brings. This could lead to discussions and forums on the book being organized at libraries; this can be an important way to reach particularly into the communities of the oppressed or an avenue to set up a book club to explore the issues raised by this book.
As we continue to take out and engage all kinds of people around the special issue of Revolution, “The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need,” many will also want to learn about and dig into this book.
Revolution Books throughout the country are holding discussions of Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, and spinning off from this, discussions should be organized among gatherings of people from all classes and different kinds of communities.
Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy is an important new addition to “the toolkit,” the collection of Bob Avakian’s works, and should be part of what we’re taking out when we sell the paper and when we engage with people about all that he is bringing to a scientific understanding of society and of communist revolution.
A promotional flier is now available to be downloaded and reproduced from the revcom.us website. This flier should go up all over the campuses and in bookstores and cafes and places where people shop and gather.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Concerning John McCain’s attack on Bill Ayers: The United States killed several million people during its war against Vietnam. The United States bombed cities and villages filled with civilians in terror raids directed against the people. The little girl above was the victim of an American bombing raid, which used the jellied burning gasoline called “napalm.” John McCain was a U.S. pilot during that war who flew over 20 bombing missions against just these sorts of targets. McCain is a war criminal. And, by the way, this is the man who Barack Obama “honors for his service.”
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
In the final presidential debate, the moderator posed: “Sen. McCain. Sen. McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Sen. Obama, you believe it shouldn’t.” On the surface these seem like completely opposed positions. But the reality is that Obama’s position on abortion cedes critical moral and legal ground to those who would ban all abortion (and birth control).
In the debate, Obama called for finding “common ground” between “both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion.” But what “common ground” can there be between relentless, powerful, highly connected forces in society who want to ban all abortion (and birth control) on the one hand, and those who understand that defending reproductive freedom is critical to the liberation of women on the other? The “common ground” Obama is calling for can only mean, as we have written previously, “the capitulation of those who want to uphold and fight for the right to abortion and for birth control to those who are determined to abolish them, and criminalize them.”
Obama insisted that both sides must agree that “sexuality is sacred” and that adoption and keeping a baby should be officially promoted policies. These positions accommodate and pave the way for legitimizing essential elements of the dark-ages woman-enslaving morality of the anti-abortion movement—that sex is only moral for the purpose of women having babies, and that “life begins at conception.” And Obama made clear that he, like McCain, is for banning late term abortions (he used the anti-abortion terminology of “partial-birth abortions”), as long as there are provisions for the life and health of the woman. This is a position that has long been used by the anti-abortionists as an entryway to banning all abortion.
For those who might not find such “common ground” and conciliation acceptable, Obama played the “lesser-of-two-evils” card: “It is very likely that one of us will be making at least one and probably more than one appointments and Roe versus Wade probably hangs in the balance.”
But little as this is understood, elections and Supreme Court appointments do not determine how big questions like the right to abortion get settled. Roe v. Wade was not the result of an election, or the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice. In fact the Justice (Blackmun) who wrote the majority opinion upholding the right to abortion was a life-long conservative Republican, and a Nixon appointee. The Roe v. Wade decision, in 1973—like civil rights rulings and legislation that preceded it—was a concession wrung from the ruling class. In the face of a movement for women’s liberation and great political and social upheaval; in the face of a worldwide revolutionary movement in which the liberation of women was an important element; and facing big changes in U.S. society that peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the U.S. ruling class made a decision to legalize abortion, which until that time had been conducted in “back alleys” with horrific results for women.
Since that time, the legal and ideological assault on abortion rights has reemerged with a vengeance. Abortion is constantly portrayed as “killing a life,”—which it is not, human life begins when a baby is born—as opposed to a way for women to choose whether or not to have a child. And this moral, cultural, and legal assault on abortion has not been met with anything close to the necessary resistance, with many in the organized pro-choice movement buying into the logic of relying on the Democrats—a “logic” that has led us to the current dangerous situation. Access to abortion has been drastically restricted, the right to abortion itself is under siege, and dangerous ground has been lost in the battle for public opinion.
To the extent that people buy into the Obama package, even further political and moral ground will be lost, creating a worse situation to defend and expand abortion rights, and to stop the Supreme Court from overturning Roe v. Wade. Instead, what is urgently needed is a defiant movement upholding a woman’s right to abortion on demand, without the approval of any patriarch or the “guidance of her religious advisor,” and without apology.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Sunsara Taylor will speak on this provocative book by Bob Avakian drawing from the book and her experiences around the country challenging religion and the harm that it does.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Restructuring Inner-City Schools for the Global Marketplace:
In many ways Locke High School in Watts concentrates the utterly failed education system in the urban cores of this country. The L.A. school district has now turned complete control of Locke over to Green Dot Public Schools, a private charter school organization. This experiment in privatization is being looked to by the powers-that-be as a potential model for a radical transformation of the inner-city public education system. Part 1 described the apartheid conditions of the inner-city schools and two significant changes by the ruling class that have made the situation worse – vouchers, and No Child Left Behind.
Since the early 1990s one major trend in “reforming” education has been the growth of for-profit and non-profit charter organizations around the country. In 2004 there were 3,000 charter schools serving three quarters of a million students in 37 states and D.C. New York City just raised the number of charter schools by 18 to a total of 78, serving 24,000 students. One in every 18 public schools in NYC is now a charter school.
There are for-profit public charters like the well-known “Edison Schools” founded by a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute. There’s a growing number of public military charter schools, which target poor, minority students, especially Black youth. The Department of Defense helps fund them, seeing them as a pipeline for new recruits to the all-volunteer army.1 And there are, scattered around the country, individual efforts to create politically progressive charter schools, often started by teachers who want to develop curriculum and an environment to meet special needs, in some cases the unique language needs of immigrant communities.
But it is the major, top-down non-profit public charter school operations that are now garnering the most widespread promotion and support by the ruling class, including forces grouped around Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama. A central selling point of these major charter operations is that they replace the education “bureaucracy” with a more streamlined, efficient management model based on business principles. Individual accountability is emphasized, with clear goals and results measured on a regular basis. That means school managers and teachers can be fired for poor performance, since charters do away with tenure. At a time when the government has been steadily taking funds away from education, their emphasis on accountability and cutting through red tape has the added appeal of promising that major transformations can be brought about without huge infusions of public funds.
The executive director of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Bay Area Schools said recently: “Our focus on results is appealing to business leaders. So is our decentralized model that emphasizes autonomy, flexibility and innovation...” In return, the business community has been the biggest backer of charter schools: “The business community, both business leaders through their personal philanthropy and also corporate giving programs, have undoubtedly been a critical component of our fundraising success.”2
Green Dot Public Schools is among the many non-profit charters being championed and guided by some of the most influential and “far-sighted” of the business world, civic leaders and leaders of the education establishment, and people in the world of politics. Green Dot is headed by Steve Barr, an influential Democratic Party fundraiser and cofounder of Rock the Vote, which brought millions of young people into electoral politics and registered them to vote. Green Dot’s focus is on what they call “School Transformation” projects like the one at Locke. Their aim is to create a model, and with it broad public opinion, that will pressure school districts to adopt this model as their own.
Contributing an important element to this rush to privatization is Teach for America (TFA), a private, non-profit venture which for a number of years has been successfully recruiting graduates of Ivy League and other elite universities around the country for a two-year stint teaching in inner-city public and charter schools. A number of these graduates become inspired to pursue careers in teaching—but this is not TFA’s goal. Rather, TFA hopes after two years these young people will join the broadening base of experienced education managers, with the rest entering the professional world as informed supporters of these efforts. The KIPP Schools, based in San Francisco, were started by a pair of TFA graduates. And 250 TFA recruits are now in New Orleans, where—in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe—a massive experiment in charter school privatization is taking place.3
As a charter school that is completely replacing a public school, Green Dot is required to accept all the eligible students in the area that had been served by Locke. But that doesn’t mean they will have to keep them. There are many factors at work that are already driving students toward the door, with the repressive atmosphere being the main one.
School policies that push students out of school and into the criminal justice system have been called the “school to prison pipeline.” The ACLU opposes not only zero-tolerance policies that involve the police in minor school incidents, but also other school policies that do the same thing, “by excluding students from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.”4 Green Dot’s “School Transformation” project is already making it harder for struggling/borderline students at Locke to be able to stay there, while raising the stakes and consequences for those who can’t.
Green Dot requires all students to wear uniforms (as do most charters), a condition that has already sent some students to enroll at Jordan High, another high school in Watts. Those whose shirts are not properly tucked in are being sent to detention. Talking to any student in a different on-site academy is forbidden. The much stricter tardy and attendance policy is also part of the weeding process. In fact, Green Dot is setting up an on-site continuation school for students cut from their academies. Students report that there are more security guards inside the school now packing weapons. They say the street outside the school is lined with cops the moment school ends, so no one is allowed to hang out with friends even after school. The school days are longer, and the school year as well. And all students will have not just the opportunity, but will be required to take a college track curriculum, which—given the education they have (not) received to that point—many may find impossible to do.
This is a “model” for a “no-nonsense” school system that will even further constrain and define the terms of the kinds of critical thinking and working with ideas that are encouraged, and have no qualms about tossing far greater numbers of students down the school to prison pipeline.
The principal financial backers of Green Dot and many other charter operations are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, started by Eli Broad, a real estate tycoon who is #42 in Forbes’ 2007 list of richest people in America. These two foundations have pumped more than $2 billion into charter school organizations around the country. And last year the Gates and Broad foundations created a $60 million fund to get their education program onto the agenda of the 2008 elections. The extent of the active involvement of figures like Gates and Broad in revamping public education is an expression of the overall concerns within the ruling class about the urgency of making these changes.
Barack Obama’s speech on education in September gave voice to those concerns: “America faces few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy…. In this economy, companies can plant their jobs wherever there’s an Internet connection and someone willing to do the work, meaning that children here in Dayton are growing up competing with children not only in Detroit or Chicago or Los Angeles, but in Beijing and Delhi as well.” At stake, he said, is “whether we as a nation will remain in the 21st century the kind of global economic leader we were in the 20th century… It’s not just that a world-class education is essential for workers to compete and win, it’s that an educated workforce is essential for America to compete and win.” (emphasis added)
“The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce” (NCSAW), a panel made up of former Cabinet secretaries and governors in addition to federal and state education officials and business and civic leaders, issued a report in December 2006 titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The report “warned that unless improvements are made in the nation’s public schools and colleges by 2021, a large number of jobs would be lost to countries including India and China, where workers are better educated and paid much less than their U.S. counterparts.”5 Within the last decade 1.5 billion people have joined the global labor force from India, China, and the former Soviet bloc. And there are now twice as many young professionals in low-wage countries as in high-wage countries, who will be a lot cheaper to employ than American workers for decades to come. Projections are that as many as 40 million jobs could be at some risk of being “offshored,” including jobs requiring some college, in the next 15 years.
The impact on the economy and employment won’t be the same for all workers. A report by the National Center on Education and the Economy entitled “America in the Global Economy” predicts that families headed by college and graduate degree holders are much more likely to be moving up the income distribution, while families headed by high school graduates or dropouts are more likely to be moving down the ladder. And the report says: “The American class structure is very dynamic… Nevertheless, we can say that the middle class is dispersing into two equal and opposing streams of upwardly mobile college-haves and downwardly mobile college-have-nots.”
NCSAW recommends authorizing school districts to pay companies to run all their schools, organized along the lines of charter schools. They would be “highly entrepreneurial”—rewarding successfully run schools and firing those whose students don’t perform. The panel also called for all students to be required to take state board qualifying exams in the 10th grade that will be used to divide students into two groups. Those who do “well enough” could go directly to community colleges for a technical degree or a program leading to a four-year state college. Those who score even better would stay in secondary school two more years to prepare for four-year degree programs.
There is no mention of what would happen to those who don’t make it into one of these two groups. This is a formula for creating an apartheid system where the great majority of basic masses, particularly among the oppressed nationalities in the inner cities, would now be officially relegated to striving for vocational or community colleges at best, or discarded altogether. And it is perfectly consistent with the vision and direction of the public charter school movement, including Green Dot.
This is still a system with no future for the masses of poor and oppressed people in the urban cores of this country’s largest cities. Green Dot and this whole drive to radically transform the system of public education does not change that.
The rulers of this country believe they face a powerful compulsion, coming from the fundamental needs of this system, to raise the education level of the U.S. labor force as a whole. Not to enable everyone to become a “knowledge worker,” which is impossible in this system, but in order to maintain this country’s competitiveness in the world economy as much as possible.
The hype that everyone will have the opportunity for a college-level career covers up the reality that in today’s capitalist-imperialist economy, 50% of the new jobs being created are in the minimum wage service sector, with the possibility that an even greater percentage of the better paid technical jobs will be “offshored” in the future. Even more, without a concerted effort, backed up by state power, to actually overcome inequality and white supremacy throughout society, no amount of education will be able to overcome and eliminate it. Even if a small number of these youth make it through the meatgrinder and get a good education, the discrimination remains. Education alone is not sufficient; it will take a revolution where the rule of the exploiters is broken and state power is put in the hands of the masses to get rid of the capitalist obstacles and thoroughly uproot white supremacy.
So the rulers confront the challenge of heading off potential upheaval in the face of a widening polarization between the masses at the bottom of this society and the rest of the population, which these changes cannot overcome. Eli Broad, a major capitalist funding Green Dot and many other charters, wrote that if they don’t make these changes, they “run the risk of creating an even larger gap between the middle class and the poor. This gap threatens our democracy, our society and the economic future of America.”6
The changes in public education that are on the way cannot “level the playing field,” but they will be used to make the case that now if you fail, well, it’s your own fault. “We gave you a chance, but you didn’t take advantage of it.” So what these changes are really going to contribute to is fostering a climate of public opinion that shifts the blame even more fully away from the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system onto the masses for their own “failure.”
And the small section of students who DO make it through the education gauntlet and into a college career will play a crucial role as models, ideological buffers that supposedly prove the system works: “They made it, why couldn’t you?” This is going to create even sharper polarization within these oppressed communities, enabling politicians and police to marshal public opinion to justify writing off a whole section of youth. Green Dot and this whole top-down charter school movement is a “blueprint” for turning inner-city schools into fortified islands in the midst of an apartheid sea.
Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that “the meatgrinder works”!
Bob Avakian, “The City Game—And the City, No Game,” Bullets—From the Writings, Speeches, and Interviews of Bob Avakian, p. 165.
1. One of the first such public military charter schools is the Oakland Military Institute, proposed by Oakland, California Mayor Jerry Brown in 1999. 90% of its 1200 students are Black or Latino. [back]
2. According to Don Fisher, who started the Gap stores and has given tens of millions of dollars to support KIPP Schools and other charter schools: “I’m a businessman, and I think education is a business, and I think each school is a separate entity—it’s not much different from a Gap store.”[back]
3. A recently-published book by former Newsweek correspondent Donna Foote, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, popularizes this trend by following four young teachers who spent a year teaching at Locke High. [back]
4. “Testimony of Donna Leiberman on behalf of the NYCLU Regarding the Impact of School Suspensions, On Students’ Education Rights.”[back]
5. Washington Post, 12/15/06 [back]
6. Eli Broad, on the Broad Foundation website. [back]
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
Posted October 17, 2008:
I agree with almost all of the article (“On Obama’s Nomination: The Change You Believe In – And the Change You’ll Get,” Revolution #142, revcom.us) and even before I read it as I have been watching Obama in recent months and have been less and less enthusiastic about his candidacy. What I do know though is that his life has been mostly demonstrative of the same kinds of things that I value up until these recent speeches and maybe a few of the past votes he cast. Which I will admit may have not been in the best interest of the people. One of the things he has demonstrated, however, is his ability to admit his own faults and that is something that has immeasurable value to me. So, no I do not just see him as a “great black hope.” The bottom line is that anyone who makes it to where he is is going to have some undesirable qualities. I think the main thing to consider is that he is someone who is waaaaay more willing to listen to the people than the alternative and that is all we can hope for at this point. I agree that the people need to take this country, this world, back but until that day AT LEAST exercise the right to vote in addition to being a part of any and all revolutionary causes you believe in.
I think that articles such as these can be so damaging. There is a real difference between Obama and McCain and articles like these can paralyze the people and keep them from going to the polls at all which will most certainly give us McCain! I think we can all be clear that this would be a bad option. I think we need to stop being scared about this. One of the things that Obama did say is that change comes from the bottom up, from the people up, and anyone who says that is someone who feels like they owe the people something.
Yes, he was auditioning for the imperialist capitalists and he did a damn good job but we have to remember that he is doing so much of this to secure his position and when I start worrying about his words I stop and look at his life and feel more at ease. I know that once in office the words can and will change we all know that, but let’s just hope that this time the words change for the good instead of the other way around and I have faith that this is our best option for that.
Don't paralyze the people,
We agree that the specter of a McCain presidency is ominous. McCain is an unrepentant war criminal who was shot down and captured while dropping bombs on the people during the Vietnam War. He represents a continuation, and in some ways an intensification (with some adjustments), of the last eight years of horrors under the Bush regime. He is a “stay-the-course” cheerleader for endless and expanding war that has brought almost unimaginable suffering to the Middle East. And this so-called “anti-torture” “Independent/Maverick” shepherded legislation legitimizing and legalizing Bush’s open torture.
There are many people who are very disturbed by what Obama is saying and doing, who are angry that Obama is not standing up to McCain on any of this in any real way. He’s not, but that’s not the essential point of our argument; Obama’s role is worse than that. Obama, with his “bring us all together” mantra, is fundamentally capitulating to and strengthening all that McCain is associated with. Obama is working – consciously so – to look out for the interests of the capitalist-imperialist system that is the cause of all the oppression, exploitation, ignorance and suffering people face around the world. And you can’t do that, and at the same time represent the interests of the people.
Look at how Obama responded to comments by Congressman John Lewis about the atmosphere at McCain and Sarah “wanna-be-lynch-mob-leader” Palin rallies – rallies that have taken on a very ugly, dangerous atmosphere.
Palin has repeatedly accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” The state Republican Party Chair in Virginia, according to MSNBC, told 30 of McCain’s organizers to try to forge a connection between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. And statements by Palin referring to Obama, that “this is not a man who sees America like you and I see America,” are code words to set off hard-core white supremacists. The media is reporting that people are yelling, “Kill him,” and “terrorist” when Obama’s name is mentioned at McCain and Palin rallies. And despite all the bullshit in the media about how McCain is supposedly “reining in” these kinds of vicious forces, McCain arrogantly denounced Lewis’ statement as “beyond the pale,” and “unacceptable.” And he went after Lewis’ statement as one of his “attack points” at the final presidential debate.
Lewis only touched on the surface of what is going on at these rallies, but he did identify something very real and dangerous when he said: “During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.”
And here it is important to say clearly that if anything like the kind of thing that Lewis is warning about were to actually happen, that would be a tremendous crime of this system.
But what has been Obama’s response to all this? Did he forcefully call out what is going on? Did he call out McCain, and in particular Palin, for whipping this up with all their “coded” messages to the white supremacist hard core? Did he call out the pandering to and whipping up of “small town” values of ignorance, intolerance and racism?
No he did not. In fact, Obama refuted the essence of what Lewis said. At the final presidential debate, Obama said that Lewis “inappropriately drew a comparison between what was happening there [at the McCain and Palin rallies] and what had happened during the civil rights movement, and we immediately put out a statement saying that we don't think that comparison is appropriate.”
If Obama were to “go there,” to really speak the truth about the ugly and threatening scenes at these Palin and McCain rallies, to put on the table the question of what is behind all that, and the current situation in regard to the oppression of Black people in the U.S. today, that would require, or at least open the door to, examining how deeply embedded white supremacy is in this society. Right now white supremacy is intensifying – it is a critical part of the social glue that keeps this country cohered and in line at a time of great crisis and uncertainty. And in that context, Obama’s “post-racial” message serves to cover all that up at a time when what is really required is recognition of and resistance to the continuing oppression of Black people. Here’s the reality: You don’t get to be one of the two candidates for president without the backing – money, media, and everything else that is necessary to be a “credible” candidate and without being fully vetted and approved by the ruling class. And, if you do become president, you are the president of the capitalist-imperialist system, and what you do is going to be locked into and defined by that.
And that is why, to just take one example, you can go back to day one of this campaign, and examine what Obama has said and done about the “race” question – the oppression of Black people in particular – and you’ll see that whatever his personal life experience and even personal inclinations, his words and actions are guided by the interests of a ruling class for whom white supremacy is a cornerstone of the society they rule over. (For a critical analysis of these questions, see “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of this System, and the Revolution We Need” – that appeared as a special issue of Revolution #144 that is still available in print, and can be read online at revcom.us.)
There are differences between McCain and Obama on how to cohere or re-cohere society in the face of a future of endless war for empire, repression, and severe economic crisis. But again, these are differences over how the current setup will emerge stronger – in a better position to wage its wars, oppress and exploit people, and impose death and terror on the world.
In this light, what about Obama appearing to be more willing to listen to people than McCain? In many ways because of his background, and his ability to appear to be listening to people, Obama is uniquely positioned to divert and stifle grassroots anger and opposition to all kinds of potential scenarios that the ruling class of this country thinks they may confront. His ongoing message of “bringing us all together” is essentially one of leading those who are on the correct side of basic dividing lines in society (over the right to abortion, opposing racism, opposing the war, opposing the imposition of Christian theocracy…) to “come together” with and capitulate to the forces and agenda that have been concentrated in the Bush regime.
And, if what we are saying about Obama, and his role, is true, then how can it be harmful, or paralyzing the people, to tell people this truth? People can only become conscious, and act in their own interests (and not be played by the system against their interests), if they understand the real situation. What is harmful is that people’s anger, hopes, dreams, energy and resources are being channeled into the Obama campaign – something that is going to strengthen the very system that is responsible for all the things that oppress people. And the Obama campaign is strengthening dangerous illusions about the system and narrowing people’s sights to what the system will allow – as we have said, Obama is “change – that you are allowed to believe in.”
You write, “AT LEAST exercise the right to vote in addition to being a part of any and all revolutionary causes you believe in.” But supporting Obama is not a matter of doing what we can until there is a chance to build a revolutionary movement. Supporting Obama is working against building a revolutionary movement, which is where people’s time, energy and resources really need to go. And supporting Obama is an obstacle to even standing up to and resisting what the powers-that-be are doing right now. For example, some leaders and organizations in the anti-war movement opposed protesting the war at the Democratic National Convention because this would hurt Obama’s campaign.
Exposing Obama is not what is paralyzing people. Right now, people are way too paralyzed. But they are paralyzed by the terms being set by the ruling class – that the “choice” they are allowed to make is between McCain and Obama. The way out of that paralysis is not to promote illusions about what Obama is about. The way to break out of this box is to pose that the real choice right now is between being caught up in and locked into the terms being set by the election overall, or busting out of those terms.
For those of us who understand that this world must be taken in a completely other direction, who understand that capitalism is the source of such profound and unnecessary suffering, exploitation, war, oppression, and ignorance, building real resistance to the whole direction of things must be part of the whole process of building a revolutionary movement. Let us not forget that times of great turmoil can provide openings for such a revolutionary movement, if we keep firmly in mind and act based on the real interests of the people of the world, and we do not – in the name of “getting people involved,” or whatever – support things that strengthen the forces of oppression and exploitation and deter people from doing what is really needed to fight this system and bring about real change.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
From A World to Win News Service:
September 29, 2008. A World to Win News Service. "August 27, 10 am: I was talking to one of my fellow inmates in section 5. As we were exchanging the latest prison news, the Pasdar (a member of the Khomeini regime's so-called Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran) responsible for our section came in and called out the names of 50 to 60 prisoners... It seemed that now it was the turn of the communist prisoners... With the exception of two men, all those who were called were executed that day... After trials presided over by Judge Eshraghi that consisted of nothing more than a few questions and answers, many of our fellow prisoners in cellblock 7 were executed. Of the approximately 85 to 90 prisoners, only 30 survived. The rest were executed." (Translated from An Unfair Battle, the memoirs of former political prisoner Nima Parvaresh)
This account describes only two days in August and September 1988, in only one of the Iranian prisons holding communists and other revolutionary political prisoners. It is simply what this particular prisoner could observe when the authorities cut off all connections between each jail and the rest of the world. Many of the thousands of prisoners killed that summer were young and even very young. A large number were women. They represented a concentration of years of struggle, first against the Shah and then the backward Islamic forces determined to rob the people of the fruit of the revolution that toppled him. The Islamic regime saw that its survival depended on shedding the blood of the country's most conscious sons and daughters. They murdered these prisoners without trial or after phony trials that took not more than a few minutes. They buried them in mass graves in the middle of the night, so as to keep the numbers and identity of prisoners and the location of their graves a secret as long as possible. Some families did not find out that their loved one had been executed for months, and many were never told where they were buried. The Islamic Republic of Iran still maintains the greatest secrecy about the details of what happened in those days, including the number of men and women executed.
Every year in September people in Iran honor their memory. They cannot forget the brutal crime that the reactionary Islamic regime committed against a revolutionary generation that had learned to fight for right against wrong, and especially to stand up to the thieves stealing the revolution, the Islamic rulers who presented themselves as revolutionaries and anti-imperialists but in fact served world imperialism. Instead of making people forget, these past 20 years have only deepened the wounds. The people and revolutionary movement in Iran are increasingly drawing lessons and feeling the dimensions and depth of these horrible crimes that were hard to absorb all at once in the first few years.
The massacres in 1988 coincided with the Iranian regime's decision to accept a ceasefire and end the war with Iraq. This agreement came after eight years of a war that had cost the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people on both sides. Even when the Iraqi army was driven back behind its own borders, the Iranian Islamic regime saw that its interest lay in continuing the war into Iraqi territory. They had suppressed any voice of protest and even criticisms of shortcomings under the pretext of unity against "the foreign invaders." They considered this war a gift, allowing them to suppress the revolution and the revolutionaries and consolidate their blood-sucking regime. The regime felt that agreeing to end the war in these conditions of weakness in relation to Iraq was scandalous. Khomeini called it a cup of poison he was forced to swallow. After so much harm to two or three generations on both sides of the border, they knew they would not escape punishment if they showed weakness in relation to the Iranian people. They could feel the danger, and so they hurried to finish their efforts to cut off potential revolt against them, a mission they had embarked upon after taking and consolidating power in the early 1980s.
In a well-planned move plotted in secret, only two years after the revolution, in June 1981, the Islamic regime decided to eliminate all the revolutionary and progressive forces, members and supporters alike and everyone associated with them. The plan was immense and horrible, but they were determined to kill off the revolution once and for all. They began with mass arrests of communists and other revolutionary activists whose organizations were gaining ground and growing fast. They executed the majority of them and sentenced the rest to long prison terms. Among those murdered were hundreds if not thousands of veteran communists and revolutionaries who had taken an active part in the revolution after long years fighting the Shah's regime and its U.S. imperialist masters. Many had spent years in the Shah's prisons and withstood the tortures administered by the Savak (the Shah's intelligence service). The Islamic authorities also did not spare teenagers who might have done nothing more than give out the leaflets of a revolutionary organization or might have been caught with one of those leaflets in their possession.
At that time, all the signs indicated that the regime was determined to totally annihilate any source and any voice of revolution and progressive resistance. In response, the Union of Iranian Communists, the predecessor to the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) founded in May 2001, initiated an armed organization called Sarbedaran, and subsequently launched an armed uprising in the northern city of Amol in January 1982. However, this uprising was defeated when the regime flooded the area with massive security forces brought from Tehran and other cities.
The majority of leaders, members and supporters of Sarbedaran and the UIC were arrested and executed, most of them within a year of the uprising. The limitations in their ideological and political line did not allow those revolutionaries to adopt the right strategy: to launch a protracted people's war in that situation. But the rebellion led by these revolutionary communists was seen as a ray of light in the dark days of terror, a source of hope in the hearts of many people. Its impact was so immense that even after nearly three decades the Islamic regime is still trying to counter its influence on the people.
The reign of terror continued all throughout the ’80s. Tens of thousands of communists and revolutionaries were executed or killed in battles. Tens of thousands more were held in prison; an even greater number were driven into exile. But this did not ensure the regime's grip on power. After the ceasefire with Iraq, Khomeini and his ilk felt in real danger once again. So they started another massacre, even though the wave of earlier massacres had hardly come to an end. By that time, the only political prisoners left alive were those serving long sentences. Some had completed the five to seven year terms to which they had been condemned, but nevertheless had not been freed.
"Suddenly visits for the prisoners were blocked 'until further notice'. Previously, sometimes an inmate or even a whole section of the prison was denied visitors, but never before had the authorities cut off all visitors for the whole prison—and, as we later learned, all the other places where political prisoners were held. What really awaited us? We were not given newspapers any more. One night, they came and took the television as well. In this way, all our contacts with the world were cut off. Even inmates who fell sick were no longer taken to the prison medical centre located in the old building... Before visits were cut off, we had heard the news of the execution of several leftist (communist) prisoners. Once, in the middle of night, we heard shots fired. Then I heard three single shots...
"One night three supporters of the Mujahedeen organization were taken. This was the first group to be taken and they never came back.... a few days later another group..." (From A Simple Truth, the memoir of a woman political prisoner, Monireh Baradaran)
In fact the widely discredited regime was desperate to keep the country under its control and ensure its own survival. The regime wanted to show its strength and brutal determination. They also wanted to eliminate anything that was associated with revolution, especially these living symbols.
At the same time, the regime was retaliating against the prisoners. The majority of prisoners did not abandon the struggle despite eight years of incredible brutality and viciousness. It is true that the suppression of the revolution on a nation-wide scale spread despair, and that inevitably had an impact on the prisoners, or at least a section of them. But those who even in the bloom of youth valued the revolution over their own lives, who remained strong under torture while their torturers were shaking, who continued to struggle as best they could through collective hunger strikes and other means even in the most difficult circumstances, were a tremendous source of inspiration to all revolutionaries and the people as a whole. In the face of this situation, the regime sought an opportunity to take revenge.
In the few minutes-long trials, the killer judges asked the prisoners if they were prepared to repudiate their past, inform on and testify against their comrades and their organization and give TV interviews to confirm their capitulation. The majority refused. Many preferred to go before a firing squad. But some prisoners were influenced to different degrees by the general mood created by the violent setback of the revolution. The Islamic Republic tried to make a big deal of a minority who, under the pressure of despair under these circumstances and under immense psychological and physical torture, decided not to defend the revolution, and a much smaller number who betrayed their comrades. But in fact more than anything else this phenomenon revealed the regime's extreme viciousness. The martyrdom of tens of thousands of communists and other revolutionaries in the ’80s and the witness borne by thousands who survived is evidence that the vast majority of prisoners withstood severe brutality and gave their lives to defend the people and the revolution.
During those months and all throughout the 1980s the imperialists turned a blind eye on what was happening. The Western ruling classes who love to talk about human rights if and when it serves their political interests remained silent. But the Iranian people got the message and understood it well. The deafening silence was a resounding message of support to the Islamic regime of Iran and a license to kill and kill and kill. Most of the human rights institutions in the Western countries chose to keep quite and ignore these crimes. Amnesty International was the first to acknowledge this massacre in a report, but not until two years later, in 1990.
The Iranian regime and the imperialists have at least one thing in common: a desire to crush the spirit of a people who had risen up in revolution.
But they have not been successful. Since that decade people stood up against the Islamic regime and its thugs in various ways, though usually unorganized. Not long after that decade the political scene was marked by the rebellious movement of a new generation of students—a generation that was meant to be trained in Islamic values. This refreshed people's hopes and helped bring a new mood. There have been significant spontaneous struggles among women, workers and others, and new opportunities for revolutionary communist work.
Since then every year in September Iranians inside and outside the country commemorate the memory of their martyred. Family, friends and supporters hold memorials, including in Khavaran, near Tehran, where many of the prisoners are buried in mass graves. So far this year, commemorations and other events have been held in the U.S., Canada and Europe, including Finland, Sweden, France and the UK. This year one of the panels during a four-day Iranian studies seminar in Toronto was devoted to Iranian political prisoners.
Other actions to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of political prisoners are planned on October 11 in London, Paris, Hague in the Netherlands, Bremen and Dusseldorf in Germany, and Finland. They are initiated by the March 8 Women's Organization (Iran/Afghanistan). For more information: http://8mars.com (in Farsi—click on "other languages" for English, German and French).
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.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
From A World to Win News Service:
September 29, 2008. A World to Win News Service. The secrecy surrounding the execution of 10-30,000 political prisoners by the Khomeini regime in August and September 1988 is a crime on top of a crime. In the last twenty years, dozens of books and memoirs have been written by people who were political prisoners during those years, who experienced the terrors and torture and witnessed their comrades being taken to be executed. They have managed to reveal some aspects of those horrors. No doubt much more will come out in the future.
"A Pasdar (so-called Revolutionary Guard) came with a list of names in his hand. He called the names of ten prisoners. They were taken away with their eyes covered. None of them returned.
"They called my name along with those of a few other prisoner... then, as I remember, I was stood in front of a table. I could see someone's hand. He was wearing a suit. He started to interrogate me. After questions about my identity and the accusations against me, he asked if I was a Moslem. I said no, I am not a Moslem. He asked if I was a Marxist. I said yes, I am a Marxist. Then he asked if I was prepared to condemn my political organization in front of the other prisoners. I told him no. When I was returned to my cellblock, I found out that the majority of leftist prisoners had answered similarly...
"In Evin (the infamous prison near Tehran built especially for political prisoners by the Shah), as we found out later, as well as Gohar Dasht (Tehran) where we were, the first groups executed in June 1988 were people who had been arrested a long time before but had not been tried and sentenced yet, or even charged. The next batch executed the following month were people who were already serving life sentences... Later the prisoners in sections 7 and 8 had noticed that during the night, and even sometimes during the day, big refrigerator lorries were leaving Gohar Dasht full of bodies...
"August 31, 8 am... They took all of us, with eyes covered, to the ground floor... We waited there. Those who were waiting on the left hand side of the corridor had already been tried and were waiting to be executed. We were waiting when suddenly we heard loud voices and swearing from inside the room. The door opened. Several Pasdars were beating a prisoner, swearing at him continuously. Naserian (an assistant prosecutor) was slapping his face, and the comrade was condemning their Islam and all their brutality, swearing right back at them and at Eshraghi (the chief judge). He was Ali Raiisy, a well-known prisoner. That was the last time I saw him. He was executed the same day...
"The court smelled blood. In the last two months, the people in this room had been busy sending prisoners to be killed. Naserian was nervous and angry. Eshraghi was behind a desk in front of me. His big fat body covered the chair completely... In Gohar Dasht, there were five sections for the leftist prisoners. Nearly half of the prisoners of these sections were executed. This was the case in Evin, too... The same month the prison authorities claimed the belongings of the executed prisoners that we had been keeping until then. We had shared their belongings among their closest friends as remembrances of them; this had become a tradition in the prisons. But we also gave some to their family, so that they would understand what had happened. As I understood it, the regime kept the executions secret and was leaking the news slowly. Some families didn't learn about the execution of their loved one until December of that year, or even several months after that.
"They called two names—Vahid Khosravi and Ahmad Shirazi—to get ready to go after lunch. We had become close friends during the time they were staying in our cells. When their names were called, I unintentionally started to cry. They hugged all the prisoners in the cells. We all knew they would be executed in an hour. But why were these young men of 22 and 24 years of age going to be executed? I only realized later that most of those executed were youth who were particularly brave and revolutionary. Their courage terrified the regime. We had our last lunch together. Before they left, we sang the Internationale. In the last moments, before the cell doors closed, we voraciously kept our eyes on each other. These were their last words: 'Don't forget us, keep our names alive.' I cried all night that night. We held a memorial for them that night, reading poetry."
(From An unfair battle, a report of seven years of imprisonment, 1982-1989, by Nima Paraversh, Thought and Struggle Publications)
"Toward the end of August, we got hold of a piece of a newspaper from section 2. There we read that the spokesman for the Supreme Council of Justice, after using all sorts of filthy language and names to refer to the 'dishonorable' communists, had demanded the maximum punishment for them. He said that after the Monafeghin ('false Moslems', the name the regime called the Mujahedeen organization), now it was the turn of the Kafirs ('infidels', in other words, the communists).
"Immediately they started whipping the leftist women... Once in the morning, on a bed in the corridor, five lashes each... the second time at noon, at 4 pm and 8:30 pm in the evening and finally just before midnight. Each woman received 25 lashes every day... In the courtroom, they were told that if they didn't repent, the punishment for a woman Kafir would be to be whipped to death."
(From A simple truth, the memoir of a women prisoner in the Islamic Republic of Iran, by Monireh Baradaran)
"In various regions of Iran, a kind of competition to kill human beings had started among the officials and heads of the holy Islamic regime. Every one of them wanted to prove to their dear Imam how firm and decisive and quick they were in purging the opposition and dissidents. In cities such as Hamedan (about 200 kilometers southwest of Tehran), Rasht (in the north by the Caspian sea) and Urumieh (northwestern Iran), more than 90 percent of the political prisoners were executed. In Karaj (20 miles west of Tehran), in November 1988, a mass grave was discovered, with 725 people buried in it. Other mass graves were found in Tehran, Rudbar and Manjil (both north Tehran)."
(From Memoir of an Ex-Inmate in an Islamic Republic Prison, by Dr Reza Ghafari, Arash Publications, Stockholm)
"As far as I know, all the women sentenced to be executed were raped by an interrogator called Hamid and his gang. But shame kept these women from saying anything to anyone. So Hamid and his gang continued this torture. I don't know how this secret got out, but prisoners' families organized a protest against it, right in front of the prison. That action encouraged the women prisoners to start a hunger strike and continue until someone came to investigate. He (the investigator) said that anyone who had been raped should come forward and complain. Nobody said anything. Then he repeated his request. Again no one answered. The way he talked had made everyone angry. He said, so all this fuss is pointless, the 'counter-revolution' (the communists and other revolutionary organizations) were interfering and they had to be stopped. So, he said, I will report that no case of rape has taken place.
"The problem was that we were caught by surprise. We had not talked about this among ourselves and didn't have a united and concrete view. We were prisoners from different trends. But as he finished his comments, Fariba, one of the prisoners with a clear voice, spoke up: Who says our silence means a negative answer? I emphasize that rape is one of the regime's specific tortures against militant and revolutionary women. Then she turned to the prisoners and said: Please, our silence will be considered as approval of this torture that we all are going thorough. How much longer is our women's shame going to allow this torture to humiliate and destroy us? We should understand this rape as a kind of torture. The enemy has not been able to force us to cooperate and betray or achieve its aims by humiliating us, but we should not feel shame because of what has happened to us. We should handle this consciously. In fact this torture does not make us despicable. What it makes despicable is the regime that has imprisoned us. So, Mr Investigator, I want to tell you that in this section of 50 women, not even one, yes not even one, has escaped rape by Mr Hamid and his colleagues. We will continue our hunger strike until this kind of rape and torture is really investigated, and as you know our families already know about this and will follow the case from outside."
(From ...And Here the Girls Will Never Die, by Shahrzad, Nour Publications)
"They have shaped a graveyard with no border
Where those who remain living still shed
Blood like tears from their eyes"
(Ahmad Shamlou, the Iranian progressive poet who died in 2000)
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.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
From A World To Win News Service:
22 September 2008. A World to Win News Service. The three-way alliance between the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe, the rightwing death squads that have murdered tens of thousands of people over the last decades and the U.S. government has never been so naked. General Mario Montoya, the head of the Colombian army and for years chief liaison between the Colombian and American militaries, has been named as a leading and perhaps chief liaison between the Colombia armed forces and the paramilitaries.
These allegations were made by a paramilitary veteran in closed-door judicial hearings in Medellin, Colombia. The Washington Post obtained a video recording of his testimony, and reporter Juan Forero interviewed the man, Luis Adrian Palacio, in prison. (Washington Post, 17 September). Forero wrote that at least four paramilitary commanders have given similar testimony. Colombian legal officials said that Palacio "has a high degree of credibility" and that General Montoya would be investigated with a view to indictment.
Montoya was officially in charge of administering the enormous amounts of money the U.S. has funnelled to the Colombian armed forces, sums that put them in the same league as the Israeli and Pakistani militaries in terms of American support. Montoya is a frequent visitor to the U.S., and well known in Washington. He received training and at least one medal from the U.S. When the newspaper asked the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to comment on these allegations, Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. said, "He's a great field commander. He’s done very well with the FARC." The U.S. worked through Montoya to orchestrate the July rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages held by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). (Washington Post, 3 July) The American official admitted that his government was aware of long-standing charges about Montoya's connections with the paramilitaries, but said it "found nothing to support them."
Actually, there is evidence that the U.S. government not only knows a great deal about the connections between the paramilitaries and the Colombian government, but that it organized these links in the first place. This has been extensively researched and described in many writings, including the report "Colombia's Killer Networks"by Human Rights Watch in 1996. (Also see the documented Wikipedia entry "Paramilitarism in Colombia" and colombiajournal.org)
The paramilitary movement in Colombia, like the FARC, is rooted in the civil war that initially broke out between the Liberal and Conservative parties in 1948 and has gone on mainly in the countryside, with varying intensity, ever since. Today's well-armed rightwing mercenaries are descended from U.S. President John F. Kennedy's Plan LASO in the early 1960s, when the American military worked with local armed forces to set up civilian militias to fight radical and pro-Soviet movements in Latin America. In Colombia, this meant the organization of landlord-led death squads to wage a dirty war against the peasant-based guerrilla movement of that time. In the mid-1960s, much of that movement evolved into the FARC, led by a pro-Soviet party whose strategy was to use armed struggle to bring about the kind of reformist (and somewhat pro-Soviet) regime that the U.S. was determined to avoid in its self-proclaimed "sphere of influence", such as Guatemala (the 1954 CIA coup and the 1966-1996 U.S.-led genocidal war in the countryside, a model for American military advisors in Colombia), Chile (the 1973 CIA coup), Grenada (invaded in 1983), Nicaragua (where the briefly successful rebels were crushed by the U.S.-organized and drug-traffic financed "Contra" death squads and a U.S. blockade and then let themselves be voted out) and El Salvador (where the civil war in the late 1980s and early ‘90s was also somewhat similar to Colombia).
In 1985, FARC, which has always advocated a negotiated settlement of the war and power-sharing with the country's traditional ruling classes, came to an agreement with the Colombian government and tried to convert itself into a legal political party. Paramilitaries working with the police and army murdered at least a thousand of its public activists and candidates for election at various levels – including two presidential candidates – before the so-called peace process officially came to an end. (Another element in the FARC's armed reformist strategy has been hope and sometimes success in getting European backing, as European capital has increasingly contended with the U.S. in Latin America. The reactionary kidnapping and long years of captivity of the Franco-Colombian politician Betancourt became a cynical pretext for many years of contacts and negotiations between FARC and the French government. The collapse of that hope, and now the apparent end of support from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, are factors in the FARC's current difficulties.)
The organization that eventually came to dominate the paramilitary movement, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), represented a confluence of old landlords and new ones (with some drug lords acquiring huge amounts of land, and some traditional landlords moving into drugs), the military and the American public and private sector. The U.S. banana company Chiquita Brands admitted to financing the AUC from its founding in 1997 to when it agreed to accept a government amnesty and officially go out of business in 2003. An American congressman who met with AUC leaders said this was only the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of U.S. private support for the paramilitaries. These death squads have helped foreign companies control worker militancy in plantations, factories, gas and oil facilities and other areas of the economy.
But it was the American government, acting through the military and CIA, that trained, armed and led these paramilitaries, both directly and through the Colombian armed forces. The Human Rights Watch report, based on an interview with the retired U.S. Military Attaché in Bogota, describes the 1996 formation of a team formed by the U.S. Embassy Military Group, the U.S. armed forces Southern Command, the CIA and other American agencies to set up a secret network of civilians (including retired army officers) under active-duty army command. The report concludes that while "not all the paramilitaries are intimate partners with the military", the partnership set up was "a sophisticated mechanism, in part supported by years of advice, training, weaponry, and official silence by the United States, that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it."
It would be hard to exaggerate the atrocities the AUC committed. One of its commanders, Ever Veloza, who confessed to killing almost a thousand people and provided details about the killing of 6,000 people by his militias alone, in coordination with the army, said that 90 percent of the victims had no ties to guerrillas. (Washington Post, 19 August) In Mapiripan, in Meta department, in 1997, AUC members came to town with a list of names provided by informants. They went house to house, took people to the town centre, and tortured them to death – hacking them to pieces with machetes or chainsaws and throwing the remains (and sometimes the dismembered still-living) in the river. They killed approximately ten people a day for five days. Local officials called the army repeatedly during this period, but the army didn't come until after the AUC left. The general later accused of planning the massacre had just finished his training by U.S. Army Green Berets working in Colombia. In Alto Naya, in Cauca, in 2001, 90 AUC members killed about 120 people, also with chainsaws and machetes. An Army unit nearby refused to intervene. In Betoyes, in the same department, in 2003, they attacked an indigenous community, raping and killing girls and women in the most horrible manner. Amnesty International reported that the Army supported the massacre. (Various human rights and other publications, cited in the Wikipedia article) These paramilitaries were also active in the slums of Medellin, where they carried out what some people consider to be a genocidal campaign against youth, in Bogota and other cities, assassinating political activists, lawyers, academics, union organizers and others and creating a climate of political terror.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times revealed a CIA report on the links between the Colombian military and the paramilitaries. It described massacres carried out in Medellin during a 2002 anti-FARC offensive called "Operation Orion". General Montoya commanded the police during that operation. The report cites an informant who said that orders for the offensive were signed jointly by Montoya and paramilitary leader Fabio Jaramillo, a subordinate to the successor to Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar. The CIA refused to confirm or deny the authenticity of the report, but instead attacked the newspaper for "ultimately affecting our ability to protect Americans." (Los Angeles Times,March 27, 2007) Accusations that Montoya was involved with the paramilitaries go back almost thirty years, when as a young lieutenant he first began to rise through the upper ranks of the army. At that time he served in the Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence Battalion (BINCI), a unit that led a campaign of bombings, assassinations and killings of detainees. That this was at least known to the American authorities at the time, if not their handiwork, was recently made clear by the declassification of a formerly secret 1979 report from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. ("The Truth about Triple A", National Security Archive at George Washington University, www.gwu.ed)
While the accusations about Montoya are especially revealing, he is, after all, only the head of the army. The Uribe government is no less an American "asset" than the general, and no less thoroughly involved with the AUC and other paramilitaries. Over the past two years, formal charges and/or convictions for complicity with the AUC have hit Uribe's brother, a cousin, his Vice President, Defense Minister, party chairman and dozens of his party's members of parliament. It has been alleged that the paramilitaries held secret meetings at Uribe's ranch. Accusations from several different quarters, some of them included in U.S. intelligence reports, have sketched life-long links between Uribe and his family and Pablo Escobar and other Medellin narco-paramilitary leaders. (1991 U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency dispatch posted on the National Security Archive) Whatever internal ruling class disputes may be behind the decisions of judges, politicians from Uribe's own party and other members of Colombia's political class to turn on him, Uribe has reacted by attacking the judiciary and trying to amass even more direct power in the hands of the executive. The massive marches against "terrorism" in many Colombian cities earlier this year were part of Uribe's efforts to legitimise and reinforce these efforts.
Rather than criticizing or cutting ties to people like Uribe and Montoya, the U.S. is now working to protect them from the Colombian judicial system. What the U.S. advertises as a scheme to bring Colombian drug lords to justice is designed to do exactly the opposite: to extradite leaders of the AUC to jails in the U.S. where Colombians cannot question these murderers who used drugs to finance their operations, thus silencing the damaging stream of testimony about the U.S./Uribe/paramilitary axis.
The AUC dissolved (at least officially, although there are indications that some of its killer bands are still operating) not because of any government blows against it but because the same government that secretly paid these mercenaries to fight now publicly offered to pay them to stop. Unlike the FARC, they were allowed to join the political mainstream. When the AUC formally dissolved, its commanders submitted to arrest in the expectation that they would be absolved quickly and recycled into civilian life. But their legal fate has turned out to be more complicated than they and the Uribe regime hoped. Some have languished in prison, where they have talked to civilian investigators. Last May, acting without warning and to general astonishment, Uribe had the main AUC commander and 14 of his senior colleagues plucked from a prison in Medellin and sent to the U.S. More recently the U.S. moved to extradite the above-mentioned Veloza, one of two dozen top AUC commanders to testify before the special judicial proceedings known as the "Justice and Peace" process, who "recounted how the death squads he helped run were supported by army officers and prominent politicians." (Washington Post, 19 August) In that article, reporter Forero writes, "Fifteen other top paramilitary commanders have been extradited to the United States, raising major concerns among Colombian investigators, victims' rights groups and organisations such as Human Rights Watch, all of whom say complex investigations into paramilitary crimes are being thrown into disarray. With nearly all of the top commanders in U.S. jails, they argue, Colombian detectives and prosecutors have lost their most knowledgeable sources of information about paramilitary groups."
It is anything but a given, however, that the exposure of Montoya and the rest will have much effect in and of itself. The partnership of the armed forces and the paramilitaries has been no secret to millions of Colombians who have suffered at their hands. It has been estimated that ten percent of the population has been violently displaced, forced out of the countryside by these allied armed gangs. Their assassinations and terrorism reached into every corner of Colombian society and helped shape much of the country's political and economic landscape, including the growth of agro-industry and other capitalist expansion. In a word, the paramilitaries, with their roots in semi-feudalism, have been an essential factor in shaping the terrain for the country's imperialist-subordinated but real capitalist development. It could be said that the legitimacy of elections and the efficacy of death squads (including the death squad known as the Colombian armed forces) have been twin pillars of Colombia's imperialist-vaunted and imperialist-dominated democracy.
In a May 1st statement entitled "Set Our Sights on the Goal of Communism", the Revolutionary Communist Group (GCR) of Colombia describes this process: "the concentration of land rises dizzyingly, no longer only in the hands of the traditional landowners and the narco-paramilitaries but also in the hands of local capitalists and imperialists who seek the development of the biofuel industry; the increase in forced displacement; increasing subordination of the country to imperialism – mainly Yankee but also European, Japanese and Australian – not only in the economic sphere but also the political, military and judicial. For the ruling classes, landlords and capitalists who are allied with and appendages of imperialism, the 'solution' to the crisis, that is, the solution to their problems – which are not the problems of the majority of people but the people’s resistance to greater exploitation – is more repression, legal and illegal, aiming to crush the slightest breath of the people's struggles, developing the tendency towards fascistization.
"With the conversion of the mass media into a shameless propaganda tool for the genocidal Uribe regime, they have succeeded in winning over a significant section of the working people. But this has not led to the surrender of other equally significant sections of the people. It has sharpened political polarization, as was seen in the massive marches on 4 February (organized by the government and its allies) and on 6 March (organized by various opposition forces). What is needed is a polarization of another kind, going from resistance to revolution."
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.
Revolution #146, October 26, 2008
From A World To Win News Service:
October 6, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Tainted milk products from China are turning up throughout the world because China is so much at the core of capitalist production worldwide. Further, while the contaminated milk scandal that has killed at least four babies and sickened more than 53,000 is very linked to the particularities of capitalism’s functioning in China, it is even more a product of the global profit system itself.
One of the most widely reported aspects of the scandal has been the role of the Chinese government and the ruling, so-called “Communist” Party. For some time now, perhaps as much as three years, Chinese government officials at various levels have had indications that the chemical melamine, normally used to make plastics and other industrial items, has been present in milk and milk products. Melamine is toxic for human beings because of the damage it does to their kidneys. Not only are infants especially vulnerable to this chemical, but they are doubly at risk because they live largely or almost exclusively on powdered milk formula. So far four of the poisoned under-two-year-olds have died of renal failure. Most suffer painful urination. More than a hundred are known to have passed kidney stones—extremely rare in babies, and excruciatingly painful.
Melamine is not hard to detect in children’s urine, especially in the enormous doses that have been found in Chinese milk. The infant’s urine turns slushy (filled with crystals) and strangely colored, in a way that alarms parents immediately, and ceases as soon as the children stop drinking the formula, even though their kidneys may have already suffered permanent damage. The Sanlu Group, the dairy company most implicated in today’s scandal, is known to have received complaints about this in December 2007. The first formal illness report came in March 2008, and the first reported deaths in May and July. After parents in several provinces began to kick up a fuss about the contaminated milk they suspected of making their babies sick, the company began running tests in June, and confirmed the presence of melamine. Yet the company actively covered up these and other indications of a serious problem. It continued its intense TV advertising campaign to get women to give up breast feeding and use its formula instead.
According to People’s Daily and other official central Chinese government sources speaking recently, after the scandal broke, in August Sanlu asked officials in Shijiazhuang, the city in the northern province of Hebei where it is headquartered, to help “manage” public response (including media) if and when the company began to recall its products. Local authorities are said to have failed to inform provincial officials about the problem for another month. Some analysts suspect that the central government’s current revelations of a provincial cover-up are in fact an attempt to shift the blame downward. (BBC, October 6) It is known that the center received reports from officials in other provinces in July, and in that month it prevented an exposé from appearing in print. It seems that top officials were anxious to prevent this scandal from breaking into the news until as long as possible after the feel-good glow from the Peking Olympics. Finally, in mid-September, amid a barrage of exposures (including a detailed account posted on a professional Web news site, the confirmed death of two babies and the banning of mainland milk powder by Taiwan), Sanlu stopped its powdered milk manufacture, and it and other dairy companies began recalling their poisoned products.
The biggest of the dairy industry’s three main corporate culprits, Sanlu used to be state-owned. Now officially private, nonetheless the provincial party committee appoints its chief executive, who, in this case, was also a party official. This is likely one reason why local and provincial officials kept the affair secret for so long. When that failed, in September, she was fired, as were some health and safety officials, including China’s chief quality supervisor. In May his agency had declared the dairy sector the country’s safest industry and said no inspections were necessary for Sanlu and the 21 other big milk companies.
Last year, the head of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration was executed for “corruption,” and harsh punishment may await various scapegoats, sacrificed to save the ruling party’s reputation and the system’s political stability. In early October several dozen dairy industry people were arrested for introducing melamine into the food chain. They ranged from farmers and managers of pastures and milk stations to melamine merchants and the Sanlu CEO. At the same time, officials sent police to visit lawyers for groups of parents of sick children—13,000 remained hospitalized as of late September—to warn them to let the matter drop. Although the government has promised free health care for these infants, there are reports of parents being charged exorbitant amounts to have their children tested, and then being told they have to put up even more money in advance if they hope for treatment. The dismantling of China’s once advanced universal health care system—a major factor in the doubling of the average life span in China during the first decades after the revolution—has been a major aggravating factor in this current crisis.
“It’s just changing the water without changing the herbs,” a Beijing bartender said of the resignations and arrests. “This scandal is caused by the whole system, so it’s no use replacing a single official.” (Washington Post, September 23)
The contrast could not be sharper between the China of today, where the watchword is “To get rich is glorious,” and the China of Mao’s time, when the guiding principle was “Serve the people.” In the name of that infamous former slogan, Deng Xiaoping, the leader of those whom Mao warned were “capitalist roaders” in the party, overthrew the socialist system after Mao’s death. The revolutionaries in party leadership were arrested or otherwise eliminated. The party, once an organization whose task was to lead the people in transforming China and the world to emancipate humanity from the division of society into classes, the system where profit is the supreme rule and highest good and all the laws, customs and ideas that go with that, has become an instrument of a particular kind of capitalist ruling class, both in the state and private enterprise. By the way, now food for the central authorities, their bodyguards, the police, etc., is grown on organic farms and specially tested.
But it isn’t exactly news that China is no longer socialist. Much of the global media reportage has treated this scandal as simply evidence of the extreme corruption that characterizes this newly-born Chinese-style capitalism, as if the problem were particular to China and to an early stage of capitalism that more mature capitalist countries have long since surpassed.
Corruption did play a huge role. But to focus on that begs the question: why was melamine being added to milk in the first place?
Melamine was added because the raw milk was being diluted with water. Wholesale purchasers often test milk for protein content precisely to guard against not getting what they pay for. Adding the chemical thwarts those standard tests. According to the Chinese government, this took place chiefly at the level of milk stations, the middlemen who buy up raw milk from dairy farmers.
Why was milk diluted? Obviously, the milk station owners, who are in practice the real bosses of the supposedly independent small farmers who are in fact dependent on them, have every interest in trying to stretch their product and make more money. But there is more than just greed at work here. In order to survive as capitalist enterprises themselves, they faced a compulsion to pour water in the milk.
The price of milk, like other basic foods, is controlled by the government in China, just as it is in Europe and elsewhere. That government has resisted allowing milk prices to rise, because that would increase the cost of living for China’s workers and others—and China’s chief advantage in the world market is the cheapness of its labor. Meanwhile, farmers’ costs have been mounting, especially for cow feed (due to international price pressures) and anything related to oil (fertilizer, fuel for tractors and trucks, etc.). This is driving up milk prices all over the world at the moment. The particularly sharp “scissors effect” effecting Chinese dairy farms is an example of how the extraction of value from the peasantry has been an important component in the profitability of capital in China. Whether added at the level of the individual farm or the milk station, the market itself dictated that milk could not be profitably produced at the price for which farmers and the milk stations had to sell it.
“For a long time, milk products were cheaper than bottled water,” a Beijing professor of food science told the Washington Post. (September 23) “We were afraid the consumer price index would rise and further pressure consumers, so we kept the price of milk products low. Making milk is profitless. If you want to produce good-quality milk, you have to feed cows well.”
Yet it is key to note here that the government’s attempts to hold down milk prices does not reflect a failure to abide by the market but a response to the rule of the broader market nationally and internationally. Further, in addition to the price of Chinese labor power, the country’s core market product, the profitability of the dairy industry itself has been another major factor compelling the poisoning of milk, and this, too, is world market-driven.
China’s $19 billion dairy industry is an increasingly major source of profit for both Chinese and foreign capital. This is due to both increasing consumption of milk and dairy products domestically, and the export of dairy products. Even more, Chinese dairy companies supply rapidly increasing amounts to foreign-owned food companies in China, whose chocolates, biscuits, coffee whiteners, etc. in turn are exported worldwide.
They buy their milk from China because it’s cheaper, just as it’s also cheaper to manufacture their milk-based products there. For the bosses of the milk companies in China, like the owners of sweatshops where other goods ultimately marketed by the multinationals are made, there’s no escaping awareness of horrendous conditions of production (long hours in the factories, adulterated milk in the dairies). That’s where corruption comes in, to get the relevant authorities to look the other way. But for the multinationals that buy the products, no such corruption is required. All they have to do is…not ask. They don’t want to know.
Melamine isn’t hard to detect. Some people say that in the high percentages involved here (in some cases thousands of times above the safety level for human consumption), the adulteration is visible with the naked eye. Did Cadbury, Kraft, Mars, Danone, Dean Foods and the baby formula merchants ever ask themselves why they were able to buy milk so cheaply in China, even though the world market determines much of the price of farmers’ inputs there? Did they ever bother to test either the milk they bought or the products they made with it?
Like the owners of famous labels in trainers, clothing, toys, electronics, etc. etc., made in China for the world market, they just didn’t really want to know.
Sanlu, it turns out, is not a wholly Chinese company after all. Somewhat less than half of it (43 percent) has been owned by a New Zealand dairy giant, Fonterra, itself a cooperative owned by NZ dairy farmers (who probably, like dairy farmers in other countries, are actually run and squeezed by the co-op they supposedly own, whose real loyalty is to broader financial interests). Fonterra bought into Sanlu in 2005 for $150 million, and since then has invested another $200 million in the company. The New Zealand enterprise says that although its representatives sit on the Sanlu board, it has no operational responsibilities, and was unaware of the problem until August (a mere month before the scandal exploded), when the Chinese board members overruled the New Zealanders in regard to going public.
Didn’t the New Zealand dairy company wonder why Chinese milk was so cheap? Did they wonder about the secret to Sanlu’s success—known as a “poor people’s” product, its baby formula was one of the cheapest? Didn’t they remember the major scandal in China in 2004, when 13 Chinese infants fed bogus formula died of malnutrition? Didn’t they ever conduct any testing themselves, even in the interests of protecting their own investment? Did they stuff $200 million into expanding the company’s facilities without having the slightest idea of what was going on? Diluting milk with water happens all over the world, and apparently the use of melamine was an open secret throughout the province, and to some degree elsewhere in China and East Asia. Didn’t they talk to anyone in the industry or follow Chinese blogs? Didn’t they even have someone just take a glance at the milk? Or did they just not want to know?
After September, Fonterra reduced its holdings in Sanlu. The public explanation was that the brand was irrevocably tainted. Another possible factor is this: if public scrutiny means that Sanlu can’t use adulterated milk, it can’t be so profitable anymore. In 2007-08, it booked record profits per kilo of milk sold. That won’t happen this year.
What about the argument that all this is due to the fact that China is still in the early days of capitalism, like the West before government inspection and regulation of food was established?
Consider this: melamine is very toxic and conceivably carcinogenic (since it’s not supposed to be eaten in the first place, its effects on humans hasn’t been sufficiently studied). The amount allowed in food products in Europe and the U.S. is strictly regulated (although the American authorities allow almost 20 percent more than in Europe). For babies, the tolerance level is supposed to be zero.
Yet in the wake of the scandal in China, the authorities in many Asian countries began to test all foods containing dairy products. They found some melamine in almost all of them, and fairly high levels in some, including the biggest global brands. Some of these products were made from Chinese milk, and some not. One factor may be that adding melamine to milk is not confined to China. But the brands accused, notably Nestlé, have come up with another excuse: that melamine enters food products from the plastic they are wrapped in. Why hasn’t this come out before, and the potential hazards evaluated and dealt with?
These companies aren’t just corrupt. They’re normal capitalist enterprises—these culpable dairy and food companies aren’t so different from the cigarette corporations that have fatally poisoned so many million human beings, or any other kind of capitalists who must submit to the supremacy of the market and the dictates of profit if they want to stay in business.