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Bhopal disaster 25 years on — bring corporate killers to justice

 

Pierre Rousset

 

Twenty-five years after the worst industrial disaster in history, the people of Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, are still fighting for justice.

On December 3, 1984, a leak at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory sent a barrage of toxic gases through the city. The streets were flooded with people desperately trying to flee the clouds of poison, choking, convulsing, vomiting and writhing in pain.

The poor suffered the worst casualties, with less ability to escape quickly in vehicles.

At least 8000 people died in the immediate aftermath and hundreds of thousands more were left with horrific injuries and severe lifelong health problems. Subsequent generations have also suffered the effects.

The Bhopal plant had employed sub-standard technology, far inferior to that in Union Carbide’s United States factory. In the years leading up to the disaster, Union Carbide slashed jobs at the plant, dramatically decreased staff safety training and cut costs from the maintenance budget.

A series of smaller leaks during that time hinted at what was to come. By that fateful day, the factory’s safety systems were all utterly dysfunctional.

Union Carbide, concerned only with avoiding any admission of liability that may have financial consequences, criminally refused to release information about the leaked gases.

This prevented hospital staff from being able to determine appropriate urgent treatment, escalating the number of fatalities and serious injuries.

The death toll now stands at more than 20,000 and rises almost daily.

Shana Ortman, US Coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), told Green Left Weekly that for many Bhopalis, “December 3, 1984 was just the beginning of a lifelong disaster”.

She said more than half a million people were exposed to the gases and more than 100,000 people remain unable to work due to exposure-related illness.

“Union Carbide may have abandoned their plant in 1984, but the toxic waste that they had been throwing into a breached solar evaporation pond has stayed and spread each monsoon season into surrounding neighbourhoods.

”More than 20,000 people have been forced to drink water contaminated with toxins like mercury, dichlorobenzene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and other persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

“This has caused all sorts of birth defects and health problems for children and adults living in those neighbourhoods.”

In 2001, Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. Ortman said: “Dow, according to its own public statements, made the decision to acquire the company with full knowledge of the criminal charges pending against Union Carbide and their status as a fugitive from justice.

“Despite repeated public requests and protests around the world, Dow Chemical has refused to make its new subsidiary appear before the Bhopal District Court to face the criminal charges pending against it.

“Dow also insists that Union Carbide corrected the situation when they settled the civil damages for [US]$470 million with the Indian government in 1989. However, this settlement did not extinguish the criminal charges against the company or its officials.

“The settlement only dealt with illnesses and deaths from gas exposure on December 3, but did not deal with the groundwater and soil contamination that Union Carbide left behind.”

The ICJB wants the US Congress to hold a congressional hearing into the ongoing contamination at the abandoned site in Bhopal and Dow’s liabilities, and has received support from some members of Congress.

Ortman told GLW that under the Bush administration, the US State Department refused to extradite Warren Anderson, Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster, to India to face criminal charges.

The ICJB is hoping that the new administration will grant any future request from India.

The Indian government has asked for more than $20 million from Dow as an advance payment towards cleaning up the abandoned site at Bhopal, including the poisoned groundwater and contaminated areas around the plant. But Dow has not been forthcoming.

Ortman said the Indian government “must begin clean up now to prevent further spread of the toxins” and should “use the legal system to force Dow to pay for it”.

The ICJB is also demanding that Union Carbide “show up in court to face trial in the ongoing criminal proceedings against them in India”.

Ortman said the Indian government also “promised to build pipelines to bring clean water to the communities that have been drinking, eating, and washing with water contaminated by the chemicals that Union Carbide left behind”.

She said that while construction began, it has stalled, and “needs to be completed urgently”.

In August 2008, the Indian government promised to set up an “empowered commission” to address the range of health, environmental, social and economic issues in Bhopal. The ICJB is calling for this promise to be fulfilled immediately.

Since the disaster, survivors and their supporters have been fighting for justice and reparations. In recent years the campaign has been successful in pushing a number of Indian universities to reject sponsorship from Dow. Last year, protesters prevented a Dow research and development centre from being built near Pune.

On November 19, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the disaster, hundreds of Bhopalis protested outside Dow’s offices in Noida, near New Delhi. The protesters vowed to continue their campaign to force Dow out of India until the company accepts its liability in Bhopal.

To mark the anniversary on December 3, Ortman said “survivors have called upon activists around the world to organise a day of action”. More than 100 actions globally are expected to take place, including “die-ins or protests, educational actions like vigils, film screenings or photo exhibits, and individual actions, like call-ins or hunger fasts”.

Kerryn Williams

For more information and to support the campaign, visit www.studentsforbhopal.org.

You can also donate to the campaign at www.bhopal.net/donate.

Copenhagen Plan B : “protect the rich”


A leaked text of the political declaration that could conclude the Copenhagen conference reveals back-room dealings that offer little to the Majority World.

Oscar Reyes Dec 9 2009

 

So the rumours were true. For the past week, it was an open secret that the Danish government had already drafted a “political declaration” that could form the major outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference now that a full-blown international agreement is off the cards. The draft text has now been leaked, sparking outrage amongst Southern delegates and civil society organisations.

“The Copenhagen Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” as the draft is titled, would introduce percentage-based emissions targets for all except the Least Developed Countries, fatally undermining the Kyoto Protocol, which draws a line between industrialised Annex 1 states and the Majority World. The text also suggests that financial and technological support measures in non-Annex 1 countries, an underlying principle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), should now be made conditional to their ability to meet complex emissions monitoring requirements.

The UNFCCC quickly attempted to limit the damage, putting out a statement from Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer that declared that the draft was a “decision paper put forward by Danish Prime Minister,” while maintaining that it was not a “formal text” of the UN negotiating process.

But the leaked text met with an angry response from many Southern delegates. Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairperson of the G77 plus China grouping of 132 developing countries, said that the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen had failed in his role as a neutral host and had instead “chosen to protect the rich countries.” The emergence of the draft text was also met by an impromptu protest from members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, who marched through the Bella Centre chanting “Two degrees is suicide, One Africa, one degree.”

Democratic deficit

Concern stems not simply from the contents of the draft text, but also the secretive and biased way in which it came about. The COP Presidency, which is held by host country Denmark, is mandated to craft compromises based on painstakingly negotiated drafts. In this case, the Presidency stands accused not only of overstepping the mark, but of hopping, stepping and then jumping over it, pre-empting UN decisions with proposals lifted in part from text discussed at the Major Economies Forum, an initiative closely tied to the G20 grouping and chaired by US President Barack Obama.

As Meena Raman, Honorary Secretary of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, explains, “The leaked draft Copenhagen Agreement violates the democratic principles of the UN and threatens the Copenhagen negotiations. By discussing their text in secret back-room meetings with a few select countries, the Danes are doing the opposite of what the world expects the host country to do. The Danish government must stop colluding with other rich nations. Instead it must take as a starting point the positions of developing countries - which are the least responsible for climate change, but who are most affected by it.”

Raman Mehta from Action Aid India decried a “betrayal of trust” on the part of the Danish government.

More “hot air” on reductions

The draft text is weak and vague in its overall ambitions. In reiterating the goal of holding global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the text sets a global reduction target of 50 per cent by 2050, of which 80 per cent should come from the industrialised world. These figures look distinctly unimpressive when tracked back to existing per capita emissions, however, with one estimate suggesting that they would allow Northern industrialised countries to continue outpolluting the Majority World by a factor of 3:5.

The short-term proposals are ostensibly more ambitious, with a suggestion that global emissions should peak by 2020. But the same passage of the text misleadingly claims that this peak has already been reached in “developed countries collectively.” This is based on the latest UNFCCC figures, which show that Annex 1 countries are now on track to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments, but a closer look reveals that this is achieved on the basis of “hot air” emissions resulting from economic collapse in the former Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. Emissions elsewhere in the developed world have continued to rise. The projections for 2020 are further massaged by counting a large volume of “emissions savings” from carbon offsets made in the global South as part of Annex 1 emissions figures.

Strings attached

Whereas the Bali Action Plan emphasises that developing country actions will be “supported and enabled” by technology, financing and capacity building, the draft suggests that these measures would be “subject to robust measurement, reporting and verification.” This inversion implies that the support measures could be withheld unless monitoring is externally approved. Instead of placing an obligation on industrialised countries to repay and restitute their climate debt, this makes any support measures conditional to a series of complex technical asssessments.

Just as significant is what the text does not include. There are no numbers on long-term financing, and there is no suggestion that these will be forthcoming in Copenhagen. The only figure offered is a projection of $10 billion per year of “fast start finance”, a scaled-down version of a plan first presented by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in late November. But Lumamba Di-Aping was dismissive : “Ten billion dollars will not buy developing countries’ citizens enough coffins,” he said.

A growing market

The flip side of this lack of financial commitments is a commitment to scale up carbon markets as part of any agreement. The cap and trade proposals currently passing through the US would allow up to 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon offsets per year to displace the need for domestic emissions reductions, a demand that is over seven times larger than the existing supply of offsets through the UN’s Clean Devopment Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation scheme.

Although the language on carbon markets remains vague, talk of “an effective and orderly transition from project based to more comprehensive approaches” signals a framework that would introduce a broad range of new offsets, from “sectoral crediting” through to measures aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

“With developed countries offering so little by way of public finance, developing countries are being sent a message that support for offsetting mechanisms is their only real choice to access funds” says Payal Parkeh, a climate scientist with International Rivers.

A coalition of the unwilling

What the “Copenhagen Agreement” leak signals, above all, is a lack of ambition on the part of industrialised countries to make emissions reductions at home or meet their financial and other obligations to the South. “Despite the hype, the talk of ´Hopenhagen´, the supposed political will to ´get it done´, this set of negotiations might be no different than anything that has come before” concludes Rhiya Trivedi, a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation to Copenhagen. “It could be just another round of the North-South divide and power struggle.”

Business as usual, in other words.

Oscar Reyes
Team member of Carbon Trade Watch

www.carbontradewatch.org


* The article appears in the Climate Chronicle newspaper published at the Copenhagen climate talks..

* Oscar Reyes (London, 1977) works on TNI´s Environmental Justice project, is environment editor of Red Pepper magazine, and is co-author of Carbon Trading : how it works and why it fails. From 2005-2008, he was TNI Communications Officer and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine.

He has a BA from Somerville College, Oxford University and an MA in Politics (Ideology and Discourse Analysis) from the University of Essex. Before joining TNI he was a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of East London ; a lecturer in European Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London ; and co-presenter and producer of a weekly radio show on London’s Resonance FM.

He was also writer and presenter of World Week Watch, a round-up of global news on Press TV. He was a TNI Young Fellow in 2005.

From Europe Solidaire sans Frontieres

We demand effective commitments for fighting climate change


Alianza Social Continental


Between the 7th and 18th of December, 2009 during the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP15) in Copenhagen, world governments will attempt to make commitments for reducing carbon emissions and lay out policies for mitigating climate change. In the face of the urgency and the growing recognition of the dangerous consequences of this phenomenon, the whole world is awaiting the decisions that will be made.

Nonetheless, the transformation of the climate is advancing faster than the negotiations, given the lack of political will of the industrialized nations and their hurry to transform the need for solutions into business opportunities. These are the principle obstacles to the adoption of policies that truly contribute to avoiding climate change and counteracting the environmental damages that the current production model has created. In the face of such obstacles social and popular movements and organizations, environmental groups, unions, indigenous communities and women’s organizations from the entire American continent raise the flags of climate and ecological justice, demand from our governments a real commitment and urge the whole of society to recognize the need to change our patterns of consumption and production.

In recent years it has been more and more evident that the climate is changing due to global warming. This is reflected in, among other impacts, the increase of extreme climate events that affect disproportionally the so-called developing countries. This is a grave problem that humanity faces, heightening other existing problems like poverty, hunger, violence, social inequality, problems of gender (women make up 70% of poor people), the control of land, food sovereignty, access to water and sanitation, among others.

Who is responsible?

We the social organizations of Latin America believe that it is necessary to seek solutions through the search for Climate and Ecological Justice, which should be based in the recognition that each human being has the right to climatic and environmental space and that nature, as a whole, has rights that should be respected. Although climate change requires global actions, the historical responsibility for emitting the majority (80%) of the greenhouse gases in the last 250 years lies on the countries of the North. Cheap energy has been the motor for their rapid industrialization and economic growth, while the countries of the South have assumed the economic, social and environmental costs of extradition, transport and production of fossil fuels. The countries of the North should recognize the existence of an ecological, social, financial and historical debt to the countries of the South and to nature.

The unprecedented crisis that the world is currently living reveals the failure of the capitalist system and its neoliberal model, whose ideologues believed – and still believe – that the laws of the market are more important than life, converting natural resources into merchandise and removing the State from is role to regulate, protect and promote, converting the State into a mere manager. The climate crisis is the result of a development model that promotes production based upon the use of fossil fuels; deforestation; monoculture; industrial agriculture and cattle farming; and the intensive, chaotic and massive extraction of natural resources from the earth, all with the aim of exportation and of strengthening in the countries of the North and in the upper classes patterns of exaggerated consumption, which have contributed to the generation and concentration of greenhouse gases, the direct cause of climate change.

The major corporations and their accomplice governments are therefore those principally responsible for the emission of CO2 and the exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources, and at the same time are those promoting an accelerated and limitless rhythm of consumption that is closing the circle of the debilitation and destruction of Mother Earth. In the words of Evo Morales, “‘climate change’ has placed humanity in the face of a grave dilemma: continue on the path of capitalism and death, or embark on the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”

The liberalization and deregulation of international commerce and the investment and protection of intellectual property (imposed via the WTO and Free Trade Agreements) contribute to climate change because they guarantee and promote the continuation of the production, consumption and commercial model and deepen the international division of labor that has destroyed the economies of the South, provoking great migratory waves. In addition, the illegitimate indebting of our countries, imposed to favor the policies and projects that have generated enormous ecological and climate debts, continue being a heavy factor in these unequal and submissive relationships. It is imperative to change the rules of the world economy, currently governed by transnational corporations. Additionally, it is very important to guarantee access for the countries of the South to existing technology and to at the same time develop new technologies with low carbon emissions that are appropriate to national realities without becoming the source of financial or technological dependence.

Our demands

In the context of this exportation and extraction model that prioritizes economic benefits and the rights of transnational corporations over human rights and the rights of nature, those responsible have proposed some solutions to climate change that instead of addressing the true causes, maintain the unsustainable production and consumption structures and project onto the backs of the people and the most-affected countries the costs of mitigation or adaption.

Developed countries have not fulfilled the greenhouse gas emissions reduction agreements of the Kyoto Protocols, and have created an emissions trading system instead of eliminating carbon encourages practices that don’t actually reduce it, reproducing the speculative logic of the financial system and allowing companies and governments of the North to evade with money the assumed obligations to reduce emissions.

Biofuels do not constitute a real solution to the environmental problematic. The change in the use of land for cultivating palm and cane puts at risk food sovereignty, forests, biodiversity and the territorial relationships of native and rural communities. The purpose of biofuels is to maintain the patterns of energy consumption of industrialized countries.

Market mechanisms are based upon manipulation and business lobbying, incentivized and even financed by the World Bank, the International Development Bank and other development banks, investors and lenders. They are slow and complicated mechanisms that exclude local and indigenous communities from the decisions that affect their territories. These instruments don’t solve the climate crisis, but instead allow the North to transfer its obligation to reduce emissions and the problem itself to the people of the South.

The recent negotiations in Bangkok and Barcelona, preceding the meeting in Copenhagen, have served as the stage for the countries of the North to align their agreements on the reduction of emissions with the commitments of the countries of the South, who they blame for the lack of results and agreements. We demand the participation of all countries in the search for solutions to climate change, but recognizing that in order to be effective, the starting point should be the respect for and compliance with the commitments and diversified obligations agreed upon by industrialized countries more than 15 years ago, in agreement with their historic obligation. Even if there are advances in the commitments of the South, there is no guarantee that the mitigation of the countries of the North will be effective (and not using false market solutions, as has occurred until now).

The International Financial Institutions, co-responsible for the current global financial, economic and climate crisis, promote market solutions through credit programs that allow them to maintain the status quo and continue intervening in the political and social economy of the countries of the South. We therefore demand the immediate end of this conduct of the International Financial Institutions, which only contributes to the imposition of a speculative logic in the management of climate issues. No resource destined to the mitigation or adaption of climate change should be converted into debt.

We demand from the industrialized countries a commitment to the restitution and reparation for the peoples and countries of the South, through mechanisms and alternative flows of funds and the transfer of technologies in order to assure the life of the planet. The necessary reparations should be based on the autodetermination of communities and with the guarantee of no repetition.

All governments should promote alternatives that contribute to the mitigation of the effects of climate change. Similarly, it is essential to discuss current proposals, like the REDD program (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which prioritize monocultures of trees instead of the protection of tropical forests, offering industrialized countries a way to compensate for increased emissions of greenhouse gases without committing to reducing emissions.

Alternatives from the Americas

As social organizations we demand that our governments prioritize the strengthening of local and regional economies; peasant agriculture; and the recognition of the rights of working men and women, indigenous peoples, peasants, and fishermen to protect their territory and natural resources. The governments should promote the transition to sustainable societies that are not based on hydrocarbons. Public policies that guarantee a just transition to another economy are necessary so that it won’t always be the same ones picking up the bill.

The international climate negotiations can’t be based on market mechanisms, but instead should contribute to the reversal of the development model based on unrestricted export-oriented growth. The negotiations should look to a new model of production, consumption, distribution and consumption, based on the sovereignty, solidarity and integration of peoples. We demand that those responsible for climate change transform the consumer lifestyle and the economic system that they have imposed on society.

For the indigenous communities, women, peasant and afro-descendent communities of our countries, the defense of projects that sustain life has been very important. Along with other social movements they have been constructing a different vision of territory, development, and economics that emphasizes biodiversity and the sustainable use of resources. It is necessary to recognize and appreciate the community knowledge and the traditional practices bases on coexistence with Mother Earth and respect of her rights.

Our continent is heterogeneous. From dense urban populations to tiny villages that promulgate the Good Life. We should nourish ourselves with these realties in order to formulate alternatives, demand effective commitments from governments and advance in the struggle of the people for sovereignty and social and climate justice.

 

8 December 2009

 

Courtesy CADTM website

http://www.cadtm.org/We-demand-effective-commitments

The Politics of Surrealism

Amanda Armstrong

Morning Star:
surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopian
By Michael Löwy
University of Texas Press, 2009, 174 pages,
44 line drawings. $55 hardcover.

IN THE FIRST notebook of his Grundrisse, composed in 1857, Marx predicted that the “romantic viewpoint” would “accompany [capitalism] as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.”(1) He believed that romanticism, with its celebration of the richness — real or imagined — of pre-capitalist life, would remain a perennial reaction to the reification of social life under capitalism.

While some of Marx’s more famous predictions on overcoming of capitalism have not yet been fulfilled, as Michael Löwy shows in Morning Star, 20th-century history has vindicated Marx’s confidence in the durability of romanticism.

In the ten essays that make up Morning Star, first published here in English as part of the University of Texas Press Surrealist Revolution series, Löwy argues that the “romantic viewpoint” found its most fitting, and most insistently anti-capitalist, 20th-century guise in the transnational and multi-generational movement of Surrealism.

Three early chapters of this attractively designed book offer broad reflections on the political and philosophical entanglements of the movement, while later essays provide political biographies of an assortment of Francophone surrealists (Breton, Cahun, Bounoure, Saban), as well as a few of their more prominent interlocutors on the Left (Naville, Debord).

The final chapter attempts a comprehensive review of international surrealist activity post-1969, closing with a message to would-be 21st-century surrealists.

Löwy reminds us that we should not be indifferent to surrealism’s past —“Anything that cannot find a spark of hope in the past has no future” — even as he insists that, if it is to have a future, surrealism must remain radically open: “The old ways, the paved roads, and the beaten paths are in the hands of the enemy. New ways must be found — the wanderer makes the path.” (116)

As this closing exhortation makes apparent, Morning Star is a committed text, written by a participant in the movement it chronicles. This provides the book with a satisfying coherence, as Löwy’s constructive project enables him to glue together into a single, multilayered image what might otherwise appear to be unrelated historical and biographical vignettes.

At times, however, Löwy’s commitment seems to discourage him from raising thorny questions about the history and politics of the movement — questions that must be worked through if we are to find new paths to surrealism and socialism in the 21st century.

Romanticisms, Left and Right

That the broad tradition of romanticism has cross-cutting and mercurial political impulses is something of a commonplace observation in critical discourse, and one that Löwy reiterates in Morning Star. As he notes, the romantic banner has been carried by both left-wing utopians from Fourier to Bloch, as well as a menagerie of reactionary cultural nationalists — agitated men who could be found skimming their copy of Herder when they weren’t busy railing against suffragists and socialists.

While a few surrealists, most notably Dalí, wandered over to this conservative camp, the vast majority allied for most of their lives with Left movements (particularly Trotskyism and anarchism), and in their works heaped scorn on the reactionary romantic fetishes of family, race and nation. One of Löwy’s projects in Morning Star is the reconstruction and explanation of these relatively consistent political commitments.

He presents two arguments for how surrealists sidestepped the conservative strains of the romantic tradition. First, Breton et al. were highly selective when drawing inspiration from the past: while they were inspired by Gothic literature, alchemy, American Indian art forms, and the rebellious verses of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, any past cultural traditions that reeked of religious hierarchy or national chauvinism drew their ire.

Surrealists were searching the archive for art forms that would shatter, rather than confirm, imperial bourgeois culture — a culture in which traditional patriarchal and religious ideals were utilized in order to sanctify hyper-modern forms of social control.

Second, Löwy suggests that the influence of Marx, a critical inheritor of the Enlightenment, channeled surrealists’ romantic passions in socially emancipatory directions. As his historical chapters make clear — particularly on Pierre Naville’s The Revolution and the Intellectuals — surrealists have widely embraced the Marxian critique of capitalism and have consistently moved in the same circles as revolutionary socialists.

While these circles were often riven by polemics and personal animosities, including those between Naville and Breton, Löwy suggests that the severity of such clashes has been overstated by historians of the movement.(2) To demonstrate the point, Löwy reveals that Naville, shortly before his death in 1993, sent an enthusiastic letter to Breton's supporter Franklin Rosemont, of the Chicago Surrealists, expressing his hope that “your Surrealist movement will renew what we tried to do so long ago.” (62)

By taking up Marx’s critique of capitalist modernity, surrealists have generally been able to avoid some of the destructive political and aesthetic shortcuts that are characteristic of conservative romanticisms. While conservative romantics idealize the traces of earlier, hierarchical social formations in such a way as to put a human face on inhumane social conditions, surrealists seek to expose the cracked lineaments of contemporary systems of exploitation.

Walter Benjamin's Surrealism essay explains how these competing political aims manifest themselves at the level of aesthetic form:

“Here due weight must be given to the insight that in the Traité du style, Aragon’s last book, required a distinction between metaphor and image, a happy insight into questions of style that needs extending. Extension: nowhere do these two — metaphor and image — collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics. For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images …. Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation,(3) and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto. For the moment, only the Surrealists have understood its present commands. They exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.”(4)

Benjamin's somewhat enigmatic analysis here provides the scattered fragments of a political-aesthetic diagnosis of surrealism which would sharply differentiate this movement from conservative romantic traditions. While such traditions trade in “moral metaphor” and the “play of human features” — idealized human forms which are meant to serve as soothing allegories of the supposedly homogenous and unified social body — surrealists circulate what Benjamin elsewhere terms “dialectical images.”

Such images split the putrid air of our petrified world, rendering uncanny and untimely the dazzling spectacles and dancing commodities that everywhere captivate our senses.

Dialectical images perform this defamiliarizing and activity-generating (“innervating”) task in a variety of ways: by juxtaposing idealized forms with images of the violence required to produce and sustain these forms, by showing the aging of industrial wonders such as railroads in a way that reveals the historicity of the present, by transfiguring marks of capitalist drudgery into signs of revolution (i.e. Benjamin’s alarm clock), by tearing objects out of their conventional contexts in order to reveal their unexpected possible uses, and by offering hints of the marvelous freedoms that could materialize in a post-capitalist world.

The black-and-white images reproduced in Morning Star, many of them surrealist montages, are compelling examples.

A number of these montages, particularly those made by Albert Marencin, deform and render uncanny conventional images of women and/or bourgeois domesticity. In one image, the nude torso of a woman is superimposed over the scene of a shipwreck, while in another, a couple of Victorian women converse with birds in a room crammed with stately public buildings.

Undoing Gender: Claude Cahun

These montages open up questions about the gender and sexual politics of surrealism — questions that Löwy addresses, though somewhat indirectly, in his lengthy chapter on Claude Cahun. Cahun, whose works have recently been rediscovered by a cohort of younger queer and feminist artists, was a prominent early surrealist who worked, like Man Ray, in the medium of photography.

Her best known pieces are self-portraits, which scramble conventions of gender and expose the violence underpinning normative heterosexual relations. Even as these photographs have had an energizing effect on a new generation of radical artists, however, her written contributions to socialist and surrealist theory are at risk of falling into obscurity.

Löwy’s chapter on Cahun does an admirable job of outlining and contextualizing her theoretical essays, while also recounting Cahun and her life partner’s courageous and creative opposition to Nazi occupation.

In presenting Cahun’s theoretical work, Löwy focuses particularly on a polemical essay she wrote in 1934, entitled Les Paris sont ouverts (Bets Are On). In it, Cahun takes aim at the instrumentalization of art for ideological ends, directing most of her ire at Louis Aragon, who by this time had begun writing canned poems in celebration of the Soviet Union.

According to Cahun, ideological poetry invokes moral ideals and utilizes soothing formal devices such as predictable rhyming schemes in order to neutralize its readers, whereas emancipatory art brings social contradictions to the surface, and thus provokes its readers to critical reflection and action.

In providing examples of ideological art, she references state and corporate ad jingles, such as “Every elegant woman is a client of Le Printemps,” and “Your Fatherland is the USSR, one-sixth of the planet” — lines of patriarchal pseudopoetry that, like Aragon’s latest works, enable little more than “revolutionary masturbation.” (70)

Ironically, in distinguishing ideologically deformed art from authentically emancipatory works, Cahun echoed Benjamin’s aforementioned arguments about dialectical images, which were themselves inspired by Aragon’s pre-Stalinist works. Her essay supplemented Benjamin and the early Aragon’s arguments, though, as it added a psycho-sexual dimension to their more narrowly political and aesthetic reflections. It also broke new ground by aligning an emergent Stalinist culture with earlier, conservative forms of romanticism, thus setting in motion the surrealists’ decisive break with Stalinism.

Shortcomings on Sexuality

Cahun’s essays, when read alongside her self-portraits, issue a defiant surrealist response to sexual and gender oppression — a response that, unfortunately, was not always embraced by other participants in the movement. While Bets Are On was generally well received by Breton and his collaborators (in part because it explicitly criticized Aragon), Cahun’s gender nonconformity and queer sexuality met with a sometimes hostile reception, according to Löwy. (73)

Nor were the surrealist movement’s false steps around gender and sexuality simply confined to interpersonal settings; a number of surrealist images, for instance, depict women’s bodies in ways that are less than emancipatory. From Man Ray’s photographs, which, while sometimes raising critical questions about sexuality and violence, too often simply present women’s bodies as eroticized fetish objects, to a number of early surrealist montages, which convey “shock effects” via the depiction of dismembered female body parts — so many fishnet-clad legs and made-up faces — early surrealist images, particularly those produced by men, often confirmed normative heterosexuality rather than disrupting this formation.

Of course it would be possible to pass over this failure by ascribing it to a residual “influence of the times,” or to reorient the discussion by pointing out that surrealist women produced an extensive corpus of pre-second-wave feminist art, and in this way helped spark the 1960s international movement for women’s liberation.(5) While these are no doubt legitimate responses, it seems to me that we might still have something to learn by thinking through this particular failure.

One way that we might make sense of the use of dismembered female body parts in surrealist montages is to see these images as misguided attempts to shatter the symbolically charged figure of “the woman” — a figure regularly employed by imperialist myth-makers in the form of the “national woman” or “national mother.”

The mistake of the surrealist producers of these montages was twofold. First, they assumed that this figure was nothing more than a false image which could be overcome by literally being shattered, rather than seeing it as an oppressive ideal that daily molded women’s bodies and psyches and that could only be overcome through a sustained struggle to demonstrate that women were other than this oppressive ideal.

Second, they assumed that depictions of the death and dismemberment of women were unconventional and shocking, when in reality they were both an integral element of national allegories that treated women’s deaths as sublime acts of sacrifice, and potentially complicit in the naturalization of violence against women. In this way, images that might have appeared subversive actually bore within themselves a reactionary kernel.

Only through critical feminist reflection, performed in part by surrealist women, could this kernel be exposed and overcome. This is an important lesson for the present, since, as Jacques Rancière argues in The Future of the Image, artistic processes that may have been counter-hegemonic in the past have recently been recaptured by an emergent neoliberal cultural establishment.(6)

Rather than exposing social contradictions, montage today more often sacralizes our global commodity culture by suggesting that all people and objects partake in a seamless, universal system: the montage practiced in MTV studios as well as leading art galleries invites us to revel in the exchangeability of all things, rather than work to exchange our current social order for a less damaging world.

In the face of this challenge, much critical and historical reflection will be required if we want to reconstruct an emancipatory artistic and political practice in the 21st century. For those interested in taking on this task, Löwy's Morning Star is essential reading.

Notes

  1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1993), 162.

  2. For a traditional interpretation of the Naville/Breton split, see Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 291.

  3. Innervation is a keyword Benjamin also employed in his famous essay on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility. It means, more or less, the opposite of enervation. While many early 20th-century cultural critics thought that technology had an enervating effect on the masses, Benjamin saw the possibility for technology to be employed in ways that would stimulate revolutionary energies — a possibility that the surrealists also saw.

  4. Walter Benjamin, Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Trans. Edmond Jephcott (NLR I/108, March-April, 1978).

  5. For an extensive compilation of surrealist women’s theoretical and artistic compositions, see: Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas, 1998).

  6. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007).

 Courtesy, ATC 143, November-December 2009

On Darwin's 200th Anniversary


Ansar Fayyazuddin

THE YEAR 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his celebrated book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin left an indelible mark on our understanding of the world we live in and our place in history.

Darwin is the subject of vast amounts of scholarly research, including much writing appearing in this anniversary year. Here I want to touch on a few aspects of Darwin’s life and work that I find interesting.

Darwin was born in 1809 into a wealthy family headed by his medical doctor father and his mother, the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood — the industrialist who made his fortune manufacturing fine china. Darwin’s mother died while he was still quite young. Charles’ father Robert, and grandfather Erasmus, were freethinkers, who rejected Christianity and, in the case of Erasmus, openly sought a materialist understanding of the natural world.

Indeed, Darwin’s grandfather believed in the interconnectedness and common origin of all species. In fact, the idea that species were related was an idea with some currency even before Charles Darwin made his contributions to the subject. The Linnaean taxonomy of the living world, in which the similarities of different living forms were used to classify them hierarchically as belonging to different kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera and species was already in place.

The taxonomy posed — in retrospect at least — the question: if each species was created separately, as a literal reading of the Bible would imply, why were there structural similarities across species, genera, classes etc? Why was Linnaeus’ classification sensible?

While the interconnectedness and common origin of species, as a general idea, predates Darwin’s work by many years, what was lacking was a compelling mechanism for affecting the transformation of one species into another. Lamarckism was the one exception — it provided a way in which incremental changes could accumulate to give rise to the bigger differences that separated one species from another.

Lamarckism was based on the idea that physical changes accrued over the lifetime of an organism can be inherited by offspring. While I cannot dwell on this subject, I want to note that Darwin did not reject out of hand Lamarckian mechanisms in evolution, even in his later writings. (The genetic mechanism for evolutionary change wasn’t understood till much later.)

Careful Study, Brilliant Insight

Darwin presented a mechanism for accumulating incremental change based on a series of brilliant extrapolations from his own detailed factual knowledge of the natural world. Darwin’s reliance on knowledge acquired through careful study of nature distinguished him from the majority of his contemporary theorists of evolution, whose motivations were at times more ideological than scientific.

Darwin acquired this knowledge first as a boy and a young man avidly collecting beetles, an interest he shared with a burgeoning population of young naturalists who collected, sorted and displayed with pride the myriad varieties they had collected in the British outdoors. He went on to develop his knowledge of the natural world at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

At the end of his undergraduate years at Cambridge, Darwin had the great fortune of spending five years aboard the Beagle as a naturalist sailing all along the South American coast and further to the Galapagos Islands and Australia. Samples of animal and vegetable species, which he diligently collected and shipped back to England, ensured that on his return he was already a celebrated naturalist.

Later, in developing his theoretical ideas, Darwin undertook serious experimental work at home, breeding pigeons, conducting experiments on plants and, perhaps most importantly, enlisting the help of farmers and domestic animal breeders to learn about a subject that provided him the key metaphor for his work on the origin of species.

Darwin’s insight was based on a brilliant leap. He observed that within domesticated species there exist varieties. Dogs come in many varieties, commonly known as breeds, as do pigeons, cows and other domesticated species. Darwin connected the existence of varieties to the existence of species where in the latter, the differences are significantly greater than in the former. He made the point explicitly in the Origin:

“...varieties are species in the process of formation, or are, as I have called them incipient species.”

He went on to develop a parallel with the creation of varieties through selective breeding to the emergence of new species in nature. Selective breeding allows one to create specific varieties that would normally not exist if domestic animals were allowed to mate freely. If an analogous mechanism existed in nature to enhance particular qualities in the offspring through selective breeding, then that would explain the development of specific varieties at first that could then eventually develop enough to be called separate species. The differences further up the Linnaean hierarchy would simply be the extrapolation of this mechanism to create large enough differences.

The mechanism of selection that Darwin called “Natural Selection” was based on the differential ability of organisms to survive environmentally imposed constraints. These constraints could restrict the pool of a particular species to only those of its members with an enhanced ability to survive them. Breeding within the restricted pool, combined with random variation in the offspring, would then develop the variations that conferred advantages with respect to the environmental constraints.

Two competing yet complementary ideas informed the mechanism of selection — on the one hand, the heritability of traits; on the other, the random variation of traits in the offspring.

These necessary elements of Darwin’s mechanism verge on contradicting each other. The stability of species is based on offspring inheriting traits from their parents. Yet if offspring only inherited their parents’ traits, the transition from one species to another would not be possible. Thus random variations in traits must exist. These random variations would not accumulate in the absence of particular selective environmental pressures.

England in the first half of the 19th century was locked in a three-way struggle for class supremacy. The landed aristocracy with its increasingly precarious position in English society, the rising industrial bourgeoisie gathering economic and political strength, and the working class emerging with its first stirrings of class consciousness, fought for their interests in that particularly charged historical moment.

The Social Context

The overturning of the protectionist corn laws, in place to help the aristocracy against the capitalist market, and the brutal defeat of the workers’ Chartist movement,were significant moments marking the eventual victory of the English bourgeoisie. In front of everyone’s eyes, England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. History was not a cycle of birth and death but of change, and not random change but with a direction.

This is the world in which Charles Lyell, the geologist, and Darwin lived. Britain at that historical moment provided the metaphors of change, struggle and competition that informed that generation. The ideas of Thomas Malthus on natural constraints on humanity due to the incommensurate rates at which populations and the food supply increase, were popular and exerted a decisive influence on Darwin.

Lyell showed that mountains, oceans and all elements of the geological world are not static but changing. Small changes accumulate to transform one geological formation into another. And most importantly, that there is a history with a chronology that can be determined from observations today.

Darwin did the same for the living world. With the help of Lyell’s geology, he was able to propose the existence of a chronology of animal and plant life that could be recovered from fossils and the geological record.

Before Lyell and Darwin, the fixed laws of the physical sciences were their defining feature. When you perform an experiment in classical physics or chemistry, the outcome is independent of the starting time: that is, time is only relevant within the confines of a particular experiment and can be reset at will.

Darwin posed a serious challenge to this way of thinking about scientific knowledge. Two historical moments in natural history are not equivalent and the evolution's outcome cannot be predetermined. After all, natural selection relies on random variation and the particular “solution” to nature’s constraints is impossible to predict.

In addition, unlike physics and chemistry, where changing a few parameters are enough to adapt one situation to another similar one, the details of a given evolutionary natural history are central aspects of it, much like in ordinary history. The details and their causal relationships are the content of the scientific theory itself. Darwinian reasoning thus significantly expanded the scope of scientific inquiry.

The Origin and Today

The Origin of Species is a remarkable book. Unlike most classic works of science, Newton’s Principia for example, The Origin is relatively straightforward to comprehend. Even in relation to modern introductions to evolutionary theory, Darwin’s book stands out in its commitment to being understood. Darwin wrote no parallel book for the experts. The Origin was meant to serve both audiences. If there is a democratic purpose to science, if it is to make the world intelligible to ordinary people, then The Origin shows how one might achieve that purpose.

The democratic spirit evidenced in the stylistic simplicity of The Origin is also a central aspect of the content of Darwin’s theory. Evolutionary theory is not a “theory of progress.” A set of species that evolved later in time, for example, are not “superior” in any meaningful sense to their predecessors. Most evolutionary transformations are spurred by specific environmental challenges that do not change the level of complexity of the species or confer some absolute ahistorical and a-contextual advantage.

Nevertheless, both in popular depictions of evolution and in pseudoscientific racist theories, humans, and more specifically Northern Europeans, are often viewed as the endpoints of a linearly progressing evolutionary trajectory. Nothing could have been further from Darwin’s intent.

Darwin, at times at his peril, spoke out against rational justification of societal inequalities, particularly in the form of slavery, which he found completely abhorrent. Yet “scientific” metrics of ordering humanity into hierarchical schemes are constantly invented to give biological justification to the inequalities of society. These theories of race, gender, and class are based on a twisted sensibility that quite unjustifiably claim evolutionary theory as their basis.

Darin's influence permeates a far wider sphere than natural history itself. Although Darwin was not particularly mathematically inclined, central elements of his theory — variation and heritability — led to the first introduction of statistical thinking in the sciences and its rigorous foundation in mathematics. Statistical thinking is a mainstay not only of science, but of the way we often conceive problems of everyday life.

Nevertheless there are contested territories of the Darwinian legacy that often reflect the ideological commitments of the debate participants. These include the relative importance of natural selection and adaptation to other mechanisms of evolutionary change (random drift in populations, for instance), as well as the importance of non-genetic mechanism of inheritance.

Humans are not simply biological organisms; we live in societies that change our relationship to environmental pressures. Short-sighted people today, thanks to the social production of eyeglasses, are not subject to the unmediated consequences of their would-be handicap. More generally, culturally inherited knowledge impacts our ability to survive.

Darwin continues to excite debate, both among those who embrace his ideas and those who reject them. These debates are after all about what it means to be human and about our future.

Further Reading

I highly recommend reading The Origin of Species. While easy to understand, it may require a bit of persistence to wade through some of the more detailed explanations. But these details are of interest in their own right — a testament to the 20 years of thought that Darwin put into fleshing out his initial insight, and refuting his own doubts as well as those of his closest confidants.

Darwin’s Autobiography, written originally to provide a sketch of his life for his grandchildren, is a slender and very readable volume. In addition to an outline of his life, the book provides portraits of some major contemporary figures in British intellectual life, an account of Darwin’s loss of religious faith, his thoughts on the nature and acquisition of scientific knowledge, among other observations, making it an altogether delightful read.

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (W.W. Norton and Company, 1994) is a tour-de-force biography putting Darwin’s life in the context of the larger unfolding of British history in that transformational political and intellectual period.

On evolutionary theory, I am fond of the treatment of evolution and creationism presented in Niles Eldredge’s book The Triumph of Evolution: and the failure of creationism (W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000), which is not only an excellent introduction to evolutionary theory, but is also a damning substantive debunking of “creation science” in its many guises.

ATC 143, November-December 2009

Darwinism and its discontents – why science can’t slay the dragon of superstition




John McAnulty reflects on Darwin’s anniversary year in a prequel to a longer study

14 November 2009

The anniversary year of the ‘On the Origin of Species’ has seen a renewed interest in Darwin and in the theory of evolution and many celebratory articles have been carried in socialist journals. Few go beyond celebration to look at the often strained relationship between Darwinism and Marxism or try to explain why, 200 years after the birth of Darwin and 150 years after the publication of the book establishing the theory of evolution, the majority of humans would still reject a rational explanation for their place in the world that has survived a century and a half of scientific study to emerge as the foundation of our understanding of biology.

Darwin's theory of the origin of species is one of the fundamental and pivotal theories of modern science. It presents a convincing mechanism for all the wide variety of living things, for their evolution over time, and for the interaction of living things and their environment that makes up modern ecology. Alongside its daughter science, genetics, it stands posed to massively increase our control over our own bodies, over disease and over the natural world in the coming century.

Yet it is in the 21st century that Darwinism has come under the greatest attack from the forces of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism.

The reason for this is quite simple. Darwinism goes well beyond its status as a scientific theory. By explaining the origin of species through a process of natural selection, Darwin removed the need for a god to fulfill the same function. In the film “Creation” the point is dramatically underscored when Darwin explains the theory to a friend who exclaims in delight (and to Darwin’s horror) “wonderful – you’ve killed God!” The award-winning film has not been distributed in America.

Although it is not widely understood to be the case, support for Darwinism contradicts Theism - the idea of a God personally involved in creation and the day-to-day running of the world, and restricts the faithful to Deism - the possibility of a God as a vague 'initial cause' Not only that, the theory of evolution situated humans inside the animal kingdom, subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other living things. Understanding ourselves became a task for reason and rationality, rather than an appeal to religious obscurantism.

For much of the 20th century Darwinism was seen in opposition to Marx, as a defender of order against the opponents of capitalism. Yet initially it was seen as a deadly threat to that order. These contradictory roles arose from the contradictory nature of capitalism itself.

Much of capitalist society rests on the application of rationality and science to production, to research and to the structure of society and the everyday working life of individuals. At the same time capitalist society is dedicated to the irrational aims of defending class rule and subordinating human needs to the profit motive.

These contradictions lead to a contradictory approach to the question of religion. On the one hand, application of rationality in the service of capital sweeps away all the pretences of social solidarity and of any obligation on the capitalist to treat the poor and oppressed as their brethren. On the other hand, religions teach the poor to respect a class structure endorsed by god and to look for happiness and the satisfaction of their needs in the afterlife rather than the here and now. The result is that capitalism tears down religion, and the background ethical issues that they distortedly express, only to support it as an abstract ideology. Religions themselves changed. Protestantism arose partly from the need to break out of the constants of feudal society, especially the ban on charging interest on loans, and partly to free the merchants from being forced to donate to charitable works.

Today US Christian fundamentalism preaches that riches are a result of god's favor, a message entirely opposite to the original biblical Christianity. The role of religious obscurantism is seen clearly in the North of Ireland, where imperialism depends on the darkest forms of religious fundamentalism to form the leadership of the local executive and panders to their religious bigotry and kow-tows to their rejection of science in relation to both evolution and climate change.

Initially the origin of species was seen as too dangerous a threat to religion to be allowed to stand. A sharp battle broke out between different factions of capitalism, with the most reactionary elements fighting to throw back science and impose biblical superstition.

The reactionaries were defeated and the victors immediately set about making Darwinism itself a reactionary ideology. The new social Darwinism drew on the authority of Darwin to argue that unrestrained capitalist exploitation and savage repression of the working class were the result of our biological make-up - that society, like nature, is 'red in tooth and claw'.

The rise of mass working class organizations made it much more difficult to advance these ideas, but they remain the staple diet of right-wing movements today and have been reborn in new currents that preach genetic determinism - the idea that social problems such as crime are the result of faulty genes.

The latest edition from this perspective is the theory of sociobiology - the idea that the prehistoric environment in some way uniquely fixed human character for all time.

Marxists reject these views. We believe that all human activity has a material foundation, but we reject utterly the view of mechanical materialism - that activity at one level of reality determines our behavior at another level.

The bestiality and massacre throughout our history are part of our biological capacity, just as the acts of solidarity and self-sacrifice are. Any explanation that claims that we are forced by our genes to murder and oppress others is nonsense. The oppression must be explained in its own terms, by the political ideology that drives it, the class aims expressed by the ideology and the underlying economic forces.

Marxists support a dialectical view of the world. Nothing is uniquely determined. If economic forces give rise to our political consciousness, it is then possible for our political consciousness to change economic reality.

The Marxist response to 'social Darwinism' is to argue that the laws used to explain one level of reality cannot be extended to another. The laws of Physics apply to living things, but they are of little use in explaining the development and behavior of living systems. In the same way the laws of Biology apply to society, but explaining social behavior in humans requires the sort of social and economic explanation offered by Marxism.

This sort of understanding enabled Marx to be amongst the first to welcome and support Darwinism and Marxism to be in the forefront in opposing social Darwinism. It was a political sophistication beyond the Stalinist gravediggers of the revolution.

They opposed social Darwinism by opposing the biological theory. Stalin's henchman, Lysenko, faked experiments 'proving' that animals evolved due to direct environmental pressure rather than genetic change. The result was that under Stalinism science degenerated into a dogma that persecuted individual scientists and distorted science to support a corrupt bureaucracy. This had disastrous outcomes for workers - dogma applied to agriculture meant inevitable crop failures.

The greater strength and self-confidence of capitalist society allowed for a wider level of individual freedom amongst scientists. That individual freedom did not mean that science was free. At one extreme there was the witch hunts and repression of the McCarthy era in America, designed to make sure that the scientists produced weapons of mass slaughter without expressing any concern about their use. At the other extreme was the social structure of science and academic life, holding scientists to narrow specialisms, advising caution about drawing political conclusions - all the forces that allowed capitalism to avoid the clear conclusions of climate research and environmental degradation.

Marxism claims to go beyond science. Because science is a social construct in the service of capitalism it will always be constrained by ideology that reflects the interests and worldview of capitalism. This is clearly the case in the ideas of social Darwinism and is even the case in discussions within science - 'the selfish gene' is an idea loaded down with social metaphor.

From a Marxist perspective the mechanism of adaptation is an extraordinary powerful one. Its power does not end with biological evolution. Adaptation may be the main mechanism organizing the basic neural elements of thought and identity and is clearly an important element in many aspects of our behavior as we unconsciously fit into different social milieus.

What an adaptive process cannot deal with is human intention. If humans were simply biological units personal consciousness would be superfluous and we would act as directed by selfish genes or on the basis of habit patterns grounded in our history as hunter-gatherers.

Adaptative mechanisms also lack direction. People often speak of evolutionary progress but a more realistic picture is of the 'tree of life'. Life constantly adapts and changes. All living organisms are the outcome of that process. All are equally adapted - the buttercup just as much as the human. Evolution does not ascend to humans or plan to produce humans. Biological evolution simply makes human society one possibility among many. Intentions, purposes, goals - they all come from humans themselves.

Marxists believe they can deal with these weaknesses by advancing the concept of dialectical materialism. Human consciousness and society rest upon a material base. These material conditions determine the way in which we think and out picture of the world but, because the relationship is dialectical, humans are not simply passive objects formed by the forces of production but active agents who can struggle to change the world and society they live in and, in the process of struggle, can burst the bounds of existing society to create a new one.

If consciousness determined being then a clear explanation of the theory of education and a greater level of education would be sufficient to see it established. If being determines consciousness without any restrictions then the slow decay of the capitalist mode of production would also mean a slow decline of scientific understanding and a descent into religious fundamentalism and barbarism.

Marx argued that once being determines consciousness it is possible for consciousness to determine being – that through struggle the working class could save humanity and establish a socialist society where the savagery of class struggle would be suppressed and rationality would rule over superstition. Then at last people could see clearly their relationship with the world of life in the long history of planet earth and the book “Origin of species” would finally come into its own.

The Fourth International in Mortal Danger


The Fourth International (United Secretariat as it is still often called) is the largest of the Trotskyist organisations in the world, and therefore its discussions and debates are often commented upon by organisations outside its fold as well. The following text is by the leadership body of OKDE. There are two organisations in Greece, both named OKDE. OKDE was the section of the Fourth International in Greece till a split resulted in a minority being recognised as the Section. The section is known as OKDE Spartakos (after its aper). The other rganisation is called OKDE, and its paper is Ergatiki Palli. For many years this organisation saw itself as a revolutionary organisation oriented to the Fourth International. As its article below argues, it has moved off in a different trajectory.

The 4th International in mortal danger

 

1. It is some years now that the 4th International is in a deep crisis which is growing worse and deepening day after day. The 15th World Congress (February 2003), with the change of the statutes that took place in it, was decisive and it determined, in great extend, the crisis of the 4th International and its course to disintegration. Today, it is a question whether it exists as an entity (a body), not to mention as a revolutionary organization, as its founders wanted it to be, as well as the tens of thousands of revolutionary militants who fought for its construction, under very difficult circumstances. A work which they considered being – and so it is – identical to the emancipation of the proletariat and the victory of the socialist revolution.

2. In the past, the 4th International went through many serious crises. However, none of them can be compared to the current one, as the majority of the leadership aims – probably consciously – at its disintegration (something that they confess, all the more openly) and its replacement by a New International. The problems that the 4th International is facing today are not only organizational, but deeply ideological and political ones. For some years now, perhaps since the middle ’80s and particularly since 1989-90, there is a steady and gradual abandonment of all the fundamental principles of revolutionary marxism and of the historic and programmatic gains of the 4th International. The changes in the statutes of the 4th International result from this ideological and political treason and they have been transforming the World Party of the Socialist Revolution into a “pluralistic” organization which fights for socialism. This course of mutation, that the 4th International is following, is in complete contradiction to the principles and tasks of revolutionary marxism, the deep crisis of the world capitalist system, the rising course of class struggles and the changes that are taking place inside the labor movement, as well as to the task of overthrowing the capitalist system and preparing the socialist revolution.

A course incompatible with the principles of marxism

3. The construction of the international organization (World Party of the Socialist Revolution) is a product of the socialist programme, which includes the goal of the World Socialist Society. This goal was served by the 1st, the 2nd and the 3rd International, as well as, of course, by the establishment of the 4th International. For, socialism cannot be realized in a single country, without the world revolution, in the same way that a national revolutionary socialist party cannot be fully completed without being an active member of the world party of the socialist revolution. This by large theoretical principle (based, however, on the evolution of world economy and on the historic interests of the world proletariat) was confirmed in practice, initially by the degeneration of the Socialist Revolution of October and finally by the collapse of the so called “existing socialism”.

4. Today, more than ever before in history, the political and economic problems of world capitalism, its crises, its wars, the environmental destruction, have an international character. This has been understood, to a large extent, by the bourgeoisie as well. However, the solution to these problems - within the framework of the anarchic capitalist mode of production, whose goal is to make profit for the benefit of a small class of exploiters - results in poverty, hunger, wars, the strangulation of democratic rights and civil liberties, environmental destruction, even in the danger of having the human race disappeared.

5. On the other hand, with the level of development that the productive forces have reached, the objective circumstances for the organization of society, economy and production at a level extremely higher than the barbaric and ineffective capitalist organization, have grown more than mature. On world scale, there are all the preconditions needed for the socialist organization of society and the planned world production, which is directly connected to the broad needs of the masses and of humanity. However, this cannot happen automatically, not even by national revolutionary parties, or an international organization of federal/social-democratic character, whose members (militants, organizations and parties) have nothing in common and act as they wish. A common world programme, a common strategy and policy, as well as a common material force – which can only be the organization of revolutionary marxists, the World Revolutionary Party – is necessary.

A course incompatible with the deep crisis of the capitalist / imperialist system

6. The world capitalist system was unable to get out of its 35-year-old crisis, despite the stirring events of the two previous decades: the great retreat of the labor, revolutionary and anti-imperialist movement, especially after the collapse of the countries of the so called “existing socialism”; the disintegration of Stalinism; the ideological and political mutation of social-democracy into a bourgeois neo-liberal current, almost throughout the world; the transformation of a big part of trade union bureaucracy into bourgeois; the reunification of world economy - if not of the entire capitalist system; the potential of imposing and implementing, almost completely, strategic choices and general solutions to the system as a whole; the suffocating control over the policies and the market, through neo-liberalism and the imperialist organizations (W.T.O., I.M.F., World Bank, monopoly of credit). And – perhaps the most important of all – the psychological shock and the shock of consciousness that the masses suffered by the collapse of the “existing socialism” and, partly, by the mutation of social-democracy. All these have created to the broad popular masses the impression that the capitalist system is superior, or, even worse, that any pursuit of alternative solutions out of the capitalist system is dead.

7. Despite this extremely favorable environment, which the world capitalist/ imperialist system has functioned in, the result has been the worsening of its crisis as well as of the crisis of the international bourgeois leadership. Today, we can say that this has been the result of mainly two factors:  a) The crisis or the dispute of all the strategic choices (Neo-liberalism, Globalization, New Order and War), regardless of the form they took, from the collapse of the “existing socialism” until September 11th. This failure of general solutions has been piling up, as expected, new sufferings for humanity (impoverishment, unemployment, dramatic shrinkage of social and democratic rights and of civil liberties etc.), and new big dead-ends to the function of the world capitalist / imperialist system (intensification of inter-imperialist competitions, emergence of a series of new, powerful competitors, such as China, India, Russia, but also of other key-countries for the world capitalist system such as Brazil, Mexico etc., expansion of the geo-economic and geo-political chaos). Especially after the failure of  September 11th policy, that is, the failure of the solution of the crisis “ala Hitler” (constant war, preventive wars, militarization of the american society – and not only of it – the dogma “either with us, or against us” etc.), everything is indicating that within the imperialist camp - and, particularly in the  Bush’s and neo-liberals’ USA. - there is a gap of strategy, or – at the best - a lack of strategy for dealing with or handling the crisis of the capitalist/ imperialist system. All these, in a period when the USA economy is being constantly downgraded and piling up debts, formidable competitors have been emerging, globalization tends to turn into a boomerang for its instigators and, finally, the relation of class forces, imposed in late ’80s – early ’90s undergoes breaches and changes. b) The rising course of labor struggles, the labor movement and the movements at international level, especially in some regions and countries (Europe, Latin America, France, Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia etc.); the resistance of peoples (Iraq, Middle East, etc.), which have resulted in a series of bigger or smaller successes and victories (European Constitution, CPE, constitutional article 16 (for public and free education) in Greece, victory of the masses in Lebanon in the war against Israel, stagnation of imperialists in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan etc.); overall defeats of neo-liberalism in a series of countries in Latin America and reemergence of alternative solutions, which are in practice against capitalism (at least in Venezuela); and even revitalization of the socialist perspective.

8. It is, however, true that, as long as the world relation of class forces does not change – in spite of the breaches and changes it has suffered, partly or generally - , neo-liberalism will manage – though with difficulty (in fact, with increasing difficulty)  – to impose its domination and its barbaric policy. All these presented above do not mean that capitalists/imperialists did not have significant successes during the last 20 years, at the expense of the political and social rights and of 150 year-old gains, as well as, of the national and sovereignty rights of the peoples. What we believe – and it is a reality nowadays – is that all those factors which determined the last two decades, either do not exist any more, or have failed, or do not have the same power as before. Therfore, not only are the latitudes to solve the crisis of the system getting dramatically narrower, but, also, we should be expecting an even bigger worsening of the crisis. This situation, combined with the strategic gap presented in the imperialist camp, is creating an unsteady transitional balance and period, during which the dispute of the imperialist domination is in the agenda by a lot of sides and powers (capitalist and anti-imperialist ones, the labor and popular movement etc.) and the dilemma “Socialism or Barbarity” is becoming seasonable again. This means that, on the one hand, bourgeoisie and imperialists will try to crush the world proletariat in order to get their system out of the crisis, which is extremely difficult in the current circumstances, in which the social weight of the exploited and oppressed masses has increased considerably - and, on the other hand, socialist revolution is called upon to put an end in capitalist domination. The majority of the leadership of the 4th International has made tragic mistakes in evaluating the crisis of the world capitalist/imperialist system, as well as the power of the working class, the labor and popular movement and the ideas of revolutionary marxism. It has underestimated the crisis and the potentials of the labour movement etc. and, thereafter, it was easy for it to fall into an omphaloskepsis, which has led it to the classical revisionist – social-democratic views. Instead of preparing the 4th International – and the world proletariat along with it – for the newly created circumstances, the new circumstances for conducting the class struggle, developing the revolutionary process and constructing the word party for the revolution, it has taken up a course of abandoning the principles of revolutionary marxism and demolishing all the programmatic gains of our movement. It has abandoned the Dictatorship of the proletariat/ the Socialist Democracy for the sake of “Democracy”. It has abandoned the marxist revolutionary position of critical support to the movements and backward countries against imperialism and it has taken a “neutral position”, or, even worse, it has come out for the intervention of imperialists or the United Nations Organization (East Timor, Yugoslavia, etc). It has abandoned Democratic Centralism supposedly for the sake of a “democratic” pluralistic function, which, in reality, is the triumph of individualism, factions, cliques and the dictatorship of uncontrolled leaderships, whether bureaucratic or not. It has taken up a criticism of the Revolution of October which is not at all different from the criticism of social-democracy and not only of it.

A course incompatible with the rising of the proletarian struggles and the changes in the labour movement

9. Nowadays, struggles are not only more and qualitatively superior compared to the past, there is also a tendency of reinforcing the dispute of the system, in the way it is functioning today and it is understood by the masses through experience: Neo-liberalism, “Globalization”, imperialistic aggressiveness and war, environmental destruction. There is even a tendency of stabilization of this dispute and a change in the mood of the masses towards a consciousness directed to the movement and the struggle. This evolution is bringing the labor and popular movement, as well as the cause of proletariat, back to the foreground of society, from the backstage where they had been expelled during the previous years. The victories of the labor movement, bigger or smaller, in different countries, regions etc. of the planet, the stagnation of imperialists, or even their defeats – particularly in political level – in different areas and especially in the Middle East, where the greatest aggressiveness is being manifested, all these have been reinforcing, step by step, the confidence of the masses, have been forming a new mood and a new culture, which is not only one of resistance and militancy, but also one of changing the situation in private, social and political level and, more than that, to quest for alternative solutions against neo-liberalism, imperialism and the imperialistic dependence. However, these changes in broad masses’ mood and consciousness, obvious in the recent years, have a lot of weaknesses, which, combined with the weaknesses of the organized trade union and labor movement, have been resulting in a relative instability, contradictory behaviors, big gaps/periods of “indifference” and “apathy”, return to “nagging”, to the electoral illusions and to the “solutions” of the type “each one for itself”. Of course, in all periods there are gaps, “nagging”, electoral illusions etc., as the masses’ consciousness has its ups and downs, the necessary and unavoidable interruptions created by every-day life. However, in the current conjuncture, there has not been yet a stabilization of this consciousness and mood due to the absence of a strong labor movement. The latter is the basic factor for the formidable changes we have been witnessing, not only in the Stalinist and social-democratic parties and trade union bureaucracy, but even in revolutionary movements and centrist organizations, for example, the Communist Refoundation, but also in the Brazilian, the Portuguese and the Italian sections of the 4th International, as well as in parts of many other sections and in parts of the 4th International leadership.

10. The bankruptcy of the social-democratic and Stalinist parties is not related only to the historic failure of their strategic plan for socialism. They have also failed in defending the immediate interests, as well as the democratic rights and the civil liberties of the working people, the poor, lower-class popular layers, the youth and the Third World countries. With some exceptions concerning Stalinist parties, they have even participated energetically in the demolition of labor rights (plural left, centre-left etc.), in the imperialistic expeditions and in the wars. This overall bankruptcy has contributed to the decrease of the influence that these parties have on the masses, to loosening their links with the organized labor movement and, even more, with the unorganized one and particularly with the younger generations of working people and the youth. This has facilitated the development of movements outside these parties and against them, something extremely difficult or exceptional in the past. Moreover, the development of the movements has been increasing the crisis, narrowing incredibly the maneuvering limits of these parties and reinforcing the centrifugal forces in them, on the one hand – and, on the other hand, it has been offering revolutionary Marxists the possibility to exercise their policy in practice, demonstrate their ability and their credibility to conduct small or bigger struggles etc., without painful “co-operations” or co-operations with the reformists.

11. This overall bankruptcy of social-democracy and Stalinism, the quantitative and qualitative development of struggles, the relative stabilization of a militant mood and consciousness of the masses, the development of a tendency to dispute neo-liberalism and certian aspects of capitalism – all these have helped in the appearance of significant changes inside the labor movement. The social and – to a lesser extend- political weight of the far and revolutionary left has been increasing, in an international scale, at a pace which varies from country to country. Especially in some countries where these forces have been playing a significant role in the movement and have had a policy more or less anti-capitalist (in practice and not only in words), the changes have been quite a lot and significant. This is an important element that the revolutionary marxists must take seriously into consideration when forming a new strategy and practice, not only in a national level, but also in an international one.

A course tarnished by the participation of sections of the 4th International in bourgeois and imperialist governments

12. The majority of the 4th International leadership seems to have an orientation towards the anti-capitalistic forces – this is also what more or less the “decisions” of the 15th World Congress say. However, in fact, this is not the case. What is really implemented is an abolishment of the strategic goal of building new sections and the 4th International itself, as well as the replacement of this goal by the construction of “anti-capitalist” parties and a New International. Even worse, the tactic of a special form of the united front with anti-capitalist organizations – which in the current conjuncture is a crucial element for the development of the labor movement and the construction of our organizations – has been replaced by merging with those organizations, or even with radical petty-bourgeois currents, which is the vast majority of the cases.  The abolishment of the principles of revolutionary marxism and of the programmatic, strategic and tactical gains of the 4th International, as well as the implementation of a popular front policy, both in the content and in the form, have led to phenomena unprecedented for our movement, as the blatant cases of the Brazilian, the Italian, or even the Portuguese section (which are not the only ones). The participation of the Brazilian section in the bourgeois Lula government and of the Italian section in the imperialist Pronti government (there is a slight differentiation in the latter’s attitude, lately) - that is, in governments which vote for reactionary measures against working people, the poor, lower-class popular masses, the youth and the world proletariat – as well as the participation of the Portuguese section in the right wing reformist formation of the European Left Party – after leaving from the European Anti-capitalist Left and disintegrating itself in the Left Block – constitute a complete treason and a disgrace to our movement. The critical articles of some comrades – referring exclusively to the case of the Brazilian section - are superficial, do not concern the essence of the strategy, the policy and the practice and do not refute the devastating responsibility of the majority of the 4th International leadership. A consequence of the “new” ideas which dominate in the majority of this leadership is the weakening of many sections, the disintegration of others in petty-bourgeois currents and the abolishment of the independent and open struggle for their construction, the closure of newspapers and journals of the sections and the 4th International and, finally, the disappearance of sections with a great tradition and history (for example in Britain, Latin America, Australia etc.), often to the advantage of other currents which appear as trotskyist.

 

The danger is reaching a climax

 

14. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Internationals were not just a solidarity network of the world proletariat. They had taken up the gigantic work of equipping the world proletariat with a strategy, a programme, a tactic and a revolutionary leadership, which would be able to carry out the shattering of the capitalist/imperialist system and the establishment of Socialism. This is the legacy that the 4th International inherited, not as acceptor of a museum piece, but with the aspiration to carry out this work in the current circumstances. History has theoretically justified this aspiration and this gigantic effort. Trotsky summarized the problem of our epoch as follows: “The current crisis of the human civilization is a crisis of the proletarian leadership”. Having this as a guide, he dedicated the last years of his life to the effort to overcome the crisis of the proletarian leadership, in the only way this could be done, by constructing the 4th International.  At present, the crisis of the civilization is greater than ever in the history of humanity – even its survival is at stake – due to the crisis of the proletarian leadership. The disintegration of Stalinism and the mutation of social-democracy - that is, of the two main tendencies of the labor movement - as well as of many centrist currents, have worsen this crisis, since Trotsky’s era and the post-war period and have made the duty of overcoming it even more urgent. All the more, because the crisis of the proletarian leadership has permeated the former core of the World Party for the Socialist Revolution, the 4th International, as it becomes obvious by the blatant cases of Brazil, Italy and Portugal, as well as by the popular front policy and the disintegration of sections. The phenomenon of the formidable changes taking place in centrist currents, such as the Communist Refoundation, the Sandinistas etc., is, also relevant.

15. The majority of the 4th International leadership has seriously deviated - not only through the statutes - from the principles of revolutionary marxism, the programme and the traditions of the movement. The danger for a complete disintegration is now obvious and it cannot be treated either by the temporary adherence of masses, or by the dynamic of one organization or more, or by the intense activity and mobilization, or by some strict organizational and statutes’ rules. It can only be treated by a return to the principles of revolutionary Marxism, which are nowadays trodden by the majority of the 4th International leadership. Before it is too late, it is necessary for all the sections and the militants that can see the dangers:

a) to coordinate their efforts and stop this course of degeneration and disintegration

b) to start an effort of working out political positions and a plan of construction for the sections of the 4th International

 

c) to start a big campaign to revive the debate around the crisis of the 4th International and the Trotskyist movement

 

d) to start immediately the effort of building up sections in the countries where the movement has had forces traditionally, as well as in the rising key-countries of the capitalist system.

 

9/5/2007

 

The Central Committee of OKDE

(Organization of Communists Internationalists - Greece)

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