Book Review – Truth-Telling about Nicaragua’s Long Revolution for Liberation and Democracy / By W. T. Whitney Jr.

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Daniel Kovalik, Nicaragua, a History of US Intervention & Resistance, (Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2023), ISBN; 978-1-949762-64-8,, 303 pages.

Prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves, speaking in Nicaragua in 2022, points out that the United States “is 350 million people [and is] the strongest military force in the world. Nicaragua is 6.2 million people, a country in Central America seeking to develop itself and its people.”

And so, “Why in God’s name, with a country so large, with so many resources, with such military strength, why would [the U.S.] want to pick on a small country like Nicaragua? I ask myself that question every day.”

Clarity Press, 2023

Peace activist and Vietnam War veteran S. Brian Willson, speaking in South Paris, Maine, on September 13, 1998, had answered the question: “This neoliberal economics, the latest stage of capitalism, does not allow for alternative political or economic ideas or values. We already knew that any country that seriously threatened our model either had to assimilate or be eliminated.”

Willson had acted. On September 1, 1987 in Oakland, California, he put himself in front of a train to prevent a weapons delivery to U.S.- backed “Contra” mercenaries fighting revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The train did not stop and Willson lost two legs.

Daniel Kovalik’s valuable new book “Nicaragua, A History of US Intervention & Resistance” demonstrates the truth of Willson’s insight. Kovalik is a labor lawyer, human rights activist and teacher, and prolific author (his other books are here).

In that summer of 1987, college student Kovalik was part of a reforestation project in Nicaragua. The Contra war was in progress, and he heard machine gun fire “nearly every night.” The suffering was “simply shocking.”  He writes that photos he took of children there “makes me want to cry.” The “Veterans Peace Convey” of humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, which he joined in 1988, was “possibly the most profound experience of my life.” Kovalik’s book is immensely appealing, not least because of personal experience that he relates.

He makes effective use of extended quotations from various reports, other histories, analyses from international agencies, and commentary from participants. Kovalik states that the object with his book was to present “the realities of U.S. intervention [in Nicaragua,] past and present,” highlight Nicaraguans’ abilities to overcome U.S. “assaults,” and promote solidarity with Nicaraguans in their struggle for self-determination.

The book’s first sections review Nicaragua’s history prior to the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) accession to power. It covers Tennessean William Walker’s attempt to set up his own slavocracy in 1855, U.S. Marines’ occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, U.S. formation of Nicaragua’s oppressive National Guard, and U.S. support after 1936 for the brutal Somoza-family dictatorship. 

Kovalik reports on Augusto Cesar Sandino’s guerrilla army that fought the Marines from 1927 until their departure. He writes about the struggle of the FSLN rural insurgency after 1960 to bring down the Somoza regime. Over 50,000 Nicaraguans died in the year preceding its collapse on July 17, 1979.

Most of the book is about the FSLN in power, their electoral defeat in 1990, the U.S.-led Contra counter-revolution in the 1980s, the “Dark Days” of neoliberal rule after 1990, and the Sandinistas in power again after 2007. There are these points:

·        Until recently, the Sandinistas, originally an alliance of three factions, governed with allies including Catholic Church representatives, business leaders, capitalists, Marxists, and rural collectives.

·        Women’s lives have improved in equality, political participation, and leadership opportunities.

·        Sandinista approval ratings have remained high, even in stressful times, for example, 80% in 2018 prior to the protests of that year and up to 90% before the 2021 elections.

·        Dissent within FSLN ranks and FSLN differences with its opposition have reflected divisions between city and countryside and between intellectual callings and manual work.

·        The Catholic Church, now far removed from liberation theology, has consistently harassed the Sandinistas.

·        Kovalik inveighs against U.S. leftists who have abandoned the Sandinistas. They “claim to know better about the nature of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN than the Nicaraguan people,” he points out.

·        Sandinistas in power have accomplished much: nutritional gains, agrarian reform, food sovereignty, housing access, widespread electrification, increased literacy, more jobs, youth programs, universal access to schools and healthcare, infrastructure improvements, and lowered mortality rates.

Until 2020 or so, far fewer Nicaraguans were migrating north than were the peoples of other Central American countries. Their reduced numbers testify to the benefits of change in Nicaragua.

Kovalik finishes his book with a look at the interplay of recent anti-government protests, harsh penalties exacted by the government, and mounting criticism of the FSLN government by sectors of the U.S. and European left.

Anti-government protests with street actions and barricades prevailed in mid-2018. In his afterword that concludes Kovalik’s book, Orlando Zelaya Olivas indicates that 198 civilians and 22 police officers were murdered. Mainstream news reports uniformly blamed the police for killing peaceful demonstrators. The truth was otherwise.

Kovalik, citing sources, shows that the protesters had been paid and prepared, that many had criminal records, that snipers rather than the police did most of the killing, and that lethal violence continued even after the police were withdrawn. These were fake protests programmed toward destabilization and eventually a coup.

Kovalik shows the U.S. hand in creating turmoil. The U.S. government had funded opposition NGOs, youth groups, religious organizations, and dissidents who included former Sandinistas. U.S. agents and funding were behind the anti-government messaging on social media that played a prominent role. 

Nicaragua’s government arrested and jailed many of those who in 2018 had violated laws against terrorist activities and against unauthorized service to a foreign government. In June 2019, the government amnestied hundreds of those caught up in the coup attempt. Dozens of jailed coup plotters were released on promising that they would no longer conspire against the government.

Criticism exploded again in 2021 after those who had promised to give up on plotting were imprisoned again on grounds that they were aiming to destabilize upcoming elections. Kovalik states that, “the first duty of a Revolution is to defend itself, for if it cannot meet this most essential goal, it obviously cannot serve and defend the people as they deserve.”

There was the added element of the imprisonments supposedly constituting interference in the elections of November 7, 2021 that gave Daniel Ortega a fourth consecutive presidential term.

Writing from Nicaragua, Stephen Sefton explains that the jailed opposition leaders were not opposition candidates. The political opposition in 2011 had split into regular political parties and “an extra-parliamentary opposition based in local NGOs.” The latter sector had “mounted the violent, US designed coup attempt” of 2018 and were arrested according to Nicaraguan Law. The opposition’s contending political parties had no part in planning a coup in 2021, according to Sefton

After Daniel Kovalik’s book was published, solidarity with the Sandinistas took a big hit. On February 9, 2023, the government released 222 prisoners, mostly those who had been arrested in 2021. It expelled all but a few to the United States. The government took away their citizenship and that of a 100 or so others, and confiscated their properties. Criticism has resounded, for example, from the Economist magazine, the United Nations, to the left-leaning Colombian government.

Taking away someone’s citizenship surely is an extraordinary step, certainly in the United States, and only slightly less so in the U.K. The grounds would be treason. A rationale for such a judgment emerges out of Kovalik’s book.

One imagines a favored few in Nicaragua who are oblivious to decades of U.S. military attacks, violence, pay-offs, trickery and manipulations. They spurned the government’s long efforts at collaboration and coalition building. One equally imagines the grief attending decades of popular resistance against the U.S.-backed dictatorship and, afterwards, the U.S.-backed opposition.

What’s left is desperation, especially what with population elements who reject the idea of justice and dignity for all Nicaraguans and who once more are shown to be dependent on the U.S. government. Meanwhile, U.S. economic sanctions are non-stop.

The book’s basic point is that rescue and recovery of oppressed, marginalized, and poor Nicaraguans have required a very long process. It’s no wonder that some counterparts today of Tom Paine’s “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” have dropped out.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

Ruling class still trembling as ‘Communist Manifesto’ turns 175 / by Tony Pecinovsky

Artwork and cover of Communist Manifesto by S.A. Geta / Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!”

These words, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, were first published in The Communist Manifesto on Feb. 21, 1848, 175 years ago.

Since its publication, the Manifesto has become one of the most widely read and influential books in human history—second to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of SpeciesIt is considered a World Heritage document by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which adopted the book in its Memory of the World Register, an initiative designed to “preserve humanities heritage against the ‘ravages of time’ and ‘collective amnesia.’”

And as for Karl Marx, he’s considered the “most influential philosopher” in human history. His ideas “redefined geopolitics and shook up the world order,” in the words of Oxford philosophy professor Jonny Thomson.

Around the globe this Feb. 21, as part of #RedBooksDay2023, tens of thousands of people will publicly read The Communist Manifesto—or another Red Book—and engage in discussion and dialogue about capitalism, socialism, and communism.


In many ways, the Manifesto was a product of its times. Just months before its publication, revolutions had swept through Europe. Ordinary people—the working class—in Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere were rising up. They were demanding democracy and liberation. It was a “springtime of the peoples.”

Throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Manifesto inspired countless millions to fight for a classless, egalitarian society free of capitalist exploitation, racism, and war.

By the early-20th century, socialist and communist parties had been formed around the world. One of those groups, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, known as the Bolsheviks, became the first Communist Party to win state power.

Marxist and Communist revolutions continued winning victories in the decades ahead. By mid-century, one-third of the world’s people were governed by Communist Parties. Another one-third was in the throes of revolutions for colonial independence and national liberation, often led by Communists.

Socialism was undeniably on the ascent.

As Marx and Engels predicted, for a brief moment in world history, the ruling classes did in fact tremble.

Marxism USA 

In the United States, the Communist Party USA was born in 1919. In the belly of the capitalist beast, it bravely led struggles for workers’ rights, African American equality, peace, internationalism, and socialism. Often, its members were harassed, beaten, jailed, and deported. Some were murdered.

The party helped to found and lead countless CIO unions, including the Steelworkers and Autoworkers. It led the charge in defense of the Scottsboro Nine. It built Black Popular Front organizations, such as the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

It sacrificed during World War II—on and off the battlefields. An estimated 15,000 CPUSA members served in the Armed Forces during the war against fascism, while thousands more helped to win the fight for wartime production on the Homefront.

After the defeat of fascism, Communists and their allies were once again targeted as the Red Scare and Cold War heated up. Hundreds of Communists were thrown in jail for teaching and advocating Marxism-Leninism. Thousands more were harassed, intimidated, followed by the FBI, and, again, deported.

Yet, like Communists everywhere, they persevered. Throughout the 1950s, Communist-led groups, such as the Civil Rights Congress, the Council on African Affairs, the International Workers Order, the National Negro Labor Council, and the Jefferson School of Social Science, among others, continued to advocate for African American equality, Black liberation, immigrant rights, workers’ rights, peace, and socialism.


After the worst civil liberties abuses of the McCarthy period, by the early-1960s Communists decided to focus their energy on youth and students. They embarked on a wildly successful series of college and university speaking tours. In collaboration with campus groups—and various free speech movements—they challenged the intellectual straitjacket of anti-communism. By 1964, the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs were formed, which helped to lead many of the most important fights for civil rights, peace, and free speech—on and off campuses.

Communists also helped to lead and initiate many of the most important campaigns in the fight for peace during the U.S. war in Vietnam. Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker led a delegation to Hanoi in 1965. Considered the “most dangerous Communist in the United States” by J. Edgar Hoover, Aptheker returned to tens of thousands of students packed into college and university auditoriums to hear his first-hand accounts.

Other Communists, two of the Fort Hood Three, became the first G.I.’s to refuse to deploy to Vietnam and thereby helped spark the genesis of the anti-war movement within the military.

Just a few years later, the worldwide campaign to free Communist Angela Davis emerged, bringing international attention to a racist political frame-up. With the aid of world socialism, Davis was freed and later the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression was born.

The reddest of Red Books 

It is exactly this history and internationalism that organizers have in mind this Feb. 21, international #RedBooksDay2023, a day to commemorate and celebrate The Communist Manifesto and the contributions of Communists to the struggle for democracy.

Started on Feb. 21, 2020, #RedBooksDay was initiated by LeftWord Books and the Indian Society of Left Publishers. During the first #RedBooksDay, 30,000 people from South Korea to Venezuela collectively, publicly read the Manifesto.

The largest number of readers of the Manifesto was in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the publishing house Bharathi Puthakalayam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) read to 10,000 people. The Manifesto was also read in Brazil, Cuba, South Africa, and Lebanon, among other places.

After this initial success, the Indian Society of Left Publishers formed the International Union of Left Publishers (IULP), which International Publishers is a part of. Since its founding, the IULP has produced several joint books. This year’s book will be a collection of the writings of Ruth First, a leader of the South African Communist Party brutally murdered by the apartheid regime.

#RedBooksDay2023 is an initiative of the IULP, but organizers hope it will become part of a broader global calendar of annual cultural events. Check out for more details.

The Michigan Communist Party, in collaboration with Nox Library, held a #RedBooksDay event this past weekend. Let People’s World know what events you have planned.

Organizers are encouraging activists to read any Red Book in public or online.

What Red Book will you read this year?

People’s World has an enormous challenge ahead of it—to raise $200,000 from readers and supporters in 2023, including $125,000 during the Fund Drive, which runs from Feb. 1 to May 1.

Please donate to help People’s World reach our $200,000 goal. We appreciate whatever you can donate: $5, $10, $25, $50, $100, or more.

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of “Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA” and author/editor of “Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA.” His forthcoming book is titled “The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946.” Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.

People’s World, February 21, 2023

Michael Gold: Red Scare Victim / By Taylor Dorrell

via Wikimedia Commons

Originally published in JSTOR DAILY on January 23, 2023

The author of Jews Without Money, a proletarian lit best-seller, was ostracized for his Communism and derided for his prose. Today he is all but forgotten.

If Michael Gold is remembered at all, it is as an authoritarian propagandist.

His actual life, seldom observed, was rather one of passion, activism, and optimism and he was in fact a foremost producer of proletarian literature in America. A humble individual, Gold was also a militant labor advocate, seen both as a Whitmaneqsue humanist and an unapologetic Stalinist. Born Itzok Isaac Granich in 1893 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he grew up impoverished in the neighborhood’s tenements—specifically on Chrystie Street, home to a lively community of foreigners who formed the subject of his 1930 novel, Jews Without Money.

His father, Chaim (Anglicized to Charles) Granich, was a passionate story-teller and a devotee of Yiddish theater, who came to the United States from Romania partly to escape antisemitism. He imparted both his literary values and a distaste for tomatoes to his son—Charles joked that the real reason he immigrated was to avoid being hit by the fruit hatefully flung at Jews back home. Granich started working at the age of 12 after Charles fell ill; his jobs included helping a wagon driver who rained hateful slurs upon the boy before finally firing him.

The day before his 21st birthday in 1914, Granich was radicalized politically at a rally for the unemployed where police brutalized him; he managed, he wrote, to escape to the hospital “by sheer luck.” Soon thereafter he began submitting articles to radical publications, charged by the injustices he’d witnessed and experienced.

He wrote poems and articles for the socialist magazine The Masses and dramas for the Provincetown Players, a collective that included Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell. Before long, Gold was working full-time as a writer and editor. During the tyrannical Palmer Raids of 1919 he changed his name to Michael Gold, after a Jewish abolitionist Civil War veteran, and later became the editor of New Masses, a leftist publication.

Jews Without Money is a semi-autobiographical tale of events that unfold through the eyes of young Mikey. Gold’s sole novel, it is considered his best work of fiction. Written during his New Masses editorship, it’s a modest chronicle of cruel realities, the bleakness of poverty, and the sketches of an instinctive provocateur. An unprecedented exposé of tenement life in the Lower East Side, the novel features the neighborhood youth as scavengers, thieves, and explorers. Children die young, fathers work tirelessly for decades only to end up selling bananas on the street, young women resort to prostitution, and the Lower East Side’s working-class immigrant Jewish community defeatedly “shrugged their shoulders and murmured: ‘This is America.’”

Mikey’s father loses his promising position running a suspender business and takes up house painting. When he becomes ill, Mikey must leave school and go to work. Beauty and the grotesque coexist in Gold’s meditations. There is both a faith in the poor and the helplessness of those who never escape it, the loathsome dialectics of industrialization, urban space, and the Jewish immigrant experience. Through it all, the book ends hopefully with its most contentious and polemic lines

“O workers’ Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely, suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.
O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live.
O great Beginning!”

According to the scholar Allen Guttmann, Jews Without Money is the “first important document of proletarian literature.” The novel was the first book to consider the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side not solely as vile premises, but as a battleground for the future, a fight against cynicism in the face of capitalism’s bloody exploits. Eric Homberger has observed that for “many writers in the Progressive era, all influences in the ghetto made for evil. Gold suggests that there was something akin to a struggle over the soul of his younger self.

The book’s controversial splintered style has been both criticized and praised. Jews Without Money is not a series of roughhewn memoirs,” critic Richard Tuerk has written “but a carefully worked, unified piece of art.” Its mix of autobiography and fiction, he continues, is “reminiscent of some of Mark Twain’s works.” Bettina Hofmann has compared the story’s fragmented structure to Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), arguing that “the sketches in Jews Without Money are not isolated but constitute a whole.”

No less than Sinclair Lewis, the US’s first Nobel laureate for literature, praised Jews Without Money in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, calling it “passionate” and “authentic” in revealing “the new frontier of the Jewish East Side.” He said, Gold’s work, among others, was leading American literature out from “the stuffiness of safe, sane and incredibly dull provincialism.”

Jews Without Money was a best-seller, reprinted 25 times by 1950, translated into 16 languages, and spread underground throughout Nazi Germany to combat antisemitic propaganda. Gold became a respected cultural figure. In 1941, 35 hundred people, including the Communist labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and writer Richard Wright, packed the Manhattan Center to celebrate Gold and his commitment to revolutionary activity over the course of a quarter century. The Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz asked, “What progressive writer in America is there who has not been influenced by [Mike Gold]?” But such celebrity quickly faded with the coming Red Scare.

In addition to Jews Without Money, Gold’s daily column “Change the World!” in the Daily Worker, his work at New Masses, and his activism resulted in the addition of his name to the Blacklist. “Writers are being sent to prison for their opinions,” he wrote in 1951 after being visited by two FBI agents. “Such visits are becoming terribly commonplace in the land of Walt Whitman.” McCarthyism had a chilling effect on all aspects of free expression. Something as seemingly minor as a subscription to a Communist newspaper or attendance at an anti-fascist rally could draw the attention of the FBI. The Daily Worker laid off staff, and Gold lost work. His career slid into disarray, and he was forced to take odd jobs throughout the 1950s. His gigs included work in a print shop, at a summer camp, and as a janitor. He flirted with opening a coin laundry. Moreover, being blacklisted was a family affair. Elizabeth Granich, Gold’s wife, a Sorbonne-trained lawyer, could only get custodial and factory work. The financial strain on the couple and their two boys was tremendous.

The consensus of critics who detest Gold is a reflection of a concerted effort of the McCarthy era. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jews Without Money “lapsed into underground and subcultural circulation,” says Corinna K. Lee. What people who learn about the novel see—what, through layers of historical revisionism, their understanding of Gold is—is narrow and submissive. Mike Gold is an extreme and exemplary victim of American censorship, “erased,” his reputation muddied, He is a figure now described as a “megalomaniac,” a sectarian “literary czar,” and a “not very bright […] political propagandist in dreamland.”

Jews taking home free matzoths, New York City, 1908 via Wikimedia Commons 

Nowadays Jews Without Money is criticized, as Tuerk, points out for “lacking unity and artistry.” Its simplistic style is frowned upon, the fragmented sketches derided, and its optimistic ending abhorred. This understanding influences research and publishing and has, in fact, for decades. Walter Rideout wrote that Gold lacked “the capacity for sustained artistic vision,” and contrasted his novel unfavorably with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep from 1934. In the 1996 introduction to a reissue of Gold’s novel, critic Alfred Kazin attacked the book as “the work of a man without the slightest literary finesse, without second thoughts on anything he believes, without any knowledge of Jewish life from the Lower East Side.” Kazin accused him of class-reductionism and of being a political propagandist, though he conceded that his style was notable.

Tuerk himself likewise criticized Gold’s politics, viewing the revolutionary Messiah at the end of the novel as “definitely not one of love.” Elsewhere Tuerk argued that Gold’s love of Thoreau, like his love for other American thinkers of the 19th century, wouldn’t have been reciprocated, as Thoreau “placed faith in the individual, not the group,” and therefore would have rejected Gold’s politics.

Yet the book’s contentious reputation is no match for the financial promise publishers see in reprints of it, even while it is diminished as a relic. Avon’s reissue of the first edition of Jews Without Money from 1965 notably omitted its powerful ending, those lines that imbue the rest of the volume with meaning and hope. It was published, Lee argues, to “capitalize on the book’s East Side setting, following the spectacular commercial success of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which it had reissued in paperback the year prior.” For decades, even attempts to write a biography of Gold were shot down, until Patrick Chura’s Michael Gold: The People’s Writer was finally released in 2020.

Bettina Hofmann argues that Gold’s political aspirations with his work were unsuccessful. “Since neither Nazism was to be thwarted off nor the envisioned socialism to become reality, Jews Without Money solely appears as a document of bygone days conjuring up past radical visions of maybe nostalgic value,” Hofmann argues.

The downplaying of Gold’s politics is ironic given the FBI’s tyrannical assault on artists and activists just like Mike Gold. In fact, he was followed by agents who staked his whereabouts, took note of his friends, family, and his work, from 1922 until his death in 1967. Indeed, to claim after WWII, that proletarian culture was ineffective at combating fascism or working towards socialism is ahistorical. While critics promote the idea that Communists were ineffective politically, the FBI had their hands full stifling the rise of the Communist Party USA and their influence on progressive politics.

Gold advocated for civil rights, labor power, and a more democratic society—ideals anathema to the United States government during the Cold War. These ideals were downplayed by the literary critics who subscribed to the hysteria of the Red Scare and helped obscure Gold’s place in literary history. The critics appear to prefer literature that ignores the material realities of society and focuses solely on the subjectivity of the individual. That is, the antithesis of Mike Gold.

In his biography, Patrick Chura observed that Gold “practically invented the genre of ’proletarian’ literature and fiercely advocated socially conscious protest art….” He defends Gold’s politics against Tuerk’s characterization of it, suggesting Tuerk’s critique “reflected a Cold-War era tendency to define communism solely as an economic theory rather than as a liberation movement. We might now acknowledge that Gold’s special enthusiasm for Thoreau was not based on economics or even politics, but on humanity.

Gold hardly reduced all of humanity’s woes to issues of class. He argued, Chura says, “that figures such as Shelley, Victor Hugo, Whitman, and Thoreau ‘belong in the natural program of Communism because they help to cultivate the best human beings.’” He believed in the power of telling stories strategically, on a cultural foundation with a rich history.

Of course, all culture is propaganda for something. The question is: what? Edmund Wilson sided with Gold in 1932, arguing that “nine-tenths of our writers would be much better off writing propaganda for Communism than doing what they are at present: that is, writing propaganda for capitalism under the impression that they are liberals or disinterested minds.” Gold mentioned in an author’s note in his novel that Jews Without Money, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a “form of propaganda against the Nazi anti-Semitic lies.” In the 1935 edition of Jews Without Money, the preface described the arrest of a German radical caught while translating the book. The Nazis laughed, howling, “So there are Jews without money!” Jews Without Money was also used to counter antisemitic propaganda in the US. Art Shields recalled in On the Battle Lines how the company running a factory in rural Maryland claimed in a negotiating session that they lacked funds because “the Jews have the money.” The workers got copies of Jews Without Money which were “read to pieces” And then went on to end the seven-day work week.

Having grown up in the immigrant slums of New York City, Mike Gold became a radical literary figure who was then written out of literary history altogether. Though his reputation remains tarnished, a new generation of readers is beginning to find inspiration in his prose and his politics. Despite the efforts to minimize and diminish Gold’s beliefs, there are still those who follow Gold’s lead, hoping, imagining, fighting, as his daily column was titled, to Change the World!

Taylor Dorrell is a freelance writer and photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. He’s a contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, columnist at Matter News, and reporter for the Columbus Free Press.

JSTOR Daily is an online publication that contextualizes current events with scholarship.

Compassion in an age of anxiety and disillusionment / Review by Lital Khaikin

Originally published in Canadian Dimension on February 2, 2023

Gabor Maté’s new book explores questions of survival and thriving in a traumatized and and (re)traumatizing society

Published in September 2022, Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, is a rich examination of the conditions that lead not only to individual illness, but to the cultural normalization of stress, emotional repression, alienation, and disenfranchisement. Through his therapeutic practice of ‘compassionate inquiry,’ Maté shows how psychological trauma is exacerbated by cultural norms and capitalism, and emphasizes a curiosity toward individual circumstance as a way of understanding and healing core psychic wounds.

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture
Gabor Maté with Daniel Maté
Knopf Canada, 2022

Accessibly written in collaboration with his son Daniel Maté, The Myth of Normal questions and dismantles notions of ‘normalcy,’ interrogating the factors behind the apparent rise of trauma-related illnesses and the oft overlooked social and economic circumstances that can make us sick.

The theme of disillusionment anchors The Myth of Normal, and the book signals in many ways an evolution from Maté’s earlier works including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008), a study of the addiction and opioid crisis in Canada. In that acclaimed earlier work, Maté makes a clear link between economic precarity, social disenfranchisement, and the stigmatization of difference with an individual’s predisposition to opiate addiction. As he wrote: “The question is never ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’”

Where Maté’s extensive study of the social roots of the opioid crisis ended, however, his new book picks up, tying in common threads with his 2003 work When the Body Says NoThe Myth of Normal broadly explores the consequences of the “mind-body bifurcation,” or the dissonance between the mind’s narrative and the body’s sensed reality. This division is encouraged by social conditioning that traps people in traumatized patterns and maladaptive coping mechanisms based on emotional repression and denial.

Reiterating his past insights, Maté shows how chronic illness and immune disorders from cancer, multiple sclerosis, and ALS are often symptomatic of emotional repression and accumulated stress. The urgency of Maté’s arguments is clear as Canada’s health care system sees intensifying privatization, while social support systems become increasingly difficult to access.

As Maté writes, it is the “willingness to be disillusioned” that serves as a point of departure for bringing trauma awareness into medicine, legal systems, and educational environments in an intentional and systematic way.

“The personality is an adaptation”

While Maté emphasizes compassionate inquiry as a core element of his therapeutic practice, The Myth of Normal proposes curiosity as the foundation of a caring society. Curiosity, by nature, embraces the unknown. Its absence shapes a society where individuals are not in dynamic conversation with their environments and with unknown ‘others,’ and relate to one another through an ‘identity-by-template’ formula.

Without curiosity, we may become emotionally repressed, resentful, and disempowered. This is exacerbated when selected fragments of our lives are uploaded to social media platforms that are optimized based on unattainable ideals, and which are designed to capitalize on our most vulnerable insecurities.

Maté explores how dependence on external self‐presentation is an extension of neuromarketing, the normalized corporate strategy of targeting the pleasure response, which is often foundational to the algorithms that shape the content and behaviours of internet communities.

Indeed, social media is the ultimate marketplace for the self as product. It is geared towards optimizing the performance of self, of one’s visible social networks, and of a person’s aesthetic, gestures, expressions, and tonality. The result is a closed system where the self that best matches an algorithm displaces multiplicity and authentic diversity, convincing people into desiring to be anything but themselves. This creates a tension between the perception of self and an uncanny absence of self. As Maté writes, citing Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton, this results in “living always in somebody else’s imagination” within a society “whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension.”

Contrary to notions of a fixed self, The Myth of Normal emphasizes permeability and changeability. “It is closer to the truth to think of the personality as a recurring phenomenon than a fixed or permanent one,” he writes, “much like the way individual movie frames projected at rapid speed create the optical illusion of a single, continuous narrative.”

This principle, however, doesn’t fit capitalist incentives for profit that trap us within states of insecurity and precarity, and which engender a perception of inner lack. Feelings of self-completeness, the absence of desperate co-dependence, and the fluidity of self-expression are much harder to influence and control—and are not profitable for industries that depend on keeping people stuck in their traumas, scrutinizing and fixating on their shortcomings.

But it also poses a challenge when a person’s sense of self is shaped by the narrative and scars of trauma, and disruptive traumatic response is internalized as an immutable part of one’s identity. Maté has addressed this in his previous writings, showing how addiction (a form of traumatic response and coping) can become an anchor for identity, with the addict seeing no other possibility for existence: “No matter how much he may acknowledge the costs of his addiction, he fears a loss of self if it were absent from his life. In his own mind, he would cease to exist as he knows himself.”

In an honest reflection on his own evolution in therapeutic practice in a chapter entitled “An Inaccurate Map of Our Pain,” Maté acknowledges the potential benefits of pharmacological approaches to treating symptoms of trauma, but bases the heart of his new book on healing the root of suffering rather than medicating. “In my medical practice I became something of a Prozac booster, succumbing to the error of looking for pathology where there was only everyday unhappiness,” he writes. “I am primarily interested in what will promote the healing of the psychic wounds the ongoing traumatic patterns represent.”

As in Maté’s previous books, The Myth of Normal includes many examples and stories of patients and individuals Maté has encountered to support his emphasis on psychic wounds within therapeutic practice in order to treat the root causes of suffering. Recounting the story of a young doctor in the section “A Physician Heals Herself,” Maté draws a portrait of a woman who systematically repressed her emotions and tolerated harassment at work. It took being admitted to a hospital for coronary distress and pre-cancerous cervical abnormality, and later becoming suicidal, to confront the abuse the interpersonal stress was inflicting on her emotional self.

Maté shows how these superficial symptoms can be addressed through a change of environment, with what appears to be a facet of personality or an unsolvable crisis transforming in conditions that are conducive to temperament and thriving.

Similarly, in the popular book Attached, authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller write how elements of seeming pathology, which they reframe as chronic activation of attachment systems, can be understood and transformed by changing one’s environment. Through numerous examples of relationships with conflicting needs, the authors demonstrate how the absence of what Maté might call ‘compassionate inquiry’ within a relationship creates a defensive environment that shows fundamental lack of care for wellbeing.

Levine and Heller describe a relational framework that, rather logically, sees behaviours as interdependent and the conditions for wellbeing as being a product of reciprocation in their environments. While seemingly obvious, such thinking is not as normalized as punitive judgements of individuals. Crucially, the authors of Attached don’t assign moral judgement or prescribe doom to any attachment pattern or combination thereof. Rather, they emphasize the plasticity of behaviour through awareness, allowing people to retain dignity within confusion, and illustrating how different approaches can either contribute to perpetuating or resolving traumatic patterns.

Dr. Gabor Maté. Photo from Flickr.
An inherited legacy

The Myth of Normal offers many segues into domestic and global political issues, and many of them relate to repression and punishment of difference, and the internalization of shame as a mode of social control. In particular, Maté explores the profound consequences of emotional repression in intimate and social relationships due to a fear of risking non-compliance, and of disappointing or being cut off from a caregiver or authority. But as trauma theory and its vocabulary gain mainstream acceptance, the knowledge of traumatic response and its manifestations can also be used to discredit and exert coercive control over individuals, and to invalidate their criticisms—be it in the bedroom, the workplace, or in the geopolitical theatre.

In his chapter “A Template for Distress,” Maté describes the phenomenon of self-abandonment in the face of threats as ‘hypnotic passivity,’ which is programmed through punitive measures for non-conformity, protest, and spontaneity in ways of being. “As citizens in ostensibly democratic countries, we have free will, up to a point—but in practice that freedom rarely strays beyond the frontier of what is socially acceptable,” he writes. “Not daring to rock the boat, we risk sinking with it.”

In Sara Ahmed’s acclaimed book Complaint! (2021), the feminist theorist’s analysis of how institutional power in academia protects itself by discouraging, suppressing, disappearing, or even co-opting complaint shows the extent of normalization around guilt and shame for being a “trouble-maker” or “feminist killjoy.” Illustrating this phenomenon in an interview with The Paris Review, Ahmed described how institutional power pathologizes complaint and capitalizes on the internalization of shame to target individuals rather than confronting embedded, systemic problems: “A lot of people talked to me about how when they tried to make complaints, it was often the diversity agenda that would be used against them—as if they weren’t doing this the right way, as if they weren’t being appealing enough, as if by even using certain words they were trying to make life difficult for other people, including other minoritized staff.”

The relational nature of trauma explored in The Myth of Normal also recalls the cautionary angles on trauma’s place in social institutions raised in the book The Empire of Trauma (2009) by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman. Using France’s immigration system as an example, Fassin and Rechtman offer a nuanced critique of treating trauma as an unassailable moral category within systems that are already antagonistic toward vulnerable and marginalized people like refugees, veterans, and survivors of abuse and torture.

Reflecting on how the category of trauma has moved from clinical psychiatry into “everyday parlance,” the authors are wary of how, outside of a clinical context, the category of trauma gives a sense of social validation and status which are not otherwise afforded by society. “[T]he truth of trauma lies not in the psyche, the mind, or the brain,” they write, “but in the moral economy of contemporary societies.”

Fassin and Rechtman criticize the ideological underpinnings of social infrastructures based on a lack of compassion, and the trap of a cynical era that demands performance of victimhood in order for suffering to be heard and validated, and thus as “an important indication of the way in which the tragic is understood in contemporary societies.”

Speaking with Canadian Dimension, co-writer Daniel Maté explained that The Myth of Normal makes a point of trying to reach those “who might not already be convinced” by trauma theory. His response echoes the challenge of creating a ‘new normal’ and unmaking myths presented in the book’s last chapter.

“There are medical practitioners who haven’t fully ‘lost their religion’ or become disillusioned entirely with Western medicine, yet there is a sliver of openness there,” he described in an email. “And then there are the real tough nuts: people deeply ensconced in academia or scientific institutions who might have a knee-jerk distaste for this project.

“Often there are culture-war aspects to this: some people distrust the ‘woke’ use of victimized identity as a cudgel to force compliance in others, particularly on the level of oppressed groups, and see coddling as a danger.”

The Myth of Normal is a comprehensive volume that ties in common threads from across Gabor Maté’s previous works, and connects a progressive therapeutic approach toward trauma with the social crises borne under capitalism. The humanitarian tone of the book and the inherent liberatory potential of trauma-informed social praxis are at the heart of building a world whose visible and invisible structures can be guided by compassion instead of fear.

At its heart, the arguments presented in the book encourage the possibility that each of us can play a redemptive role in one another’s life; nudging off the well-trod pathways of self-sabotage, transforming one another’s betrayed sense of safety and vulnerability, and allowing the possibility for just one thing, this time, to be different on the way to an authentic life. As Maté invokes by quoting Victor Hugo: “At intervals can be seen a glimpse of truth, the daylight of the human soul.”

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal.

Sadness and Solidarity: a poem / by Bruce Gagnon

Originally posted in Organizing Notes on January 30, 2023

I am gripped by sadness,
of sea smoke
clinging to me,
waiting for the sun
to return,
life again.

It’s a sadness
I’ve long known.

First becoming
at a young age
when I read about
Washington’s army
slaughtering the Lakota
at Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee (1890)

Today the sadness
descends on me
as I see Washington’s
illuminate the sky
via HIMARS rockets,
battle tanks being queued up
to be delivered to the front,
like the Hotchkiss guns
sent to South Dakota
in 1890.

The U.S. targets have changed over time.
Ukrainian ‘allies’ just hit
a civilian hospital
in Novoaydar,
(using Pentagon supplied targeting coordinates)
HIMARS was long-range weapon of choice
killing 14 people and injuring 24.
Nonstop Nazi attacks in the Donbass
since 2014.
All on behalf of the ‘defensive’ NATO alliance.

No anguished cries
are heard from western media,
nor from those who denounce Putin
for defending
the long-suffering victims
of US client state
Nazi terror along Russia’s border.

What comes next
to the war zone?
F-16’s and nukes?

Out of my deep sadness
seeps energy for
which I learned to sing about
in my farm worker union days.

In current times
I am moved to rail against
Raytheon, Lockheed Martin,
General Dynamics, Boeing
and the rest of the warmongers
(and their puppets in Congress)
making massive profits
by killing the so-called enemies
of the uni-polar pirates.

I’ve lost friends over this solidarity,
as one said to me,
‘some people who you thought
were your friends
never actually were’.

Hard to swallow that one.

On I trudge
through the deep layers
of sorrow.
My heart beating
so I know I am still alive.

As long as I breathe
I’ll embrace the sadness
and keep showing
it’s all I’ve ever known.

“The collapsing US military & economic empire is making Washington & NATO even more dangerous. [The] US could not beat the Taliban but thinks it can take on China-Russia-Iran…a sign of psychopathology for sure.” ~ BKG

Bruce K. Gagnon, Coordinator
Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space
PO Box 652, Brunswick, ME 04011
(207) 844-8187 / / (blog) / Twitter: BruceKGagnon

Karl Marx’s Literary Style Was an Essential Part of His Genius / by Daniel Hartley

Lithograph of Karl Marx, 1866. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on January 31, 2023

Review of Marx’s Literary Style by Ludovico Silva, translated by Paco Brito Núñez (Verso, 2023)

Karl Marx wasn’t merely a great thinker who was also a glorious prose stylist. His brilliance as a writer was inseparable from his greatness as a thinker.

Karl Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals of the nineteenth century. He was also one of its greatest writers. Like Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and the Brontë sisters, Marx looms large among the peaks of nineteenth-century prose.

Ludovico Silva’s newly translated Marx’s Literary Style, originally published as El estilo literario de Marx in 1971, shows indisputably that the two aspects are related. Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals because he was one of the greatest writers.

A Venezuelan Polymath

Translated with gusto by Paco Brito Núñez, to whose initiative anglophone readers owe a debt of gratitude, Marx’s Literary Style is one of those short little books (just 104 pages) that packs a punch far in excess of its diminutive size. It should rank alongside Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude as a classic of the genre.

Educated at a private Jesuit college in Caracas, then in Madrid, Paris, and Freiburg, Ludovico Silva (1937–88) was a Venezuelan polymath: poet, essayist, editor, and philosophy teacher. He played an active role in the Latin American cultural front, founding and editing a series of avant-garde journals.

Silva kept his distance from official organizations of the revolutionary left, although as Alberto Toscano informs us in his excellent introduction, he was sympathetic to the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria. In the 1970s, he referred positively to Yugoslav experiments with self-management and to the experience of poder popular in Matanzas, Cuba.

Marxism and Style

Literary style has proved a curiously productive concept for Marxist critics. For Fredric Jameson, style is synonymous with modernism: the invention ex nihilo of so many private languages that are the literary DNA of their creators — from Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein to Martin Heidegger and Ernest Hemingway.

Such is style’s imbrication with modernism that for Jameson it becomes a periodizing category. He equates the era of market capitalism with the narrative drive of realism and claims that when monopoly capitalism became dominant, it restrained the power of narrative, unleashing the affective minutiae captured in the elaborate private idioms of modernist style. The latter in turn eventually gave way under late capitalism to the stylelessness of postmodernism, in which only the blank affect of pastiche is said to survive.

For Terry Eagleton, meanwhile, style is at once political and theological. He sees polemic as a stylistic prerequisite for any revolutionary, transposing the incipient insurgency of the proletariat into the domain of discourse. At the same time, style is a form of linguistic sensuousness: it must figure forth the world but never forget its own materiality, treading a fine line between self-negating objectivity and self-regarding formalism.

Fine style, for Eagleton, is always a compromise between bodily immediacy and conceptual abstraction. In his early work (to which he has latterly returned), he saw this as a Catholic, sacramental prefiguration of the overcoming of alienation.

Finally, for Raymond Williams, who was far more skeptical of the category than Eagleton or Jameson, style was a linguistic mode of social relation. He saw the stylistic struggles of writers like Thomas Hardy, who sought to combine the down-to-earth expressions of ordinary working-class men and women with the most advanced modes of bourgeois articulation, as a literary internalization of the class-divided nature of language in capitalist society in general. Williams saw the battle for good prose as coextensive with the struggle for just social relations, from which style could not be judged in isolation.

Marx himself was acutely aware of the importance of style. In one of his earliest journalistic articles, published in 1842, he railed against a Prussian censorship decree promulgated by Friedrich Wilhelm IV that supposedly would “not prevent serious and modest investigation of the truth.” In saying so, however, the decree limited the very style in which journalists were legally allowed to write.

Marx was contemptuous:

The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds! What man of honour will not blush at this presumption. . . ?

Marx equates a writer’s style with her unique physiognomy or inner spiritual being. The state censorship law effectively demanded that writers screw their literary faces into a state-decreed rictus, imposing upon them an alien identity that stifled their own unique modes of expression.

Marx’s response informed his more general early critique of the modern state. He saw the latter as premised upon a split between civil and political society: between “man in his sensuous, immediate existence” (bourgeois) and “man as an allegorical, moral person” (citizen). This split, he argued, was the political form of capitalist alienation.

From Love Poems to Systems

Ludovico Silva is an important contributor to this rich vein of materialist stylistics. It is impossible to read Marx’s Literary Style and not emerge with a very different understanding of the literary to that with which one began.

Style has been seen historically as “the dress of thought” — an aesthetic supplement or superficial “finish” added to the primary meaning communicated. As Silva is at pains to show, however, this common-sense view of style is inadequate to a true grasp of Marx’s work. Marx’s style is a constitutive aspect of his overall project of critique. It is also the means by which he makes the abstractly conceptual sensuously perceptible, and in this sense it has a pedagogical function.

In chapter 1, Silva locates the origins of Marx’s mature literary style in four areas: his early (failed) poetic compositions; his intense aesthetic and linguistic study of the classics (Latin and Greek); his youthful passion for metaphorical idealization; and his early ruthless critique of his own formative attempts at literary writing. Marx came very quickly to see the inadequacy of the abstract Romantic sentimentalism that characterized the early love poems he had written for Jenny von Westphalen, whom he later married. As he put it in a remarkable letter to his father in 1837: “Everything real became hazy and what is hazy has no definite outline.”

The letter testifies to Marx’s breathless conversion from poetry to Hegelian philosophy, but the trajectory beyond Hegel is already prefigured: Marx had come to realize the need for a style that adheres closely to the real and the actual, one that is concentrated and compressed, and enlivened by objective density. This is the style that would characterize Marx’s subsequent published work and is encapsulated in Silva’s paradoxical phrase “concrete spirit.”

Chapter 2 is the longest in the book and sets out the fundamental features of Marx’s style. Silva argues that Marx’s work must be understood as a single “architectonic,” a term he borrows from Immanuel Kant who defines it as “the art of systems” [die Kunst der Systeme]. Architectonics are common to both science and art: science is premised upon systematic knowledge, and for expression to become art it must, on Silva’s reading, be governed by the art of systems.

Silva insists throughout the book on a sharp division in Marx’s oeuvre between those works he prepared carefully for publication, and those endless unfinished manuscripts or notebooks that he never published. While these writings all form part of the architectonic of science (a single project of the critique of political economy), only those works that Marx reworked for publication — most famously, volume 1 of Capital — exemplify the art of system by overlaying the skeletal structure of science with the vital flesh of metaphorical expression.

Silva’s casual invocation of Kantian architectonics raises a thorny issue: to what extent can we say that Marx’s historical materialism inherits preexisting notions of science and systematicity from German idealism? Silva passes over the matter in silence.

Dialectic of Expression and Metaphor

The second feature of Marx’s style is what Silva calls “the expression of the dialectic” or “the dialectic of expression.” He is referring here to Marx’s constant use of chiasmus or syntactical reversals in which terms from the first half of a sentence are inverted in the second: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (The German Ideology), or “The mortgage the peasant has on heavenly possessions guarantees the mortgage the bourgeois has on peasant possessions” (The Class Struggles in France, 1850).

It is a figure that embodies the dialectical movement of reality itself: “The literary secret behind how ‘rounded’ and striking so many of Marx’s sentences are,” writes Silva, “is also the secret behind his dialectical conception of history as class struggle or a struggle of opposites.” Marx’s style is a mimetic reproduction or performance of the real movements of history: “Marx’s language is the theatre of his dialectic.”

The third and most important feature of Marx’s style is his use of metaphor. The book focuses on three of the most influential: the (in)famous base-superstructure metaphor, the notion of “reflection,” and religion as a figure of alienation. Like Aristotle before him, Silva emphasizes the cognitive import of such metaphors, yet also — crucially — insists upon the necessary distinction that must be made between metaphors and theoretical scientific knowledge.

In a series of bravura analyses, he reveals the total inadequacy of the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors as a basis for scientific theory yet still upholds their pedagogical potential. One senses here Silva’s contempt for the dogmatic travesties of Marx’s work in official Communist Party manuals of the time. His argument comes uncannily close to that of Williams’s work Marxism and Literature, published just six years later, which also challenged the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors.

Williams and Silva concur that, if followed to their strictly logical conclusion, these metaphors invite division between an economic base and a celestial realm of ideas precisely where Marx had sought to expose their total interrelation. It is thus unsurprising that Silva chose as one of his epigraphs the phrase “language is practical consciousness” (from The German Ideology), which also formed the basis of Williams’s mature theory of language, literature, and form.

Ironies of History

The rest of the book reveals the subtle connection between polemic, mockery, irony, and alienation that recurs throughout all of Marx’s writing. Wilhelm Liebknecht once wrote of Marx’s style that it reminded him of the etymological roots of the word itself: “The style is here what it — the stylus — originally was in the hands of the Romans — a sharp-pointed steel pencil for writing and for stabbing.”

Marx knew how to write dirty; he was master of the blade at close quarters. Yet Silva also insists, rightly, that Marx’s fiery indignation went hand in hand with irony: “How many have tried to imitate Marx’s style, only to copy the indignation while forgetting the irony!” Just as the “dialectic of expression” was a stylization of the dialectical movement of reality, so irony is the stylistic mode of Marx’s general conception of history. According to Silva:

If Marx is a materialist, it is because he always sought to discover, by going beyond or beneath the ideological appearance of historical events (state, law, religion morality, metaphysics), their underlying material structures. This is why his stylistic ironies always play a key role: that of denunciation, of the illumination of reality.

Yet again, an attribute of Marx’s style is read as a literary formalization of a historical process.

The book ends by pushing this line of argument to its logical conclusion: alienation is one great metaphor. Just as metaphor requires the transfer of one meaning to another, so in capitalist society “we find a strange and all-encompassing transfer from the real meaning of human life towards a distorted meaning.” Rather than being a simple rhetorical figure that can be extracted from the reality it “merely” represents, Silva insists that capitalist alienation itself has a metaphorical structure.

Perhaps the same could be said of individuals, who are dealt with in Capital vol. 1, in Marx’s famous words, “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests.” When Marx referred to individual capitalists as “capital personified,” he was not suggesting that capitalists act as if they were (allegorical) personifications, but that they are living personifications of capital, thereby collapsing any too neat distinction between literary figure and historical content.

When style becomes a matter of the fundamental movement of history itself, it can no longer be brushed aside as mere literary affectation. Silva makes the point gracefully, with no little force, and admirable concision.

Daniel Hartley is an assistant professor in world literatures at Durham University (UK). He is the author of The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (Brill, 2017).

Why and How Class Still Matters / by Nick French

A custodian working on a stairway at the Zakrzewska Building in Boston, Massachusetts, October 5, 2022. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on January 21, 2023

Review of The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn by Vivek Chibber (Harvard University Press, 2022)

It’s fashionable to declare that Marxism doesn’t have much to say about complex, modern societies. But class and the material interests it generates are still the central features of capitalism.

Though Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and other developments have brought the themes of class and economic inequality back into public consciousness in recent years, this resurgence has been accompanied by denunciations of Marxism as an outdated framework for social and political analysis. Pundits and politicians warn us of the dangers of focusing too much on class or treating it as in any way “more important” than other social identities or forms of hierarchy.

These popular refrains echo claims that have become dominant in academic social theory for decades. Where Karl Marx and his followers saw economic forces as central to understanding social stability and conflict, proponents of “the cultural turn” in social theory give pride of place to noneconomic factors. If class is a matter of a person’s location in an economic structure — whether, say, they own means of production or must sell their labor for a living — then class has little predictive power in explaining why people do what they do, culturalists argue. We should look instead to contingent cultural factors: social norms, values, and religious practices.

It’s easy to see the attraction of these arguments. Despite renewed concern with economic inequality represented by Sanders and related phenomena elsewhere (Corbynism in Britain, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise), class-based critiques have failed to capture the support of the working classes on a large scale. The old parties of the Left are in decline, with ever more workers gravitating to the Right. Global politics continues to undergo class dealignment: compared to the early and mid-twentieth century, class is becoming a less and less salient category of political identity and conflict. Partisan divisions are hardening, but no side credibly claims to represent the interests — or can win the loyalty — of workers.

If class is so important, why do so few people think so? Why, as the chasm of economic inequality widens, aren’t workers rallying around the red flag and trying to overthrow the system?

In his recent book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, sociologist Vivek Chibber argues that dismissing the importance of class analysis is a grave error. A proper Marxist understanding of class, he argues, can rise to the challenge of culturalist arguments in social theory. But more than that, Marxism can give us a framework to understand why workers under capitalism will be more likely to acquiesce to the capitalist system than to revolt against it — and can shed light on how to make revolutionary change a reality.

Economic Structure and Culture

At the core of Chibber’s argument is an elegant explanation of the relation between the class structure of capitalism and culture. Culturalists argue that all intentional human behavior is mediated by the “interpretive work of human actors,” as social theorist William Sewell puts it. For a social structure — like, say, the capital–wage labor relation — to become effective in motivating behavior, the agents participating in that structure must learn and internalize the appropriate cultural scripts.

This argument, Chibber writes, suggests that “the very existence of the structure seems to depend on the vagaries of cultural mediation.” If I am a worker, I must learn and internalize the fact that I have to find and keep a job in order to sustain myself, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits required to do so (norms of speech and dress, certain skills, a “work ethic,” and so on). If I’m a capitalist, I need to learn and internalize the fact that success means maximizing profits, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits that allow me to do that (a single-minded focus on expanding market share and cutting costs, for instance, which requires a ruthlessness in dealing with my employees.)

So, it may seem that human motivation is explained by culture “all the way down.” But this isn’t so. Though culturalists are right that people must adapt to certain cultural scripts to participate in social structures, Chibber admits, it doesn’t follow that these cultural scripts have causal primacy in explaining the structure. Instead, the economic structure itself explains why people need to learn and internalize the relevant scripts in the first place.

Consider what happens if a worker fails to internalize the cultural script appropriate to their role. That means they will fail to secure a job; or, if they do manage that, they won’t be able to keep it for very long. The outcome will be destitution, hunger, and worse. Likewise, a capitalist who fails to internalize the script relevant to their role will soon find their firms going under — and if they don’t get their act together, they’ll eventually find themselves in the desperate situation of a propertyless proletarian.

For capitalists and workers alike, the economic structure generates powerful material interests that compel them to internalize the cultural scripts corresponding to their class positions. The fundamentals of their individual well-being are on the line if they fail to do so.

None of this is to deny the importance of culture. But it is to say that, if we want to understand why people in capitalist societies act as they do, economic structure must be given a primary explanatory role. This claim is borne out, Chibber argues, by the global spread of capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Far from particular cultural understandings being either prerequisites or insurmountable obstacles to the development of capitalist class structures, the imposition of capitalism has transformed cultures around the world — including those once thought to be inimical to capitalist relations — to suit its purposes.

The False Explanation of False Consciousness

Marxists argue that capitalism essentially involves the exploitation and domination of the working class by the capitalist class. Because they don’t have access to “means of production,” workers must sell their labor power to those who do: the capitalists. Once a worker secures a job, they are subject to the tyranny of the boss, who will attempt to get as much work out of them for as little pay as possible. Though workers are the ones who produce the goods and services that the capitalist sells, the capitalist gets to keep the lion’s share of the social surplus produced by their employees in the form of profits, while workers receive a pittance in the form of wages.

This antagonism of interests involved in the capitalist–wage labor relationship, and the harms it imposes on workers, leads to conflict. Marx, observing the nascent labor organizations and political movements of his day, thought that this conflict would take on an increasingly collective and revolutionary form: workers would band together to resist their exploitation and eventually “expropriate the expropriators,” abolishing private property and doing away with capitalism entirely.

This didn’t happen. There were, of course, socialist revolutions in countries where capitalism was just starting to develop, beginning with Russia in 1917, but these societies soon degenerated into authoritarian regimes and by the end of the century were evolving in a capitalist direction. In the West, socialist parties gradually accommodated themselves to the capitalist system and eventually moved away from even promoting significant reforms to the system and representing their traditional working-class bases. Even labor unions have now been on the decline globally for decades.

Why didn’t Marxism’s revolutionary prophecies come true? According to thinkers of the New Left, the answer lies in culture. Workers do have an interest in organizing collectively to defend their well-being and, ultimately, in overthrowing the capitalist system. But they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by bourgeois ideology to accept the system as morally legitimate, and anesthetized by the shallow consolations of “the culture industry,” the promise of consumer goodies, and the like. If only workers could pierce the veil of illusion and recognize their true interests, the thought goes, they would revolt.

Chibber deploys his materialist understanding of class to dismantle this argument. The problem with this explanation is that, as a result of their class position, workers daily experience pervasive harms and loss of autonomy at work, anxiety over finding or keeping a job, and the struggle to maintain a comfortable standard of living. To say that the working class in general has fallen prey to ideological indoctrination is to say that ideology has overwhelmed these prominent features of workers’ lived experience — that the influence of “bourgeois culture” is so strong as to induce systematic “cognitive breakdown” — in other words, false consciousness. Worse still, this explanation bizarrely positions the theorist as having more insight into the workers’ experience than the workers themselves.

And, in fact, workers do often resist their exploitation. They shirk when they’re on the job; they call in sick when they’re not; they occasionally engage in acts of petty theft and sabotage against their employer. These widespread forms of individualized resistance show that working people aren’t simply dupes of pro-capitalist myths.

Why Workers (Only Sometimes) Revolt

So, why don’t workers revolt? The answer lies in the costs and risks associated with collective action. Workers depend on their jobs to sustain themselves and their families. It is not the case that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”: in organizing or taking action with their coworkers, they could very well lose their livelihood. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all,” the economist Joan Robinson quipped.

Besides the vulnerability to unemployment, there are plenty of other obstacles to a strategy of collective resistance. Workers have diverse interests that sometimes push against collective action. For instance, while the vast majority of workers would benefit from building powerful labor unions and political organizations in the long run, in the short term, lucky or very skilled workers may be able to secure a better deal for themselves through individual bargaining with employers.

Then, there is the problem of free riding: while everyone benefits from the fruit of collective effort, no individual worker will be worse off if they don’t contribute. That creates a strong incentive for workers to shirk their responsibilities to collective organizing efforts — but, if enough individuals shirk, the efforts will of course fail.

Chibber’s conclusion is that Marx was wrong to think that capitalism would naturally produce its own “gravediggers.” Instead, the material interests generated by the class structure usually militate against collective action and instead push workers to advance their interests by working hard and “keeping their heads down,” while engaging in occasional acts of individualized resistance. New Left theorists who say workers don’t revolt because they’re under the sway of bourgeois ideology make the same mistaken assumption as Marx — they think the reasons for workers’ acquiescence must come from outside the economic structure. In fact, in most times and places, the class structure provides strong-enough reasons of its own to eschew collective resistance, let alone revolutionary activity.

But workers can and do sometimes organize together to fight their exploiters. Under what conditions does collective action become feasible? A crucial ingredient, Chibber argues, is the creation of a culture of solidarity:

[Workers] have to make their valuation of possible outcomes at least partly on how it will affect their peers; this stems from a sense of obligation and what they owe to the collective good. . . . In directing every worker to see the welfare of her peers as of direct concern to herself, a solidaristic ethos counteracts the individuating effects normally generated by capitalism. In so doing, it enables the creation of the collective identity that, in turn, is the cultural accompaniment to class struggle.

When workers come to see their own well-being as bound up with that of others, the normal obstacles to collective action become smaller. They become more willing to take individual risks, and they become averse to free riding on the efforts of their comrades.

Again, culture is constrained by material interests here. A solidaristic ethos is not the same as an altruistic ethos, in the sense of a selfless concern for the welfare of others. Solidarity is rather about forming a sense of reciprocal obligation around shared interests. Knowing that, in the long term, they all stand to benefit from strong workers’ organizations, workers internalize norms that change how they weigh the costs and risks associated with collective action. My sense of obligation to my coworkers may allow me to overcome my fear of the boss’s retaliation; it may encourage me to see an individual wage increase here and now as less important than the security offered by a union contract; it will make me see free riding as a shameful betrayal of my comrades.

Where workers build cultures of solidarity, they are more likely to pursue, and succeed in, strategies of collective resistance. But we should emphasize that class-based organization is not the only way that workers under capitalism might pursue their interests collectively. They also of course belong to formal and informal organizations based on race, ethnicity, religion, kinship, and other social identities. Workers may use such networks to navigate the vicissitudes of labor market competition by hoarding resources and job opportunities; the usefulness of these strategies gives rise to justifying ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism, and the like.

Such collective identities, then — like class — have a basis in the economic structure of capitalism. Yet over time, workers’ prioritizing their identification with (say) members of their race or coreligionists makes it less likely they will forge large, durable coalitions to advance their interests and makes it easier for capitalists to pit workers against each other. (If a union refuses to admit nonwhite workers, for instance, it will sooner or later find the bosses employing those excluded workers as scabs.)

So, the reason to treat cultures of class solidarity as particularly central is not because we chauvinistically regard class oppression as more morally significant than other social hierarchies, as some ill-tempered critics charge. It’s because organizing along class lines is the only feasible long-term strategy for resisting and eventually overcoming capitalist domination and thereby undermining the material basis of racial and other forms of oppression.

Class, Politics, and Class Politics in the Twenty-First Century

It follows that class formation — the transformation of workers from a “class in itself” to a conscious, organized “class for itself,” in Marx’s terms — is an extremely fraught proposition. The material incentives generated by capitalism’s economic structure discourage collective class organization and instead push workers to seek individualized means of pursuing their interests or otherwise to fall back on networks of kinship, race, and so on that pit them against their potential comrades in arms.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of ideologically committed left-wing organizers to build cultures of solidarity, the workers’ movement was born and grew by leaps and bounds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These organizers were aided by propitious circumstances. Rapid industrialization brought ever-greater numbers of workers into large factories and dense urban centers and decreased workers’ fear of long-term unemployment. In most of the capitalist world, workers were politically disenfranchised, strengthening their sense that they were unjustly treated and making clear the need to organize along class lines to demand political well as economic rights. Workers lived close to each other in city slums, segregated from other elements of society, facilitating an awareness of their shared interests and the forging of a collective identity.

These structural and institutional facts were fertile ground for the growth of powerful labor movements and socialist parties. Those organizations fought for a partial “humanization” of capitalism, redistributing wealth and income toward the poor and working classes. For a while, especially in the postwar era, rapid economic growth meant that employers could (reluctantly) absorb unions’ and left parties’ redistributive demands. Yet a decline in profit rates starting in the 1960s forced employers to be less tolerant, and capitalists began to fight back, successfully crushing unions and rolling back the welfare state across much of the developed world.

This story brings us to the neoliberal period, which workers haven’t yet been able to fight their way out of. For decades, they have suffered from stagnant wages and the erosion of public goods. At first, Chibber notes, workers responded by retreating from political activity and civic life. But recent years have seen active expressions of discontent, in the form of an uptick in strike action (though still at historically low levels) as well as explosions of anger at the ballot box in the form of support for populist, antiestablishment parties and candidates of both the Left and Right.

This pattern of working-class disaffection and anger is understandable in materialist terms — as are the obstacles to a renewal of the organized labor movement and mass working-class political parties. The structural and institutional factors underlying the birth and expansion of the Old Left are no longer in place. Globally, capitalist economies are now deindustrializing, which has meant slower employment growth; the dispersion of workers into smaller firms; and less job security. Workers in most capitalist democracies now have full political rights, and they are no longer geographically isolated in their own densely populated communities but spread out in the suburbs among other classes.

These facts mean the project of organizing workers has a totally different character than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Workers’ electoral status and social conditions once worked in tandem with the class structure to push workers toward a common identity,” Chibber writes, “but this is no longer the case.” Their electoral status and social conditions today pull workers apart, exacerbating the tendency to adopt individualized or parochial modes of resistance.

Back to Class

The Class Matrix is not without its flaws. Nowhere does Chibber explicitly offer or defend a definition of material interests, a notion fundamental to his account of human motivation under capitalism and to his distinction between materialist and culturalist explanations of social structure. Nor does he discuss the connections between interests, preferences, and motivations — a topic that has long bedeviled philosophers as well as social scientists, and one on which Chibber makes some controversial assumptions that he does not entirely bring to the surface. (Very briefly: he seems to be working with a definition of material interests as universal components of well-being, rooted in human biological needs and capacities, that systematically regulate people’s preferences and motivations across cultural contexts. That is certainly a plausible and defensible conception of interests, but not, I think, a self-evident one.)

Finally, many of the book’s formulations suggest a dichotomy between individualistic forms of resistance to domination and class-based collective action. But as discussed above, and as Chibber himself acknowledges at points, collective strategies of interest advancement can also take the form of reliance on racial, ethnic, and other nonclass collectivities. There is, of course, an important similarity between individualistic forms of resistance and reliance on parochial networks to hoard advantage: they mean failing to unite workers to challenge capitalism at the root and are, for that reason, ultimately self-defeating.

However, these are complaints about presentation rather than substance. Overall, The Class Matrix is a clear, compelling, and systematic statement of the view that class is an objective reality that predictably and rationally shapes human thought and action, one we need to grapple with seriously if we’re to comprehend contemporary society and its morbid symptoms.

Socialists today face the difficult task of building cultures of solidarity on different, and less favorable, terrain than our predecessors. Whether and how exactly we can do so are questions Chibber leaves to his readers. But his contribution to understanding what class is, and why it matters, will likely be indispensable to finding the answers.

Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.

Review of Russia without Blinders / by Roger Keeran

The Moscow Kremlin | Wikipedia

Originally published in Marxism Leninism Today on January 9, 2023

Russia without Blinders: From the Conflict in Ukraine to a Turning Point in World Politics [Original title: La Russie Sans Oeilleres: Du conflit en Ukraine au tournant geopolitique mondial] edited by Maxime Vivas, Aymeric Monville and Jean-Pierre Page. (Paris, France: Editions Delga, 2022.)

Today the conflict in Ukraine advances every day and intensifies with Russian destruction of the Ukrainian infrastructure, with the western gift to Ukraine of more and more sophisticated and destructive weapons, with provocations like the missile aimed at Poland, and the Ukrainian attacks within Russia. Presently, the conflict in Ukraine has brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

In 1962, U.S. leaders believed that Russian missiles in Cuba posed such a national security threat that they were willing to risk nuclear war to get them removed. Yet, the U.S. and NATO propose creating exactly this kind of threat to Russia.  The gravity of the current situation is obvious if one can imagine the reaction of Russian leaders at the prospect of American/NATO nuclear missiles in Kiev two hours flight from Moscow.  Thus, the lack of an outcry against the war in Ukraine and the almost complete absence of calls for a ceasefire and negotiations constitute one of the most glaring and dangerous aspects of the present moment.

Though Washington officials and the mainstream media always refer to this conflict as Putin’s “unprovoked war,” seldom has a conflict been so clearly provoked as this one. The expansion of NATO since 1991 and U.S. insistence that Ukraine be allowed to join NATO are the most obvious and proximate causes of this conflict.  By increasing economic sanctions against Russia, by arming of Ukraine with ever more sophisticated weapons, and by saying that Putin is a “butcher” who “can no longer remain in power” (Biden in March 2022) and by insisting that Ukraine’s right to join NATO is non-negotiable, the United States continues to escalate the conflict and place a negotiated settlement further out of reach.

In spite of this situation in the United States and Europe, no movement for peace in Ukraine has emerged. Aside from a few right-wing outliers like Senator Rand Paul and a hastily withdrawn letter to Biden from the House Progressive Caucus calling for negotiations, no elected officials have denounced American behavior or called for peace. Almost no intelligent and informed discussion of the war occurs in the media and none at whatsoever in the recent electoral debates. The entire nation seems plunging into the unknown with blinders on.

This makes the current volume an island of facts and reason in a sea of insanity. Russia without Blinders was edited by Aymeric Monville, the head of Delga Editions, the main Marxist publishing house in France, Maxime Vivas, author of a recent book on the anti-Chinese “ravings” in France, and Jean-Pierre Page, a writer and past director of the International Department of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). It has seventeen contributors mostly scholars, writers and activists in France, whose contributions fall under three headings: Russophobia, the Origins of the Conflict, and Russia and the World. While exposing the phobia and propaganda that has completely obscured the meaning of this war, the book, in the words of the editors, aims to be not pro-Russian but pro-truth.

To the extent that the book’s many authors and subjects could be reduced to a simple argument it would be this: The war in Ukraine did not begin with the Russian invasion of February 23, 2022, but was rooted in events at least as far back as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its meaning is far more serious than the simpleminded notion that this is an “unprovoked” war driven by a madman’s desire to restore the Czarist empire. Rather, this war is symbolic of a seismic change in international relations and balance of forces that has occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union and which has intensified in recent years with the economic recovery of Russia, now the world’s eleventh largest economy and the rise of China, which has become the world’s second largest economy. The United States and its European vassals are determined to hold on to their superiority and even expand their economic, military, and ideological dominance. The authors further argue that these imperial ambitions are doomed to fail and that the war is actually showing the limits of American power and the emergence of a multipolar world. That is, the machinations of American imperialism are giving rise to its opposite, a growing resistance to American dominance not only by  Russia and China and but also by much of Africa, Asia and Latin America. This resistance manifests itself by the rejection of American hypocritical espousal of democracy, sovereignty, and the rule of law, as well as the rebellion against the domination of the American dollar, American sanctions, and American neoliberal policies.

It is impossible for a short review to do justice to the array of topics and the wealth of information and the high quality of research contained in these articles, which unfortunately are only available in French. Therefore, I will focus on the book’s main arguments as to the origin of the war and the increasing isolation and weakness of the U.S. revealed by the war.

Bombarded as we are by daily horror stories of Putin’s madness and  authoritarianism and Russian war atrocities, torture, executions, mass graves, kidnappings, and civilian bombings, it is hard to focus on the causes of the conflict. Yet, without some factual understanding, it is easy to be swept up by war hysteria. The history reveals that far from this being an “unprovoked war,” it was provoked by the expansion of NATO and the longstanding designs on Ukraine by American policy-makers.

Several aspects of this “hidden history” of the war stand out. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, central Asia, especially Ukraine, has assumed major importance in the thinking of strategists concerned with preserving American world dominance. In The Grand Chessboard (1997), Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia…. and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.” According to Brzezinski, on this international chessboard, Ukraine is the “geopolitical pivot.” Ukraine is a vast territory rich in gas, oil, wheat, rare minerals, and nuclear power. If “Russia regains control over Ukraine,” it automatically acquires the potential to become “a powerful imperial state,” and a challenge to the U.S.

Since 1990, the U.S. has tried to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia. In 1990, as the Soviet Union dissolved, the Ukrainians participated in a referendum in which some 90 percent voted to remain in a union with Russia. The United States, however, promoted Ukrainian leaders hostile to Russia. In 2010 Viktor Yanoukovitch was elected president. Yanoukovitch tried to weave a course friendly both to Russia and European Union. In the legislative election of 2012, Yanoukovitch’s party won more seats than the other three parties combined. The next year, however, when he refused to sign an agreement of association with the European Union, mass demonstrations encouraged by the U.S. broke out in what became known as the Euromaidan movement. The administration of President Barack Obama supported, financed and coached this movement, which was taken over by right-wing nationalists including neofascists and which eventually forced the president to flee the country.  On December 13, 2013, the U.S. State Department’s Undersecretary for Europe, Victoria Nuland, said that the U.S. had invested over five billion dollars in promoting democracy in Ukraine, that is to say in promoting the movement that ousted the democratically elected president. Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador to Ukraine, played an active role in choosing the new government of Ukraine that included neo-fascists.

In 2019, during the administration of Donald Trump, Vladimir Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine. The millionaire comedian, who is now lauded as the heroic defender of democracy, had a sordid past completely overlooked by the American media. The Pandora Papers exposed him as one of the corrupt world leaders with vast wealth stored in offshore accounts.  Moreover, Zelenskyy was closely connected to the corrupt oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, the owner of the TV station where Zelenskyy’s show appeared and the owner of a major bank, Privat Bank, whose assets the government seized for corruption in 2016. In power, Zelenskyy made a leader of the neo-nazis the governor of Odessa. He also outlawed trade unions and a dozen political groups, including the Communist Party. Also, Zelenskyy pursued military action against the separatists in the Donbas, a pro-Russian and largely working class area of Ukraine. Since 2014, military strikes on the Donbas have killed 14,000 and wounded 40,000 citizens. The worst atrocities were linked to the neo-fascist army unit the Azov Battalion. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who served as the American-picked Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016, referred to the citizens of Donetsk and Lugansk as “non-humans.”

According to Page, under Zelenskyy, the U.S. completely “colonized” Ukraine. It sent billions of dollars of military aid and advisors, built 26 laboratories for biological research, seized a big role in Ukrainian industry and media, allowed American agribusiness to buy huge tracts of farmland, and proposed Ukraine joining NATO. Zelenskyy in turn ended all relations with Russia and suppressed all political opposition.

This was the background to the Russian intervention of February 2022. Putin gave three objectives for this action: to de-nazify Ukraine, to de-militarize Ukraine, and to stop the massacre of citizens in the Donbas.

When NATO met on March 24, 2022, Biden said that the conflict in Ukraine meant that there was going to be a “new world order” and “we must direct it.” Biden also said that Putin was a butcher. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “Our special military operation is designed to put an end to the rash expansion and rash course toward the complete international domination by the United States and other western countries.”

The book’s argument that the imperial designs of the United States is important and incontestable. The other thrust of the argument–that the war symbolizes the decline of American power and a realignment of global forces–is equally important though more debatable. Jean-Pierre Page and other of the book’s contributors contend that the U.S. attempt to isolate Russia politically and weaken it economically is doomed to fail. In the first place, Russia is one of the most economically self-sufficient nations of the world. The Russian economy has rebounded from the Soviet collapse and privatization and represents one the world’s largest economies. Moreover, it is rich in natural resources — gas, oil, coal, gold, wheat, nickel, aluminum, uranium, neon, lumber among other things. The idea that economic sanctions, which have never proved an effective instrument of international policy (witness the Cuban blockade), are going to force Russia to relent in the face of NATO expansion, which it sees as an existential threat, is simply delusional.

Furthermore, the expectation that the rest of the world would go along with the unilateral economic sanctions, which are illegal under the United Nations charter, has proven to be phantasmagorical. In spite of a tremendous campaign of cajoling, pressure, and threats, the United States has not managed to win the backing of any countries outside of Europe. The countries constituting BRICS–Brazil, India, China and South Africa have rejected sanctions, but so have such other large regional economies as Mexico, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt. The resistance to U.S. sanctions is part of a larger resistance to the domination of American neoliberal policies and the U.S. dollar. More and more countries have agreed to buy oil and other commodities with rubles, yuans and gold in place of the once mighty dollar. In the words quoted by of one of the book’s contributors, Tamara Kunanayakam, the resistance to sanctions is the sign or a new more fragmented global order in which states are avoiding the geopolitical objectives of the grand powers to pursue their own economic needs.

For all of its merits, the book is not without limitations. For all its strengths in exposing the imperialist ambitions and machinations of the U.S., the book ignores the fact that Russia also has its monopoly capitalists with designs on expanding to Ukraine and elsewhere, and Russia, too, is also part of the imperialist stage of world history. For a book looking at Russia “without blinders,” the authors are strangely blind to Russian imperialism. Lenin argued that is not just a policy but a stage in the development of capitalism dominated by monopolies and finance. As Andrew Murray has pointed out (Communist Review Autumn 2022), Russia ticks off many of the boxes of Lenin’s description of imperialism.  It present “an astonishing degree of economic monopolization” with 22 oligarchic groups accounting for 42 percent of employment and 39 percent of sales. In finance, Sberbank provides banking for 70 percent of Russians, controls a third of all bank assets, and operates in twenty-two countries. Moreover, Russia has repeatedly used military interventions in Chechnya, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics as well as in Syria and (with the mercenary Wagner Group) west Africa. Simply put, in Murray’s words Russia “is an imperialist power.”

At the Ideological Seminar in Caracas, Venezuela, in the fall of 2022, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) put forward a similar analysis (see, November 6, 2022): “Recently, in the face of developments and especially the imperialist war in Ukraine, other CPs have focused only on the obvious responsibilities of the US, the EU, and NATO, which has been advancing and encircling Russia for years. In fact, this was combined with the approach that Russia is a capitalist but not an imperialist power. This approach is detached from the fact that imperialism is not just an aggressive policy but capitalism in its modern stage, the monopoly stage. Today, large monopolies prevail in the entire world and in Russia. The plans of NATO, the US, and the EU in the past 30 years have clearly been a powder keg for this conflict, but when did this powder keg begin filling up? Did it not begin with the overthrow of socialism, the dissolution of the USSR —in fact through a coup d’état— against the will of the majority of its peoples? Wasn’t it then when factories, mines, oil, natural gas, precious metals, and labour power became a commodity once again? Wasn’t it then when, after 7 decades of socialist construction, all of the above became once again a bone of contention for the capitalists, for the big monopoly enterprises?”

If the authors of this volume are still wearing blinders with regard to Russia, some are also wearing rose tinted lenses with respect to the emergence of a “fragmented global order” or a “multipolar world.” Of course, the authors are right to point out the decline of American influence as represented by resistance to American sanctions against Russia and the domination of the American dollar and influence. Nevertheless, without actually saying so, some of the authors suggest that this shift in the global balance of forces represents something new and fundamental, and that it might provide a check on imperial expansion and imperial wars. Whether the authors really believe this and whether this idea has any validity remains to be seen, but it is helpful to recall the ideas of Lenin.

In 1916 Lenin wrote his classic analysis of imperialism, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin distinguished his view of imperialism from the leading competing view, that of the social-democrat Karl Kautsky. On the surface both Lenin and Kautsky had similar views of imperialism.  They both recognized the development of monopoly capital and finance capital, and saw it leading to expansion, exploitation and war.   For Lenin, however, imperialism was a stage, the latest stage, of capitalist development, the stage of monopoly capital that succeeded competitive capital.  For Kautsky, imperialism represented a policy adopted by the monopolists.  The implications of these different points of view were monumental. For Lenin, only revolutionary struggle against monopoly capital could end imperialism and end imperialist wars. Kautsky, however, thought it was possible to replace imperialist policies by other pacifist policies. Kautsky insisted that it was possible to imagine a new stage of economic development, “ultra-imperialism,” where the world would be divided up among a few great monopolies among whom peace would be possible.  The First World War and the Second World War effectively swept Kautsky’s ideas about ultra-imperialism and a pacific imperialist world into the dustbin. Kautsky is barely known let alone read today.

I would suggest that some of Kautsky’s ideas have been picked up or reinvented by contemporaries. The idea of an emerging new stage of multipolarity resembles Kautsky’s stage of super-imperialism. Some of those enamored by the emergence of multipolarity think that it represents a fundamental change in the global balance of forces and seem to think it can countervail the imperialist drive for expansion and war and thus provide a basis for peace within the framework of imperialism. Two of the writers of this volume even say that the time is coming when an alliance of Russia, China, India, Latin America and the Arab world can “prevent” the financial oligarchs of the world from “launching the third world war.”  The problem is that such thinking, however beguiling, avoids a tough-minded understanding of the fundamental nature of imperialism rooted in capitalism’s insatiable drive for profit, exploitation, and expansion. It may not be necessary for worldwide socialist revolution in order to stop any particular imperialist conflict, but under the imperialist stage of capitalism war is omnipresent and unavoidable. This understanding imperialism provides a better basis for struggle against it than social democratic illusions about the efficacy of multipolarity. Let’s hope that it will not take another world war to banish these illusions.

Review: Being Aware is First Step to Resisting US Militarization / by W.T. Whitney Jr.

Photograph Source: Jason Eppink – CC BY 2.0

The military draft in the United States has disappeared. There’s no major U.S. war and military affairs rate little attention in the media. The U.S. public embraces the pervasive influence of the military-industrial complex across U.S. society. The U.S. Congress seems never to hold back on wildly exorbitant military spending.

Travelers entering North Carolina on Interstate 95 almost immediately see a sign proclaiming “Nation’s most military friendly state” – a sign paid for, in part, by the N.C. Bankers Association.  In high schools, military recruiters “insinuate themselves into school life at every level.” Loudspeakers at sports events sound out tributes to veterans and active-duty troops. The latter may receive free tickets to performances, preferential parking, and discounts on merchandise.

Unveiling of the new “Welcome to North Carolina” sign for interstate highways in the state – Fayetteville Observer

Clarity Press, 2023

Author Joan Roelofs has written a new and much needed book that explains much about praise and support for the U.S. military. The Trillion Dollar Silencer, provides atravelogue of sorts through the U.S. military-industrial complex. It moves from the military establishment and big corporations to colleges, universities, NGOs, philanthropies, foundations research institutes, and other kinds of defense contractors.

Her thesis is that dependency on the part of civilian institutions involved with the military establishment has the effect of shielding the military from widespread popular outrage at war-making and big spending. She asks, “Why is there so much acceptance of and so little protest against our government’s illegal and immoral wars and other military opera­tions?”

The author shows her anti-war perspective in rejecting NATO and in criticizing U.S. military interventions, subversion, and covert military actions as violations of international law. She condemns U.S war-makers’ use of Cold War and anti-terrorism pretexts to have free rein to maim and destroy.

Roelofs, a retired professor of political science, is the author also of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield).

She argues that the incentive for civilian institutions and private companies to support military funding and U.S. military purpose lies in their interests being satisfied. Propaganda, distractions, and fear of repression, she points out, are other persuaders. Her new book is about “the interests created by [the] military’s penetration into so many aspects of civilian life.”

Roelofs writes about large and small defense contractors and private, public, and non-profit ones. They are colleges, universities, research foundations, healthcare organizations, and groups working on political and legal issues and the environment.  They provide the military with supplies, logistics, weapons development, human services, defense against atypical threats.

She indicates that, “75% of the [Defense Department] budget is paid to contractors.” These had enough funds, she reports, to financially support dozens of think tanks and foundations. Money, we suggest, is basic to the “interests” cited by the author.

Other observers point out that U.S. companies in 2019 accounted for 57% of the arms sold by the world’s 100 top weapons manufactures. The world’s five biggest weapons manufacturers are U.S. corporations.

Lockheed Martin took in $58.2 billion in revenues in 2020 and showed profits of $9.1 billionin 2021. Raytheon Technologies reported arms sales of $36.8 billion in 2020 and profits of $5 billion in 2021. Boeing’s profits in 2021 were $5.19 billion. Northrop Grumman sold arms worth $30.4 billion in 2021 with $7.0 billion in net income. General Dynamics’s arms sales totaled $25.8 billion; its 2021 profits were $3.3 billion.  The average salary of the CEOs of these companies was $20,795,527, according to

According to the book, defense contracts provide economic rescue even for next-door operations.  In 2012 an $866,000 three-year contract for making cribs for childcare centers helped to revive a children’s furniture manufacturer in the author’s hometown Keene, New Hampshire. Granite Industries of Vermont was declining until it received a contract for making up to 4000 headstones a year for Arlington National Cemetery.

Surprises turn up as to who are the big defense contractors. The for-profit health insurance company Humana is the seventh largest of all of them, according to Roelofs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranks in 38th place.

Relationships are tight within the military industrial complex. Upper-level employees of universities, philanthropies, and non-government organizations and the top military brass and Defense Department officials oscillate between one sphere and the other. According to the author, Defense Department grants to philanthropies, foundations, and to environmental and civil rights groups are oriented to reforms and not so much to basic social change.

The single-issue orientation of most of the contracting philanthropies and NGOs fits with military and official preferences; their fear would be that different issues seen as connected might encourage critical thinking and even dissent. Roelofs looks at the role of state and local government entities in reaching out to youth to serve military needs such as ROTC units, recruitment, and encouragement of scientific and technical educational paths.

Roelofs’ purpose has been to make “the extent and implications of the military industrial complex more visible.” But, as she notes, “many look away, and the mountain is huge to move.” Additionally, “Our political system …  does not afford citizens much democratic control over policies, and hardly any over foreign policy.” The question is: “What can be done.”

Roelofs is alluding to the powerful forces attached to the economic and political status quo, among them the civilian enablers of the military establishment. She is saying, in essence, that the process of consciousness-raising that does lead to useful political action would be a long and arduous one.

Her book, which is written in a readable, accessible style, would have us start out at the beginning. The first item on the agenda is that of persuading ordinary people to say “No.” They would stand up, test the waters, be active in some way, and make a few gains.

She calls upon her readers to speak out, write to editors, contact elected officials, join and work with antiwar organizations. She advocates for a Green New Deal, a “national service program,” and “conversion to a civilian economy.” She is evidently hoping that masses of people will build a resistance movement, score some victories, gain confidence, and learn.

If Roelofs had presented all-encompassing themes like past U.S. military misadventures and the evils of a profit-driven political system, her call to action would have yielded almost nothing. Instead, more promisingly, she is lending support to a protest movement in its infancy. Now is exactly the right time for her highly recommended book.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

Counterpunch, November 18, 2022,

Review: Alicia Raboy Was Killed for Her Radical Politics / by Craig Johnson

Argentine leftist Alicia Raboy holds her young daughter. (Family archive / Gobierno de Argentina)

Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel / by Marc Raboy
Oxford University Press, 2022, 328 pgs., 9780190058104

Alicia Raboy was a revolutionary in 1970s Argentina who was disappeared by the state during its anti-leftist crackdown. What would the world have been like if activists like her, in Latin America and around the world, hadn’t been murdered by the state?

Marc Raboy’s new book, Looking for Alicia, chronicles his fascination with the life and death of a woman with whom he shared not just a last name but the beginnings of a life trajectory. Both he and his subject, Alicia Raboy, were young radicals in the urban West in the mid-twentieth century, both came from middle-class families, both were the descendants of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, and both turned to journalism as a means to express and practice their radical politics. Yet where the author’s life led him to a professorship at McGill University in Quebec, the life of the book’s namesake ended in violence and torture, as she was murdered by police and paramilitaries in a sleepy provincial capital of Argentina in the 1970s.

Raboy’s curiosity and affinity for this woman, his impression that she was a kindred spirit and fellow traveler, whether or not they were relatives, runs through the book. His shock and fellow feeling for this person he never knew but shared so much with became a passion for understanding her life and her politics. This is a book for leftists who have read of past revolutionaries and felt that strange combination of solidarity and shame that their lives were so different.

A reader will feel Raboy’s earnest curiosity and care for the subject of his book, though he never knew her and came upon the idea of writing about her by chance. Raboy learned of her only after an incidental internet search for connections between his relatively unusual last name and Argentina in preparation for a postretirement vacation. He found stories of the death of Alicia Raboy, a desaparecida (disappeared person) from the time of the most recent Argentine military dictatorship, killed alongside her romantic partner for their involvement with the Montoneros, the largest and most active of the guerrilla organizations combating the military government that took control of Argentina in 1976.

Alicia and her partner, Francisco Urondo, a more famous leader of the Montoneros and influential literary and journalistic figure in Argentina, were both killed as a result of a police crackdown in the province of Mendoza, where they and their infant daughter had relocated due to internal strategic decisions on the part of their revolutionary organization.

That is the official story, short and bereft of personal details, which is how the final moments and deaths of so many people lost to the Argentine and other South American dictatorships are recorded. In Argentina alone, as many as thirty thousand people were disappeared by the government during the last dictatorship. This method of mass murder meant that the state could avoid all claims of responsibility for its violence — rather than being killed, people simply “disappeared” — and worse, it enlisted passersby and neighbors in the violence by demanding that they be silent about whatever they saw or heard for fear of retribution.

These tactics were widespread in Latin America at the time, but they were used to their greatest extent in Argentina. Unfortunately, this lack of documentation and deliberate destruction of information on the part of the Argentine government means that readers of Looking for Alicia might find themselves frustrated at the deeply incomplete picture we have of the book’s subject, despite the author’s dedicated efforts.

Raboy’s book is an effort to recover something more than the bare-bones official story. Though its subject is a murder, this book is not a whodunit or an exposé. Alicia’s murderers — both those who took her on the day of her disappearance and those who gave the orders — are well known and have faced legal consequences for their actions. Instead, it is an attempt to reconstruct the life of a woman who was killed by the state for her radical politics. Attempting this, difficult or impossible as it is, humanizes the victims of the dictatorship and reminds us that though they may be called desaparecidos, they did not disappear — they were killed by their fellow Argentines for what they believed in.

The Raboys

To tell his story, Raboy leads the reader through Argentine history leading up to the dictatorship. The chapters of historical and thematic background are succinct, informed by secondary sources and conversations with academic specialists. He recounts some of the key developments of twentieth-century Argentine politics, particularly the series of military coups that punctuated the century and both gave birth to and ended the governments of Juan Perón, whose namesake Peronist movement has been at the center of Argentine domestic politics since the 1940s. And he takes readers through a brief family history of the Argentine Raboys, Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine but was once variously Austria-Hungary or Poland, who, like so many others, relocated to the Americas to escape political and social violence or to seek better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

All this background is in the service of introducing readers to the subject of the book, Alicia Raboy, a young secular Jewish woman, daughter of immigrants, middle class, educated, rebellious, tenacious, and smart, dedicated to the political cause of the Argentine people and therefore necessarily (from her perspective) a dedicated Peronist.

Readers follow her as she chafes against her stodgy private schooling, moves from partner to partner, job to job, and ultimately joins the Montoneros. Raboy’s primary sources for these personal sections on Alicia’s life are interviews with those who knew or might have known her, and include her immediate family, former employers and friends, and her comrades from her days as a revolutionary.

Yet as detailed and meticulous as Marc Raboy’s reconstruction on Alicia’s life is, it is impossible to fully tell her life story — even beyond the fact that Alicia was disappeared rather than murdered or killed in a shootout, meaning that there is no official record of her being captured, her being taken to the detention and torture center (which was most likely her fate), or of her death or what was done with her body afterward. Readers, like Alicia’s family and the families of so many like her, must settle for probabilities and guesses based on the fates of other Argentine victims of state and paramilitary violence.

The book concludes with testimonies from those who were detained in the same torture center which was likely Alicia’s final destination, the closest the author can come to relating what might have happened to Alicia in her final moments. This is the problem with retelling the life of anyone who was disappeared by the Argentine state or any of the other South American dictatorships that employed the same methods and hid their violence and torture in plain sight, refusing to acknowledge the death or even absence of their victims, and threatening those who sought the truth with the same terrible fate. One must rely on hearsay, on the memories of those who survived their own capture and torture, or on the reluctant testimony of the few perpetrators who have spoken openly about their involvement. The fact that the state and its allies hid their atrocities means that, despite the passage of decades, for many of the victims’ families, these atrocities are ever present, lacking even the closure of an official acknowledgement of their loved one’s death.

A Life That Cannot Be Recovered

Yet the issues the author faces in trying to “find” Alicia are greater than these problems common to anyone who is hoping to recover someone lost to forced disappearance. Raboy’s book is an effort to tell the story of a woman whose life was put in the shadow of a collection of Argentine men whose lives and stories are more famous than her own. These men Raboy interviews about Alicia, who are now middle-aged or older, reflect on their time with this “vibrant,” “rebellious” woman they knew from their past. Her time as an engineering student — an overwhelmingly male and conservative field in Argentina at the time — is little, contrasted with her time in the Montoneros or as the subject of this book. Details about her politics, her taste in literature, and her ambitions share the page with former boyfriends’ reflections on her vivacity or her body.

Alicia’s narrative position in the shadow of more famous men persists as her political and journalistic career reaches its zenith, with her working at one of the most famous newspapers in Argentina during the years leading up to the dictatorship, Noticias, which straddled the worlds of journalism and subversive politics. The chapters on this time in her life focus largely on the role of this paper in Argentine society and on the work of famous figures like Rodolfo Walsh, Jacobo Timerman, or Alicia’s final partner, Francisco Urondo, as writers and directors of the paper and related publications. It is impossible to tease out Alicia’s work on the paper from that of others, due to the fact that the paper’s articles went unsigned in order to protect their authors, which means that, unfortunately, Alicia’s particular contributions to the paper are unknown.

The secretive nature of the clandestine political activity Alicia Raboy dedicated her life to also means that much of what was most important to her — her movement work and her activism — remains hidden from both the author and the reader. Being a member of a prominent underground militant organization means that there are months of Alicia’s life, such as trips throughout Argentina or to Cuba, where her exact whereabouts or activities are unknown not just to the author but to all but the most connected of her contemporaries.

To his credit, Raboy doesn’t claim otherwise. The book is titled Looking for Alicia, after all, and the author does not purport to have produced the definitive story of her life. Indeed, he notes that Alicia’s daughter, the survivor of the police kidnapping and killing which ended Alicia and Francisco Urondo’s lives, has herself done similar work in reconstructing the life and voice of her mother. Raboy even acknowledges that Alicia’s daughter, now an adult and parent herself, apparently had several serious critiques of the text when he sent it to her for review. This humility, alongside the earnest curiosity which permeates the book, makes these shortcomings palatable without papering over them.

Like the author, and like Alicia’s family, the reader is left with an incomplete picture of this young revolutionary who was not allowed to grow old. There is something profound in Looking for Alicia’s reproduction of that sense of lacking, of searching for someone who cannot be recovered. Shining a light on the pain and loss, so deep and permanent, suffered by Alicia, her family, and her comrades on the part of the Argentine government reframes the tragedy of the state’s mass murder of tens of thousands. Imagine what the world would be like with more people like Alicia in it, if the dreams and love of those comrades had not been stolen from us all.

Craig Johnson has a PhD in history from the University of California Berkeley, where his work focused on the right wing and the Catholic Church in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Spain. He hosts a podcast called Fifteen Minutes of Fascism, a weekly news and analysis show covering the global rise of the radical right.

Jacobin, July 15, 2022,