Presentation of the Question: Marxism and the National Question

by Joseph Stalin

A nation has the right freely to determine its own destiny. It has the right to arrange its life as it sees fit, without, of course, trampling on the rights of other nations. That is beyond dispute.

But how exactly should it arrange its own life, what forms should its future constitution take, if the interests of the majority of the nation and, above all, of the proletariat are to be borne in mind?

Nations and nationalities of the Soviet Union

A nation has the right to arrange its life on autonomous lines. It even has the right to secede. But this does not mean that it should do so under all circumstances, that autonomy, or separation, will everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation, i.e., for its majority, i.e., for the toiling strata. The Transcaucasian Tatars as a nation may assemble, let us say, in their Diet and, succumbing to the influence of their beys and mullahs, decide to restore the old order of things and to secede from the state. According to the meaning of the clause on self-determination they are fully entitled to do so. But will this be in the interest of the toiling strata of the Tatar nation? Can Social-Democracy look on indifferently when the beys and mullahs assume the leadership of the masses in the solution of the national question? Continue reading

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The Nation: Marxism and the National Question

by Joseph Stalin

What is a nation?

A nation is primarily a community, a definite community of people.

This community is not racial, nor is it tribal. The modern Italian nation was formed from Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, and so forth. The French nation was formed from Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons, and so on. The same must be said of the British, the Germans and others, who were formed into nations from people of diverse races and tribes.

Thus, a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.

On the other hand, it is unquestionable that the great empires of Cyrus and Alexander could not be called nations, although they came to be constituted historically and were formed out of different tribes and races. They were not nations, but casual and loosely-connected conglomerations of groups, which fell apart or joined together according to the victories or defeats of this or that conqueror.

Thus, a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people.

But not every stable community constitutes a nation. Continue reading

Indian Conditions – Certain Concrete Issues: Draft Ideological Resolution of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

10.1 In Indian conditions, our task to strengthen our revolutionary advance in this transition period, given the balance of forces shifting in favour of imperialism, requires concerted efforts to work for a change in the correlation of class forces amongst the Indian people to advance our strategic objective. This, in turn, requires the unleashing of powerful mass and popular struggles to sharpen the class struggle in our society in the concrete conditions in which we exist.

10.2 Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forms: To achieve this task, the updated Programme noted: ‘The Communist Party of India (Marxist) strives to achieve the establishment of people’s democracy and socialist transformation through peaceful means. By developing a powerful mass revolutionary movement, by combining parliamentary and extra parliamentary forms of struggle, the working class and its allies will try their utmost to overcome the resistance of the forces of reaction and to bring about these transformations through peaceful means. However, it needs always to be borne in mind that the ruling classes never relinquish their power voluntarily. They seek to defy the will of the people and seek to reverse it by lawlessness and violence. It is, therefore, necessary for the revolutionary forces to be vigilant and so orient their work that they can face up to all contingencies, to any twist and turn in the political life of the country.’ Continue reading

Venezuela’s Recovery from Austerity: The Successful Outcomes of the Bolivarian Revolution

by Kurt B.

The war against global capitalism and American imperialism has been a long and bloody struggle for those feeling the oppression and exploitation in the developing world.  For those countries which share a close proximity to the United States, the creation or adoption of counter-ideologies has sometimes become the inevitable result of combating existing inequalities and injustices due to neo-colonialism.

Throughout the 20th century, many Central and South American nations have undertaken this course of action, including the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which has embarked on the most revolutionary transition in the entire region in recent times.

The Bolivarian Revolution was instigated in 1997 by the Fifth Republic Movement; a left-wing political party led by Hugo Chavez (renamed the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 2007).  After winning democratic elections in 1998 and being formally inaugurated as President of Venezuela, Chavez fully dedicated his incumbency to fighting poverty, illiteracy and the vast inequalities that engulfed his country.  He strived to achieve these goals by reforming every realm of societal existence and the policy-making process to ensure that any positive changes made would stay intact. Continue reading

The Dubious Legacy of César Chávez

by Michael Yates

review of Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 347 pp., $24.95.

The thesis of this book is simple. Randy Shaw argues that most of the social movements of the contemporary U.S.—labor, immigrant rights, antiwar, worker and consumer health and safety, anti-sweatshop—are fundamentally the progeny of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Shaw attempts to prove this by showing that UFW alumni have been critical leaders of these movements, and these causes have employed tactics pioneered by Chávez and the farm workers. Shaw’s argument is deeply flawed.

It is certainly true that thousands of young people, radical activists, trade unionists, clergy, and assorted other actors, politicians, writers, and artists worked for or with the UFW during its heyday from the mid-1960s until about 1980. I did, in the winter of 1977, when I worked at La Paz, the union’s headquarters in Keene, California. For most of us, our UFW experiences were exciting and meaningful. We carried them with us, and they informed our lives and actions.

But the same things could be said about the IWW before the First World War; the CIO or the Communist Party during the 1930s; or the SDS, the SWP, and the antiwar and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Of course, there were historical continuities in all of these movements—a problem for Shaw’s arguments. The UFW didn’t spring full-blown from the body and mind of César Chávez and his mentor Fred Ross. There is history here, and Shaw, by and large, ignores it. Would the UFW have been possible without the radical Filipino farm workers who started the organizing? The Filipinos drew strength from struggles in their homeland and from the CIO upheavals of the Great Depression. The union used the boycott to good effect, at least in the beginning, and its use of volunteers to staff boycott offices in every major city in the United States and some in Canada was innovative. But the boycott built the AFL in the 1880s and 1890s. Similarly, the civil rights movement used boycotts, nonviolent demonstrations, and volunteers by the thousands, the sorts of tactics that Shaw attributes to Chávez’s genius. Certainly, someone could write a similar book using this movement as its template. The UFW was not unique.

Flaws up close

Consider three points, two small and one large.

First, Shaw says that, “During the 1950s, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, who introduced him …to a recent encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the church’s support for workers who protested unfair labor conditions.” The encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), was written in 1891, which hardly made it recent. But Shaw doesn’t say that the Pope wrote it in response to the growing popularity of left-wing unions and politics among working people. It is an anti-socialist screed, aimed at Catholic workers. It is very much a defense of capitalism, and only goes so far as to suggest that capitalists must treat workers fairly.

Shaw makes much of the UFW’s alliance with religious groups and clergy, and there is no doubt that church support for the farmworkers’ struggles helped the union immensely. However, the close relationship the UFW and Chávez had with churches was a mixed blessing. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical, dogmatic, and sexist organization. The Church view is, at best, that the poor are worthy sinners who have to be looked after by the priests, who, like Christ, sacrifice for them.

Chávez imbibed this paternalistic ethic, and the ministers, who flocked to the union and were powerful within it, encouraged him. Chávez said that to sacrifice is to be a man. With the union’s successes, Chávez began to think of himself as a holy person, Christ-like and above reproach. Once in a community meeting at La Paz, César was criticized by some of us for making an incredibly sexist remark. He became enraged and said, “I work eighteen fucking hours a day for the union. Who of you can say the same?”

How do you challenge Christ?

Is it any wonder that when Chávez showed his disdain for rank-and-file power in the union, almost none of the clergy challenged him? Or many of his staff or board members either? Is it surprising that Chávez was a staunch anti-communist and engaged in vicious and mindless purges and red-baiting of those who challenged his authority?

Chávez had a history, and the social doctrines of the Catholic church were part of it. Unfortunately, Shaw ignores the seamier side of these. You would never know from this book that the Church did some evil deeds during the great CIO movement of the 1930s, even informing about left-wing labor leaders to the FBI.

The Game

The final chapter in the book contains a long list of UFW alumni who have continued to fight the good fight. It is a kind of “shout out” to these often unrecognized models of courage and social solidarity and an attempted empirical validation of Shaw’s thesis. There are some curious inclusions and omissions, and these raise a second point of criticism. Under the heading “Labor Organizer/Union Staff,” we find the name, Fred Hirsch. Fred is a communist plumber, and he was one of the first researchers to uncover the close relationship between certain unions and the CIA. He worked diligently in support of the UFW, beginning in the 1960s. Fred did not owe his politics or dedication to labor to Chávez or the UFW but to the communist movement.

Fred’s daughter, Liza, who is not on Shaw’s list, began working with (and then for) the union from age twelve. I helped her develop a piece rate proposal for tomato pickers at a ranch near Oxnard, California. We shared a friendship with a volunteer at La Paz, a man who did carpentry and maintenance work for the union.

In the winter of 1977, Chávez hooked up with Charles Dederich, who ran a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. (To his credit, Shaw discusses this in a chapter on the UFW’s decline). Dederich had concocted a psychological warfare scheme called the “Game,” in which addicts were subjected to relentless group attacks, the idea being to break down their psyches so they could start over again, without drugs. At the time of Chávez’s fascination with Synanon and the “Game,” Dederich was a megalomaniacal cult leader, abusing his clientele. A reporter who exposed the organization found a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

César took to the “game” like Stalin to the secret police, and he used it for the same purpose—to consolidate his power in the union. He took some trusted members of his inner circle to Synanon for training and began immediately to force the game upon the staff. On April 4, 1977, he incited a screaming mob of “Game” initiates to purge the union of “troublemakers.” All sorts of ridiculous charges were made against “enemies of the union,” including our carpenter friend. When our friend confronted Caesar and demanded to face his accusers in a hearing, as the union’s constitution stated was his right, Chávez called the Mojave police and had him arrested for trespassing.

The last time I saw him was at Fred Hirsch’s house in San Jose, after we bailed him out of jail. A few weeks later, Liza went to La Paz to attend the wedding of a friend. César, with whom she had been very close and in whose house she had once lived, summarily threw her off the property and expelled her from the union.

Wreckage

If the UFW positively changed some peoples’ lives, it harmed and wrecked others. Shaw certainly knows this; he just chose not to mention it. He devotes considerable space to the admirable parts of the life and work of famed UFW leader Dolores Huerta, who is also on his list. He uses her as a prime example of the importance of the UFW in training and nurturing social change activists. She has won every imaginable award given to women leaders and been in the forefront of many struggles.

But Huerta has never repudiated Chávez’s dictatorial, hateful, and ruinous behavior. She could have, and it might have made a difference. Instead, she was and still is a Chávez apologist. Shaw reports that she was unhappy with the treatment of women in the union. She says that women need to have power. She doesn’t say for what. Had she been union president, I doubt things would have turned out much different.

Also absent from Shaw’s list of UFW luminaries is Chávez’s son, Paul. The younger Chávez still lives at La Paz, from where he runs a group of interlinked union enterprises, including radio stations and housing companies. The union raises money from these and many other sources: mass mailing fund-raising, marketing the Chávez name to sell union trinkets and win public grants, political consulting, and managing union trust funds. The union has precious few members; a handful of members collect pensions or get health care from the trust funds (though they sit on tens of millions of dollars); and the union leadership seems little concerned about any of this. Paul Chávez is paid more than $125,000 for his “services” to farm workers.

A charitable description of today’s UFW is that it has become a quasi-racket. Another UFW legacy Shaw neglects to discuss. Chávez created an undemocratic union of migrant workers. He ran it as if it were his property. History tells us that such an organization is ripe for corruption. And so it was.

Legacy

The final and most serious flaw of Shaw’s analysis shows itself in the opening pages, where he says, “This legacy should not be based on the size of the UFW’s current membership rolls. Rather, it should be evaluated by the impact of its ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles.”

Let’s see now. The UFW managed, despite long odds, to organize farm workers, attract thousands of talented volunteers to its banner, build a feared grassroots political action machine, defeat the Teamsters and the sweetheart contracts it had signed with growers, and win passage of a farm workers’ labor law unmatched by any other such statute in the country. By 1977, the union was poised to achieve a mass membership that would have made it a power to be reckoned with in California, and maybe in the entire nation.

But then, under Chávez’s autocratic leadership, the union dissolved the boycott staff, firing its leader and accusing him of being a communist; purged its staff, using the most disgusting means imaginable; refused to entertain any local union autonomy and democracy; denied the election of actual farm workers to the union board; ruined the careers, and in some cases, the jobs, of rank-and-file union dissidents; lost almost all of its collective bargaining agreements, and began a long and ugly descent into corruption.

Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don’t often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don’t have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel. How is all of this not an important, indeed critical, legacy of the UFW? If we judge the union and Chávez in terms of the well-being of the workers they set out to organize, both must be judged utter failures. If we compare the UFW to any number of the CIO’s left-led unions, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Farmworkers pale by comparison. The UPWA was not only a multiracial and democratic union. It also led the struggle to end segregation at work and in the workers’ communities, and it put the pay of the black and immigrant laborers who did the unenviable work of slaughtering the animals we eat on a par with those of steel and auto workers.

A union is supposed to organize workers and improve their lives. Chávez and the UFW had their chances, and they threw them away. Imagine that Martin Luther King had sought and taken advice from Chuck Dederich after his “I Have a Dream” speech. And after that, imagine that he had forced the Memphis garbagemen to play the “Game.” Surely historians would count that as a major part of his legacy.

Alumni

And if we follow Shaw’s lead and look to the “impact of ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles,” we are still left with serious problems. Consider two outstanding alumni, Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina.

Ganz was a master organizer, of both union and political campaigns, and he has put this skill, which he learned in the UFW, to use after he left the union. He has led election campaigns for former U.S. senator Alan Cranston, and he was a key organizer in getting Nancy Pelosi elected to Congress. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Shaw makes much of the get-out-the-vote techniques Ganz has mastered. However, these were not new when he used them. The AFL-CIO employed them, and most of the tactics Shaw traces to the UFW, in a 1977 campaign to defeat a right-to-work ballot measure in Missouri. I don’t find Ganz’s work for the Democratic Party to be particularly progressive either. Nancy Pelosi? An old-line political hack trained in the art of politics by the king of pork, John Murtha?

With Medina, we can make a similar criticism. He did many good things with the UFW and after he left. But he was the one person who could have mounted a challenge to Chávez. He chose not to, and he has, to my knowledge, never repudiated the reprehensible tactics Chávez used with the “Game.”

There may be good reason for this. Today, Medina is a senior vice-president of SEIU, a union that has used somewhat similar tactics, but in a situation where the union is loaded with money. The SEIU hires scads of young nonmember organizers, puts them though a cult-like training (the same seems to be true of another union, HERE, which also has many former UFW people on it staff, and which even uses a variant of the “Game” to train new staffers), works them to death, gives them no power inside the union, brooks no criticism, and confines their education to the technocratic mechanics of organizing. They learn little about the labor movement, economics, and the many other things that would help them develop a radical, worker-centered ideology.

The same was true in the UFW; César even sent a spy to monitor a labor history class I had begun to teach interested staff. The SEIU is completely staff-dominated—and staff make a great deal of money—Medina is a long way from his UFW penury. His total compensation in 2006: $194,336. SEIU leadership is as fearful and intolerant of union democracy and rank-and-file power as the UFW. If local workers assert themselves, there is a good chance that their local will be put in trusteeship by the national union—exactly what happened recently to a large local of healthcare workers in California. It has been trusteed, and Medina is at the center of the whole sordid episode. [Randy Shaw himself, on the civil war within SEIU, is here; a more radical view, from Steve Early, here.]

SEIU is not above threatening to sue its critics, just like the UFW threatened to sue The Nation magazine in 1977 after it published an article I wrote critical of the union. Also, like the UFW, the SEIU has witnessed serious incidents of corruption, involving theft of money and shady dealings with third parties. There is a separate heading for SEIU in Shaw’s table of UFW notables. It is certainly debatable whether this legacy of the UFW is a positive one.

The problem with Shaw is that he simply assumes that the various movements and causes UFW alumni have either led or worked in are good. He doesn’t ask whether what they are doing is what needs to be done to build a better society. Get out the vote for what? Boycott for what? Organize workers for what? Teach people to organize for what?

I enjoyed the parts of Shaw’s book that recount the UFW’s epic battles. But I did not find the rest of it credible or penetrating. An objective history of César Chávez, the UFW, and the union’s legacy has yet to be written.

*note: This article is original to the Left Business Observer website and can be found here. (c) Copyright 2009, Michael Yates. All rights reserved. Michael Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. A new edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, is just out. His blog is here.

Debating Every Last Word of Ahmadinejad’s ‘Wipe Israel Off the Map’

by Uri Friedman


Photo credit: Reuters
 
The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler has a fascinating article today on the six-year dispute surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Israel must be “wiped off the map”–a line that has become shorthand for Iran’s belligerent (some would say genocidal) posture toward Israel. The quote first stirred controversy in 2005, when Nazila Fathi of The New York Times cited a report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency on Ahmadinejad’s remarks at a “World Without Zionism” conference (the Tehran-based Fathi later issued a full-text translation of Ahmadinejad’s speech, and official Iranian sources like IRIB ran with the same translation). Since then, however, some have argued that Ahmadinejad was mistranslated, and that getting the translation right is critical to decoding the meaning behind the Iranian leader’s incendiary words.

Here is the passage in question from Ahmadinejad’s 2005 speech in Persian, rough transliteration, and Times translation (we’ve taken what appears to be the full line in Persian from an archived transcript of Ahmadinejad’s address):

امام عزيز ما فرمودند كه اين رژيم اشغالگر قدس بايد از صفحه روزگار محو شود

Imam ghoft een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Qods bayad az safheh-i ruzgar mahv shaved

Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map

Let’s isolate the key phrases in the line:

  • Imam ghoft: People generally agree that these words mean “our (dear) Imam said,” and indicate that, instead of making a brazen, unprecedented proclamation, Ahmadinejad was quoting comments made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, in the 1980s.
  • een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Qods: Again, the literal translation here isn’t really in question. These words are translated as some variation on “the regime occupying Jerusalem.” But the meaning of the words is a matter of dispute. The liberal Middle East expert Juan Cole and the The Guardian‘s Jonathan Steele have argued that the phrasing suggests Ahmadinejad is calling for a change in the Israeli government rather than military action against Israel, especially since he was comparing regime change in Israel to regime change in Iran in 1979. But, as The Times puts it, others argue that the line “indicates the depth of the Iranian president’s rejection of a Jewish state in the Middle East because he refuses even to utter the name Israel.”
  • mahv shaved: Cole, Steele, and the Mossadegh Project’s Arash Norouzi have all disputed theTimes‘ “wiped off” translation above, arguing that these words instead mean “vanish from.” But an Iranian translator and consultant supportedThe Times‘ “wiped off” or “wiped away” rendering in 2006, asserting that the Persian verb is active and transitive (Cole says the verb construction is intransitive). At the time of Ahmadinejad’s speech, the Middle East Media Research Institute(MEMRI) translated the verb as “eliminated.”
  • safheh-i ruzgar: This is where things really get interesting. Ahmadinejad actually misquoted Khomeini, who used the phrase “sahneh-i ruzgar.” As the Times noted several years ago, “sahneh” literally means “scene” or “stage” and “ruzgar” means “time,” but translators in the 1980s interpreted Khomeini’s words as a metaphorical reference to a “map”–an interpretation that stuck when Ahmadinejad substituted “sahneh” for “safheh,” or “page.” But the Cole-Steele-Norouzi trio recommends the literal translation of “page of time” (MEMRI, for its part, went with “pages of history”). Steele claims that the “page of time” phrase, along with the rest of his translation, suggests that the Iranian president was expressing a desire for an end to Israeli occupation at some point in the future. “He was not threatening an Iranian-initiated war to remove Israeli control over Jerusalem,” Steele writes.

So there you have it. Depending on who you ask, Ahmadinejad was either endorsing Khomeini’s battle cry for Israel to be wiped off the map or invoking Khomeini’s wish that, someday, somehow, the Israeli government will collapse under its own weight. The varying translations, of course, may be inextricably linked to people’s political views on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And some argue that the distinction is academic at this point. In a study for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Joshua Teitelbaum states that Ahmadinejad’s public statements, taken as a whole, indicate that the Iranian leader is bent on the “actual physical destruction of the State of Israel,” however one may translate his 2005 speech. Other Iranian leaders, he adds, have made even more militant comments.

And what of Ahmadinejad himself? He hasn’t exactly brought closure to the debate. In a 2006 interview with The Washington Post‘s Lally Weymouth, he evaded her question about whether he wanted to “wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” in Weymouth’s words. “Let the Palestinian people decide their fate in a free and fair referendum, and the result, whatever it is, should be accepted,” he told Weymouth. “The people with no roots there are now ruling the land.”

More recently, Ahmadinejad has declared that a NATO missile defense system in Turkey “will not stop the fall of the Zionist regime” and that Iran’s response to any provocation by the “bankrupt, uncivilized and criminal Zionist regime” would be “crushing and regrettable.” Well, at least he said those things according to the Fars News Agency’s English translation.

*note: originally published on October 5, 2011 on The Atlantic Wire. Original here.