When Karl Marx famously said that events and figures appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce, he might have been referring to today’s glut of hand-me-down Marxist kitsch. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, pseudo-radicals had long prostituted the socialist revolutionary tradition as a cheap reference for bumper sticker fatuities. The revolution will not be televised. Yes, well, it wasn’t ever supposed to be. The situation is even worse now that so-called “anti-globalization” activists blithely don Che Guevara t-shirts yet think Das Kapital – the most pro-globalization text ever written – is the latest post-punk sensation out of Hamburg.
Fascism in its worst, most medieval form is once again an ideological menace, and indigence has kept apace with exploding populations that are still too fettered by venal regimes to benefit from the market economy. It’s vital that there are socialists and social democrats in our midst serious about helping the working class, rescuing victims of genocide, and establishing parliamentary democracy on the ruins of lethal dictatorships. The left owes it to itself to identify and root out today’s species of buffoonish and sinister politicos claiming Marxist discipleship but demonstrating only moral and philosophical poverty. What follows is a troika of the worst poseur Marxists—faux-cialists, if you like—plus three world leaders who are actually literate in radical politics and willing to put their knowledge to good use.
Latin America: The Authoritarian and the Reformer
The Poseur: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
For someone who claims to be putting Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution into practice throughout South America, Chavez has a curious way of bolstering the proletariat. In December 2000, he demanded that elections for the country’s powerful labor unions be monitored by the state, an act of provocation that led to vehement denunciations by international labor organizations. In Trotskyist terms, when a state encroaches upon labor unions, fascism isn’t far behind.
Donald Rumsfeld did himself no favors by comparing Chavez to Adolf Hitler. But on the face of it, Chavez’s reign actually has lately come to resemble national socialism. In 2001, Chavez passed his very own Enabling Act, granting himself rule by decree for a entire year—a constitutionally illegitimate move that led to the call for a general strike by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers. He recently incurred the wrath of global press watchdog groups like Reporters Without Borders after he used the 2003 “Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television,” which prohibits strenuous criticism of his regime, to shut down a major oppositional television network.
Chavez has a committed following among the neo-Nazis in Germany’s anti-globalization movement, coalescent around that country’s National-Democratic Party. (Say what you will about the tenets of the original, Dude, at least it was an ethos.) Chavez’s chummy relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Argentina’s laureate of Holocaust denial Norberto Ceresole has also earned him the rightful suspicion of South American Jews.
At the economic level, he’s no better. Chavez uses none of his country’s petrodollars to invest in industrialization or infrastructure, which explains Venezuela’s mounting inflation. (Most economists predict that when the bubble bursts, the results will be disastrous.) Instead of centralized egalitarianism, he prefers a kind of ingratiating Catholic almsgiving.
The Real Deal: Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva
Lula, who got his start as a union leader, made a name for himself bravely agitating for the popular election of the country’s president, which up until then was named by a martially disposed Congress. His Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) anti-poverty campaign, unlike that of chavismo, has been both pragmatic and systemiccombating child labor, delivering water to semi-arid territories, and offering financial assistance to low-income parents in exchange for their pledge to educate and vaccinate their children. Lula has administered an Accelerated Growth Program that invests in Brazil’s infrastructure by building and repairing roads and railways, revamping the country’s Byzantine tax code, and modernizing its energy sector.
On foreign policy, Lula has also been consistently shrewd and impressive, lending Brazilian peacekeeping troops to Haiti in one of its many hours of turmoil, establishing trade surpluses and, pace critics who find him too soft on yanqui style market economics, placing strategic tariffs on international financial transactions in order to help developing countries. He’s also done in Brazil what our own government stupidly refuses to do here: block wasteful farm subsidies.
Europe: The Gangster and the Physician
The Poseur: British MP George Galloway
How many British MPs can you name who’ve spent Christmas disco dancing with Tariq Aziz and joked about male pattern baldness with Uday Hussein? With his promiscuous attraction to all types of murderous dictator, the Scottish politician George Galloway manages to be both a textbook reactionary and sui generis at the same time.
Galloway was expelled from the Labor Party for his routine hosannas for the Baathist and Bin Ladenist “resistance” in Iraq. He’s echoed Vladimir Putin in saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of his life. In 1994, he told Saddam Hussein, whose suborning of suicide-murderers in Israel Galloway heartily approved, “I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem!” And Galloway was, by all indications of recovered Iraqi state evidence, complicit in the U.N. oil-for-food theft.
Since the fall of the ancien régime in Iraq, Galloway has taken up new favored fawner status with Syria’s Baathist dictator Bashar al-Assad. On a 2005 trip to the country, Galloway gave an interview with the state-controlled Syrian Times in which he said that was in “one hundred percent agreement with Syria’s policies on the international level.” This was just after the Damascus-orchestrated assassination of Lebanese reformist Rafik Hariri. Galloway again used this venue to refer to the beheaders and roadside bombers in Iraq as a “resistance,” while naming Bush, Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar the “biggest terrorists.”
Not that this did the most damage to Galloway’s reputation. It took a stint on the reality series Celebrity Big Brother in 2006 to alienate even some of his diehard loyalists. Before being ejected from the house by his co-residents, Galloway dressed in a leotard and imitated a cat drinking milk out of a saucer provided by a transvestite.
The Real Deal: French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner
Kouchner has been called a “postmodern politician.” As the founder of Doctors Without Borders, Kouchner is probably the cleanest example of the mature soixante-huitard, or “68er,” who has avoided the typical transformation into a calcified right-wing fogey. The young Communist who told Che Guevara to hold elections in Cuba has relied on science and the methodical rigors of the laboratory to advance his global mission of humanitarianism.
Kouchner famously challenged the Red Cross’s pathetic neutrality clause with respect to international conflict and came right out and said that the Nigerian government was attempting to exterminate the Ibo tribe in Biafra in 1968. He led brave and dangerous missions to rescue the Boat People of Vietnam and the Kurds of Iraq in the 70s. Speaking before the Carnegie Council a few years ago, Kouchner defined his no-bullshit policy of droit d’ingérence as follows: First he would ask, "‘Mr. Dictator, will you allow us to care for your patients?’ If they said ‘Yes, okay,’ we’d come. If they refused, we’d say, ‘Sorry, but we’re coming anyway’—and would cross the border. It was physically difficult, and some of our people died. Others have been imprisoned for years.” This is all of a piece with Kouchner’s greatest accomplishments in the realm of international law: getting the U.N. to pass one resolution that green-lights interventions in countries that have befallen natural disasters; and getting it to pass another that allows “humanitarian corridors” to be established for victims of unnatural disasters, like genocides.
The Middle East: The Simp and the Sage
Ali is a celebrity post-colonial theorist, a bagman for the Occidentalist conception of history. Big bad empire is to blame for it all. Yet despite being an avowed disciple of Trotsky, Ali sets out to prove that Marxism has never found a more willing helpmeet of women-enslaving theocracy and fundamentalism.
Ali’s work is never done until he’s stuffed as many leftist platitudes and clichés as possible into a single sentence. In his New Left Review essay “Mid-Point in the Middle East?” he extolled Muqtada al-Sadr, Hassan Nasrallah, Ismail Haniyah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as glorious upstarts in the “unfolding drama” of the modern Middle East and writes: “A radical wind is blowing from the alleys and shacks of the latter-day wretched of the earth, surrounded by the fabulous wealth of petroleum.” It’s like an Onion parody of the Socialist Workers’ Party meeting minutes, which might not be far cry from Ali’s rather matey intent: he loves to work in schlocky pop cultural references in his pamphleteering, titling, for instance, his pro-chavismo book Pirates of the Caribbean.
Marx was a genius when it came to handling contradiction and paradox. Ali’s specialty is the literal-minded howler: “I think that the Cuban Revolution has made incredibly important gains—and you can see these when you go, despite the hardships.” What hardships might those be? “If only there was a U.S. media as opposed to its president as its Venezuelan equivalent is to Chavez, U.S. democracy would be greatly enhanced.” If only the U.S. president pulled the plug on Air America…. “Hundreds of thousands of [Iraqi] children are no longer receiving an education” – as opposed to the Saddamist one they were receiving before, in which the first Gulf War never even took place. In Clash of Fundamentalisms, the seminal work of moral equivalence between Bush and Bin Laden, Ali writes, “[T]here exists no exact, incontrovertible evidence about who ordered the hits on New York and Washington or when the plan was first mooted,” just a few paragraphs above emitting the certainty that on 9/11 the “subjects of the Empire had struck back.” May the Force be with you, Tariq.
In 2003, when Barham Salih was still the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, he delivered a speech in Rome before the Council of the Socialist International, to which his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is a member in good standing. Salih called for unequivocal support from his comrades for the then-inevitable liberation of Iraq, saying they had a duty as socialists to oppose “dictatorship and racism.” About halfway through his oration he struck a rather Hegelian note about the cunning of history and the relationship between justice and materialism: “It would be a good irony if at long last oil becomes a cause of our liberation. If this is the case, then so be it. The oil will be a blessing and not the curse that it has been for so long.”
The Kurds of Iraq have been for over a decade the architects and stewards of a model parliamentary government, comprised of women, atheists, socialists and even Islamists, that enjoys the constitutional right to break away and form its own sovereign nation. What ties Kurdistan and Salih to the rest of the Iraq, beyond a solemn desire to see it survive post-Saddam misery and chaos, is indeed oil. Salih chairs a committee in Iraq’s National Assembly on oil and energy policies and is a leading proponent of the U.N.-backed International Compact with Iraq, a liberal five year plan for making the country a global economic power, strengthening its fiscal, political and physical security, and guiding the delicate project of national reconciliation. For these and other importance tasks undertaken by Kurds like Salih, Tariq Ali has called them the “Gurkhas of American empire.”
Such insults are often aimed at the healthy counterparts of demagoguery. An old axiom of the Trotskyist Left Opposition held that in times of historical crisis it was allowable – necessary, in fact – for leftists to make alliances with conservatives against reactionaries, but it was forbidden for leftists to make alliances with reactionaries against conservatives. Chavez, Galloway and Ali claim to stand for “people’s democracy,” but have yet to meet an authoritarian ideal they couldn’t excuse. Thankfully, there are still those on the left around to tell them “Not in our names.”