A destroyed Afghanistan has been an imperialist priority for 200 years

As the British before them, US imperial propaganda treats itself as the victim and those they invaded and occupied as the criminal

On August 18th, shortly after the Taliban took Kabul, former British Prime Minister Theresa May stood up in the British House of Commons and asked: “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” The rhetorical question, as well as the concept of “global Britain” itself, sounds like pandering to a bygone era of imperial glories. But a survey of what it looked like when “global Britain” first showed up on the streets of Kabul, and the nearly two centuries since, could help clear up some muddled thinking about Afghanistan today.

Imperialist designs on Afghanistan

While they were about halfway into their 180 years of plundering $45 trillion from India, the British always knew that an alliance of neighbouring states – the Persian Empire, the Sikh Empire, Afghanistan – could pry their claws off of their prize.

As the British completed the destruction of their rivals and the absorption of territory, Afghanistan came under their hungry gaze. Initially the plan was to install a friendly monarch on the throne and turn him into a pensioner, along the Indian pattern.

The opportunity came in the form of an exiled monarch, Shah Shuja, who the British hoped to install on the throne in Kabul. After elaborate preparation, the British invaded from India in a momentous year for imperialism – 1839. That very same year, they launched the first Opium War on China and began what that country calls its ‘Century of Humiliation’. The army the British sent into Afghanistan consisted mostly of Indian troops, who were treated according to a strict racist hierarchy. “Rather strangely”, writes Farrukh Husain, author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, “the British Indian army operated an apartheid system for provision of food. British soldiers received more food rations than Indian troops and the camp followers received less still.” When food ran low, all of it went to the white soldiers while the native troops starved.

British forces raped, slaughtered, and looted their way through Afghanistan. They kidnapped the wives of their allies. They blew Afghans out of cannons (a move they made more famous in 1857 India). They destroyed the economies of the cities they seized. One British agent, a Kashmiri named Mohan Lal, wrote: “I heard both the men and the women saying that the English enriched the grain and grass sellers…while they reduced the Chiefs to poverty, and killed the poor by starvation.” Upon occupying Kabul, the British raised taxes on the locals – unleashing an army of collectors on Afghans, who had to borrow the money to pay the taxes, and then proceeded to lose their houses and other assets, in a standard pattern repeated throughout the colonized world.

Even centuries ago, the imperialists were interested in Afghan minerals. One held the “opinion that a good geologist would be very useful in Afghanistan as the country is said to abound in minerals of every description.”

But after abusing both their allies and their enemies, the British lost control of Kabul and were driven into retreat. The king they put on the throne, Shah Shuja, was assassinated in 1842.

A less vindictive power might have ended it there, but “teaching the natives a lesson” through extreme violence has also always been a pattern of the imperialists. After their loss the British re-grouped and created an “Army of Revenge” against the Afghans for having the temerity to drive them out. The British destroyed Ghazni, an important city which has never recovered: “Ghazni was lost in the darkness of the night to be forgotten by history.” They also looted the gates at the 800-year old tomb of Mahmood of Ghazni and brought the gates back to the Agra Fort. After Indian independence, the Indian government created an official inscription stating that the gates are “lying here either as a war trophy of the British campaign of 1842, or as a sad reminder of the historic lies of the East India Co.”

The Army of Revenge sought to destroy the agricultural and ecological basis of life in Afghanistan: “Our way of destroying the country is very simple, merely cutting a ring through the bark of every tree. This ruins the country completely as the trees die directly and the inhabitants live principally on dried fruit and flour made from the dried mulberry.” There was no other purpose to this army than destruction: “every house was destroyed, every tree barked or cut down”. Neville Chamberlain reported of a village where all males over puberty were bayoneted, the women were raped and their goods plundered: “This is one of the most beautiful valleys in Affghanistan, but we left it a scene of desolation;” At one fort that the British destroyed, Reverend Allen described the scene: “One woman was the only live thing in the fort. She was sitting, the picture of despair, with her father, brother, husband and children lying dead around her.”

Still the imperial bloodlust was unsatisfied. Upon reaching the capital the British debated whether to destroy Kabul or not (one British commander said “not one stone should have been left standing upon another”), and also whether or not to kidnap the king’s child and bring him up as a Christian in London (which they did to Prince Duleep Singh after the Anglo-Sikh wars). The British finally settled for destroying the most spectacular building in Kabul, the Char Chatta market, described by Farrukh Husain as “the greatest covered bazaar of all Central Asia, a veritable regional trade centre if not world trade centre from whence Afghan lapis, dried fruits and rugs went to far off lands on the silk road.” In his own book about the 1839-1842 war, William Dalrymple described it as “superb structure with its painted wooden vaulting and intricate tilework, said by some to be the single most beautiful building in Afghanistan… originally built during the reign of Shah Jahan and renowned not just as one of the supreme wonders of Mughal architecture but as one of the greatest buildings in all Central Asia.”

The dynamiting of Char Chatta bazaar was part of a general carnage enacted by the British in Kabul: “the city was pillaged, and fired in a hundred different places. Numbers of the European soldiers… and crowds of sepoys and followers from both camps, poured in, through many unwalled spaces, and with little interference from the troops on duty, who indeed, to a certain extent aided and abetted, the work of plunder and destruction was carried on, and the few remaining inhabitants were exposed to outrage.” “Outrage” itself was a euphemism for rape, murder, indiscriminate killing, enslaving and trading of women, burning of wounded people alive. “Many a hiding mother hen and newborn infant died. But such things like these you know must be at every famous victorie.” Murder and loot went together: “All day the sack went on, and great booty did the captors get, rich dresses, shawls, carpets, silks, horse trappings, arms, emblazoned Korans, etc”

The engineered demolition of the most magnificent building in Central Asia was not an accident or a crime of passion. Imperialists always try to destroy the cultural heritage of their targets. The same way that Iraq’s National Museum was looted immediately after the US occupation began in 2003, the destruction of Afghanistan’s culture has been an objective of the imperialists for centuries.

On their way back to their base in their Indian colony, the British destroyed other cities, including Jalalabad, which they left “a smoking mass of ruins”. When the British left Afghanistan, one officer writes in 1843: “The work of retribution was now deemed accomplished, and, indeed, it was severe…nor will years repair the damage and evils inflicted”. Another writer, Roebuck, summarized it: “Ghuznee, Cabul, Istalif and Jalalabad have shared a common doom; havoc and desolation have marked the path of our conquered armies, and as fell a revenge has been inflicted on our foes as the warmest advocate of retaliation could desire.”

One British Minister of Parliament, William Hutt, lamented the loss of business opportunities: “We had destroyed every town which could afford us a market, and centuries would elapse before Affghanistan recovered from the misery and desolation in which it had been plunged.”

Having failed to subjugate Afghans, the British imperialists decided the country was to be a buffer zone and dedicated themselves to ensuring it would remain divided, undeveloped, and ideally controlled by compliant rulers. But even this arrangement could not be accomplished without additional wars.

Modernization efforts clash with imperialist designs

The decades after the 1839-1842 war on Afghanistan were decisive in the history of imperialism.

On the North American continent, the United States took all of northern Mexico in the Mexican American war of 1846-8 and followed it with a series of wars and genocides against Indigenous nations. Most of what is now Canada was stolen from First Nations at the same time.

Having devastated Afghanistan, the British next put an end to the Sikh Empire in 1849. In 1852, the British took more territory in Burma. I’ve already mentioned the war of 1857, during which the British faced a powerful challenge to their rule in India. Diminished as a “mutiny”, the uprising was multi-religious, multi-caste, across much of the country, and nearly succeeded in ousting the British, who suppressed it by killing millions. In the decades that followed, documented by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts, imperialists broke down China’s and India’s sophisticated agricultural systems and tens of millions of Asians died in the resulting famines.

Enjoying years of calm left behind after the mass slaughter of 1857, the British decided in the 1870s to try again to annex Afghanistan. The propaganda of “avenging” the losses of the first round was revved up, including a famous painting of a lone survivor of the 1842 retreat. The horrible cliche of invincible savage Afghans is less the product of multiple wars and more the product of multiple rounds of war propaganda.

In the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-9, Britain imposed the humiliating treaty of Gandamak on Afghanistan, which gave Britain control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy (this was a time when successive humiliating treaties were also foisted on China and Indigenous nations in North America). In 1893, Mortimer Durand – whose father had helped destroy Afghanistan in the 1839-1842 war – went to Kabul and imposed a division of the Pashtun lands into the British India side and the Afghanistan side, seeding a century of conflict with the stroke of a pen.

The British invaded Afghanistan again in 1897 to suppress what they called the Malakand Uprising, with the same vindictive imperial purpose. Winston Churchill was there, and what he told a friend was representative: “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter. The Mohmands need a lesson, and there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.”

On the Afghan side, though, the drive to modernize (chronicled in Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire) was strong – inspired by Turkey, Japan, and the Russian Revolution, the courts of the Afghan monarchs debated ideas and envisioned building a state capable of withstanding imperial pressure. In February 1919, the young king Amanullah Khan took the throne. The new Soviet Union, itself desperately fighting off an invasion by the imperialists, quickly extended recognition to the new monarch. A short war with the British followed in May, which ended with Afghanistan winning foreign policy independence. Having just slaughtered 1,000 Indians at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in April, The British may have been concerned about the morale and reliability of their Indian troops – these were the men who, after all, fought the British Empire’s wars.

Afghan history has had many twists and turns since Amanullah won its independence in 1919. One under-appreciated theme: it has been a century of nationalists struggling to modernize their country in the face of imperialism. If it is rarely understood this way, it could be, among other reasons, because many of the nationalists killed each other.

In 1929, Amanullah was overthrown in a British backed regime-change operation and a series of short-lived rulers followed, until king Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933-1973. Zahir Shah was also a modernizer, who tried to develop the country under growing pressure from the new US empire.

When the CIA overthrew neighbouring Iran’s elected government and installed the pro-US Shah in 1953, the US gained its own independent military foothold in the region. Taking over the British imperial role, the US injected a new ideology of “development”, as well as “democracy and human rights”, to compete with the socialism and independent national development desired in the colonies. US Historian Nick Cullather wrote in 2002: “The confrontation between colonizer and colonized, rich and poor, was with a rhetorical gesture replaced by a world order in which all nations were either developed or developing.” And in this scheme, Afghanistan “suddenly became ‘underdeveloped’”. Daud Khan, the king’s cousin, said succinctly: “Afghanistan is a backward country. We must do something about it or die as a nation.”

And much was done about it, with help from both Cold War blocs. The USSR built highways linking Kabul to the Central Asian Republics, including the engineering feat of cutting the 2.67km Salang Tunnel through the Hindu Kush mountains in 1964. Germany and Japan built factories and radio towers.

The flagship US project was the Helmand Valley Authority, which historian Arnold Toynbee described as “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape.” Through the Helmand Valley Authority, which ran from 1946-1979, America engaged Morrison-Knudson – builders of Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, active all over the world – to build a network of dams. Agricultural fields – which now grow opium – in Helmand were improved and made capable of multicropping. In Afghanistan in this period, Cullather notes, the Cold War was “fought with money and technicians instead of spies and bombs.”

In fact the spies and bombs were well on their way. From 1964-1973, there was a famous “democratic opening”, during which the US exercised influence over pro-US Afghan politicians to try to exclude the left. In 1973, Daud Khan, another modernizer, took over in a coup. There is evidence in the Wikileaks Kissinger Cables that the US were themselves planning a coup that year to counter the growing influence of left-wing politics. The first mujahadeen uprising occurred against Daud’s modernizing efforts in 1975 – led by Ahmad Shah Masoud of the Panjshir Valley, it failed to win any popular support and was easily crushed. In 1977, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto had offered a degree of support to the mujahadeen: Zia-ul-Haq radically stepped that support up. In 1978, Daud himself was overthrown by the left-wing, and Muhammad Taraki became president. A co-founder of what was called the Saur Revolution was Hafizullah Amin. Taraki was president from April 1978-September 1979. He was killed (maybe by Amin). Then Amin took over from September 1979-December 1979.

During the Taraki/Amin year and a half, there was a land reform, which was very popular with farmers and very unpopular with landlords. A number of these disaffected elites went to Pakistan to organize a revolt. The US supported these exiles, in a pattern familiar across the world of the US supporting right-wing insurgencies against left-wing governments. With an open border with Pakistan and virtually unlimited financial resources and weapons from the US, Saudi Arabia, and China, the mujahadeen quickly became a viable threat to the Afghan government, which asked the USSR for military support in 1979. When Soviet troops arrived, the Afghan leader who had invited them, Hafizullah Amin, was himself killed in still-unclear circumstances. Babrak Karmal – a former student leader and parliamentarian with a stronger relationship to Moscow – took over leadership.

The controversial post-1979 period

History is always contentious, but historical consensus on interpretations, or even facts, of an ongoing civil war is impossible. How to interpret the history of the past forty years? The standard interpretation argues that reformers from Amanullah to Zahir Shah, Daud, Taraki, Amin, and Karmal all tried to do too much too fast, failing to respect the deep conservatism of the Afghan people. But that is too shallow of an analysis. Every reform faces a conservative backlash and if the backlash succeeds, the reform itself can always be blamed for provoking it.

What we can say is: From 1979-1987, Afghanistan became the epicenter of a US-supported insurgency against the Afghan government and its Russian ally. The war devastated the country but the government’s modernization efforts continued. From when the Soviets arrived in 1979 until the end, the mujahadeen never again would pose a strong enough military threat to overthrow the government. Media commentators of all viewpoints in the 1980s admonished readers that “there was no military solution in Afghanistan” for either side. Yet Afghan’s government did fall: its demise was negotiated by Gorbechev and then Yeltsin. Hoping to appease the US, the Russian leaders agreed to abandon their allies in Afghanistan – and kept their word. Meanwhile the US, having made the same agreement, blithely continued to support the overthrow of the Afghan government and reject the reconciliation efforts of Afghanistan’s last modernizer, Mohammad Najibullah, who had succeeded Karmal in 1986. Even when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Najibullah’s government held on until 1992, when airlifts from Russia were halted altogether.

From 1992-2021: what the imperialists built

So it was in 1992 the US-sponsored insurgents finally toppled the Afghan government and proceeded to cleanse the country of communism and the idea of modernizing, nationalist reforms.

The mujahadeen then applied their skills in state destruction on the whole of the country. While some warlords were content to contain their depredations to their own base areas, two warlords in particular wanted control of Kabul and couldn’t agree – one was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other was Burnuhuddin Rabbani (and Ahmad Shah Massoud). Hekmatyar was kicked out and proceeded to shell Kabul from outside. The 1992-1996 war destroyed much of what little development had survived the previous decade.

Into this context were born the Taliban, a group of young men raised entirely during war and by the Islamists with no influence from nationalism or communism (which had been cleansed from public memory). They repudiated the atrocities and chaos of the warlords and promised to bring them to an end. Starting in the refugee camps of Pakistan where they grew up, they took Kandahar, advancing quickly from 1994-1996 until they took Kabul. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from Kabul (though several warlords continued to control northern areas and maintained an anti-Taliban alliance). In 2001, the US invaded, re-organized the warlords, and overthrew the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan.

The US imposed their own candidate, Hamid Karzai as president under an Afghan-American viceroy, Zalmay Khalilzad. For the next 20 years, Karzai and then his successor, Ghani, ruled over the warlords; the US, through Khalilzad, ruled over Karzai and Ghani. Called ‘indirect rule’ in the 19th century, this arrangement would have been familiar to the British imperialists of that era. So, too, would the US’s geopolitical imperative: having lost its Iranian bases in 1979, the US had gained a covert new foothold in Pakistan that same year, but didn’t get the full power conferred by military occupation and multiple bases in Afghanistan until 2001.

For the next 20 years, the US treated Afghanistan as a video gameworld for practicing drone warfare, protected the opium trade, and committed continuous atrocities, including hunting Afghans for sport, while making it a playground for private contractors and NGOs. US bombs and night raids, which probably killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and the indifference to these deaths shown by the US-sponsored government, made support for the Taliban inevitable.

The 1996-2001 Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, massacred minorities, and subjugated women as severely as the mujahadeen. Will they be worse, better, or the same as the US-backed mujahadeen? It is too soon to tell, but here are two anecdotes.

First, the mujahadeen and the CIA turned Afghanistan into the world’s leading opium producer from the 1980s. The Taliban taxed opium but discouraged production, and in 2000 – whether for reasons of market manipulation or earnest principle – reduced opium production in Afghanistan to nearly zero. In 2001 they were overthrown and opium cultivation returned to even higher levels than before under US protection.

Second, like the mujahadeen among whom they grew up, the Taliban built almost nothing, but they did complete one infrastructure project. Cullather reported it in 2002: “During its five years in power, the Taliban government invested in the dams and finished one project begun but not completed by the Americans: linking the Kajakai Dam’s hydroelectric plant to the city of Kandahar. Work was finished in early 2001, just a few months before American bombers destroyed the plant.”

AEP 90: Cuba demonstrations and Cuba blockade, with Reed Lindsay

The US embargo on Cuba is the problem

Joe Emersberger and I talk to Reed Lindsay, journalist and filmmaker with Belly of the Beast, a media organization focusing on Cuba and Cuba-US relations. Among their films is a 3-part series called the War on Cuba available on YouTube. Reed was at the recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Havana and talks about how the scarcities and difficulties of life have everything to do with the 60-year, ever-intensifying economic blockade against Cuba imposed by the United States. 

Monsters in our Midst 3: What is the Gaza Strip? Why Support the Resistance?

Short imperialist history of the Gaza Strip

The focus on Hamas is a product of the rolling amnesia of empire, as if the history of Israeli attacks on Palestinians can be narrowed to the last few decades, then distorted further. Against this tendency, this episode reviews the basic historical and geographic background to this crisis, showing the place of Palestine and the Gaza Strip in the history of imperial expansion, and placing the current horrors in their essential context.

Episode 46 of In the Context of Empire

Matt McKenna from In the Context of Empire interviewing… me.

I was a guest on the fantastic podcast, In the Context of Empire, where I spoke with co-host Matt McKenna about lots of things, but mainly about how imperialist propaganda works. 

AEP 80: My comments on The Arrest of Meng Wanzhou and the New Cold War on China

Canada’s history of racism

On March 1, I was on a panel hosted by the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War, the Canadian Peace Congress, World Beyond War, the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, and Just Peace Associates. The topic was “the Arrest of Meng Wanzhou and the New Cold War on China”. Other panelists were Radhika Desai, William Ging Wee Dere, and John Ross – all of whom covered different aspects of the situation. I focused my remarks on Canada’s own record of genocide and racism, summarizing some of what we’ve been talking about in recent Civilizations episodes. The whole panel is out there on youtube – this audio is just my talk, 17 minutes long.

AEP 70: Reading Chomsky’s statement to the Assange Trial

Chomsky’s statement was entered into the record of the Assange Trial

On the last day of defense evidence in the Assange Trial (September 30/20), a statement from Chomsky was read into the record. This is a solo episode where I go over Chomsky’s succinct, remarkable statement about power, propaganda, and the importance of Assange’s work.

AEP 64: Rwanda threatens Congolese doctor

A sixteen minute solo episode about James Kabarebe, special presidential advisor in Rwanda, and his recent threatening comments towards Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege.

Read my profile of Mukwege from 2013

Why is Rwanda so afraid of Dr. Mukwege? france-rwanda August 14, 2020

A petition from Bukavu – end impunity in Congo August 2020

The UN Mapping Report on human rights violations in DR Congo 1993-2003

AEP 59: The American Trap sprung on Tiktok and Huawei, with Carl Zha

The American Trap is sprung on Tiktok and Huawei

Back with Carl Zha of Silk & Steel podcast, who we last saw in our episode on the India-China border conflict. 

We’re thinking of calling this the Kung Fu Yoga series. In this one, Justin has just finished reading the terrifying book The American Trap by Frederic Pierucci (which Carl notes has 100,000 reviews for the Chinese edition so far). Pierucci was jailed for 30 months in the US in a 5-year long ordeal that ended in his company, the French multinational Alstom, selling off its entire nuclear division to General Electric. 

We talk about Pierucci’s case in detail and its relevance to the kidnapping of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei and Trump’s ban of Tiktok: the use of the US’s judicial apparatus to seize billions in assets from other countries, including allied countries, and including entire businesses. 

Carl thinks China’s only possible response is to build its own tech stack from the bottom up.

Chomsky vs the Media, 2020 version

Chomsky signed a letter about free speech and something called “cancel culture“, which has prompted a small social media wave of responses.

There is a good piece by Jonathan Cook about how focusing on Chomsky’s signature misses the point. But I am going to focus only on Chomsky here.

My argument: Chomsky’s most powerful message is anti-imperialism. Containing that message has been the preoccupation of the propaganda system since the 1960s.

In 1973, they shut down a whole company and pulped the print run of his book with Ed Herman, Counter-Revolutionary Violence.

Mostly, though after the peak of protests, he was just driven out of the mainstream. He published with activist publishers and the alternative media.

Like Z Magazine and ZNet, one of the principals of whom was Michael Albert, who’s now… a podcaster.

Beyond marginalizing him, they also smeared him. Because he compared Indonesia’s Timor massacres to Cambodia massacres, they called him denialist.

A French publisher slapped a free speech essay he wrote on a holocaust denier’s book, and they smeared him about that.

In the 1990s, a new generation of people discovered Chomsky on the web. The web was different then. Not fully sealed up by the tech giants.

Chomsky’s influence grew and some of the alternative media also grew and became mainstream or close. By the time of the Afghanistan War 2001, he could no longer be marginalized.

Indeed it became a good careerist move to make a showy denunciation of Chomsky in the mainstream. It worked for Samantha Power, for example.

A hilarious 2005 interview by Emma Brockes in the Guardian resulted in a very extensive corrections page that was basically a retraction.

Johann Hari, who went somewhat downhill and then turned around and did some good work since, invented a comment by Chomsky at a luncheon.

George Monbiot did the same in the 2010s, and others.

These are just off the top of my head and intended to reveal the particular way that Chomsky was handled by the mainstream in the 2000s: try to introduce inaccuracies and falsehoods; prove your liberal credentials by denouncing Chomsky the leftist.

Chomsky’s influence didn’t stop, but the whole media ecosystem that he analyzed has changed. So has the strategy for containing him.

The strategy today is to select the views that he holds that are closest to the mainstream and amplify those, while de-emphasizing the anti-imperialism.

That’s what the Intercept does when it sends someone to interview Chomsky on how Biden is the lesser evil.

That’s what the new “cancel culture” petition is about.

Yes, Chomsky is a free speech absolutist, he’s a lesser-evilist on electoral politics, he’s a two-stater on Palestine, he broadly prefers nonviolent strategies, and is critical of every state, including those targeted by imperialism.

But can find those views everywhere in the mainstream. They are not why people admire Chomsky and they are not why imperialists hate Chomsky.

Chomsky says that every US president is a war criminal.

Chomsky talks about the US sanctions against Cuba.

Chomsky talks about the US-led counterinsurgency in Colombia.

Activists in every anti-war movement in the US since the Vietnam war have relied on Chomsky’s analysis and arguments; including movements against Israel’s wars in Lebanon & Occupied Palestine.

Chomsky talks about how propaganda systems work and push for war.

Chomsky believes in challenging the reader or audience: in Canada, he talks about Canada’s crimes, because it’s cowardly to denounce crimes you can’t affect while doing nothing about crimes you can affect.

There’s much more. My point: Chomsky is a proven person of principle, impossible to deny. The Biden people, the “cancel culture” people, they want to use that to advance their agendas.

As they do so, they want you to forget the anti-imperialism that is what Chomsky is really about and has been about for 50 years.

This is just the 2020 iteration of the campaign to contain Chomsky’s anti-imperialism.

Whether you’re disappointed that Chomsky signed that letter or newly concerned about cancel culture because Chomsky signed the letter, consider this option – read enough of his work to get a sense of what it is about, and if you like his ideas, principles, and methods try to assimilate them into your world view.

GUEST POST: 21st Century Fascism? I’m afraid so.

by Hector Mondragon, November 12 2018. Translated from Spanish by Justin Podur.

Facing the wave of growth and success of political and social movements of the ultra-right, it is necessary to ask: are we witnessing the rise of a series of fascist movements in many parts of the world as occurred in the 1930s? Or is fascism an unrepeatable historical phenomenon limited to the period between the two world wars?

Some consider that fascism only arose to prevent the victory of socialist revolutions or to stop the communists, but “fascism did not triumph when the bourgeois was threatened with proletarian revolution, but rather when the working class was weakened and put on the defensive.” The role of fascism was not to overcome the socialist revolution but to “erase the conquests of reformist socialism.”i

In Germany it was the social democrats that liquidated Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebnecht and stopped the communists fifteen years before the Nazi triumph. The Soviet Republic in Hungary was stopped by the invasion of the Rumanian army sent by the Liberal party. In Italy the occupations of the factories and the workers’ councils were stopped by the Liberal Party two years before the triumph of the fascists. Fascist propaganda insisted and insists always on a “communist threat” but for the past 90 years, capitalism has used the fascist “solution” to destroy reforms and human rights after the “communist threat” has been defeated.

What then is the difference between the Italian blackshirts, the German brownshirts, the Rumanian iron guards, the Ukrainian flagmen, the Hungarian arrow cross, the Spanish falange or the Croation Ustache – and today’s ultra-right parties?

All of the protagonists of European fascism of the last century professed a visceral hatred of Jews, expressed in extreme form in Germany, Ukraine, Romania and Croatia and culminating in the Holocaust. Today, by contrast, with the exception of Ukraine’s Svoboda, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn, the KKK and a few small neonazi groups, the majority of the global right is pro-Israel and supports the extermination of the Palestinians.

In general, on the xenophobic right, anti-Semitism has been replaced by Islamophobiaii, hatred of refugees, and particular racisms, like that expressed on the US right against Mexicansiii. In other aspects, however, despite its diversity, the 21st century ultra-right bears a growing resemblance to the European fascism of the 1930

. This is not coincidence. Fascism is a phenomenon specific to the crises of certain phases of the imperialist and capitalist order.iv v vi

Those who believe in the “end of history” – that colonialism is a thing of the past and capitalism is the final historical order – incorrectly discard the notion of a rebirth of fascism. The reality is very different. In this century so far, imperialist wars have destroyed Iraq, Libya, and Syria, all as a way of resolving the cyclical crises of capitalism. The recolonization of the Middle East is a fact. Colonialism was in retreat during the period that began with the fall of Nazism and ended with the US loss in Vietnam. It has returned with force in the past three decades.

To understand how fascism arises from the necessities of internal and external imperial wars, Hitler’s January 27 1932 speech to the industrialists at Dusseldorf is instructive. This speech convinced big business to support the Nazi solution.vii

Hitler explained that the defense of private property required a dictatorship like that of the Fuhrer. Because private property is the result of economic inequality and different classes of citizens, to defend private property it would be necessary to impose political inequality, hierarchy, and authoritarianism. Hitler explained that England did not just go to India sell its wares; it obliged India to buy them by invading the country. If the businessmen wanted the success of their enterprises, they had to support Nazism to conquer new markets and resources in the wider world and destroy the “Bolshevism” that was damaging the racial and national unity needed for victory.

In this speech, unusually light on Hitler’s characteristic constant attacks against the Jews, Hitler focused on “Bolshevism”: not just the need to stop it, but also to stop it from dividing the people and spreading a mentality opposed to the singular national interest. The businessmen applauded loudly for several minutes. Hitler’s program for big German business included a wave of privatizationsviii ix – and was only stopped by the fall of Nazism itself.

For Milton Friedman and the Chicago School to impose neoliberalism on Chile, it was not just necessary to prepare an elite of Chilean economists. It was also necessary to install Pinochet’s “Patria y Libertad” to impose the laws of the market.

Vilfredo Pareto, the economist considered by neoliberals as the precursor of their “libertarian” ideas, raged against strikes as the enemies of an economic optimum. He hated the worker’s movement’s taking over factories. He celebrated the ascent of Mussolini to power. Even though Pareto himself was not a fascist, the fascists made him a senator-for-life. In the first few years of his government, Mussolini followed Pareto’s prescriptions to the letter, destroying political liberalism, reducing state administration in favor of private enterprise, reducing property taxes, favoring industry, and imposing religious education.x The capitalists and neoliberal economists would prefer not to associate with fascists and repudiate their ideology, but they acclaim it when it is time to smash “Bolshevism” and go to war with other countries.

As it did 90 years ago, fascism today liquidates the gains of workers and collective rights, cleanses universities and schools, and promotes war. When the domination of transnational capital is not maintained merely by the laws of the market, it is maintained by direct violence. When institutional solutions are insufficient, the mass mobilization of one part of civil society is used against the rest.

Colonialism has strengthened. What is today called “extractivism” was once called “accumulation by dispossession”. It reigns throughout multiple parts of the world, an expression of the strength of colonial enterprises that have existed for centuries. It is the exact same primitive accumulation that occurred in the original phase of colonialism.xi xii

In the 20th century, war was integrated with colonial enterprise and the destruction of competitor capital (as we saw in Iraq, Libya, and earlier in Yugoslavia) in a way that foreshadowed the destruction of local capital, the conquest of new markets, new investment zones and sources of land, minerals, gas and petroleum.

But imperialism, colonialism and war are not in themselves fascism, which is a mass movement based in the middle class and the unemployed, mobilized in diverse forms – including armed militias – to destroy workers’ rights and organizations and perpetuate war in the interests of transnational capital and landowners. In Latin America, the landowners always have their paramilitary bands at the readyxiii.

In contrast to other forms of authoritarianism, the success of fascism is guaranteed by the mass mobilization of the middle class against the “enemies of the nation”, be they Jews, Communists, Africans, refugees, Muslims, or Mexicans.

As the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “ …it can accordingly seem that there is no enemy. It is then a fundamental requirement that the enemy be found, brought to light, or even created so that this stand against the enemy may take place… with the goal of complete extermination.”xiv

The state that persecutes the enemy, according to the theorists of nazism, is not merely the judicial institution, but the people’s Being intrinsically united with its leader (Heidegger). It’s not a state machinery, but the people organized by the nazi party organized through its Fuhrer that is the source of law (Rosemberg). It is not the law that establishes order, but the “movement” that imposes an order, from which the law springs(Schmitt).xv

This is why Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, presented the thesis that civil society is itself a form of the state. This makes the problem of emancipation more complicated and more dramatic. “Civil society could very well express violence and oppression not inferior to that of the state, and very unscrupulous besides, and it will tend to exercise this violence without obstructions since it has no concern with even the pretense of impartiality.”xvi

The idea of needing to attack an enemy was and is a part of an ultra-right wing strategy, with false information used to agitate about the fantasy of the enemy. The great theorist of what is now called “fake news” was the publicist of Siemens and the Reemtsma tobacco company, Hans Domizlaff, who began his application of marketing techniques to politics in 1932.xvii

According to Domizlaff, “people can believe in gross lies or, in any case, there can be found freedom for action if lies are openly told and obstinately maintained…xviii the masses cannot be educated, only domesticated, led, and voided.”xix

In the 21st century the role of enemy is assigned in Europe and the US to migrants, especially refugees or to “terrorist” Muslims. In Latin America it continues to be “communists”, the political left, as it was in the time of the Doctrine of National Security.

But more and more, in the north and in Latin America, LGBTQ communities are targeted, called the “gender ideology”, with propaganda about apparent “scientific” research into gender. This is not new.

Homophobia was one of the hooks the Nazis used to win over religious sectors. Magnus Hirschfield’s theory of the “third sex” and his books on homosexuality and transgender were attacked. Hirschfield’s Institute for Sexual Research was the target of homphobic attack. Its administrator Kurt Hiller was sent to a concentration camp in March 1933 and on May 6 the building was occupied and its archives, photos, and library were confiscated to be burned in the famous book-burning of May 10, 1933.xx

The bonfire linked the “judeo-bolshevik conspiracy” and the third sex. Homophobia played a mobilizing role in the bonfire and in the concentration camps. The annihilation of the third sex occurred alongside the extermination of communists, unionists, Jews and Roma – the extermination of the enemy. The state apparatus, from its perch in the universities to its gas chambers, was rooted in the “people’s Being” directed by its leader.

The ultra-right of the 21st century, especially in Latin America, has rediscovered the role of homophobia. The struggle against “gender ideology” was embedded in the “No” vote against the Colombian peace accords and has moved millions of votes from Brazil to the US, including Costa Rica, where an important group of churches joined these homophobic manipulations with enthusiasm.

The manipulation of religion by the ultra-right is not limited to homophobia. For more than one hundred years the right has developed a theology of war. The spread of Wahhabism in the Muslim world has served as the basis for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and the “dispensationalism” of Cyrus Scofield has played a role in the West in creating a war theology, nourishing militarism on the evangelical right-wing.

The Islamic State is apocalyptic: it is preparing for the final battle of history, in which Jesus and the Mahdi will fight alongside them. “Dispensationalism” also views war in the Middle East as anticipation of Armageddon and considers US support for Israel part of a divine plan. The faithful expect to be transported directly to heaven before seven years of great disasters, at the end of which will occur the great battle of Armageddon, when Jesus will return to defend Israel.xxi

As the Nazis struggled against the conspiracy outlined in the “protocols of the elders of Zion”, the Latin American ultra-right struggles against the conspiracy of the Forum of Sao Paolo, which they believe wishes to impose communism and homosexualism. Bolshevism, however, has changed: it is no longer a Jewish conspiracy but the source of conspiracy, since Israel is now an ally and the Palestinians the enemy.

The ultra-right of the Americas is diverse, but its common symbols and leaders are always anti-communist, loyal to the US, and loyal to the transnational corporations. Under these three principles, religious fundamentalism can easily co-exist with the debauched life of Donald Trump. The white supremacists of the US are not in agreement among themselves about anti-Semitism. But the Klan and the neo-Nazis continue to co-exist and to coordinate on common projects like the wall on the border with Mexico.

The ultra-right in Europe is more divided. There are anti-EU and pro-EU ultra-rightists. There is one anti-Semitic right and another Islamophobic right. In Israel, the extermination of Palestinians signals fascism; in Islamic countries it’s Wahhabism; in India it is Hindu supermacy and there is even a Buddhist right-wing in Thailand and Burma. All of the ultra-rights deny our common humanity, are xenophobic and racist, homophobic and enemies of human rights and of international law.

Not every ultra-right is fascist. Several have given rise to diverse Bonapartes,xxii xxiii whether by electoral movements or by military-parliamentary-or judicial coups. Laws and repressive means strengthen state oppression, but fascism is not simply the repression of the system towards its enemies. The triumph of fascism is a qualitative change. xxiv xxv

For fascist regimes to establish themselves it is not sufficient for there to be a fascist party, nor is it sufficient that the president be a fascist. Fascism requires a mass movement that is capable of smashing the organizations of workers and of minorities, and capable of supporting perpetual wars. Fascism in the 21st century is reaching that point.

It is time to resist.

i BAUER, Otto (1936) Zwischen zwei Weltkriegen?. Bratislava: Eugen Prager Verlag, p. 136.

ii HUNTINGTON, Samuel 1997 O Choque das Civilizações e a recomposição da ordem mundial. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Objetiva.

iii HUNTINGTON, Samuel 2004. ¿Quiénes somos?: los desafíos a la identidad nacional estadounidense. Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica.

iv MANDEL, Ernest (1969) El Fascismo. Revolta Global, p.10.

v POULANTZAS, Nicos (1970) Fascismo e Ditadura. Porto: Portucalense, 1972, p. 13.

vi DIMITROV, Jorge (1935) “La ofensiva del fascismo y las tareas de la Internacional Comunista en la lucha por la unidad dela clase obrera contra el fascismo”; Informe ante en VII Congreso Mundial de la Internacional Comunista, 2 de agosto de 1935. Selección de trabajos. Buenos Aires: Estudio, 1972.

vii HITLER, Adolf (1932) “The Dusseldorf Speech of 1932”; C N Trueman editor. The History Learning Site, 22 May 2015.

viii BUCHHEIM, Christoph and Jonas SCHERNER (2006).”The Role of Private Property in the Nazi Economy: The Case of Industry”. The Journal of Economic History 66(2) 390-416 (406). Cambridge University Press.

ix BEL, Germà (13 de noviembre de 2004). “Against the mainstream: Nazi privatization in 1930s Germany”. Universitat de Barcelona i ppre-IREA.

x BORKENAU, Franz (1936) Pareto. New York: John Wiley & Sons, p.40.

xi HARVEY, David (2004) “El ‘nuevo imperialismo’: acumulación por desposesión”; Leo Pantich & Colin Leys (Ed.) El nuevo desafío imperial, p.p. 99-129. Merlin Press-Clacso.

xii MARX, Karl (1867) El Capital, v. I, c. XXIV-XXV. Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, 1974, p.p. 607-650.

xiii See the character Attila in the film Novecento, by Bernardo BERTOLUCCI (1976).

xiv HEIDEGGER, Martin. Gesamtausgabe, 36/37, Sein und Wahrheit. 1. Die Grundfrage der Philosophie. 2. Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, Frankfurt am Main, Klostermann, 2001, éd. por Hartmut Tietjen, [GA 36/37], 90-91.

xv FAYE, Emmanuel (2005) “El derecho y la raza: Erik Wolf entre Heidegger, Schmitt y Rosenberg”. Heidegger: La introducción del nazismo en filosofía. Madrid: Akal, 2009, 2018, capítulo7.

xvi LOSURDO, Doménico 1997. “Com Gramsci, para além de Marx e Gramsci”; Crítica Marxista 3-4. Roma.

xvii DOMIZLAFF, Hans (1932) Propagandamittel der Staatsidee. Altona-Othmarschen.

xviii DOMIZLAFF, Hans (1952) Brevier für Könige. Massenpsychologisches Praktikum. Hamburg, Institut für Markentechnik, p. 208.

xix Ibidem, p. 288.

xx BAUER, Heike (2017). The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. Temple University Press, p. 92.

xxi SIZER, Stephen (2006) Sionismo cristiano ¿hoja de ruta a Armagedón? Bósforo libros, 2009.

xxii THALHEIMER, August (1928) “Über den Faschismus”; internes Dokument der Komintern, 1928 ; Gegen den Strom, theoretischer Zeitschrift der KPD(O), 1930.

xxiii TROTSKY, Leon (1934) “Bonapartism and Fascism”; New International, 1(2): 37-38.

xxiv Ibid.

xxv DIMITROV, Jorge; op. cit.

translated by Justin Podur