Globalisation: Linguistics and Imperialism

Noam Chomsky is an energetic presence on the left, adding his voice to many protests against injustice around the world. He can be relied upon to sign open letters and to speak on political platforms devoted to progressive campaigns. He stands four-square against imperialism, and in this respect he is a valuable player in the anti-globalisation movement that claims that another world is possible, another world to capitalist globalisation in which there are genuine bonds of international solidarity. In this capacity as activist, he is known to be some kind of anarchist, though it is not always clear to those who invite him to speak what that means. And, as an added ingredient of his well-earned authority, of status that he brings to many campaigns, Chomsky is also known to be a respected academic, a distinguished researcher in the field of linguistics, of the study and theory of how language works. But, in fact, although Chomsky works on linguistics as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and even though he has plenty to say about the use of propaganda as a key part of imperialist power, he has nothing to say about the link between language and politics. That gap, that refusal to say anything about the link between his academic and political work, enables us to see something important about the role of ‘globalisation’ today, how it works, and how it relies on forms of expertise that marginalise people around the world.

Chris Knight’s new book ‘Decoding Chomsky’ examines the gap between linguistics and politics, and spells out some of the consequences, expanding arguments that have already been rehearsed by Knight in journal articles and in video presentations. Knight is in a strong position to make this argument, a respected academic stalwart of the ‘Radical Anthropology Group’ and long-standing activist who put his political work on the line against the academic institution. Past editor of the magazine of the tiny Trotskyist group ‘Chartist’ and then a leader of the ‘Chartist minority tendency’, he has continued linking theoretical critique with radical activism, flirting with a number of different groups since. His book on Chomsky is a thoroughly researched impassioned critique of the separation between academic knowledge and radical politics, but it fares less well in dealing with an equally problematic aspect of Chomsky’s work that replicates and reinforces that separation, that is, the separation between the global and the local, between globalisation and indigenous knowledge. One would expect that Knight as a trained anthropologist would be a bit more canny about this, and be able to home in on the way that Chomsky ends up trumpeting Western science in the field of linguistics over how different language groups actually speak.

This is a vitally important question for any genuinely internationalist revolutionary movement that has learnt from the history of colonialism and imperialism and that reflects for a moment on how the Western left is implicated in that history. Globalisation today is a process of insidious control that continues the dynamic of market expansion that Marx noticed back in the first volume of Capital; it forces local cultures around the world to adapt to the market, and to the dominant ideological parameters of what it is to be a good economically active citizen as specified and managed by the old imperial centres, in Europe and then the United States, and in the new imperial states, such as Russia and China that mimic the old powers in order to push capitalist  growth. That process of globalisation today entails its own peculiar forms of ‘recuperation’ of local economies so that what is ‘indigenous’ does not pose a threat to industrialisation but is harnessed to it. And so it is, for example, with the phenomenon of ‘glocalisation’ which is able to get niche markets to work in the service of what is, at its base, a commodified standardised world culture governed by and feeding the super-rich.

Chomsky himself is deeply contradictory on this score. At the one moment hailing indigenous struggles as the cutting edge of popular resistance against globalisation, and, at the next, explicitly proclaiming himself to be in favour of globalisation. Knight’s book does help make sense of that paradox, but there are limits to his critique. Before we return to that blind-spot in Knight’s account, let’s look at some of the paradoxes he does neatly identify in Chomsky’s work that throw more light on this particular problem of globalisation.

Knight’s argument is that Chomsky’s work on a universal grammar funded by the Pentagon – and there is no doubt about this, Chomsky is quite open in citing military support for his revolutionary work on syntax – is systematically sealed off from Chomsky’s own anti-war activity. The theoretical and practical stakes of this are high, the linguistic work on universal syntactical structures was part of the Pentagon project to develop a basic machine language that would enable the development of a human-machine interface with weapons technology. That is, the Pentagon knows better something about the connection between theory and practice than Chomsky. This is, in some senses, Knight claims, a choice made by Chomsky that repeats the choice that the French philosopher René Descartes made in separating mind from body. That separation was made in the context of what Descartes was learning about the suppression by the Catholic Church of Galileo’s work, and Descartes drew the conclusion that it was prudent to speak about the body in such a way as to keep it well out of the domain of theology.

No wonder, then, that Chomsky takes Descartes as one of his intellectual heroes. And when Chomsky is asked about the connection between his theories of abstract global grammar and his political work, he says that he doesn’t make the connection – he claims that his mind works like a computer with two separate buffers – and he scorns the contribution of anyone who is not an ‘expert’ to his intellectual field. The weird separation, between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics, also has dramatic consequences for each sphere of work. On the one hand, the linguistics is abstracted and theoretical, having no connection with actual spoken languages. Chomsky is against anthropological research of that kind. And, on the other hand, the critique is antithetical to any kind of connection between the personal as political, or to feminist ‘standpoint’ theories which ask how and why certain kinds of knowledge are produced.

Language is at the heart of recent transformations in left politics, but as language intimately connected with practice. That understanding of language is precisely the reverse of the way that Chomsky plays it. This is why Chomsky has, on those rare occasions when he has strayed into debate with so-called ‘post-structuralist’ theorists of knowledge and power like Michel Foucault, resorted to claims about science and human nature that ends up reifying both, treating both as unchanging bedrock of reality, a reality that is rooted in a particular conception of the world that makes it seem as if the West tells the truth and it is the job of the rest of the world to catch up.

A bizarre twist toward the end of Knight’s book ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is that the same universalist motif is wheeled out, repeating arguments he is best-known for in anthropology from his book ‘Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture’. This is all the more bizarre because claims from anthropology are used by him to tell us what biological imperatives underpinned matriarchal societies at the dawn of human history. This biological argument is a brave attempt to provide the evolutionary theory of language development that Chomsky assiduously avoids, but it falls into the trap of taking what Western anthropologists think they have discovered about indigenous cultures, piecing it together as an academic theory and then selling it back to the world as global knowledge.

Knight’s book pits itself against Chomsky but reiterates the underlying ideological motif of globalisation; the language, knowledge and practice of the West will rule, and the local will be understood and managed in line with that. Revolutionary socialists are not against globalisation as such, of course, but our internationalism is for the globalisation of another world of struggle and solidarity which brings together the diverse strengths of each culture, of each local culture as, in some senses, simultaneously indigenous and dislocated, in its place and moving beyond it. And that means speaking out against the globalisation of our languages, either in the attempt to make them conform to a standard Western conception of what language is or in the attempt to reduce them to biologically wired-in relationships between women and men. That means reclaiming the space for diverse indigenous struggles and ways of being in line with some of the more really radical anthropological research that also connects with politics and turns against abstracted academic models of who we are and could be.


This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here

Trotsky: What was that?

Like most human beings, Leon Davidovich Bronstein was born and he died. He was born in 1879 in Ukraine, became active in left politics in Russia as a student and was imprisoned in 1905 for participating in protests and a failed uprising against the brutal Tsarist regime. It was a regime that was still feudal, barely developing capitalist economic relations that many Marxists at the time saw as being the necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Leon, our hero, escaped from internal exile, taking the name of his jailor in Odessa to avoid capture, and that name is the one we know today as Trotsky.
One of the lessons of 1905 for Trotsky was that in place of a static ‘stage’ view of historical change, the globalisation of the world economy that had already been picking up pace at the time Marx was writing led to the possibility that protest could grow over from anti-feudal to anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. A ‘permanent revolution’ would therefore be one that was intrinsically internationalist, linking different kinds of struggles against exploitation and oppression. Actually, in practice, Trotsky himself as an individual was a little behind his own analysis. There was a gap. He had to shift rapidly during the 1917 October Revolution across Russia to join the Bolsheviks, something his enemies held against him afterwards. He then became one of the leaders of the Soviet Union, and of the Red Army which was combating invasion by fourteen capitalist countries keen to prevent this revolution from growing over into a genuinely ‘permanent’ and international one.
This is where another gap opens up between Trotsky as leader, now an inspiring strong personality able to lead the regime and its troops, and the revolutionary process itself. His role in the suppression of the rebellion by sailors in the fortress at Kronstadt near St Petersburg, then renamed Petrograd, made him complicit in the formation of the very bureaucracy he analysed so well. But personal failings do not invalidate the diagnosis he gave and his brave attempt to reassert what was most progressive and democratic about the revolution against Stalin’s ban on rival parties, internal factions and then on any dissent. Trotsky’s book ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ was the fruit of his own direct participation and reflection on the mistakes that had been made, and recognition that this crushing and distortion of the revolution was a function of its isolation. There could be no ‘socialism in one country’ as Stalin claimed while he massively increased his own power and that of the apparatus.
The Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s was determined to root out its internal enemies, and Trotsky was portrayed as the root of all evil, with claims that he was working with the fascists alongside a grotesque revival of Russian antisemitism used to target him and his followers. It is true, he was a revolutionary Jew who saw autonomous collective self-organisation of the oppressed as an energising force for authentic internationalism. He warned against the trap of closed nationalist politics, and against the disastrous mistake of Zionism which would itself settle Israel on the land of others. He worked as a journalist before the revolution – they are not all bad – and after that he became the conscience of the revolution, a reminder of what it should have been. That meant connecting political-economic protest with cultural rebellion, including on the position of women as an index of how progressive or reactionary a regime is. Trotsky’s activities and writings on culture span engagement with psychoanalysis – meeting with Wilhelm Reich in exile in Norway, for example – and surrealism, writing a manifesto for revolutionary art while in Mexico toward the end of his life, a manifesto that was published under the names of André Breton and Diego Rivera.
That broad contradictory open and inclusive practice of revolutionary politics is what characterises the best of Trotsky, and it provides the background for two further key innovations. We can link the two. The first was the recognition that there was a marginalisation of revolutionary groups with the rise of fascism and Stalinism and then of the Cold War, and a domination of left politics by large reformist social democratic parties or, in some places, by communist parties tied to the Soviet Union. In these new conditions, Trotsky argued for what has been called ‘entrism’; not the secretive manipulation of the larger party apparatus, but direct membership and participation in the mass movement organisations. This is one way of drawing those who thought voting would change the world into action themselves, to themselves become those who would change things.
The second innovation was voiced in the founding document of a new international organisation in 1938 the Fourth International, a document known as the ‘transitional programme’. For Trotsky, ‘transitional demands’ like a sliding scale of wages or for opening the books of the corporations were eminently reasonable and democratic calls that capitalism could not and would not agree to. It was ‘transitional’ because it brought those in struggle up against the limits of the regime, and it then became transitional in practice, growing over from a series of demands into a linked political challenge to capitalism itself. Again, what was crucial for Trotsky was that it would be through the collective self-activity of people themselves rather than through diktats by their leaders that any revolutionary change worth the name would happen. In this, Trotsky is close to the revolutionary democratic politics of Rosa Luxemburg who was killed in 1919 in Berlin on the orders of the social democrats after an uprising that would have broken the isolation of the Russian revolution.
All this is anathema to big dictators and those who want to be like them. Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico, the only country that would give him a visa, in 1940. His son had already been murdered in Paris. The agent plunged an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head. Those who use the term ‘Trotskyite’ as a term of abuse sometimes joke about ice-picks, and they focus on the personality of Trotsky himself, avoiding the theory and practice he helped to build. Those of us who call ourselves ‘Trotskyists’ admire his life struggle and try to learn from that, drawing a balance sheet which puts that life in context, and aiming to build a different context in which such a hardening of character and brutality of politics will no longer exist. He didn’t drink much, and by all accounts lunchtimes in exile before he died were not a bundle of laughs. There are no pictures of Trotsky with cats, something which makes him less immediately internet-friendly, but if you twist a Trotskyist’s arm they will sometimes admit that they did once name their cat ‘Rosa’ or ‘Leon’.
You can also read this article where it was first published and comment on it here.

Refusal: Of Sex Work

Alongside the demand that we have the right to work, a demand which is underpinned for many of us by Marx’s view of work as something intrinsically creative and humanising, there has always been a parallel demand, a little more playful perhaps, that we should also have the right to refuse to buckle under to work under capitalism. Work under capitalism, after all, is alienating, and is structured so as to distort our creativity and humanity. So it makes perfect sense to expose work discipline by insisting that we have ‘the right to be lazy’, a phrase used by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue in a pamphlet written in prison in 1883. Lafargue was evidently not so lazy in prison, and the demand has buried in it a contradiction. Our ‘laziness’ or ‘refusal’ of work needs to be accompanied by revolutionary work to end exploitation at work, to end exploitation of all kinds. ‘Refusal’ thus carries with it resistance to work and the transformation of what work is.

The refusal of work is sometimes viewed with suspicion by those who are wedded to a simple trades union based notion of politics, and for autonomist Marxists this strategy of refusal also throws into question the way that the trades unions sometimes collude with capitalism and are committed to work discipline. That strategy of ‘refusal’ then also enables a connection between revolutionary politics inside the factory with many other kinds of resistance to exploitation outside, including with the struggles of feminists who have good reason to resist incorporation into ‘work’ as it is understood today. Refusal of work in this way mobilises many different kinds of struggles which can then be fed back into the realm of traditional wage labour to question the way that labour is structured, it opens a way to a different ethical sense of what it is to be a human being which rests on a multiplicity of collective struggles and a vision of what a world beyond capital accumulation might look like, one where artificial barriers between work and play are broken down, a future where we may even have better things to do than to work.

This might lead us to treat anything that turns into work or that uses the term ‘work’ with suspicion. This suspicion could be directed at the way sport is turned into work as part of the pernicious professionalization of collective activity which separates celebrity players from the rest who are reduced to the role of spectators. It could be directed at the way politics is configured as a kind of work today which separates the ‘politicians’ from those who vote them into office every few years. And it could with good reason be directed at ‘sex’, an activity which is already turned into a commodity under capitalism and which, as a result, turns creative and humanising activity into something competitive and alienating. And worse than that, once a feminist sensibility to power relations at the level of the personal is added to this critique, the idea that this sex should be turned into work transforms sensual contact with others into a place where women are turned into objects to be bought and sold by men. Then ‘sex work’ is not so much a contradiction in terms, but the expression of how deeply capitalism and patriarchy has colonised us all.

But what kind of refusal of work is the refusal of sex work? These are the stakes in what have been termed ‘the new prostitution wars’, but the key question is what ethical position to take with the collective voices of women which does not pathologise those who engage in this practice. There is the argument that the term ‘sex work’ should not be used at all in these debates, that it is really prostitution, and should carry all of the negative connotations of that word, that it really should be pathologised. The debate opened up again recently in Left Unity, began with a clear account of the dimension of exploitation in prostitution, its function as big business, and its role in fuelling the trafficking of women’s bodies, and that argument arrived at a call to support the ‘Nordic model’ for addressing this problem. The ‘Nordic model’ would, it was claimed, criminalise the men who purchased sex, and so close down the business altogether.

This call for criminalising prostitution also sets itself strongly against those women who speak out for the right to sell sex, with accusations that, at best, these women either suffer from some form of ‘false consciousness’ – they do not really know what they are saying and whose agendas they play into – or, at worst, that these are false voices, that self-organised women who work as prostitutes or ‘sex workers’ are puppets of the pimps; organisations like Amnesty International are on the side of the pimps, because that organisation argues for the decriminalisation of sex work, and are therefore agents of the most vicious form of patriarchal imperialism. This argument even spins into a complaint that ‘first-world’ Marxists who buy into consumerism are colluding with capitalism, and that collusion blinds them to the way that women in the developing world are being reduced to commodities; for these critics of sex work, it is women in the third world who really suffer most from prostitution.

But take the example of COSWAS, the Collective for Sex Workers and Supporters in Taipei, Taiwan. This political initiative which began in 1998 campaigns against Article 80 of the Public Order Maintenance Act which was enacted, with less than 48 hours notice, to criminalise prostitution which had previously been ‘licensed’. The ‘licensing’ itself, of course, operated under the auspices of the Taiwanese state, and divided sex workers from other women. But what the COSWAS protests did, and they were protests that included street demonstrations of sex workers, was to turn moralising surveillance into an ethical question, turn individual choices into collective action, and turn pathologised behaviour and character into something that was part of the variety of ways of what it is to live a normal life. Very unusually, these public protests included trades union activists, some of whom then ‘came out’ as clients of the sex workers. The People’s Democratic Front, which has supported the sex workers, which includes sex workers in its ranks, has also then been able to bring together a range of different exploited and oppressed groups, including disability activists. These political mobilisations are in line with the call by the Global Network of Sex Projects to decriminalise sex work, and to build a broader feminist and anti-capitalist politics from which Marxists must learn.

So, on the one side there is a ‘refusal’ of work that objects to ‘sex work’ on moral grounds which may include the moral argument that the reduction of sex to work as such is evil; that work itself is exploitative, or that there should be clear separation between real work and authentic loving relationships. This refusal targets individuals who are behind the scenes pulling the strings and ventriloquising the prostitutes, or it even targets the sex workers themselves as women who have made bad and reactionary moral choices. And this refusal makes a clear separation between what it thinks is normal and pathological, a separation which also pathologises sex workers themselves. This would lead to a moralising, individualising and pathologising response to COSWAS that would effectively reinforce the power of the Taiwanese state, with dire consequences for sex workers and for political resistance generally.

And, on the other side there is another refusal of this work, one that takes an ethical stand which respects the different choices that women make, that points out that the ‘Nordic model’ fails in practice, that it actually invited more police and state discrimination against sex workers, and that maybe the ‘New Zealand model’ might be better. This is an ethical stand which also acknowledges that feminism is not one fixed approach, but that it operates contradictorily as a variety of feminisms, feminisms that include LGBT and Queer responses to sex work. But maybe this also would entail the slogan ‘Neither Norway nor New Zealand but Taiwan’, Taiwan as part of anti-imperialist ‘Asia as Method’ that is also that of international struggle of the exploited, oppressed and allies. This ‘method’ would entail intersecting Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea in the context of colonialism and imperialism to understand how and why the ‘licensing’ and prohibition of sex work happened in those different contexts. This feminist refusal of exploitation looks to collective action by sex workers and their allies, and it also stands against the stigmatising these women, working with them to find another way to eventually end the regime of work that structures all human life under capitalism today.

This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here




Trans: Bureaucratic versus Political

The keyword ‘trans’ is radical and controversial; it provides a point of common struggle for new revolutionary movements, and it operates as a point of division between the ‘old’ new left that has solidified in various political currents over the past fifty years and the new social movements, movements for whom LGBT and a progressive elaboration of new unstable identities marked in that letter series with different initials – to add Q for Queer, for example – also reflect back and unsettle what the old new left was beginning to take for granted. To take something for granted as an orthodoxy is not exactly ‘bureaucratic’ in itself, but it does begin to sediment one fixed dogma about who can be treated as good ‘allies’ of revolutionary socialists which the new LGBTQ etc movements have progressively cracked open. They replace bureaucratic assumptions about what counts with properly political interventions in capitalism, and in the left itself. In the process, ‘trans’ shows us something about the nature of bureaucracy and politics as such.

Trans as a movement has radically evolved from denoting ‘transsexual’, a medical category concerned only with transition from one kind of body to another, to signifying ‘transgender’ as an overall umbrella term to cover a range of different ways of connecting gender and sexual identities to the body and disconnecting them from it. It problematises forms of gender segregation we can too-easily take for granted. It is now a crucial component of revolutionary struggle around the world, taking slightly different form in different places, for four reasons.

First, it puts on the progressive political agenda a basic democratic right of an oppressed group to be able to live and speak about their experience without fear of violence, even death. Often the danger they face is linked to precarity and sex-work. Many in the trans community simply want to live safely, and have no interest in sexual politics as such, still less in revolutionary politics (as is the case for many members of oppressed groups). As we well know, that violence is, in some cases, extreme, and the political dimension of our response to that violence includes not only defence of trans people from threat but also the ideological battle against attempts to minimise the threat. Second, trans activists who are politically mobilised to defend their rights and to explicitly connect their own personal political struggle with their LGB and other comrades are making a demand on the basis of their identity. This is a claim for a right to be included which opens up democratic space to difference, to more difference. And, at the same time as they make that identity claim, they destabilise it, they mark and question the very notion of identity in radical politics.

There are two further reasons why trans is important to us; these not, unfortunately, positive reasons to do with the progressive dynamic of trans, but rather in the response we must give to the reception given to trans among some of our comrades and on the right. The third and fourth reasons, then, are conditioned by the backlash, and the urgent need to defend the rights of trans people and to work with trans activists. This reaction comes in at least two forms that are linked by way of the motif of bureaucracy as an insidious alternative to authentic political struggle.

The reaction, this is the third reason why we must take trans seriously in our politics, is more often obviously bureaucratic, for it follows in the wake of the Stalinist suppression of difference for the glory of a supposedly ‘united’ movement against capitalism. That Stalinist reaction, which once upon a time included the suppression of homosexuality and the accusation levelled against lesbian and gay activists that they were some kind of unconscious police agents serving decadent Western culture against the straight left. This accusation itself, of course, served the interests of the gerontocracy in the Soviet Union, the real hardened old ‘left’. Here it is easier to see how a bureaucratic mindset which is dead-set against the proliferation of movements that would disperse and invent identities in struggle, and see that diversity of resistance as a source of strength rather than weakness, actually reflected and reinforced a particular kind of social apparatus. Bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and in other pretend-socialist states as well as in the ‘communist’ parties that served it around the world, was a way of approaching protest that clamped down on anything that might disturb the interests of the apparatus as an actually-existing material structure of social relations.

However, alongside this reaction to trans, which is easily understandable given what we know about Stalinism, there is another equally reactionary and, in some ways more disappointing and pernicious reaction that comes from some of those who we would, in other times and still in other progressive campaigns, see as our comrades. We include here some of those who identify themselves as ‘feminist’ but who have a fixed idea of what ‘feminism’ is as a political perspective operating in its singular biologically-based pure form that is suspicious of the wider domain of third and fourth wave ‘feminisms’ which are deliberately plural in their self-designation and in their practice. This is the kind of feminist reaction that is sometimes too-quickly smeared in the term ‘TERFs’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), a term we briefly cite here because it is used by some trans activists against those who treat them as enemies rather than as allies. This kind of reaction runs alongside the attempts to roll back the gains of the LGBT movements by even suggesting that the ‘T’ be dropped (and the Q simply forgotten).

The fourth reason our politics is also trans politics comes from the challenge posed by the pervasive recuperation of alternative social movements by capitalism, a recuperation that fuels, with good reason, the suspicion of a good few trans-hostile feminists. This recuperation – and those second-wave socialist feminists and radical feminists who are suspicious of what trans means are right to be critical of what is happening – includes the turning of gender and sexuality into a commodity. And it includes the incorporation of this niche identity into corporate bureaucratic alternatives to politics, with the recruitment of Caitlyn Jenner to centre-fold propaganda and the Republican Party as a case in point.

The critiques of trans have to be taken on board, have to be included in the way we work with trans and with trans activists as our comrades. These critiques, well-noted by socialist and radical feminists include: the enforced segregation of the sexes and reinforcement of that binary as part of the ‘transition’ process in which those who move across the binary play out their new identity in even more caricatured gender-stereotyped ways; the enforcement of forms of gender identity into which people are locked as they attempt to claim and defend them against attack; the agenda of the private medical companies pushing sex-reassignment surgery which reduces transgender to ‘transsexual’; and the sexualisation of children encouraged by the medical companies and linked propaganda apparatuses that seek to reduce the age at which transition might be ‘chosen’, usually really chosen by the targeted parents.

But, the reality of trans is actually that the segregation and enforcement of chosen gender identities based on an idea of what a real biological sex might be is only one aspect of what trans experience and activism includes; as the trans and queer use of the term ‘cis’ indicates, much of the trans movement is not concerned with moving from one side of the gender binary to the other at all. Rather, there is a fluidity of gender and sexual identity which is the nightmare of any bureaucratic attempt to categorise and define what they really are as boy or girl. The ethos and practice of the trans movement operates as a critique of hierarchy, against a hierarchical and bureaucratic image of social organisation as something vertical, top-down power. Against this it encourages a transversal and more horizontal network of networks, a model form of the kind of revolutionary organisation that historicises gender, operates as a critique of culture, and anticipates the kind of society we aim to replace capitalism with. Trans, for all of the disputes it has unleashed inside feminism (and inside the socialist movement) is a hinge-point between those of us who still think we are straight and contemporary revolutionary ‘feminisms’. We have something to offer trans as a movement that has always opposed bureaucracy and we have something to learn from it as an already anti-bureaucratic politics.

This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here


Justice: In Rojava

A remarkable political experiment is taking place in Afrin, Cizire and Kobane, three autonomous cantons that make up Rojava held by the Kurds in the north of Syria on the border with Turkey. It repeats in some ways the best practices of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico twenty years ago. The communes in Rojava are drawing a balance sheet, in theory linked with practice of the successes and failures of various attempts to replace the capitalist state with ‘soviets’ as a democratic form that marked the Russian revolution a hundred years ago and which have characterised many anti-capitalist movements since. Each time the ‘commune’ or ‘soviet’ form has emerged in the course of popular resistance it has had to shut out or engage with new social movements that bring different demands and forms of organisation to revolutionary struggle. Rojava is engaging with some of the most radical social movements, explicitly learning from them, and in this way is filling the term ‘justice’ with new content.

The complaints across the political spectrum about so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJW) – a popular motif in current trans-class post-politics – those who seem to shift from complaint to complaint about different aspects of symbolic oppression while in the process emptying ‘justice’ of any positive content also takes on a new light. The problem with justice in SJW is not what they argue against but what they fail to argue for. Rojava is a positive example of how different ‘justice’ looks in the abstract to what it looks like in practice.

Justice in our political tradition has always been contradictory, with different readings of Marx finding some arguments for justice as central to the strategy and aims of communism and some indications that this ‘justice’ is in itself empty, is given meaning by the context and balance of forces at any particular historical moment. Developments in so-called ‘post-Marxism’ in the wake of the crisis in Stalinism and the emergence of Eurocommunism saw ‘justice’ along with such other kindred terms like ‘democracy’ as being ‘empty signifiers’. These signifiers do not mean anything as such, but they stand in for what Ernesto Laclau referred to as the impossible fullness or unity of society; they function as terms that sum up what we imagine we are fighting for as a world free from injustice and violence, even though we may each have quite different notions of what those terms that will heal the divisions and lack in politics really amount to.

Social justice in Rojava, mainly led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), for example, is being given a meaning in political statements made by Abdullah Ocalan, who is still in a Turkish jail, and loyally implemented by his followers. ‘Justice’ now in Rojava is closely linked to ‘democracy’, to what Ocalan calls ‘democratic confederalism’. There are critical questions we need to keep open, in this new democratic space through which the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) mobilises people to participate in neighbourhood assemblies and city and regional councils. These questions concern the nature of the political apparatus with Ocalan at the top of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that can decide that democratic, pluralist, ecological and feminist politics should define how Rojava operates at this particular moment. Ocalan’s turn to what he argues should be a popular trans-class movement in Rojava is possible at the moment because of the destruction of much of the economic infrastructure the absence of a strong capitalist class apparatus. We should remember that democratic conditions have not always obtained either in Rojava or in Ocalan’s own political party, a party over which he has in the past maintained strict control.

Today Ocalan declares that social hierarchy began with the domination of women by men, and therefore it is necessary to deal with the question of patriarchy in social movements and inside revolutionary organisations. One of the targets of Ocalan’s explicit feminist politics is what he calls the problem of ‘killing the dominant male’. The implantation of this line in practice now means that the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have been at the forefront of the military struggle against Islamic State as well as defending the autonomous areas of Rojava against the Syrian and Turkish states. There are quotas that ensure participation by women at all organisational levels in Rojava, and concerted attempts to include women and men from the Arab, Assyrian-Syriac, Armenian, Circassian and Chechen communities. This participation makes the feminist politics in the communes and councils a pluralist multi-ethnic politics attentive to difference, and this has been crucial to the military and political defence of the multi-cultural society that Islamic State aim to destroy in their attacks on what they call ‘the grey zone’.

Ocalan has been inspired, while languishing in prison, by Murray Bookchin’s libertarian politics that combines ecology with socialism and this has also led to a rethinking of how the Kurdish struggle might be carried out in such a way as to weaken the power of the state instead, as in some national independence movements, of strengthening it. Ocalan now argues that the drive to form a Kurdish state has had destructive consequences for Kurds in Syria and Turkey, as well as in Iraq and Iran. There has been a shift of focus in Kurdish politics under Ocalan, from the direct aim of achieving statehood to an attempt to develop a post-nationalist framework characterised as a ‘democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society’ set against capitalism and totalitarianism in the region. This has quite rightly inspired feminist activists outside Rojava.

Some political movements on the revolutionary left in Britain have been quicker than others to rally in solidarity with Rojava, and those who have been quickest have been those, like Plan C based in Manchester and in a couple of other British cities, who have emerged out of the crisis of sexual violence in the left here and who have drawn explicitly feminist conclusions from that crisis that also connects with contemporary anarchist politics inspired by Rojava. They have concluded, for example, that the organisational forms of revolutionary politics need to be reworked and that political interventions need to be rapidly reconfigured to each specific situation, keying into the changes of consciousness around different aspects of exploitation and oppression. In this way, Plan C fill terms like ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’ with different content depending on the occasion and come up with surprising new initiatives and slogans tailored to each opportunity for tactical intervention. Rojava is just such a tactical intervention for them. And the organisation makes an ideal fit with the phenomenon in this case. Plan C is a deceptively well-run group, with a pluralistic fluid circle of ‘friends of Plan C’ and friends of friends that surrounds a tightly-organised core with international links and a quite a high membership turnover. Those who join are attracted by the open revolutionary ethos of the group, and those who leave complain that the rapid shifts of line are made by a central leadership. As a group that works with the contradictions of revolutionary struggle and organisation, Plan C is one group that represents the cutting edge of left feminist politics, but the same questions about revolutionary leadership apply to it as apply to Ocalan.

The Kurdish struggle has always been a contradictory movement, suffering at some historical moments and benefitting at others from the coincidence of imperialist interests in the region. There has always been an intense debate in the revolutionary left, for example, over how to square support for the Kurdish independence movement with the manoeuvres of the leadership under Barzani in the Kurdish enclave in Iraq, a leadership that has been very willing to accept material and logistical support from the United States military intelligence agencies. And the foreign policy agenda of Israel has always included the ‘periphery doctrine’, at moments prioritising support for the Kurds as a diplomatic lever against the Arab communities inside Israel or Arab states immediately adjoining it. This has been one reason why liberal Zionists have been happy to support calls to defend the Kurds and to argue in quite an empty way for ‘justice’ for them in the region. There has even been praise for Rojava from the ‘Financial Times’.

Nevertheless, Rojava shows us what is possible when a grass-roots movement that draws on the strength of women directly inspired by feminist politics begins to take charge, and the way that an ecological sensibility can power a new way of thinking about the nature of alternative democratic political structures. It also must make us examine closely, in the context of active solidarity with Rojava, how this has been possible because a new line came down from the political leadership of the PYD, and we have to be ready to defend this grassroots mobilisation against any future attempts to limit it or even twist the line in other directions. This is a good line, one we must support and build into our own politics of justice outside Rojava.


This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here

Postcolonial: Malta’s Knowledge Economy

Colonialism, which was intensified by imperialism – what Lenin once called ‘the highest stage of capitalism’ – entailed the forcible extraction of materials and human beings and then surplus value from the supposedly as-yet ‘undeveloped’ world, a brutal process which ensured that the West actually ‘underdeveloped’ other countries. Neither colonialism nor imperialism are over, and there is a new twist on the process, and a critique which tracks the way that systematic exploitation and oppression of ‘the world of the third’ also includes pervasive cultural imperialism as a necessary aspect of contemporary globalisation. One name for this, and it is a name that does at all pretend that we are beyond or ‘post’ colonialism, is the ‘postcolonial’. Postcolonial critique focuses on the intimate link between coloniser and colonised, the recruitment of the colonised to the colonial project, and the material and ideological dependence of the colonial world on those it repeatedly renders as ‘other’ to it. It is a field of study which examines the way each economic and cultural entity is located in relation to the history of colonialism, and, as we can see in Malta, for example, it enables critical reflection and resistance to local and imperial state attempts to subjugate populations and destroy the land.

Malta is one of many emblems of postcolonialism today, expressing the contradictions of its colonial history and literally cracking apart, facing ecological catastrophe as the land disintegrates as a consequence of ‘development’, as those contradictions are intensified in the pursuit of profit. Malta was one of the key staging posts for Western Europe’s assertion of sovereignty in the face of the Ottomans, something now celebrated for local consumption and tourist interest. Maltese as a language is written in Roman script but is very close to Arabic, with a roughly seventy percent overlap of words meaning that asylum seekers who make it there from north Africa can be immediately understood on the streets of Valletta. This linguistic overlap reinforces the self-representation of the islanders as being both at the centre of fortress Europe in the middle of the Mediterranean and popular British holiday destination, and as being at the margins, south of Sicily and close to the Libyan coast. A popular discourse is, even for those who do not speak of themselves as ‘postcolonial’ subjects, that the Maltese are ‘hybrid’, and this is also expressed in the internal resistance to the Catholic Church which draws on liberation theology from Latin America, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ underpinning solidarity and support work with migrants.

The Partit Laburista (PL) under Dom Mintoff demanded independence from Britain, which had acquired Malta in the early nineteenth century in the 1960s, and the island became a republic in 1974, engaging in a series of nationalisations and expansion of the welfare state. These were moves supported by the Communist Party of Malta which emerged from a split from the PL in 1969 and then rarely stood against either Mintoff or his successors in elections. In fact, the PL in power has behaved like a classic rotten borough apparatus working hand-in-hand with local business interests and maintaining its grip on power through a series of personal networks and back-door deals, something that is easier to manage on an island smaller about the size of Greater Manchester with a population of less than half a million people. The conservative Christian democratic Nationalist Party is the opposition party, egging on the PL in its recent neoliberal turn and promising to speed up the pace of privatisation. One of the most densely-populated countries in the world, Malta has been destroying local habitats at an alarming rate, with 95% of the land now officially urbanised, and very few small pockets of green land left in the country, which is now often referred to as being a ‘City State’, marked in its coat of arms and now literally materially geographically a fact on the ground.

These are precisely the questions addressed by postcolonial analysis and theory, and this is precisely why postcolonialism is such a hot topic among Maltese academics and activists as they ally with the oppressed and defend their land against those forces that will otherwise end up destroying both, destroying the people and the environment already marked by the history of colonial expansion and wars of conquest.

The theoretical resources for postcolonial critique are varied. They include the attempt by Octave Mannoni to account for the subjection of the colonial subject to the coloniser and the master-slave dialectic of simultaneous dependence of the coloniser on those they make into their subjects. And, more importantly for us, it includes the critical response to Mannoni by Frantz Fanon, an anti-racist response which showed how Mannoni himself was caught in the very categories he was attempting to analyse; Fanon, our Lenin of Africa, is anchor point for postcolonial critique which was linked to active solidarity with the Algerian revolution and lessons beyond that. The resources also include the work of the Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said analysing the production of the ‘other’ in the colonial imagination, of the process of what he called ‘orientalism’ which turns the colonial subjects into objects of exoticised fear; thrilling objects which are both fascinating and threatening to the coloniser. They include the work by the Marxist-feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who inspired a strand of ‘subaltern studies’ which revolves around the position of those subject to this new phase of colonialism and asks how it is that these subjects might inhabit the forms of culture that have been imposed upon them and speak within the language of the oppressor. And, in this spirit of immanent critique which deconstructs the colonial relation and turns it around to show how fragile the position of the Western ‘master’ is when their slave-subjects speak back, the theoretical resources include the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty who re-reads cultural texts to ‘provincialise Europe’, to show that Europe is not the centre of the world but is marginal to what is developing as a critique and in social movements against its historical legacy. And there are many others, the point being that there is no one master theorist here but a plural series of objections and rejections of what colonialism has left in its wake.

Such matters have come to a head in Malta in the last year with a desperate attempt by the government to reposition the country as part of the global knowledge economy, and to feed on the neoliberal privatisation of the university sector to attract investment. Among the government’s top five development projects that threaten to turn Malta into a ‘permanent building site’ is the proposed so-called ‘American University of Malta’ (AUM) which will occupy Zonqor Point, a green site that was previously tagged for a hotel complex. This will require ‘nationalisation’ of 11 percent of the land on Marsaskala and Bormla at Zonqor Point that is currently in private hands, and this will then be handed over to the private ‘university’. Protesters inside and outside the existing public University of Malta have pointed out, including those in the independent ‘Critical Institute’ registered as an NGO on the island, have been resisting these moves, mobilising over 3,000 people – refugee support, disability and environmental activists – in demonstrations against the development. The protesters pointed out that; the AUM private project rushed through by the PL is not American, it is a Jordanian enterprise run by Sadeen Education Investment Limited; it is evidently not Maltese, competing directly with the one existing university and opening up the higher education sector to private competition; and it is not a university, the National Commission for Further and Higher Education were clear on that point.

One aspect of postcolonial critique that is borne out by these recent attempts to re-colonise Malta and by the resistance to that neoliberal exercise in cultural imperialism in the context of the globalised knowledge economy is that ‘postcolonial subjects’ are not only those who live inside the old colonies. Postcolonial studies describes, among other things, the way in which those at the margins often, in a way that is uncanny for those in the ‘centre’, know more about the colonisers than the colonisers themselves know. And the flip-side of this is that those who refuse to be of the ‘centre’ and who make political alliances with ‘outsiders’ can all the more effectively dismantle the legacy of colonialism, anticipating the day when it will be accurate to refer to it as something that really is ‘post’.

This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here



Ecosocialism: Meltdown in Syria

The uprising in Syria against the Assad regime was conditioned by two intersecting global forces. That intersection has consequences today for the solidarity we build with the Syrian people, and for the kinds of political perspectives that can break their isolation, that can connect them with forms of resistance that must, if they are to finally succeed, link revolutionary socialism with ecology. Syria is just one of many crises facing humanity that points to the importance of transforming our own internationalist politics, reconfiguring our strategies for change and the aims of our movement around the keyword ‘ecosocialism’.

The first global force is governmental and explicitly political: neoliberalism, which today repeatedly deconstructs and reconstructs different regions and nation states around the world to make them more easily amenable to capital accumulation. In Syria, just as in every other country subject to the neoliberal shock doctrine, there is a combination of the privatisation of collective state production, health and welfare services, the stripping away of social support so that each individual or community is isolated and forced to take responsibility for the chaos that ensues, and the imposition of a strong state apparatus that prevents any form of collective resistance to defend services or to link individuals and communities. Syria can only be understood in this global neoliberal context.

Inside Syria, the neoliberal privatisation of state assets was speeded up by Assad soon after he came to power in 2000, and encouraged by intergovernmental agencies wanting to ensure the integration of the Syrian economy into the world market, a privatisation that had disastrous consequences for local communities and which met with some important early protests and even the beginnings of mass resistance. The world market was keen to inspire and protect the neoliberalising regime as one of its own kind. In 2006, for example, the Syrian regime became the fourth-largest recipient of foreign capital, as well as of Arab Gulf states’ investments. This was one of the origins of discontent with the regime, but a strategy of divide and rule, the sectarian pitting of different Islamic faith communities against each other to ensure the dominance of the minority Alawis around Assad, was accompanied by increasing repression against progressive groups that attempted to work across those confessional boundaries.

The second global force is ostensibly ‘natural’ but also just as tightly connected with the actions of human beings driven by the accumulation of capital and the correlative exploitation and destruction of natural resources. A severe drought between 2007 and 2010, exacerbated by climate change, impacted on millions of small farmers and led to mass unemployment and emigration into the cities. This particular manifestation of climate change, the construction of canals and dams to divert water and the withdrawal of resources that would otherwise maintain aquifers in communities, was clearly human-made. Syrian state and commercial interests made short-term managerial goals and the extraction of profit take priority over human and environmental needs.

The Assad regime’s brutal suppression of the uprising that began in the city of Deraa in March 2011 was quickly followed by a cynical strategy of releasing fascists from the prisons, fascists that would mobilise under different banners but which would become a most virulent threat to the progressive forces in the form of ‘Islamic State’. The uprising and the repression are not at their heart about ‘Islamism’ at all, but about the way that the regime and then IS appropriates the term and fills it with their own meaning, fills it with meaning in such a way as to ensure, on each side, that Syria will continue to follow a most vicious neoliberal path.

On the side of the Assad regime, that means using poison gas and other measures against civilian populations to terrorise them into abandoning the struggle for a democratic collective welfare state, a return to and, of course, improvement on the welfare policies that characterised the regime before Assad’s neoliberal turn in the context of the ecological crisis. For many of those involved in the early demonstrations in Deraa, those reformist hopes underpinned the most minimal demands of the opposition movement. And, on the part of the regime, it also meant calling in Putin who, in pursuit of his own Islamophobic agenda in Chechnya and the Caucases, and now with an opportunity to drum home the new strength of Russia against a weakened United States, was more than willing to use indiscriminate air-strikes against different opposition groups, and, note, not so much against the areas controlled by Islamic State.

On the side of Islamic State, a brutal force that Assad is able to do business with, the control and exploitation of the oil-fields requires a system of capital control no less elaborate and neoliberal, one that combines intense repression of any group that threatens private property with a series of negotiations and deals that also effectively embeds IS in the global market. The fascists that have seized rebel areas, and ensured that there is no progressive collective threat to Assad, thereby function as a mirror of what still exists as a regime in Damascus, competing with it and keeping it in place.

The combination of global forces that led to the crisis in the first place then feeds back into the crisis at both levels, at the level of human misery, the destruction of life, and at the level of environmental degradation, the destruction of nature. The death toll in Syria since 2011 has already surpassed a quarter of a million, over ten percent of the population killed or injured, a flow of refugees trying to escape and find a place of safety in the Western states that have, themselves, also been engaging in air-strikes in order to buttress the Assad regime. This is also an intensification of the ecological crisis in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain even the most basic social and welfare services, not to mention systems of production and consumption. The air-strikes have led not only to the displacement of populations on a massive scale, but the release from building rubble of metals, polychlorinated biphenyls and asbestos. The bombing, including by the West, has led to the destruction of oil-field installations and the spread of pollution, with the displaced populations now suffering from increased cancers and other diseases usually confined, and hidden, inside the industrial complexes.

Among the small organised progressive forces in Syria, the Revolutionary Left Current has always made it clear that the struggle to maintain opposition to the regime must, in some senses, be ‘intersectional’, it links a series of different struggles. That is, it knows that it must work across the boundaries between and across the relationships that link the different confessional groups, that link the Syrians and the Kurds, and that link the fate of men and women fighting for their own liberation. And it is clear that this intersection of different forms of politics, the only signs of hope in an impossible situation, must also include an intersection between what human beings can do working together and ecological struggle, culture and nature.

Ecology is not a luxury in Syria, not merely a next step to take after the overthrow of the Assad regime, after the destruction of Islamic State fascism and after the construction of a socialist republic which will one day, working together with the rest of the Arab world, end capitalism in the region. It is not an optional and desirable additional factor in the struggle for freedom there any more than the liberation of women is. Ecology in Syria, as in every other part of the world, is now intrinsically and necessarily linked to every reactionary and progressive political movement, and it is only through ecosocialism that we can tackle the destruction of nature and the destruction of life, and the intimate link between the two. It is through ecosocialist politics that we can understand better the roots, the stakes and the progressive outcome of the struggle in Syria, and only through ecosocialism that we will eventually survive the horrors of the war and build something better that will ensure this disaster never happens again.

This is one of a series of keywords for a new revolutionary left, you can find the list so far here