A New Space for Politics?

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

David Finkel

IN “FROM MALTA to Panama: The Third World’s Uncertain Future” (ATC 27), James Petras and Mike Fischer have opened an important and wide-ranging exchange concerning the impact of the new East-West relationship on the struggles for Third World national liberation and development.

It is undoubtedly a critical question, or, more properly a whole set of questions: With the former “superpower rivalry” replaced by inter-capitalist competition in which the United States retains clear military superiority, will liberation movements be choked off for lack of access to arms formerly supplied by Eastern Europe?

Will the implosion of the Soviet model of “socialism” push Third World movements to social democracy or even further from their once revolutionary perspectives? What are the implications for socialist politics and for solidarity activism here at home?

Petras and Fischer provide a straightforward answer:

“(T)he current Soviet turn in foreign policy is at least as disastrous as those of Khrushchev or Brezhnev we must temper our applause for the (democratic changes In Eastern Europe) with an appreciation for what… has been lost, both in terms of the very real, if inadequate, cradle to grave social benefits that characterized Eastern bloc social systems and in terms of the space these societies created for Third World liberation movements.” (ATC 27, 45)

There appears to be an implicit assumption underlying this formulation, regarding the norms against which Soviet policy, before and after Gorbachev, should be judged. It’s a premise that remains widespread on the Left and therefore worth mentioning explicitly. According to this assumption, at some level— however distant and distorted – Soviet foreign policy bears some marks of the 1917 proletarian revolution and the dream of a world socialist transformation, and therefore should be analyzed according to whether it is abandoning or maintaining these roots.

While I don’t want to attribute to Fischer and Petras views they may not hold, to make my own argument clear I want to specify at the outset that I do not share this assumption at all. I won’t be debating the theoretical and historical points here; l just want it understood that for me, the foreign policy of the Soviet state, good, bad or indifferent, simply occupies a different universe than that of any socialist or aspiring-to-be-socialist country. (Briefly: my view is that the Soviet bureaucratic ruling class created by the Stalinist counterrevolution has basically abandoned its imperial ambitions in order to save whatever can be salvaged of its collapsing power at home.)

What’s needed is a cold-blooded calculation of the impact of the new situation, without illusions or sentimentality. In this framework, I wish to raise two objections to the arguments of Petras and Fischer. Here’s how they state the case:

“It is the retreat and decline of the USSR and the upheavals in Eastern Europe — with their contradictory character — which have facilitated the resurgence of Washington’s hegemonic ambitions. Contrary to those who have argued for some kind of /imaginative symmetry/ through which democratization in the East and the breakup of the Soviet Empire would automatically provoke a parallel process in the West, we are witnessing the acceleration of Western expansionism … ” (ATC 27, 42; emphasis in original)

While it’s not dear against whom this polemic is directed, it seems to me that the most authoritative left-wing argument for “symmetry” was made several years ago, in Edward P. Thompson’s controversial essay “Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization”:

“Give us victory in this, and the world begins to move once more. Begin to break down that field-of-force (Thompson’s “exterminist complex” of the bi-polar military buildup, and the thirty-year-old impediments to European political mobility (East, South and West) begin to give way. Nothing will follow on easily and as matter of course but swing those blocs off collision-course, and the blocs themselves will begin to change. The armorers and the police will begin to lose their authority, the ideologist will lose their lines. A new space for polities will open up (/Exterminism and Cold War,/ Verso 198Z 30).

It should be clear that Thompson and others, like myself, who shared this orientation saw nothing /automatic/ about the process. Thompson actually made this point explicitly, then going on to say “A new space for /politics/ will open up” (my emphasis).

By definition, a /political/ process is not an /automatic/ one. It will or will not come to fruition depending on the strength and weakness of political movements- – meaning, in part, our own anti-war, anti-intervention, solidarity and domestic social movements. I would argue that Thompson was right: There is the political opening today for a broader anti-intervention movement with the disappearance of the menace of the Evil Empire, and for a serious struggle of the working class and its potential allies for a real “peace dividend.”

If such potentials are not realized, it is because /our/ movements are weak and incoherent, not because the Soviet retreat has weakened us. Petras and Fischer would never suggest that the U.S. labor bureaucracy’s stupefying failure to demand restoration of social programs through the “peace dividend” is due to Soviet isolationism!

To be sure, Thompson’s essay had its own problems, revolving around his popular front conception that “exterminism itself is not a ‘class issue’: it is a human issue,” pre-figuring the new Gorbachevian Soviet rhetoric But that is a separate debate. For our present purpose, Thompson’s contention that “a new space for politics” would open can now be empirically tested against the Petras-Fischer perspective that Soviet retreat closes down the space for liberation struggles. (While this dialogue focuses on the Third World, the same question also can be raised regarding class and democratic struggles in the industrial capitalist “first world” countries.)

As we might expect in a complex and unstable world, /neither thesis is confirmed 200 percent,/ it’s the main trends that we have to try to capture.

Petras and Fischer cite the African, Middle Eastern and Central American arenas in support of their claim. In Africa, they are rightly distressed by the impact of a weakened Soviet commitment on a severely beleaguered Angola and on the terms of Namibian independence. But they overlook the second oldest liberation war in Africa (only South Africa’s has lasted longer), which now appears to be nearing victory: the struggle for an independent Eritrea.

It is /unquestionably/ the case that the USSR’s weakened ability to prop up the murderous Ethiopian military regime has contributed hugely to this welcome result (That the Soviets won’t pay for Cuban pilots to fly bombing missions for the Ethiopian regime, as they were doing in the late 1970s, helps too.) Today, it seems that only the state of Israel remains a military patron of the Dergue.

In South Africa, the tendency of Western and Soviet interests to converge has helped produce a far more friendly climate here for the African National Congress (ANC). The possibilities for a triumphant Nelson Mandela tour of the United States would certainly have been less in the Cold War era. To be sure, the main factor behind a changing U. S. policy has been the demonstrated massive strength of the ANC and the Mass Democratic Movement Yet the decline of Cold War politics lowered some of the barriers to Mandela’s acceptance; those commentators on the right who tried to discredit him for Communist connections appeared isolated and absurd to a degree unthinkable just a few years ago.

It might also be argued that the new Soviet orientation has influenced the ANC to adopt a more conciliatory position toward South African capitalism. But whatever critical analysis anyone may make of the movement’s strategy, as far as I know this has been the ANC’s own long-term trajectory in any case. Partly, no doubt, this reflects the long-evident bankruptcy of the Soviet model, which is tragically identified as “socialism” and is no longer attractive to Third World movements anywhere. The point is that “the space for politics” has opened; it is It is the liberation movement, much more than the superpowers, who will decide how the space is used.

To proclaim as Pefras and Fischer do that the South African ruling class are choosing to negotiate now because they can do so from a position of strength and in a comparatively better context than they were in a year — or two years — ago’ (ATC27r, 44) is simply to misread what forces have been strengthened and weakened during that time.

I can only understand this claim to mean that the township rebellions of the mid-1980s threatened to bring down the South African state Let’s be clear: They didn’t, and they couldn’t However heroic, such uprisings are still a long way from the proletarian revolution that’s required for this purpose. The long state of emergency that followed, ‘while certainly weakening the structures of the popular movement and the unions, also removed whatever credibility the regime retained in the eyes of international investors. Even U.S. right-wingers had to accept a policy of sanctions. While the present situation is enormously complex and dangerous, the regime is certainly not negotiating from strength.

A carefully nuanced analysis is needed to assess the impact of the new East-West relationship on the Palestinian struggle. Certainly, the present moment is grim: The formation of the far-right government in Israel, followed directly by the U.S. government’s cutoff of dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), points the region in the direction of a catastrophic war (most likely an Israeli invasion of Jordan and T mass expulsions of Palestinians from the West Bank).

On the whole, though, I believe that the decline of the Cold War makes this disaster somewhat less rather than more likely. The Palestinian /intifada/ remains the key: If it is crushed, the Israeli war machine will be readily geared up toward the next phase in creating Greater Israel. But if the movement is sustained, Israel is less likely to fight an external war with an insurgent population behind its lines.

Using the Space

The weakening of Soviet political and logistical backing, together with a vicious and cowardly U.S. policy toward the Palestinian struggle for an independent state, does put pressure on the Palestinians to abandon the /intifada./ But /if that pressure is resisted,/ the equation changes: Washington’s and Moscow’s common stake in bringing stability to the area could ultimately dictate backing Palestinian self-determination if the Palestinians themselves demonstrate that no other solution is attainable.

In any case, the Achilles heel of the Palestinian struggle today is not the slackening of support from the East, but the politics of the right-wing leadership of the PLO: Arafat’s deeply accomrnodationist policy toward U.S. imperialism together with his toleration of absurd military adventures such as the Abu Abbas faction’s abortive raid on the Tel Aviv beach If not energetically stopped, these criminal stupidities will destroy the Palestinian movement; a movement that understands with complete clarity the meaning of the end of the “socialist bloc” will have the best chance to make the desperately necessary rectification.

In short, “the space for politics” in this arena is open and must be used.

In the Central American context, the Petras-Fischer thesis stands on somewhat firmer ground. Inasmuch as the space for politics in Central America depends crucially on the ability of the popular and revolutionary forces to defend themselves militarily against imperialism and the savagery of the local ruling classes, the end of a source of financial assistance and to some degree of weapons from the East is a real setback.

To an important degree, the Sandinista revolution was the victim of classically dirty superpower politics: Moscow’s retreat from Central America in exchange for George Bush’s softness on Lithuania, and no doubt future Baltic considerations too. Yet the July mass strike movement in Nicaragua suggests that the Nicaraguan workers are not as demoralized as many of their international supporters.

The revolutionary optimism maintained by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador is also an inspiring example of the ability of an authentic revolutionary movement to carry on a political-military struggle in a new historic period. However, I do share Petras and Fischer’s skepticism about the present prospects for a negotiated demilitarization and democratization of the state structures there.

While this isn’t the place to argue details about the difficult stage in Central America, there are some points relevant to this discussion. First, there is a danger that many Central America solidarity activists in the U.S. will /mistakenly over-generalize/ the negative impact of the new situation, becoming deeply pessimistic about the potential for liberation and revolution throughout the Third World. This kind of error can demobilize people politically and create a sickening nostalgia for the old order in the East, which its own peoples have heroically torn down.

Second, it must be stressed that if the political-military space for Central American revolutionary forces has dangerously tightened, the space for solidarity and anti-intervention activism /in the United States/ has expanded as the rhetoric of “the Communist beachhead in our hemisphere” becomes too absurd for even U.S. political culture to take.

The opening exists for the movement to demand “End the Cold War here as well as in Eastern Europe;” “Let the people of Central America determine their future as the Eastern Europeans determine theirs;” and similar democratic anti-intervention and solidaristic perspectives. it is absolutely imperative that we use /our/ space — space that the Central American revolutions helped to open up for us in the 1960s — in order to help the Central American comrades regain theirs.

While I think that Petras and Fischer fully agree with this last point, I’m afraid their global analysis so overloads the balance sheet on the negative side that it will unnecessarily drain activists’ optimism in what should be a very exciting period of global transition. It risks lapsing back into a retrograde and morally paralyzing illusion that the movement is just now escaping that the now-dissolving Soviet bloc is, or ever was, a real defense for the world’s peoples against capitalist imperialism.

They further unbalance their assessment, I think, by overlooking a positive result of the decline of the Soviet model and influence: the weakening of some of the anti-democratic and statist tendencies within liberation movements, who looked to the Eastern bloc for the legitimation (and material support) of their politics. They rightly identify the growth of social democratic illusions in the liberation struggles as a problem, but let’s not think of it as the only problem.

Imperialism Then and Now

The problem of analysis is made more acute by what I think is Petras and Fischer’s second mistake: a much too tight linkage between “the retreat and decline of the USSR” and “the resurgence of Washington’s hegemonic ambitions.” To cite “the U.S. invasion of Panama (as) only the most dramatic of a series of events which underscore the nature of U.S. policy during a period in which Soviet isolationism is allowing it an ever freer hand” (ATC 27, 42) is strikingly weak evidence.

If the Christmas 1989 invasion of Panama demonstrated anything, it was not a change in U.S. imperial power politics, but rather the fact that U.S. attitudes toward Panama and the entire region are exactly as they were in 1969, or 1949, or 1929, or 1909, the year the Marines first landed in Nicaragua. With the special exception of Cuba, the Soviet Union has never offered resistance to the United States’ “free hand” in this area.

Indeed the examples that come most readily to my mind suggest that despite rapidly changing American attitudes /toward the USSR,/ policy /toward the Third World/ (“The South”) remains remarkably stable in its murderous intent and implementation.

Example: What has really changed from the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Before Gorbachev (B.G.), to the 1989 invasion of Panama, After Gorbachev (A.G.)? Even though the Soviet Union seems to have had substantial political implantation in Grenada versus none at all in Panama, in each case the United States used a tragicomic overwhelming military force against a target of opportunity.

In each case —Coard’s Stalinist coup-makers in Grenada, Noriega’s decaying dictatorship in Panama— the regime had already used murderous force against its own population, which was beginning to resist In each case, the United States struck preemptively against the /real/ threat: that the people of Grenada, or Panama, might overthrow repressive dictatorships /themselves/ and establish governments not dependent on the United States, something that cannot be tolerated in this well-run neighborhood of ours.

Another comparison: does anything in recent U.S. interventionism, including the long torture of Central America (both B.G. and A.G.) via contras, death squads, “low-intensity” conflict and the (finally successful) political-economic destabilization of Nicaragua truly exceed the crimes committed by the United States from 1959-75 in Vietnam?

Lest we forget, Vietnam was the war of the strategic hamlets, the carpet-bombings, the My Lai massacres, Agent Orange, Operation Phoenix … all carried out by Washington in the period of history when the Soviet Union was arguably at the /height/ of its power.

Even in Southern Africa, U.S. support for Savimbi’s operation in Angola has remained constant for most of the period from 1975, long B.G., to the present.

By all means, let’s never accept rosy-glow social-democratic portrayals of the softening contours of imperialism, whose crimes against humanity today easily match those committed at any point in its history. By all means, let’s recognize the new Gorbachevian theory of universal human interest for what it is: a caricature of caricature of a caricature of Marxism, hiding the very non-universal interests of a bureaucracy in terminal disintegration.

But let’s not, in the process, perpetuate or reproduce our own mythologies at precisely the time when we in the Western Left must accelerate the process of cleaning up our own theory. The socialist bloc has not “dissolved;” it was never there. The time is now to say so, clearly.

September-October 1990, ATC 28