Wednesday, March 21, 2007


What follows is a lengthy analysis posted on the blog "The Sojourner Truth Organization: Notes Toward a History"

It is pretty close to my thinking and represents some of what I've been trying to do with the Oread Daily. It is in a much more detailed and analytical manner somewhat similar to what I was trying to say with the piece I published for the Oread Daily Group after 9/11 entitled
"For What It's Worth" (republished on the blog later). It carries my train of thought much further as well.

This analysis and blog site is also of interest to me because of my past "association" with the Sojourner Truth Organization (which you can learn more about at the blog site) which is cited here.

I would also recommend to you the blog site
"threewayfight" which is mentioned in the piece below.

Finally, let me again say what follows is long and more analytical then most posts you'll find in the OD. I won't hold it against you if you don't feel like wading through it.

I wouldn't mind hearing what those of you who do read this think about it. It'd be kinda cool to have some comments.

That said, here goes.

Challenges to Capitalism, Challenges for the Left: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Three Way Fight

This is the text of a talk I gave this past weekend at the National Conference on Organized Resistance in Washington DC. It’s not necessarily directly relevant to my research on STO, although I do mention the debt the Three Way Fight perspective owes to some of the anti-fascist work done by STO in the late seventies and into the eighties. Regardless, I thought it would be good to post it up here in hopes of getting critical feedback. Also, for what it’s worth, I prefaced my talk with a brief attempt to position myself, saying something more or less like this: “I’m not Jewish and I’m not Muslim, and I have no real expertise in the Middle East. But I care deeply about the topics mentioned in my title, and I believe in the principle that all people should attempt to engage critically with such important issues. As a result, my talk will hopefully be brief, and we’ll have a lot of time at the end for an open discussion. I’m learning as I go here, and hopefully that will be true for everyone in this room during the next hour and a half.”


Challenges to Capitalism, Challenges for the Left:
Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Three Way Fight

Washington, DC March 11, 2007

This talk is about the present and the future, but I’m a historian, so I want to begin by talking briefly about the past. The recent past, mind you; specifically, that heady time just five and a half years ago, immediately before the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Until that day, the anti-capitalist movement in the global north was riding a modest wave of success, beginning with the events in Seattle in 1999 and most recently featuring the massive showing in Genoa, Italy in the summer of 2001.

Those of us who had been active in that cycle of growth were probably over-optimistic about the immediate prospects for building a strongly anti-capitalist movement out of the mish-mash that was known variously as the anti-globalization movement, the global justice movement, or by a variety of other names. Certainly we were naïve about the state of the world and of the character of the forces arrayed against us.

But 9-11 took from us one of the most important things that contributed to our limited success: momentum. The attacks of that day deflated our sails, although we mostly didn’t recognize it until a year or two later. At the same time, that year or two changed the entire context in which we operated. The reasonable pacing of (and relatively easy access to) global economic summits – Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Genoa – was replaced by a much more rapid-fire list of places that were far more difficult to reach: Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad, Fallujah.

More fundamentally, our previous understanding of neoliberalism and globalization was challenged, and most of the former anti-globalization movement became convinced that “globalization” was suddenly less pressing than regional geo-political power struggles characterized by terms like “terrorism” or “imperialism,” or “war for oil.” Especially during the build-up to the Iraq War, many radicals came to believe that divisions within global capital, often described using the old left jargon of inter-imperialist rivalries, had over-powered the global capitalist unity that we believed had characterized the various summits at which we had protested. (As it happens, these changes seem to have been largely illusory, and the shift in leftwing perspective was shortsighted at best.)

In the aftermath, a small number of us, veterans of a range of movements and struggles, began to develop what seemed to us a somewhat novel way of thinking about the world. Expanding the insights we had gained from involvement with anti-fascist activities in the preceding decade, we started talking about a three-way fight, about a world best conceptualized by thinking not simply about us versus them, but about them, them and us.

At its core, the three way fight is a critique of authoritarianism as much as it is a response to fascism. It is also a way to understand various social movements through a sort of schematic categorization. The two sets of “them” that I mention here can roughly be taken to represent the capitalists and the fascists, and the “us” can be thought of as the anti-authoritarian revolutionary left. But the three way fight is not dogma; it requires that anyone who adopts it as a framework take the time to think through a range of questions and come to their own conclusions, whether individually or collectively. One key question is: is a given group or organization or movement revolutionary or reformist? If they are revolutionary, we can then ask, are they aiming for an authoritarian revolution or an anti-authoritarian revolution? Again, there’s no objectively correct answer to any of these questions and there’s a lot of grey area throughout, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. We still have to ask them, and we have to come up with some answers, no matter how tentative, in order to move forward.

In this framework, the global capitalist ruling class, whose movements we had tracked from summit to summit over the previous several years, could be thought of as the 800 pound gorilla in the ring, much as it was before 9-11, theories of inter-imperialist rivalry notwithstanding. The difference was in recognizing that we were not the only, nor even the most important, opposition force on the playing field. Just as the domestic fascist movement in the US had grown increasingly dangerous – and increasingly revolutionary – over the previous several decades, so too had many revolutionary movements the world over begun to appear more similar to fascism than we had previously understood. Al-Qaeda was the most prominent example in the period immediately after 9-11. As J. Sakai argued in the book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, “We weren’t thinking about fascism while we watched two 757s full of people fly into the ex-World Trade Center. And maybe we still weren’t thinking of fascism when we heard about the first-ever successful attack on the Pentagon. But fascism was thinking about us.”

For much of the left, the three way fight analysis of fascism was alien and confusing. This had a lot to do with decades of common-place usage among radicals where “fascist” was merely a synonym for “very, very bad.” In developing a more sophisticated understanding of the term, we looked in part to the pioneering work done two and a half decades ago by a long-defunct and little-known revolutionary group called the Sojourner Truth Organization. STO had spent considerable time and effort in the late 1970’s and early eighties analyzing and organizing against the fascist resurgence then sweeping the US. In doing so, they highlighted the insurgent, revolutionary potential of fascism, which represented a direct danger not just to the obvious targets of fascist violence (blacks, immigrants, Jews, women, gays and lesbians, and on and on), but also to the revolutionary left, and indeed to the capitalist status quo itself. Don Hamerquist, co-author with Sakai of Confronting Fascism, had been a leading member of STO, and continues to be a source of innovative ideas for our small sub-current.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those of us from the anti-capitalist movement who were drawn to a three way fight analysis were not the only people to make connections between revolutionary Islamic movements and the fascist tradition. A range of centrist and right-wing intellectuals and politicians have done so as well, from Christopher Hitchens to President Bush, who last summer caused a stir by using the term “Islamic fascism” repeatedly. Bush’s comments were made primarily in the context of defending the brutal devastation of Lebanon by the Israeli military, and often he was referring implicitly or explicitly to the Lebanese resistance, led by Hezbollah.

Around that same time, the blog Three Way Fight became a somewhat high profile forum for left discussion of Hezbollah, largely due to several pieces posted there by Matthew Lyons, an anti-fascist researcher and writer. Lyons maintained that Hezbollah was an essentially right-wing movement built around a theocratic version of Shiite Islam inspired by Iran’s Islamic Republic, but that it was not helpful to describe them as fascist, largely because they are not revolutionaries. He also argued strenuously that the left should condemn the Israeli attacks and critically support the Lebanese resistance, even though it was led by Hezbollah.

This approach was not only a response to knee-jerk left-wing perspectives on the Middle East (both pro-Israel and pro-Hezbollah), but also a challenge to the rest of us involved in developing the three way fight analysis. Lyons was rightly concerned with the too-easy equation many of us – myself included at times – had made between right-wing anti-imperialism and fascism. Lyons disagreed with this assessment, and with its abstentionist implications: if Hezbollah, for instance, was fascist, then no self-respecting radical could in any way support them, any more than we could support Israeli aggression. In contrast, said Lyons, leftwing revolutionaries should critically support the Lebanese resistance, even as we simultaneously challenged the right-wing character of Hezbollah’s politics.

The response to Lyons and Three Way Fight from some segments of the left was instructive: despite his specific (and repeated) rejection of the position that “we should denounce Israel and Hezbollah equally,” a number of leftists criticized Lyons and Three Way Fight for being overly critical of Hezbollah. This challenge was most forcefully articulated by Rami El-Amine, an Arab leftist and co-founder of the magazine Left Turn. In an essay entitled “Anti-Arab Racism, Islam, and the Left,” El-Amine argued that Lyons’ position exemplified the white left’s internalized islamophobia and reflected “a level of acceptance of the lies about Islamism, even by radicals.” He suggested that Lyon’s analysis of Hezbollah as essentially right wing “will one day become part of one of Hilary Clinton’s … speeches justifying a war on Lebanon and Iran.”

Putting to one side this frustrating smear, El-Amine’s essay exemplifies one important type of response to the post-9-11 world, a response that argues that the major challenge for the North American left is to overcome the internalized islamophobia we have absorbed from decades of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim politics and media coverage in the US. If we can’t accomplish this task within our own ranks, El-Amine argues, we will never be able to challenge the mainstream acceptance of this sort of racism. In his words, “Exposing and ending anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism needs to be a priority in the anti-war movement and the left in general. Doing so will not only bring more Arabs and Muslims into the movement, but also undercut the racist basis of support for the war. It will also alleviate the sense of isolation and powerlessness that so many Arabs and Muslims feel as a result of being the targets of war and racism.”

In a world that seems perpetually polarized by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is easy (perhaps too easy) to see in El-Amine’s views a mirror of the arguments put forward by those radicals who believe that the central challenge facing the North American left is the danger posed by our unexamined, or at least under-examined, anti-Semitism. The disturbing history of anti-Semitism on the left stretches across generations, runs through competing trends, and taints to some extent almost all lineages of the left in this country, as a diverse range of radicals – both Jews and non-Jews – have documented.

In such a context, argue some leftists, the danger of uncritically supporting a movement like Hezbollah, simply because it stands in clear opposition to US imperial aims in the Middle East, is that to do so requires ignoring, dismissing, or rationalizing those aspects of Hezbollah’s politics that are not simply in opposition to the Israeli oppression of Lebanon, but are truly anti-Semitic. The end result, it is feared, will be a left that is hopelessly compromised in its principles, and thus incapable of mounting any effective challenge to a global capitalist system that exploits such inconsistencies quickly and effectively.

Some leftists, like the mostly British grouping gathered around the Euston Manifesto, go even further, arguing that the line between opposition to Israeli policy and opposition to Jewish-ness as such is increasingly blurry. Hezbollah, to stick with our example, not only opposes Israeli involvement in Lebanon, it is also anti-Zionist – it opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. This can be perceived as simple anti-Zionism more or less uncomplicated by the occasional lapses of Hezbollah’s leadership into anti-Semitism, or it can be thought of as part of the long-standing history of anti-Semites world-wide attempting to cloak themselves with mantle of legitimate anti-Zionism, or it can be seen as evidence of the deep interpenetration between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Those of us, whether Jewish or not, who strive to be non-anti-Semitic anti-Zionists have long recognized the importance of differentiating the two concepts. But the Euston Manifesto presents an example of the opposite perspective, denouncing a context where “‘Anti-Zionism’ [that’s in quotes] has now developed to a point where supposed organizations of the left are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups.” It is unclear how much traction this approach has within the US left, although I have corresponded with a handful of anarchists who have either signed the Manifesto or hold positions substantially identical on this question.

I have no interest in drawing false equivalences between these two tendencies on the left, or between the problems they describe. Both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are real problems within the North American left, but they are not “equal.” Anti-Semitism has a history going back centuries, and one of its most dangerous qualities is precisely the way in which it exploits the relative privileges granted to Jews. In this country, for instance, most Jews benefit from white skin privilege. Anti-Semitism takes these privileges and reflects them in a sort of circus fun-house mirror that makes them appear to be monstrous deformations of ill-gotten power.

This opens the door to anti-Semitic scapegoating, and plays neatly to some all-too-common forms of left analysis. For example, the anti-globalization movement’s fascination with “global financial capital” in the form of the IMF and World Bank facilitated repeated infiltrations of the movement by fascists who were upset about “the Jews” who were thought to run “the banks.” Too many anti-globalization activists accepted this logic and were ensnared by the latent anti-Semitism to which it appeals, in part because many leftists assume that there is some sort of zero-sum exchange between privilege and oppression. Anti-Semitism belies this simplistic approach, and demonstrates the need for a more dialectical understanding of how oppression works.

At the same time, however, islamophobia meshes all too well with the historic legacies of white supremacy and anti-immigrant racism that have been internalized over generations in this country. The result is a symbiotic relationship between islamophobia and other forms of racism, such that each nourishes the other in a vicious cycle of fear, hatred and disempowerment. One could even argue that islamophobia, in the North American context at least, has less to do with religion than it does with race.

In a post-September 11 world, both the frequency and the intensity of anti-Muslim bias have skyrocketed. So too, ironically, has the acceptance of such bias in black and immigrant (often latino) communities that have themselves been targeted by white supremacy. Other things being equal (which they usually aren’t), it is far more dangerous to your health, safety, freedom, and economic well-being to be Muslim than it is to be Jewish in the United States today.

Differences also exist between the two political perspectives I am describing. El-Amine and others like him, especially in the circle around Left Turn, are committed anti-capitalists and revolutionaries actively involved in anti-war and anti-racist organizing, while most of the Euston signatories are well on their way to friendly confines of liberalism and accommodation with some sort of supposedly humane capitalism. (It should be noted, however, that this situation is hardly etched in stone; the possibilities for liberal reformism exist in both camps. We should not assume that all those who are concerned with islamophobia are or will necessarily continue to be revolutionaries, nor should we assume that all those focused on anti-Semitism are or always will be reformists.)

At the same time, however, one legacy of anti-Semitism’s historic tie to the Nazis is a profound awareness within the Euston camp of the need for an anti-fascist politics, which seems lacking in the anti-war movement, and on the left more generally. This lack of awareness is especially evident in El-Amine’s attempt to tar Lyons with the specter of Hilary Clinton, as if all those who are critical of Hezbollah can be easily grouped as supporters of imperialism. In a way, this is the flip-side of the argument advanced by some Euston signatories that anti-Zionism is always “effectively” anti-Semitic.

Regardless, both problems are real, and both “camps” (to the extent they really exist outside of my rough schematic) have important truths to tell. The nineteenth century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin famously remarked that “freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” Something similar is at work here: anti-fascism without revolution (the Euston position) guarantees capitalism’s continuing misery and devastation, while revolution without anti-fascism (the Left Turn position) all but ensures that the insurgent right will ace out the insurgent left. We need both anti-fascism and revolution.

Unfortunately, this “both, and” approach is distressingly uncommon within the North American left, largely due to what could be called “bi-polarity:” that is, the dualistic and anti-dialectical tendency to reduce complex situations to two opposing, and static, sides. In mainstream culture this over-simplification is best exemplified by Bush’s oft-quoted statement that everyone is “either with us, or with the terrorists,” a claim that has been rightly ridiculed by everyone to the left of Christopher Hitchens. But no matter how dismissive we may be of Bush’s ultimatum, a lot of radical politics is built around similar false dichotomies.

Within the left, historically speaking, one major strand of bi-polarity can be traced back to the twists and turns of Stalin-era Soviet foreign policy in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Its specific applications were quite often concerned with an analysis of the rising tide of fascism in Europe. For a time, the Soviets upheld the classic definition of fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” That is, fascism was nothing more than a variation on western capitalism, and both were to be opposed.

A few years later, during the relatively short-lived Hitler-Stalin pact, this position was reversed: suddenly, fascism and Stalinism were allies unified in their opposition to capitalist imperialism. Once Germany and the Soviet Union had parted company (and the former had invaded the latter), the equation changed yet again: now the capitalists and the Stalinists made common cause against the total threat posed by fascist “barbarism.” This formulation resulted in the Yalta Conference, and in the end the division of Europe after World War Two. This is the stuff Orwell was mocking when he wrote about how “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia” in the novel 1984.

Sixty years later, most of the left in North America has finally rid itself of the open trappings of Stalinism, but a surprising vestige remains within our worldview: the need to reduce every conflict to two sides, us and them. For the Euston manifesto signatories, “us” means defenders of freedom, democracy and cultural diversity, while “them” refers to the perceived opponents of these concepts – fascists, Islamic fundamentalists, and (non-state) terrorist organizations. According to this logic, even though the Western capitalist countries have problems and are in need of improvement, they are on “our” side insofar as they provide a necessary bulwark against “them.”

This sort of thinking is probably not very appealing to most of us in this room (which is a good thing), but a possibly more tempting version of the same bi-polarity can be found among the most sharp and level-headed critics of this view. People like El-Amine, who rightly decries the internalized islamophobia of “us vs. them” narratives like the one implicit in the Euston Manifesto, often argue in terms that suggest a competing “us vs. them” story line: here, “us” means anti-imperialists, opponents of capitalist globalization, and all who challenge the global hegemony of the United States, while “them” refers to, well, the imperialists, the capitalist globalizers, and those who support the global hegemony of the United States. This is the Chavez-Ahmadinejad International, and Hezbollah are prominent members.

Each version of bi-polarity contains its own blindspot: the Euston position can’t see the legitimacy, indeed the importance, of anti-Zionism, while the El-Amine position can’t see the legitimacy and importance of challenging Islamic fundamentalism. Within the framework of efforts to develop radical solutions to the various conflicts in the Middle East, a clear vision of both these concepts is essential. And for North American radicals in particular, burdened as we are with the legacy of white supremacy and its attendant obsession with categorization (of race, of ethnicity, and of types or forms of oppression), a careful analysis of islamophobia and of anti-Semitism may prove to be invaluable in overcoming the limits of our own political frameworks. As is often the case, in order to effectively present a real challenge to capital, we need to confront the challenges facing the left, in the form of our own political weaknesses.

Once we expand our horizons beyond the Middle East, the relevance of the three way fight perspective becomes even more clear: Zionism represents a particular (but definitely peculiar) example of global capitalism, while some (but definitely not all) versions of Islamic fundamentalism serve as examples of contemporary forms of fascism. (Others, it is important to note, represent competing factions of global capitalism; Iran’s ongoing friendship with Russia and China serves as an example of this alternative.) In this context, a “them, them, and us” approach seems particularly useful, partly because it better describes the reality within which we find ourselves than any of the “us vs. them” narratives I’ve discussed already, but also partly because it presents a bulwark against the further fracturing of the radical left in North America.

Now I have nothing in principle against fractures and disagreements on the left, but in some circumstances, splintering can cause more harm than good. Consider the anti-globalization movement, for instance: here was a highly heterogeneous milieu, one in which conscious anti-capitalists were a distinct minority. Anti-capitalist revolutionaries were often in the forefront of deliberate splits and fractures, both those designed to exclude fascist elements from the movement, and those intended to draw sharp political lines and create a strong anti-capitalist and revolutionary pole within the movement. This was a good thing, but our ability to function within that context, while continuously challenging the political limitations of the broader movement, was dependent upon a certain minimum level of ongoing dialogue. It is this possibility for dialogue that I fear will be lost between those revolutionaries who prioritize resistance to islamophobia and those who emphasize challenges to anti-Semitism.

To understand my fear, it is helpful to look at the decline of the German autonomist movement over the past two decades. In the 1980’s the West German autonomen were among the most vibrant, militant, and inspiring radical movements anywhere in the world. Certainly they were not without their problems, but the situation was dynamic and hopeful. Within the autonomen, several tendencies developed, including the antifas, or anti-fascists, and the anti-imps, or anti-imperialists. The anti-imps were primarily focused on support for third world liberation movements, including especially Palestinian liberation, where the antifas prioritized domestic and international organizing against the far right.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the antifas became concerned with the rapidly rising tide of far-right activity in (the soon to be former) East Germany, and some of them began to emphasize the special responsibility to support Jewish causes that Germans carried as a result of the holocaust. This led to an opposition to German reunification, which was seen as an opening for an expansionist, even fascist, resurgence. At the same time, some antifas criticized the anti-imps for their tendency to uncritically support Palestinian struggles, even when they employed terrorist methods and used anti-Semitic rhetoric. Given the dodgy history of the post-war German left on questions of Israel/Palestine, this was probably pretty reasonable.

Around the time of the Iraq War in 2003, a minority segment of the antifas took this constellation of ideas and turned them into a principled opposition to German-ness as such, taking the name the anti-Deutsche (anti-Germans). At this point, the autonomist movement was in a shambles, partly because of changing objective conditions in the reunified Germany, but also in part because of the long-standing splits between tendencies that had less and less contact with each other.

The most extreme sectors of the anti-Deutsche drew two sets of highly questionable conclusions: first, the “special responsibility” morphed into a specific responsibility to support the State of Israel; second, the only possible geopolitical counter-weight to resurgent German expansionism was the United States. Since the US also represented the most stalwart international supporter of Israel, the internal logic was as solid as it was circular. The result is the occasional spectacle at pro-Israel demonstrations in Germany of small groups of protestors decked out black bloc style carrying US and Israeli flags. This is bi-polarity taken to absurd extremes.

It is always dangerous to draw parallels between left-wing movements in different countries, and the uniqueness of the German situation (given its history of Naziism and the holocaust) makes it all the more troublesome in this case. In addition, much of the anti-Deutsche milieu has avoided these comic extremes, while still pressing the left on issues of anti-Semitism. Further, there is no visible tendency within the US left that shows any immediate propensity toward developing in the direction taken by the anti-Deutsche.

Nonetheless, the danger of this sort of polarization is real, and must be combated if we are to develop real challenges to capitalism. One can imagine comparable movements in the North American context developing out of either camp we have discussed here today. Already, groups like the Workers’ World Party assume a consistent stance of unconditionally supporting any and all movements or governments that are seen to oppose US imperialism, from North Korea to Iran to Venezuela. Smarter revolutionaries who are sincerely concerned with the dangers of islamophobia could end up following the same logic. The opposite danger is also visible in the pro-US and pro-Israel stance taken by many Euston signatories.

So, it’s not a question of “choosing” islamophobia or anti-Semitism as the “primary” enemy. Rather, the more central questions are: can we develop and maintain a sophisticated and dynamic political analysis in a world where the pull toward simplistic dualism is sometimes overwhelming? Can we build revolutionary politics in a left that seems perpetually drawn to liberalism, to reform, to what is deemed “really possible”? Can we help strengthen the social movements in which we participate? Clarifying our politics is key to making revolution, and a three way fight analysis is an important part of that process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey thanks for writing this. it was really interesting. as an anarchist, i think most anarchists recognize the idea of fighting whhat you are opposed to instead of resorting to 2-sided conceptions of reality. i wonder thhough about taking this type of logic to it's conclusion, where basically anyone who is not an anarchist we are opposed to. how can we figure out at what point we have gotten away from 2 sided fights but not made it into a 400 sided fight, with anarchists isolated and unable to ally with any other politically conscious people? i tend to lean toward recognizing the problems with the ideologies of the oppressed (hezbollah, iraqi resistance, etc...) while having some sympathy for them as victims of oppresssion, whereas i have much less sympathy for ideologies that are held up by a state (israel, iran, usa, etc...), which may or may not be a fair way to feel, but in my actions i basically stick to allying myself with other anarchists and radicals who recognize the faults in both (in fact many: stalinism, maoism, etc...) other camps.

so i guess their needs to be a balence between isolation and allying with nasty people. i find there is plenty to do and say specifically as an anarchist that i don't bother with allying myself with either group of nasty people, but perhaps i'm a bit too issolated?