Saturday, July 28, 2012


Gasp!  It is time for Theoretical Weekends at Scission.  How about something a little different, a lot shorter then normal, a lot more clear than normal, a little more history, and a book review to boot.  Actually, the review seemed so interesting to me that I just purchased the book on line.

What the hell, I present you the following from CounterFire.  I even threw in the comments for fun.

Revolution in the ancient world has plenty to teach us today, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh, welcoming the new edition of Neil Faulkner’s Apocalypse, looking at the Jewish revolt of AD66-73

Neil Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD66-73, 2nd ed. (Amberley Publishing 2011), 284pp.

Aland suffers under the rule of an imperial power, which rubs in its exploitation with calculated insults to the area’s major religion. There have been several rebellions, all answered with vicious repression, and such is the economic pressure caused by the imperial expropriation of resources that in many places former peasants are driven by poverty to social banditry. Finally things come to a head in a full scale revolt. The uprising is headed initially by aristocratic nationalists, but these are soon overthrown in a popular revolution. The revolutionaries win some incredible victories against the retribution of the imperial power, and while the revolt is eventually crushed, and with great brutality, it is never forgotten.

Stripped down in this way to its essentials, you might guess that this was any number of twentieth-century nationalist revolts, but you would be nearly 2000 years out. This is the story of the Jewish revolt of 66-73AD, which began with the expulsion of the procurator of Judea from Jerusalem in May of 66 and ended with the deaths of the Zealots at Masada in April of 73. As Neil Faulkner makes clear in this fascinating account, even ancient history can be of more than academic interest to modern revolutionaries.

The Jewish revolt, as recounted here by Faulkner, is a reminder of how the history of class conflict did not begin with capitalism. The proletariat is the revolutionary class, but this does not mean that it was impossible for the oppressed to fight back before the proletariat existed. The Jewish revolt in many ways looks surprisingly similar to modern revolutions. Faulkner points out, for example, a period of dual power in Jerusalem, while the nationalist leaders were ostensibly in control but actually being driven by revolutionary pressure from below, which matches Trotsky’s identification of the phenomenon in the Russian revolution some 1900 years later.

However, that these revolutionaries came from the peasantry, rather than from a then non-existent proletariat, was crucial. As Faulkner says, ‘peasant revolution is always limited. The peasant is an individualist whose ambition is restricted to his own farm; he wants to defeat his oppressors and then be left alone to work the land with his family; he has no vision of a wider social transformation involving the collective action of peasants in general. There is rarely such a thing, therefore, as a peasant state, for when peasants destroy the old state they do not create a new one in its place; they just go home’ (p.188). In the Jewish Revolt, the millenarianism of the various messianic sects helped to change this dynamic, as did the fact that many peasants were dispossessed either before or during early stages of the revolt, so that Jerusalem could be filled with people who had been separated from the parochial context of the villages. It could not, however, transcend it entirely, and the very millenarianism which enabled people to imagine a collective struggle for a new society could eventually undermine their capacity to resist. When Jerusalem finally fell to the Roman troops in the year 70, a crowd of the defenders massed on the roof of the Temple to wait for what they thought would be a sign of deliverance from God, rather than attempting to resist the Roman soldiers.

The reconstruction here of the Jewish revolt in class terms, as a revolution, is particularly impressive because, unlike the revolutions of the twentieth century, those describing it for posterity did not see it as such. Our main source for the events of the revolt is the writer Josephus, and for him, the explanation for the revolution did not lie in terms of class forces, but in the failings of the individuals involved. So, for example, for Josephus, the people of Jerusalem rose up against the procurator of Judea not because he was the representative of the oppressive imperial power but because the individual, Florus, was a particularly bad man.

This disinclination to see revolution as a revolution is remarkable especially because Josephus was himself part of it. A member of the initial revolutionary government, he was military governor in Galilee until the area was recaptured by the Romans. However, Josephus was a member of the aristocracy, as much opposed to the revolutionary poor as he was an enemy of the Romans, and he had another excellent reason for not blaming the imperial system per se. When his comrades in the Galilee committed suicide together, he reneged on the pact, surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian and wormed his way into the good graces of the Roman elite. He was so successful at this that he was eventually given citizenship and ended up living in Rome. This makes clear the roots of his inability to criticise the Roman Empire itself, as opposed to the occasional poor choices of its servants. It is also worth reflecting that a determined denial of systemic oppression has always been a facet of bourgeois ideology also. That our evidence for the revolution is provided by the self-justifications of one of the aristocrats who sold it out makes its reconstruction a particular challenge, but Faulkner’s account shows that it is possible to look behind Josephus’ limited perspective.

The relevance of a Marxist understanding of the Jewish revolt comes out clearly in Faulkner’s work, and it is accompanied by a wealth of impressive detail on the military history of the uprising and its suppression. It is set apart here from standard military histories by the focus on ordinary soldiers, rather than just on the generals. Instead of the usual descriptions of generals making decisions and their machine-like troops carrying them out, what we are presented with are considerations of what it takes to make soldiers actually kill each other or civilians. The reactions of ordinary soldiers are shown to be just as important as the tactics decided on by the generals. The key to the military supremacy of the Roman army here appears not as the genius of its generals, or even its weight of numbers, but the organisation which meant that it functioned even when brilliance of leadership was lacking. The Roman army system meant that it mattered less than you might think if the Roman aristocrat who ended up in charge on his way up the cursus honorem (career ladder) was not gifted in the military department or, like Vespasian’s son, the future emperor Titus, brave, good at fighting, but just a little bit dim.

The Roman Empire was a vicious, repressive system which owed its continuance to the terrifying military machine which was the Roman army. As in Faulkner’s other works on the Roman Empire, The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain (Tempus 2000) and Rome: Empire of the Eagles (Pearson 2008) a major theme of Apocalypse is the brutality of the Empire itself. This is an aspect of the Empire which tends to be neglected by bourgeois scholarship. The Roman Empire worked where it could by co-opting local elites; selling them the benefits of Romanitas in return for the use of their power structures to maintain imperial rule and suppress the local population. The propaganda on the benefits of empire this entailed was so pervasive that, with a little help from the British Empire, we’re still largely buying it 2000 years later. The famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian relies for its joke on the understanding that the Roman Empire was a good thing for its subject populations. Reg, the revolutionary leader, points out that the Romans have bled Palestine white, and asks rhetorically what they have ever given them in return. ‘The aqueduct’ comes the answer. ‘Sanitation. And the roads. Irrigation. Medicine. Education. Health. And the wine…’ The Jewish revolutionaries here are ridiculous because they don’t realise that their enemy is actually benefiting them.

In reality, as Faulkner reminds us, the Roman Empire was vicious and exploitative in the extreme. The violence of the campaign against the Jewish revolt is appalling, and apologists for the Roman Empire should note that it was carried out not by admitted monsters like Caligula or Nero but by Vespasian and Titus, the supposedly good Flavian emperors who would usher in what is supposed to be the golden age of the pax Romana. In fact, there was no imperial golden age of Rome for the vast majority of the people of the Empire. The senatorial class who had the leisure and resources to write the histories might have had a nice time, but for the rest, far from bringing the benefits of civilisation, the Empire destroyed agriculture and local economies by trying to extract far more than they could afford to give, and massacred whole populations when they tried to resist.

The point is that there are not good empires and bad empires, just as it was that getting rid of a few bad apples would not fix the problem with the procuratorship of Judea. All empires are bad for the lands they occupy and for the ordinary people suffering under the imperial power. The lesson of the Jewish revolt is that all imperialism requires resistance.


#1 RE: Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD66-73 — lev taylor 2012-07-21 17:24
This is a really interesting piece, and great to read!
My question is more about the theory than anything:
The article talks about peasants not being a revolutionary class, because their interests are individualistic . Is that necessarily the case? What about Latin America's indigenous social movements, like the Campesinos?
Also, when Marx talked about the industrial proletariat neing the revolutionary class he said it because, in factories, people learn to produce commonly. But today most of us work in service and retail. Would that mean Britains working class dont have revolutionary agency?
Just some thoughts.
#2 reply to lev — neil faulkner 2012-07-22 17:03
The key thing, Lev, is that the peasantry can play a revolutionary role, but it cannot provide effective revolutionary leadership and carry out a social transformation in which private property (and therefore exploitation) is abolished. That is because the peasantry is a class of individualists - like 'a sack of potatoes' as Marx described them - whereas the proletariat is collective in character because of specialisation and the division of labour under capitalism. That means that revolutionary action by the industrial working class immediately leads to the possibility of the means of production being taken over and run collectively and democratically - that is, it leads to the possibility of complete social transformation.
#3 RE: Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD66-73 — Lev Taylor 2012-07-25 12:29
So where does that fit people in service industries today, like call centre workers, catering staff, shop workers, etc.? Would they be individualists or revolutionary leaders?

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Welcome to the Olympics brought to you partially buy Union Carbide and Dow Chemical.

Let's see, why does that Union Carbide name ring a bell?  Oh yeah, they're the folks who killed thousands of Indians at Bhopal back when, aren't they?

The survivors don't want you to forget what happened and they don't want you to forget that Dow has yet to meet its responsibility to the dead and to the survivors. They don't want yu to forget those thousands who died in hideous ways.  They don't want you to forget the corporate kingpins who never went to jail.  They don't want you to forget the Empire that didn't care.  They don't want you to forget that this sort of crap goes on everyday somewhere out there.   They don't want you to forget that a year long attempt to convince the Olympic bosses to drop Dow failed.

The Bhopal Medical Appeal reminds us:

Dow Chemical’s Olympic sponsorship legitimises its abnegation of responsibility for the health and wellbeing of Bhopal, thereby perpetuating the denial of basic rights to thousands of suffering people.

We celebrate the Olympics, their ancient sanctity and nobility of spirit. We salute the Games that unite us all in delight at the health, strength, beauty and grace of the young contestants from around the world. All of these things the association with Dow therefore debases and disgraces.

In addition:

With the theme “From East India Company to The Dow Chemical Company”, the opening ceremony will draw attention to the many famines caused by British rule over India, the mass hanging in the wake of the first battle for Indian independence in 1857, the massacre at Jalianwala Baug in 1919 and the support extended by the British Prime Minister to the Dow Chemical Company.

The Bhopal Medical Appeal joined five other organizations joined together to organize the "Bhopal special Olympics" which was held the day before the opening of the London Olympics.  Taking part in this special Olympics are children born with disabilities due to the poisoning by Union Carbide.  The poisoning by the way has not ended. 

The special Olympics protest games featured children like Zehara Javed who won the crab walking competition as the only girl entered in that even.

The Times of India takes up the story:

Zehra's father Mohd Javed is a victim of gas tragedy. "He was severely affected after the MIC exposure. Consequently, his eyes and kidney were badly affected," Javed's wife Noosrat Jehan said with tears rolled down her eyes.

Zehra is a second generation gas victim with congenital physical problems. "After her birth, we came to know that she could not speak and her one leg was not developed. Later, we got to know that it was just because of the ill-effects of the gas that she got from her father," Noosrat said recounting her woes.

Noosrat said: "With our participation, my family and I wanted to protest against the Dow Chemicals. We can't accept that the company which should own the legacy of the Union Carbide has been supported by the international Olympic Committee ( IOC)."

Referring to the participants like Zehra, Rachna Dhingra, one of the organizers, said, "This is what we wanted to convey to the London Olympics organisers that despite facing odds in the life, even small kids affected from gas would keep protesting the decision of taking sponsorships from Dow chemicals."

The following is from AFP.

'Bhopal Games' denounce London sponsor Dow

BHOPAL, India — Disabled children living near the site of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster -- many in wheelchairs, others crawling -- staged a protest Olympics Thursday targeting London 2012 sponsor Dow Chemical.

About 100 children took part in the "Bhopal Special Olympics" at a muddy sports ground in the shadow of the Union Carbide factory responsible for the world's worst industrial accident.

The event, organised on the eve of Friday's Olympics opening ceremony, aimed to highlight the suffering of people in the central Indian city and the links to Dow Chemical, which took over fellow US group Union Carbide in 2001.
"The children are born like this because of the gas," said Kesar Bai, a 45-year-old mother from a slum near the plant who believes that the disaster and its lingering impact caused her son Pratap's severe cerebral palsy.

She broke down in tears at the the sight of Pratap, strapped into his wheelchair, being pushing around the makeshift sports track along with the gaggle of disabled participants, mostly aged between eight and 16.

"I was thinking 'if there hadn't been this tragedy, then so many would not be born like this'," she said, adding that in the area around her shack there were 10-12 disabled children.

The disaster killed 8,000-10,000 people within the first three days, according to data from the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), but hundreds of thousands more suffer the consequences.

Immediately after the 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked, survivors remember the slums surrounding the pesticide plant being littered with people, many unconscious, vomiting or frothing at the 
"We woke up at 02:00 am in the night. Everyone was running. If you fell down, they ran over you," Bai recalled.
The old moth-balled factory still stands to this day, lightly guarded and open to children who are reported to play there. Thousands of tonnes of highly toxic waste remain in the area, slowly leeching into the groundwater.

A 2009 study by the independent Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment found water 3.0 kilometres (1.8 miles) from the factory was severely contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals linked to birth defects.

US multinational Dow, a top sponsor of the London Games and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has rebuffed calls for more compensation for the victims.

It points to a 1989 deal that saw Union Carbide pay the Indian government $470 million to settle all of its liabilities. It says any further health and clean-up costs are the state's responsibility.

It adds that Union Carbide had also sold its shares -- and liabilities -- in its Bhopal subsidiary to an Indian company five years before Dow began its $35-billion takeover of the group in 1999.

A spokesman for Dow Chemical, Scott Wheeler, told AFP that the company regretted the "misinformed and misdirected allegations" against it.

Its sponsorship of London 2012 has caused immense anger in Bhopal, where protest posters have been pasted around the city, and it led the Indian government to ask the IOC to drop the Michigan-based firm.

Some of the anger is also directed at Britain. Winners of the races collected medals in front of a poster depicting the Bengal famine of 1943 blamed on Winston Churchill.

The opening ceremony featured a re-enactment of a colonial-era massacre by soldiers in the northwestern city of Amritsar in 1919.

"A lot to be ashamed of if one is a Brit," read one banner hung from a crumbling concrete stand in which several hundred spectators clapped the children during the 90 minutes of sport.

One race was titled "the crab walk" in which three children who were unable to stand heaved themselves down the 25-metre race course with their hands.

As a top-tier sponsor, Dow will display its branding to billions of TV viewers during the Olympics and it has funded a fabric wrap that will go around the main stadium.

Beyond the row about corporate social responsibility, the management of the Bhopal disaster also points to the failings of the Indian state.

Local authorities assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site in 1998 but they have failed to clear the waste. The justice system produced its first convictions only 25 years after the event.