“My advice to the non-communist western left is to exorcise the ghost of anti-communism and to look into the history of communism, as it really existed.”
This week I spoke with Luciana Bohne. Luciana is a retired academic whose long life is almost a synthesis of the turbulence of the 20th century. She has lived under three systems: fascism, socialism, and capitalism. She has known war, been a refuge and displaced person, an immigrant, and a failed aspirant to bourgeois respectability. I don’t think she has ever been at home anywhere, except in early childhood in her native village in what was first Austrian dominion, then, Italy, then Yugoslavia, and finally Croatia. She can hardly say what her native language is but is thankful for knowing now the little English she uses for writing essays for Counterpunch and other internet sites. She has left behind her professional training and research to concentrate on just speaking her mind for what it’s worth.
We discussed contemporary political developments with a special focus on the relevancy of Marxist theory to Russiagait, socialism, and the legacy of the Soviet Union.
DH: You have been on Don Debar's CPRNews several times to discuss the historical and political development of the Soviet Union and the lessons to be derived from the first socialist revolution in world history. This is a difficult question, but what would you say is a key lesson from the Soviet period of 1917-1991 that stands out to you the most and how should it inform the American left's analysis of the current period?
LB: The communist left needs no instruction. That’s the left that saw in the Soviet Union, governing a third of the planet, a system that gave birth to the most significant political movement of the 20th century, abolishing private property, developing free education, free health care, the emancipation of women, granting equality—including the right to secede-—to the nationalities enslaved within the czar’s empire, and providing diplomatic, military, financial, and technical support for the majority of anti-colonial struggles, and for the independent states they created. This left is revolutionary. The rest of the left, liberal, social democratic, reformist, etc., should set themselves the task of questioning the myths about Soviet socialism that the United States propagated throughout the Cold War through its cultural institutions, the major one of which being that socialism in the Soviet Union didn’t work, was brutal and oppressive, and killed 40 to 100 million people. Socialism cannot be reconstructed without learning the real history of the USSR, and above all why it “failed.”
So far, the key lesson from the Soviet period has been learned by China, socially, politically, economically, but the most important of these was the political lesson. It’s true that the US during the Reagan administration decided to destabilize the Soviet Union. It’s true that the US applied pressure on the Soviet Union “to reform,” denying credits and technology, forcing an extortionist arms race, using NED, Freedom House, and other democracy-spreading institutions to dole out millions of dollars to establish in the Soviet Union a network of West-friendly organizations and activities so as to create a pro-democracy (capitalist style) “civil society” programmed to favor “reform.” However, none of this pressure alone would have succeeded in dissolving the Soviet Union and substituting it with the rapacious neoliberalism that savaged Soviet society with privatizations, which stripped the people of all they had built and owned since 1917. For this catastrophe to happen, the Soviet Communist Party had to be subverted from inside. China grasped this danger at the very inception of the decades-long process that would lead to the catastrophe.
“Khrushchev declared the end of the class struggle and the dawn of peaceful co-existence with capitalism, as though Western imperialism had died a quiet death.”
The key event in the history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was 25 February 1956, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attacked Joseph Stalin in his infamous “secret report” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” The Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, reacted severely by pointing out that the “struggle against the personality cult” was in reality a struggle to discredit the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party up to the death of Stalin in 1953. It was to discredit, they said, the world communist parties and communism as a whole. It was, therefore, revisionist and, so, counter-revolutionary. In reality, they argued, Khrushchev was denouncing the Soviet system and the Soviet state. Moreover, the concept of “cult of personality” was an alien category in Marxist-Leninist theory, a fraudulent scheme for denigrating the collective leadership of the party by personalizing it in Stalin. Marxist-Leninist theory is grounded in dialectics and can entertain two opposing thoughts in the mind at the same time—for example, that Stalin committed errors of judgment and theory but that, on balance, his successes outweighed his failures.
The Chinese Communist Party’s response to Khrushchev’s “secret report” presciently detected the dawn of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which occurred in 1991, in this initial attack on its vital organ -- the party. Too, the report besmirched the proletarian party, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the socialist system. But more ominously, the Chinese Communist party argued that “on the pretext of ‘combating the personality cult,’” the Khrushchev clique sought ‘to build themselves up and to attack revolutionaries loyal to Marxism-Leninism so as to pave the way for revisionist schemers to usurp the Party and state leadership.” The date of this prophetic theory was 1964, coincidentally the year of Khrushchev’s removal from leadership. Khrushchev had indeed “paved the way” for counter-revolution: he had sought to make the party eclectic, opening it up to members without tested knowledge of theory or proven commitment. He had declared the end of the class struggle and the dawn of peaceful co-existence with capitalism, as though Western imperialism had died a quiet death and was no longer a threat to two-thirds of the world, including colonies still struggling for independence.
“By recognizing Mao’s contribution to the building of socialism, the Chinese leadership and the people have safeguarded the integrity of the party.”
The end of this folly or illusion is the world today, which is not exactly a picture of peaceful co-existence. In the wake of the destruction of the Soviet Union, the old imperialist countries of the West, led by the US, have gone on a triumphalist war path and are reclaiming the territories lost, since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution inspired them to rise up and seize independence. But China has learned from the errors of the Soviet Union. It has not denounced Mao Zedong, though it has admitted his errors, finding them, on balance, less significant than his victories. By recognizing Mao’s contribution to the building of socialism, the Chinese leadership and the people have safeguarded the integrity of the party and this has resulted in continuity even as the party has moved on from the period of revolutionary communism to the period of socialism with Chinese characteristics, now maturing into an economically vibrant country, independent of Western intrigue and subversion.
So, my advice to the non-communist western left is to exorcise the ghost of anti-communism and to look into the history of communism, as it really existed. This history exists, but it is not written by regime intellectuals of the anti-communist West. There is an industry of anti-communist writers, from Robert Conquest to Timothy Snyder. What good has it done to read the mystifyers and revisionists depicting Stalin as a “murderer,” “a bandit,” “a despot,” “the greatest dictator in Russian history,” “fool,” and “idiot,” thus condemning communism as a whole, except to force us to accept capitalism as the only system beneficial to humanity? Especially now that capitalism has raised the sword of imperialism over humanity, reducing great swathes to fire, famine, disease, and death?
DH: Russia, the DPRK, and China have all made gains in the international sphere in recent weeks. China continues to grow economically, surpassing all Eurozone countries combined in terms of GDP. Russia has announced new military and economic capabilities that seem to effectively counter American imperial plans to force the country into subservience again as was the case under Yeltsin. And the DPRK has invited Trump to negotiate denuclearization after a show of unified solidarity between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK in this year's Olympics in Seoul. How are these developments related?
LB: They are related to the accurate perception that US militarism is failing to achieve dominance. In the Pentagon Defense Strategy Planning for 1994-98, that document stated that priority #1 for the US was to prevent “the rise of another rival,” such as had been the Soviet Union. This prevention would require a systematic effort to secure the dominion of the world by soft and hard power. Sudan, Somalia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and Syria all suffered the exercise of this paranoid plan. As the world outside “the international community” (the rich countries) watched with horror these reckless massively destructive but bungled actions, they began to lose not only respect for American culture and society but also belief in American military planning, efficiency, and invincibility.
The watershed for this growing perception was the American defeat in Syria. You’ll remember that General Wesley Clark revealed in 2007 that in 2002 the Pentagon had received a memo saying, “We’re going to take out seven countries in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran.” The general implied that the memo was issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It all went according to plan until the attempted destabilization of Syria, where the plan crashed because Russia intervened militarily upon request of President Assad. That plan is now in shreds—and it was above all a plan to constrict China economically. It’s often said, who controls the oil controls the world economy, and the US intended to control the Chinese economy by controlling those Middle East-North Africa countries not committed to serving the interests of the US. Iran was to be the prize because Iran and China have been since the 80s close economic and military allies. A study from the RAND organization points out, “The partnership of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China presents a unique challenge to U.S. interests and objectives.” But with Syria lost, lurching into a war with Iran would be mad adventurism.
“The US intended to control the Chinese economy by controlling those Middle East-North Africa countries not committed to serving the interests of the US.”
So much was at stake in Syria, that if the US did not take radical military measures then, it was likely that its military might was actually hampered by the risk of nuclear war. In Syria it did not dare to take the risk. But this does not make the US less dangerous to peace. Russia fully understands the American military conundrum but does not rule out the possibility that a defensively weak Russia could encourage the US to entertain the idea of a first strike with immunity from retaliation. Putin’s recent speech to the Federal Assembly claimed that Russia’s nuclear capacity is on par if not superior to American nuclear capacity. So that is how Russia relates to American militarism.
China’s continued economic growth and trade expansion depend on there being no major war. Thus, the fact that for now the US imperial project has bogged down in Syria is good for the continuation of China’s economic progress and trade. China, like Russia, does not underestimate the American military threat. It spends 12% of its budget on defense, building up its navy specifically. President Xi’s motto is “moving forward without forgetting the original intention.” The original intention, of course, is to steer the ship of state along the socialist path and eventually to communism. Within this long journey, the first step is to secure Chinese independence from Western exploiters and intriguers, thus ending “the hundred years of China’s humiliation,” at the hands of Western imperial powers, a process started by the Chinese Revolution of 1949. To this end, China needs strong and steadfast leadership. China upholds the sovereignty of the Chinese Communist Party as the pillar of the rise of its economic strength and independence. It is not for China to make the Soviet mistake of a loose and un-monitored Communist party, filled with opportunists confabulating with Western meddlers! In 2017, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign said to have affected 159,000 people, including military and political personnel, whose activities deviated from or abused the integrity of the party, its program, or its cash—or indeed exploited the people. The most recent person to be investigated is Fang Fenghui, member of the Military Central Committee, at the summit of the People’s Liberation Army. Thus, Xi’s leadership has posed as principal goal the rock-solid permanence of the Chinese Communist Party as the economic and political fulcrum of the People’s Republic.
“China upholds the sovereignty of the Chinese Communist Party as the pillar of the rise of its economic strength and independence.”
As to the DPRK, it is tempting to analyze North/South Korean developments in a Trumpian frame, but Trump inherits a wreck of a foreign policy, and so Syria comes into consideration. Events in South Korea interest me more than those in the North, partly because the media obscures them. Seoul ousted the outrageously corrupt—and conservative friend of America—Park Geun-hye and elected civil rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, the son of refugees from DPRK, with 41% of the vote. Moon participated in the Ro government between 1998 and 2008 when South Korea was shipping massive aid to the DPRK and installing economic projects in common to reduce the isolation of the North. Park put a stop to that co-operation, but Moon has indicated that he intends to restore it. When lately President Trump presented Moon with a potential bill for $1 billion for housing unpopular THAADs (labeled for defense, but actually intent on encircling China), Moon said, “One has to learn to say NO to America from time to time.” Indeed, Moon is demanding that [South] Korea be invited to participate in China-US negotiations about the DPRK, hitherto excluded. He calls for autonomy. I think this defiance of Washington’s control is significant and has much to do with North-South conciliatory advances. Too, I cannot imagine that it’s unrelated to the military debacle in Syria.
DH: We at Black Agenda Report often talk about the decline of American empire. Your work has been inspired by Marxist theory, in particular Lenin's theory of imperialism. How does Marxist theory apply to the decline of American empire today?
I don’t think you need Marxist Leninist theory to see the signs of decline. Almost 50 million people in the U.S. are poor (out of total population of about 320 million); almost 10% are unemployed, have marginal or involuntary part-time jobs; about 2.3 million people are incarcerated, the highest prison population in the world (the US has 4.4% of the world’s population, but it houses 22% of the world’s prisoners); 15 million children—21% of all children—live in households with incomes below the poverty line; a majority of children in public schools are poor, for the first time in half a century; 44 million people have no health insurance and 38 million have an inadequate one; half a million people are homeless; one veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, 22 suicides per day; 25 million Americans over 60 are economically insecure.
Why so much insecurity, pain, and degradation? Could it be that capitalism in the US is “moribund”? Could it be that the defense budget is over $720 billion while the education budget, by contrast, is $59 billion? Could it be that the state has abandoned the nation? Yes, to all those questions. We live in the age of imperialism, and these are the costs. Lenin called imperialism “the age of moribund capitalism.” He wrote it in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916. Imperialism, the harbinger of war, surfaces, he explained, in the most advanced of capitalist countries, when the home market no longer generates the high rate of profit that capital needs to reproduce itself. This is the case of the flat rate of profit, which worried American capitalist economists in the 1970s—this was the point at which the state disengaged from the nation. This was the point at which the state looked beyond (disinvested in) the nation and trawled for profits abroad. American planners gave the turn a good-sounding name: globalization, but in Lenin’s book it was imperialism. Banks and industrial cartels merged, producing finance capitalism, which is the export and investment of capital to underdeveloped countries, where labor is cheap, regulations inexistent, resources aplenty, and offer an abundance of markets on which to dump overproduced goods. But there is a downside to the imperialist rush for profit and plunder. Each imperialist power competes with the other for dividing the world into its own area of economic exploitation of resources and people. This inevitably leads to conflict, and WWI was a classic example, the example with which Lenin worked.
“Could it be that capitalism in the US is “moribund?”
But today there is new situation: the US has chosen to nominate China as a rival in the Great Global Scramble for Theft and Rapine of the World. The problem is that China keeps insisting it is not interested in competing for territories and people to exploit but rather in developing its own economy and trading with the world on a win-win basis. So part of the decline of the American empire is the bankruptcy of its idea of relating to the world: it wants to dominate it. And that “idea” is too old. The world has already suffered imperialism before under the British, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Germans, and even the Italians when capitalism was young in the “mother” countries. America’s recolonization is déjà vu: it shocks but it does not awe. The old imperialism hangs at the end of a rope, ideologically, morally, financially, militarily, and politically. The rate of economic growth per year of the US is less than 2%; that of China is slightly under 7%; that of Laos and Vietnam around 6% each. The last three are economic engines throbbing with vitality. Their ideology is Marxist-Leninist (anti-capitalist/anti imperialist). The subversion of the Soviet Union was America’s last imperialist hurrah—but even that failed to secure Russia, its people, and resources for Western capital’s exploitation. It’s not turning out as the end of history and the triumph of capital for the US and partners, is it? Socialism, which entered history in 1917, refuses to exit at the command of the US. It keeps transforming itself and the world.
DH: All we hear in the corporate media these days is Russia, Russia, and more Russia. Most Marxists and proclaimed revolutionaries in the American and Western orbit have taken little time to dissect the Russia narrative emanating from the corporate media and even side with imperialism when it comes to criticisms of Vladimir Putin. What is wrong with this picture?
LB: Well, they may be Marxists in some form or other, they may think or say they are, but the truth of their belief emerges in practice. In the age of imperialism you’re not a Marxist unless you are also a Marxist-Leninist—that is to say, unless you oppose not only capitalism (as per Marx) but also imperialism (as per Lenin) and support the struggle of those who resist imperialist penetration.
Social Democrats like Bernie Sanders had a critique of capitalism but not of imperialism. A supporter of Israel, he appeared not to notice that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and especially Gaza, were a colonized people, a subject people with no political, social, or economic rights, and that Israel, therefore, had an imperialist, exploitative relation with Palestine. A Marxist, which Bernie was not, sides with the oppressed in revolt against the imperialist class of the imperializing power. In fact, that is the definition of Marxist-Leninists: they side with people engaged in anti-colonial struggles and revolutions. That’s how we can tell a Marxist-Leninist from a dilettante, poseur, social democrat, or liberal. Likewise, Sanders criticizes US capitalism but not US imperialism. That is social democracy historically. The liberals who vote Democrat, including those who call themselves “progressives,” do not object to the wars in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, Cameroon, and cannot recognize the validity (moral and legal) of struggles like Assad’s which resist and fight to maintain the independence and sovereignty of the nation. I see no Marxist ideology in people who support the illegal threats, defamatory propaganda, and military encirclement of Russia, a country the West aims to colonize and exploit. I see only capitalist-imperialist ideology. Or rank opportunism.
Of course some leftish-Marxists will say, “But I am anti-imperialist: I oppose every imperialist power, including Russia and China,” which reveals that they can’t tell an imperialist power from a tin-pot dictatorship. Imperialism is not merely volunteering for evil, a drive for conquest, or will to power. It’s not a choice for capitalist systems. It’s an economic imperative for capitalist systems in advanced stages of development. So, is China fully developed? Has it exhausted its home market, has the Chinese capitalist class been pining under a flat rate of profit—but I forget, and they forget, that China is not ruled by a capitalist class. So we’re comparing apples to pears.
“I see no Marxist ideology in people who support the illegal threats, defamatory propaganda, and military encirclement of Russia.”
As for Russian imperialism, are we saying that a country starting from year zero is engaging in empire? Are we saying that Russia is in such an advanced stage of capitalist development that it must export its capital and invest in resource-rich places it must first aggressively seize and subjugate? Russia, under Putin has just begun to re-industrialize, to grow enough surplus food to export, to re-build the manufacturing sector. The savage re-introduction of capitalism in Russia reduced it to a third-world country. Those countries don’t generate excess capital to export. They can barely pay the interest on the debts the IMF and World Bank stuffed down their throats. That was Russia under Yeltsin, whom the West adored, not because he was a democratic leader, as they intoned, but because he was a slave to Western capitalist democracies.
DH: "Russiagate" as it has been called has led to the suppression of independent media. Left-wing media has been clumped together with "alt-right" outlets in Google and Facebook's changed algorithm schemes. Black Agenda Report is thus much harder to find online than it was maybe at any point prior. Why is left media being connected to so-called "Russian interference"? And why should we care?
LB: The journalist and historian of American foreign policy, William Blum, said that, “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to dictatorship.” But one should be more precise: propaganda is the lifeblood of liberal parliamentary democracy shackled to capitalism. This couple has not been happily married. Its progeny, the people, suffer economic inequality, but the marriage must be made to look happy. The mismatch of democracy tied to property was the original sin in our Constitution, which made propaganda necessary. An economic oligarchy, one sixth of the population, which signed the Constitution, wielded then and wields now enormous power over the political. The property owners—banks, cartels, corporations--rely on economic inequality for profits, whereas the political, “democratic,” apparatus guarantees equality before the law and specific rights, including freedom of thought, expression, and press.
But what happens if a journalist points out that a democracy based on the sanctity of private property is inherently undemocratic and illiberal, because property always trumps democracy, the economic always trumps the political? Well, what happens is that the bubble of illusion bursts. People start thinking, “I work for Rockefeller, but he lives in a mansion, and I live in a slum.” This kind of class-consciousness won’t do. The people must be made to believe that the system works for all and that their lives are as good as Rockefeller’s, if not in riches at least in dignity. That is the secret behind the propaganda: it must veil reality, construct a myth, and convert the people to revering the myth.
By now, the myth of the exceptional benevolence, equality, unlimited opportunity for social and economic improvement offered by the American system has become dogma. It’s the Happy Valley of the world. And yet, dogma breeds heretics. That’s us; that’s you at BAR. The priests of the dogma—the media especially—are seeing heretics popping up all over the internet, in independent media, at RT, at a time when scandalous social inequality and horrendous wars of aggression must be sugar coated and written away. These are times of Great Lies. The truth-tellers are most inconvenient.
“Whereas the function of a free press is to hold power accountable, today that is a subversive act.”
As I write, Trump fired Steven Goldstein, a high official in the State Department. He was in charge of countering “Russian disinformation.” (He was not fired for doing a bad job, by the way). At the time of his appointment, he warned, “Those who seek to undermine America do so by spreading misinformation about our people and our objectives.” Whereas the function of a free press is to hold power accountable, today that is a subversive act. Virtual treason. Some of these ridiculous charges are theatrics of intimidation, but there is no doubt that at the critical moment the state intends to obstruct independent information and repress dissent. We do not after all have a democracy—we have one on paper, but paper can burn. The PATRIOT Act and Obama’s elaborations on it have burnt quite bit already.
Should we care that dissenting media is under attack? Of course we should. We should care and redouble our efforts, for contrary to what they say, we are not subverting “America.” We are subverting their version of “America,” which is steeped in lies and in the crimes those lies make possible. Those lies shame us before the world. I need only recall the best known: Iraq had no WMDs, and the warmongers knew it. But they lied to us and committed a great crime, the “supreme crime,” a war of aggression. It is quite possible that, if the media had questioned the official claims, had bothered to do their job instead of acting as stenographers and bullhorns for power, one million lives in Iraq would have been spared.
In fact, when we expose their lies and fake-news, we vindicate that part of the Constitution that bids the government of the United States, as representative of the people of the United States, to “cultivate the good opinion of the world.” Since the people of the world know the truth, often on their skin, it is incumbent on us, the people of the United States, to proclaim to the world that those lies do not represent us. It’s the least a good citizen can do. For a journalist it is a duty. John Pilger, one of the few world-class, conscientious, compassionate, and brilliant journalists still practicing his profession as designed, writes, “Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job; who push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks. Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honor.”
DH: Let's discuss socialism. What are some key aspects of socialism that are missing from discussions about Russia and politics in general in America and the West?
LB: The elephant in the room that is ignored in socialist circles is private property and what to do about the concentration of economic power in a few hands that produces a system of savage inequality within societies and among nations, a system inconsistent with democracy, as I’ve explained in one of the previous remarks. As economists of the World Bank have noted, rising global wealth since 1998 has increased inequality, reversing the trend that had prevailed since 1914. Since the destruction of the Soviet model what has replaced Moscow? Davos? Instead of socialist universalism we have the universalism of capital, on imperialist rampage. So, if we want to change the world for the better we must realize that imperialism is, historically, the opportunity for social change. We have to realize that if we don’t oppose it, domination by the global capitalist elite is guaranteed. In turn, opposition leaves us no alternative but to re-invent the road to socialism: restoration of redistributionist policies, the end of privatization of public services, the re-qualification of self-determined, even communist, revolutionary projects. We must learn to breathe again.
DH: Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to share? Or any last thoughts?
LB: I work all the time, reading, writing, thinking. I’m enjoying the best time of my life: old age and the full separation from alienated labor. Work, especially on behalf of consciousness of our condition under capitalism and how to free us from its inhumanity, enriches my life with optimism and hope. I am proud to be part of humanity, which has the merit of always having struggled against injustice and won. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. This survival, thanks to our innate passion for justice, is a rich legacy of courage and defiance we must continue to honor and imitate.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He can be reached at [email protected]