by Stan Goff
In 1983, I worked with a man named Karl. He was teaching me and some other special operations soldiers in the United States Army a subject called tradecraft. It"s the insider term he brought out of Military Intelligence that refers to spying and running spy rings. He had been an agent handler, the supervisor of a spy ring, for eight years along the Czech border with Germany, where he collected information against the Czech government from Czech citizens on his payroll. It had been part of the war (hot and cold) which the United States waged against socialist nations for most of the century, with a short break during World War II. Soviets were allowed to absorb the lion"s share of Nazi military power then, in order to help the established imperial nations to squash the upstart, Hitler.
By 1991, after laying siege to socialism for 74 years, transnational capital succeeded against Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Much of the success of that septuagenarian campaign can be attributed to the sophisticated ideological war that capital waged, especially in the United States, through hegemonic oversight of learning, scholarship, entertainment, and the news media.
In the same year, 1991, I was browsing in McKay"s Used Books at Fayetteville, North Carolina, and I ran across an interesting title. Inventing Reality, by Michael Parenti. I had just returned from Peru, my fifth conflict area, after Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada, and El Salvador. I was working as a Special Operations Medical Sergeant with 7th Special Forces. My capacity for denial was nearly exhausted, and my thirst to make sense of my own experience was nearly insatiable. I had long experience with the brutal Realpolitik of US foreign policy, and with the consistently anodyne and myopic reflection of those realities by the press, the punditry, and official histories. I was ripe for an organized analysis of that experience that rang true, and I read Parenti"s book in one sitting. It became pivotal in the direction of my political consciousness, guiding me to question every assumption I had carried through my life. Inventing Reality was a clear, concise account of the corporate media"s essential ideological function on behalf of organized, concentrated, economic power.
Six years later, I find a Parenti title in The Internationalist Bookstore in Chapel Hill, and my excitement is rewarded with another trenchant critique of official stories, this one harkening back to my lessons in tradecraft with Karl and his stories of penetrating Czech society with spies during the Cold War. Blackshirts & Reds discusses the great combat between fascism and socialism that is the defining feature of the Twentieth Century, and takes every official version to task for its substitution of moral analysis for critical analysis, for its selectivity, and for its errata.
By portraying the struggle between fascism and Communism in this century as a single conflict, and not a series of discrete encounters, between the insatiable need for new capital on the one hand and the survival of a system under siege on the other, Parenti defines fascism as the weapon of capitalism, not simply an extreme form of it. Fascism is not an aberration, he points out, but a "rational" and integral component of the system. Communism "did not enjoy one, single day of peaceful development." To ignore the hugely significant role of White Guard civil war, foreign intervention, economic isolation, espionage and sabotage, carefully calculated subversion, and the resistance and reaction of pre-Communist indigenous owning classes, and focus only on the decontextualized coercion exercised by Communist states, is tantamount to presenting only the plaintiff"s evidence to a jury and disallowing the defendant"s. Parenti argues that, in the recounting of US history, every matter in extenuation and mitigation is taken into account. The US economic reality now is seldom judged with reference to state sponsored genocide, slavery, the massacres of Cacos and Filipinos and Vietnamese, a string of imperial conquests, and two centuries of gunboat diplomacy, but every perceived aberration of Stalin is referred to even in discussions of Soviet life long after Stalin was dead.
"In the United States... ...the ruling interests tirelessly propagated anticommunism among the populace, until it became more like a religious orthodoxy than a political analysis," says Parenti in the beginning of the chapter entitled "Left Anticommunism." "During the cold war, the anticommunist ideological framework could transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence."
Parenti emphasizes existing communist societies, because the problem with the anticommunist "left," according to him, is that they are committed only to "pure socialism," that is, one that does not and has never existed, and eschew any form of "existing socialism," which in the real world was "siege socialism." Led by popular anarchist scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, who can be perceived as comparatively harmless by the ruling class (having foregone organized [hierarchical, coercive, state] power to dismantle organized capitalism), left anticommunists, says Parenti, have reduced revolution to a protracted academic discussion that embraces an ahistorical and fundamentally infantile analysis.
The achievements, which were numerous and often astonishing, of Communism, from the public ownership of productive forces, the priority placed on human services, the elevation of the status of women, the support of national liberation struggles, rapid industrialization, the reduction of economic inequalities, and the role a tangible socialist alternative played in the success of our own Civil Rights Movement, were stubbornly ignored by the anticommunist left (and still are). "Was an open, pluralistic, democratic socialism actually possible at this historic juncture?" asks Parenti. "The historical evidence would suggest that it was not." This sentiment was shared by W. E. B. Dubois in his letter of application to join the Communist Party USA in 1963. The comfortable American left, especially those who have experienced neither prison nor war, often have no stomach for such reflections.
The debunking of anticommunist axioms in general is central to Parenti"s thesis, and the analysis of left anticommunism is only a portion of his larger argument. From my own standpoint, however, as someone on the left who continually encounters this knee-jerk reaction among "progressives" who do not share my own experience working on behalf of fascist regimes as an instrument of US foreign policy for over twenty years, confronting left anticommunism is the most important role this book can play. Objective realities are not beholden to comfortable moralities. The right recognizes this. The left"s failure to grasp this simple material fact disarms us. "For a people"s revolution to survive," writes Parenti on this issue, "it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over society"s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come."
Truth is hard. The idea that everything worthwhile can be accomplished while maintaining a perfect and bipolar morality is an article of pure (and puerile) faith, and an insult to those who are willing to engage the anguishing realities of a deeper and more meaningful morality. In a telling footnote on pseudo-left fuzziness, Parenti recounts the Alan Sokal hoax perpetrated on Stanley Aronowitz, darling of the post-modernist posers, in which Sokal submitted page after page of utter bullcrap couched in pretentious language, which Aronowitz proceeded to print in the supercilious periodical, Social Text.
Emotional evaluation becomes particularly hypnotic, Parenti indicates, with regard to personalities. Any personality, like the Dalai Lama today, regardless of how reactionary his or her true histories and beliefs are, that can be fobbed off on a credulous public as a symbol of "freedom," receives accolades from members of an uncritical left. A perfect example, that Parenti deals with at length, is the first post-Communist leader of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. Part of his attraction was the fact that he was "an artist," a playwright. Writes Parenti: "The many left-leaning people who also admire Havel seem to have overlooked some things about him: his reactionary religious obscurantism, his undemocratic suppression of leftist opponents, and his profound dedication to economic inequality and an unrestrained free-market capitalism."
Formerly Communist Czechoslovakia today is an economic shambles. Like the rest of the former Warsaw Pact nations, guarantees of jobs, medical care, free education, housing, and simple physical safety in the streets, have become sweet but fading memories of the supposedly "bloodthirsty Communist dictatorship." Public assets were sold off at garage sale prices. Speculators are moving in like hyenas on the opportunities provided by massive unemployment. And common gangsters have become a new ruling elite.
The hard truth is, then, that when my tradecraft instructor, spy handler Karl, was probing Czech society, he was being directed to do so in order to dismantle a system, however flawed, that blanketed the entire Warsaw Pact; one that was subordinating the economy to the needs of its present and future citizens and not to the avarice of a few capitalists.
Harsh as it may seem, Karl"s activity was part of an ongoing act of war, and failure of the Pact to recognize an existing state of war would have resulted in exactly what is happening to fragmented Czechoslovakia today. The rules of a peaceful society would have been suicidal, and the misguided urge to open their society to Western penetration in 1968, from the standpoint of survival (not some vacuum-packed morality), had to be stopped. The Soviet incursion, in the context of an existing , albeit undeclared, state of war, was based an what has proven today to have been an accurate analysis of Western intent and Czech reformers" dangerous naivete.
This kind of re-evaluation of our (manufactured) popular moral (mis)judgments with regard to Communism is what Blackshirts & Reds is all about. It is not about condemning or forgiving or apologizing, but about seeking more critical and less emotional assessments of our epoch in the context of material, social, economic, and political realities that conditioned this century.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.