Sep 28, 2007

Moishe Postone on History and Helplessness

Beyond questions of fascism or right-wing revolutionaries, the three way fight analysis can also be applied to other situations where the radical left is forced to respond to conflicts between two sets of bad guys. The build-up to the Iraq war presented this sort of dilemma, although much of the left didn’t recognize it as such. Moishe Postone’s recent essay “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary forms of Anticapitalism” highlights this problem as follows:

“The impasse to which I am referring has been dramatized recently by many responses on the Left, in the United States and in Europe , to the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as well as by the character of the mass mobilizations against the Iraq War. The disastrous nature of the war and, more generally, of the Bush administration should not obscure that in both cases progressives found themselves faced with what should have been viewed as a dilemma — a conflict between an aggressive global imperial power and a deeply reactionary counterglobalization movement in one case, and a brutal fascistic regime in the other. Yet in neither case were there many attempts to problematize this dilemma or to try to analyze this configuration with an eye toward the possibility of formulating what has become exceedingly difficult in the world today — a critique with emancipatory intent. This would have required developing a form of internationalism that broke with the dualisms of a Cold War framework that all too frequently legitimated (as “anti-imperialist”) states whose structures and policies were no more emancipatory than those of many authoritarian and repressive regimes supported by the American government.”

Postone’s essay is dense and can be slow-going. It is also not without its problems – most prominently an attempt to sharply divide armed struggle anti-imperialists of the last half-century into “movements that do not target civilians randomly (such as the Viet Minh and Viet Cong and the ANC) and those that do (such as the IRA, al-Qaeda, and Hamas).” Guerilla struggles are always messy, and I suspect that the historical record provides some inconvenient details that might shift the attempted categorization of the ANC and the IRA, for example. Similarly, writing off Frantz Fanon as a person who “glorified violence for the sake of violence” does a disservice to one of the most important and challenging revolutionary theorists of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, Postone’s contribution to discussions around the problems facing anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism in the new millenium, especially as regards the issue of anti-Semitism, seems to parallel some of the questions being raised under the rubric of the three way fight. This is an essay that deserves to be read and discussed.


Matthew N Lyons said...

I agree with Francis that Postone's essay "History and Helplessness" is a valuable work that deserves serious discussion, specifically in relation to three-way fight politics. Some of the points that I find especially helpful are:

• It's a mistake to see al-Qaeda or related formations simply as a reaction to U.S. policies. This oversimplifies Islamic fundamentalist movements and implies that the United States is the only real political actor on the world stage.

• The workings of global capitalism in recent decades have devastated Arab economies and societies. This has weakened Arab nationalism, helping to create space for Islamic fundamentalist movements. Antisemitism -- promoted largely by Islamic fundamentalists -- has gained ground in the Arab world because it offers a simple, concrete explanation for the abstract processes of global capitalism.

• Much of the western Left has embraced (or at least failed to critique) "reactionary forms of resistance" (p. 102) to U.S. imperialism, largely because these western leftists themselves falsely equate the system of global capitalism with one concrete manifestation of it, U.S. imperialism (or, in some versions, the United States and Israel).

• Equating global capitalism with the United States means, among other things, failing to critique the role of other global capitalist powers, notably Europe (or China, we could add). Postone rightly calls attention to Saddam Hussein's 2000 decision to replace the dollar with the euro as the main currency for oil sales, making Iraq the first country to do this. He suggests that the Iraq war partly represents an "opening salvo" in an emerging conflict between a U.S./Britain bloc and a European bloc centered on France/Germany.

• The failure to recognize that anti-imperialism can come from the right as well as the left also reflects the legacy of the Cold War, when "the USSR aligned itself with authoritarian regimes, for example, in the Middle East, that...had more in common with fascism than communism and that, in fact, sought to liquidate their own Left. Consequently, anti-Americanism per se became coded as progressive" (p. 104).

The idea of a "fetishized anticapitalist ideology" (p. 101) that targets one concrete manifestation instead of analyzing the abstract workings of the whole system is central to Postone's earlier work on antisemitism -- see, for example, his essay "Anti-Semitism and National Socialism" at This represents one of the most creative and insightful uses of Marxism to analyze right-wing ideology (as distinct from right-wing movements' organization, social base, or relationship with capital), and has had a big impact on my own understanding of right-wing politics.

There are two main points in "History and Helplessness" I take issue with One is Postone's simplistic claim that "there is a fundamental difference between movements that do not target civilians randomly...and those that do" (p. 105), which Francis has already challenged in his introductory comments. I agree with Postone that treating violence as cleansing or regenerative is disturbing and resonates with fascist ideology. But it is misleading to lump the Marxist anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon with George Sorel (who actively collaborated with the monarchist proto-fascists of Action Francaise) or Vilfredo Pareto (who championed rule by elites and embraced fascism). For an example of how even a nonviolence theorist can find valuable insights in Fanon's work, see the essay "Revolution and Equilibrium" by North American feminist Barbara Deming.)

I also have mixed feelings about Postone's comparison between current-day targeting of the United States and Israel and earlier targeting of Britain and the Jews. Certainly, this is a connection worth exploring. The combination of antisemitism and Anglophobia was an important theme in rightist ideology in various parts of the world, including the United States -- both Pat Buchanan and Lyndon LaRouche are offshoots of this tradition -- and it's a tradition that most leftists probably know little or nothing about. Also, Postone is careful to emphasize that "It is certainly possible to formulate a fundamental critique of [Israeli] policies that is not anti-Semitic, and, indeed, many such critiques have been formulated" (p. 98).

But Postone overreaches when he claims that viewing the surge of antisemitism in the Arab world only as a response to the United States and Israel "would be akin to explaining Nazi anti-Semitism simply as a reaction to the Treaty of Versailles" (p. 99). Even if we can generalize that all Islamic fundamentalist movements are antisemitic (I'm not sure about that), antisemitism is not central, all-defining, and genocidal for them in the way that it was for the Nazis. Also, seeing the defeat of Germany in World War I as the work of the Jews was simply a fantasy that had no factual basis. But Israel -- a major oppressor and aggressor in the Middle East -- really is controlled by Jews, and claims (wrongly) to be the state of the Jewish people worldwide. That doesn't mean that Israel creates anti-Jewish attitudes in the Arab world or elsewhere, but its self-definition certainly plays into anti-Jewish bigotry.