by Alan Gilbert
Eric Mann wrote me a letter about what he kindly names the great discussion of Dien Bien Phu. See here and here.* As an organizer of a canvassing project on Vietnam, he reports a very interesting dinner with I.F. Stone who encouraged him in thinking more deeply about imperialism, Marc Raskin and Senator Ernest Gruening, who along with Wayne Morse, were the only two senators to oppose the war. From his description, Eric’s views were – aside from Izzy’s – the life of the party. Izzy encouraged many, and diversely including Will Altman, who connected with him about Plato and Greek, to learn Latin. That Izzy inspired many of us (also me, who was a kind of relative- Celia Gilbert, his daughter, is my sister-in-law) to dig more deeply and go our own way is a striking point. See here, here, here,here and here.
Marcus Raskin had a very good insight about the conflicts of Chinese, Vietnamese and Soviet interests, often having little to do with radicalism, and thus, raising, though not answering the question of what explains these changes (how the Soviets came to be in many respects an imperial power, and how they all often behaved badly – the Vietnamese in stopping the Cambodian genocide which had been supported by Nixon and Kissinger, however, being a striking counterexample – in foreign policy).
I share Eric’s view on imperialism – see here – and admire his commitment, from the time he awakened to what Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War was, to explore what it is (now, there are often stupid aggressions by imperialists which undercut their power and thus, their particular aims – hence, the aptness of Eric’s naming of Johnson’s war – or say, the Bush-Cheney aggression against Iraq). Izzy did not use the word “imperialism” – again, someone may hesitate in the United States a) because the explanation is complex and neither completely worked out nor as a whole commonly understood, and b) because there are words that are true, like the child speaking of the Emperor’s nakedness, which promptly get one unread in Washington, even in otherwise quite decent liberal circles – see Eric’s comment on Ernest Gruening’s courage and limitations. Izzy, of course, had his own words…
As I often emphasize, the announcers at the SuperBowl two years ago panned on several screens to different groups of American troops watching the game (each screen a symbol of many). They spoke of troops in 177 countries…There are some 1,280 American military bases abroad. At this year’s game, they flashed on a base in Afghanistan, did not mention the number of bases or countries, and thus corrected, maintained the corporate media’s silence about…the empire.
In addition, recall the crazed oil and base-hungry disaster in Iraq and endless occupation of Afghanistan or the drones from the White House killing “terrorists” and civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, countries which the US aggresses against but with which it “has not gone to war”: what other word quite fits?**
In Cambridge, in 1964 I took part in a May 2nd march against the Vietnam war (some barflies came out along Mass Ave. and screamed at us). In 1965, I joined the May 2nd movement at Harvard. After Johnson’s escalation, I found I.F. Stone’s speech on the war resonant (he came to Harvard after writing his expose of the State DepartmentWhite Paper – see here). I spoke at the first rallies against the war in February (the first day, we had a couple hundred people, about half against the war, half for it, including a special forces guy who taunted me – I was happy not to have to meet him in a dark alley…) and debated McGeorge Bundy in May (I asked him how the US expected to win a war against a successful peasant revolution trying to restore the landlords). See here.
So I empathize with Eric’s journey from the initial SDS demonstration in Washington of some 25,000 people in 1966 (I was then studying at the London School of Economics, joining protests in England against the war, and was thrilled to hear of it – into reading deeply about Vietnam and translating this into community/political action. I am especially grateful to hear some of Paul Potter’s words.
In 1966, I was involved in canvassing for a referendum for immediate withdrawal of American troops in Cambridge among mainly white workers and had similar conversations to the ones he reports. The referendum gained 60% of the vote in 1966 along with a similar one in San Francisco. If one talked to ordinary people only about the war being immoral – particularly with an edge that suggested that one’s interlocutor might have a moral failing – one would not get far. But if one asked: what stake do you and your children or friends have in this war?, the conversation quickly turned to a common, moral opposition.
Either one thinks out, just as in an ordinary conversation, how to connect with each person or one has little effect. Out of fear one will be disliked or meet with resistance or shyness, students often miss the opportunity to talk with workers (today, since many can’t go through school without working more than one job and entering debt slavery, the gap is being eroded…).
A great difference separating people in the anti-war movement was, however, that looking down on other Americans, some radicals did not reach out to everyone (Eldridge Cleaver and the Weathermen tended to make this error in a more explicit way – Cleaver at one point identifying 175 million Americans, out of some 200 million at the time, as the enemy).
But the experience of talking with those more affected by the war (I eventually gave up the 2-s – student – deferment on principle) is a kind of class reluctance or even prejudice. Such prejudice is of course fiercely anti-democratic or against a common good.
Now, as I emphasize in the case of Socrates, it is not anti-democratic to oppose corrupt democracy, like that of the segregated South and the Ku Klux Klan – what Rousseau called a will of all. But many working people opposed Vietnam, others could be persuaded, and even the relatively few reactionaries were by no means close to the centers of power that spawned and maintained the war.
It is thus a virtue of the Occupy movement that it hopes to reach the 99%. As a very new movement, it, too, has limitations in involving black, latin and poor white teenagers. But as Eric’s experience and mine illustrate, making the effort to reach out is a start (the OccupyForeclosures movement among many other initiatives, is doing this).
I, too, learned from many of the same books as Eric particularly from French histories of Vietnam (Denis Warner, Bernard Fall, and others). No American in the State Department read Vietnamese and there were no American books – in this context, Izzy’s journalism was dazzling – about this rerun of French colonial hubris.
And as those of us at Harvard all participated in trying to change the empire and Harvard began throwing people out of school for sitting in against the Dow Chemical Company which made napalm (Harvard professor Louis Fieser invented it) – we had all seen a newspaper photo of a 9 year old girl running in the road near a village naked burning*** – and were denounced by President Nathan Pusey as “those who wanted to tear Harvard down stone by stone and jump up and down in the rubble,” one could not but reflect that something unspoken and profound motivated Pusey’s hysteria and foolishness. No other power today has more than 5 bases abroad today (the French in former French colonial Africa). What is America if not an empire, American foreign policy if not, in the main, imperialism?****
In the anti-war movement, it was sometimes said that one couldn’t convince others of ideas we ourselves had come to believe. Thus, we were warned by some even in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) not to use “dogmatic commie rhetoric out of the 1930s.” One should, of course, question any silly or inadequate idea, refine it, move on, like Socrates. But this attack conceals the absence of argument or of thought, reveals only mental subservience to the powerful. And that is true inside the radical movement; it is a great temptation, which sadly many succumb to, to travesty others’ thoughts (all of us did it, to some extent; it is one major reason why I prefer Gandhi and King…). And of course, the fierce divisions that arise have helped often to undermine powerful movements.
Imperialism is such an idea. It is good Eric stuck with it.
Today, the US combines militarism or what I call the war complex and a novel phase in the speculative economy (derivatives, collateral debt obligations). Curiously, militarism is also the main productive or innovative part of the American economy; consider the internet and green energy which the Republicans- the bizarre party of oil and thus, eliminating human life on the planet, including their own…– seek to prevent.
But in terms of Lenin’s vision of imperialism, finance capitalism now has achieved new and innovatively perverse forms. Goldman Sachs lends the Greek government money, gives it advice – and bets on the derivative market it will fail. It funds collateral debt obligations, slicing and dicing mortgages, sells them as good “financial products” to the wealthy – there is nothing productive in Goldman Sachs’ or AIG’s activities, just parasitism – and simultaneously, allows an investor to make a killing betting that these “products” will fail without telling the other investors who trusted its contrary advice to them. Its lying to its customers to gull them and protect itself – its hidden conflict of interest – stands out. How monied people choose to invest in Goldman Sachs, given this evident conflict and its lying to them (why it doesn’t, as it deserves to – collapse) is an interesting question, particularly about the psychology of the wealthy…
The turn of the twentieth century debate about finance capitalism and imperialism, Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, has thus been given a stunning new meaning by the parasitic, destructive and bizarre, “financial products” industry which is characteristic of spectacular inequality. One might also think anew about Marx in this respect, since the level of inequality, particularly in wealth and impoverishment of the many, now being achieved by capitalism, is also unheard of. Marx and Engels expected a majority to be impoverished by the development of capitalism. They did not foresee the deprivations in the less developed countries, and increasingly, even in Europe and the United States, the 99%….
Their vision of the anti-democratic degradation, one might say, was too moderate…
For any beginning insight theoretically, there are always new revelations historically – and in this case, painful ones, the welfare state had some decency and this, none – to think about.
Eric’s emphasis on how black and latin (and First Nations) people are specially hurt by imperialism is central (in the US after the 2008 economic collapse and the loss, by many, of homes, black people had a startling 1% of the nation’s wealth, Chicanos 2%). But I also think Eric downplays something important: that most whites (and now most formerly middle class people) – the 99% – are hurt by imperialism. Whites, too, lose jobs, are foreclosed, have underwater mortgages, are threatened with the loss of pensions and social security, are jailed in the monstrous prison system (1 in 3 black male children born in 2001 could expect, according to the Justice Department, to go to jail in his lifetime, 1 in 6 chicanos, 1 in 17 – mainly poor – whites), pay the costs of imperial aggressions, and the like. So a big movement, an American spring as in the Madison demonstrations and Occupy, with effort and imagination, can hope to achieve a major alliance across differences (it is finding a way to unite with the more oppressed through fighting racism which is still the key issue for an anti-war or anti-imperial movement).
I am also not sure in Eric’s very good questions to people about the Vietnam war what precisely “racial interests” are in supporting the war (it is good to speak explicitly about and invite conversations against racism and nationalism). And blacks and latinos also sometimes serve and believe in American imperialism (just remarkably less so; the black population in particular is the most skeptical of American imperialism of any segment of the American population).”*****.
I recommend Eric’s Playbook for Progressives which is very good on the story of the recent Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles and many other examples (also, John Maher has a new book, Learning from the Sixties: Memoirs of an Organizer) on his experience in Students for a Democratic Society and more recently, Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) in Massachusetts.
“It seems a missing 11 letter word is imperialism. I began an anti-Vietnam war program in Washington D.C. right after the SDS March on Washington in April 1965. I was furious, was just beginning to read anti-war books, “The Two Vietnams” by Bernard Fall, and I.F. Stone’s Weekly. I had already worked two years with the Congress of Racial Equality in Harlem and the Northeast and was on my way to be a community organizer with the Newark Community Union Project. For the summer I organized a community investigation project to try to assess what was the level of consciousness of people about the war, and what were the building blocks of people’s consciousness that we would use to build a more radical critique. We asked questions focusing on people’s actual knowledge of Vietnam, did they know about the Geneva Convention, did they know that North Vietnam was only the northern part of what would be a unified Vietnam, what personal interests–economic, racial, ideological did they have for supporting the war, what anti-racist, anti-unjust war, human rights, concerns about the U.S. as the world policeman for big business did they have. We learned a lot, including that people’s support for the war was a “mile wide and an inch deep” most did not know hardly anything about the war and were influenced by our counter-hegemonic arguments. That is, unlike those in today’s”communications world” we did not try to ask if the war (that is genocide) was a good use of taxpayer money or if it violated the great American virtues of freedom, liberty, and self-determination (Which in fact did not exist and in fact were the exact opposite of U.S. policy towards Indigenous peoples, Blacks, Vietnamese, and all Third World People).
I was so enraged by the war and had already been impacted by Paul Potter’s Speech at the SDS march, “We have to name the system” in order to change it.
One of the guys in the projects asked me, “Have you read Harry Magdoff on Imperialism” I had heard the word imperialism and thought it meant when one country took over another for economic or political gain, but it was not myoperative concept. As I was reading the book I was able to organize a meeting with I.F. Stone, Marcus Raskin of the Institute of Policy Studies, and Senator Ernest Gruening, an amazingly courageous Democrat from Alaska, who along with Wayne Morse from Oregon were the only 2 NO votes against the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam War. I learned a lot at that dinner. Gruening to my surprise, said he thought Cuba was the great danger not Vietnam and talked about not fighting a war with such extended supply lines” I was still impressed with his courage but very disappointed at his generalanti-communism and lack of support for the principle of self-determination from Vietnam to Cuba. I then asked Marc Raskin if he thought the war was based on imperialism. He was adamant it was not. He explained that while Eisenhower had said the U.S. was in Vietnam for “tin and tungsten” in fact, net imports of foreign materials were a small part of our economy and went on to try to prove that there were no economic benefits to U.S. wars of conquest. Instead, he argued that the U.S. had a knee jerk reaction to communism as a world system, that it did not understand the contradictions between Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union (contradictions that did accelerate after the U.S. War on Vietnam), and our best argument was to show that the war was not in our “national interest.” I said I could not debate his argument but that I did not see imperialism simply as an economic system, that I was it as a system in which the U.S. would try to control the world for low-wage labor, raw materials, subservient markets, and also to extend its hegemony as some type of world power. The dinner was great and everybody there was so forthcoming an honest and engaged I was lucky as hell to be able, as a 24 year old organizer, to be invited into such a high level of discourse that pushed my own ideas forward. (I.F. Stone set up the dinner after he met with me and supported my Vietnam organizing project. “As we left, Stone said to me, “You’ve got to read my Hidden History of the Korean War” whether I choose to call it imperialism you’re on the right track so keep digging.”)
Finally, I think much more time could be best served by reading Vietnamese and Third World History, from Wilfred Burchett’s Brilliant Vietnam Will Win, Eduard Galleano’s The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent; Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Vo Nguyen Giap, How We Won the War, and People’s War, People’s Army: the Vietcong Insurrection Manual For Underdeveloped Countries. I think it was the latter that drove the U.S. in Vietnam, its fear of creating, as Che predicted, “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.”
If you are interested, check out my new book, Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.
*Whitney Bard had the insight on the special feminizing – “kind of rapey” as she put it – as an imperial stereotype about Vietnam.
**About the militarism, consider the very sad New York Times piecehere on Obama’s Tuesday meetings to work out the “kill list” for his drone strikes and how every young man of military age in the same area as a ‘terrorist” is of course also a “terrorist” and not even “collateral damage.” Among American imperialists, the more apt idea was that once upon a time “guerillas” and today “terrorists” hide among the people to make themselves hard to find, difficult to kill. Here Obama’s and Brennan’s lies to lower artificially the number of civilians murdered stand out.
If one wants to understand, why even under Obama people in the Middle East hate the United States – how its murders of civilians continue to breed terrorism – this is a good place to look. The article twice refers to the war criminal Brennan – a torturer under Bush – as a “priestly figure” in apologizing for the government’s role as judge, jury and executioner, the opposite of the constitutional separation of powers and the rule of law.
Tom Engelhardt has a very good piece on the assassin-in-chief, what Obama has now made the American presidency explicitly, and what of course the next President will continue. See here.
***In response to the article, Rusty sent me the following piece on her later life, where she left Vietnam and eventually came to Canada – some of the deficiencies of and important questions to think about concerning the further development of Vietnamese Communism can be discernedhere.
****The initial bombing of Libya may have stopped a massacre and be an example of humanitarian intervention. But the longer Western intervention in Libya was also a method of gaining influence over Arab spring and was motivated by oil.
*****In the anti-American aggression in Iraq movement in Colorado, I once spoke to a meeting of some 250 SEIU [Service Employees International Union] custodians, who were all immigrants, in (clumsy) Spanish. Before I spoke, a woman who was one of the leaders in SEIU made a few points, the main one that this war was for “los ricos” (the rich people). After she said that, there was not a single person in the room – if there had been any before – who doubted that the war was evil or failed to see that it had nothing – except harm – to do with them. As also an imperialist party at its upper reaches, it is no accident that the Democrats now offer a Dream Act which would provide citizenship to immigrants – the oligarchs and their minions are willing enough to recruit and exploit so-called illegal immigrants – though joining the military.
I added a few points…
When I spoke before a similar gathering of hospital workers in SEIU – mainly white interestingly – there was little debate about the war (no one had the slightest enthusiasm for the aggression) but not that kind of crystalline clarity.