Sneed, A. Roger. 2021. The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought (New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality). Ohio State University Press. $ 99.95

Is it possible to rework a religion in order to serve emancipatory ends? From the outset, the project seems not only futile but self-defeating. But less one precipitates, Sneed’s proposal does not apply makeup on some old synthesis. For Black religious thought has been classically a contradiction in movement: a white God can only service white supremacy, exacerbating African-Americans’ extended slavery and misery. With science fiction (novels and films) and experimental music, there emerge promising conceptions of God and religion that are subversive to white supremacy. Artistically, Sneed qualifies these conceptions as Afrofuturism. The book does not claim that blueprints are ready or that meaningful liberation is imminent. Rather, Sneed claims Afrofuturism “disrupts pervasive marking of race and destructive coding of Black bodies and existence as inferior” (p. xii). It is a field of reflection that promises to propagate toward a revolution. 

The book lies in eight chapters. Chapters one and two are an expansion of the introduction. Chapters three to six are the blood-pumping parts of the argument. Seven and eight are an extension of the conclusion and the postscript. The first chapter examines how mainstream science fiction has built quite a reputation for avoiding Blackness, a metastasis of slavery and colonialism, and how Afrofuturism struggles to redress that avoidance. Sneed observes that the science fiction genre remains condescending to Black authors and audiences. And this repurposing functions in ways that are more than just reversals of white supremacy.

The second chapter clarifies the understanding that Black religious thought and Black popular culture are not mutually exclusive or simply different endeavours. It is precisely through Black popular culture that one can understand the evolving practice of Black religious thought. Differently put, Afrofuturism helps set a progressive Black religious thought. Ideologies such as Black liberation or womanist theologies should be viewed as Afrofuturist endeavours seeking to negotiate an empowering Black religious thought. Afrofuturism cannot be dubbed as naively utopian.   

The third chapter finds Octavia Butler, an architect of intersectional Afrofuturism. With the dystopian moments that her Parable series accentuate, women characters, like Olmania, ensure historical continuity and exasperation with heterosexual norms. According to Sneed, Butler galvanizes Black people through Earthseed, a holistic religion that dares to revise sedimented conceptualizations of God. The trickster God proposes openings for integrating Afrofuturism into humanism.

Queerness in chapter four operates as salvation. Janelle Monáe’s select albums and androids critically target misogyny, homophobia, racism, white supremacy, and classicism. The pansexuality that defines her dramatis personae Cindi Mayweather is her signature for reinventing the world so that pathologies damaging Black experiences are reversed through Afrofuturistic imageries. The disturbing recollections that viewers experience in slave auctioning her androids as in: “Many Moons” underline the commodification of bodies; queer dance becomes her blueprint to bypass prevalent instantiations of slavery.

Chapter five specifies how Deep Space Nine (DS9) alters the trajectory set by the Star Trek franchise. With Captain Benjamin Sisko, the protagonist of DS9, Black life is no longer unidimensional. Through his “encounter with the Prophets (or wormhole aliens)” (p. 78), Benny Russel or Sisko offers a sustained critique of Black religious lives who trust in a God who is not outside space and time.

Chapter six interrogates possibilities of emancipation in Black Panther, a 2018 film, where Africa and Africans, through the imaginary republic of Wakanda, have experienced neither slavery nor colonialism. Here, too, men lie beyond salvation while women are saviours. Like her name suggests in Arabic, Nakia stands for pure plentitude. Featuring Afrofuturistic films, western monotheism and toxic masculinity are the invisible enemies.

As with every sedimented concept is contested, Sneed examines in chapter seven those creative attempts by Black liberationists to cancel time in order to undo Christian eschatology. He notes how linear temporality sets Blackness for defeat. In projecting the mythological content of Ancient Egypt into space, Afrofuturists can conceive of an eschatology that targets the destruction of white supremacy. Chronological time coerces African Americans to embrace false history as the authentic ones. 

Chapter eight teases out the possibility of pressing Black science fiction to yield an Afrofuturist identity and an Afrofuturist religious identity outside the church to expand Black emancipation. The chapter reconnects the dots: Afrofuturism and Black religious thought, focusing on the Afrofuturist doing the job of bridging the gap. The conclusion showcases brief excursions into current development and productions to outline future directions for Afrofuturistic religious thought.

In stressing intersectionality (the rejection of hierarchization of oppressions) as the way forward for Afrofuturism, I am afraid that Sneed has not well registered Toni Morrison’s warning that racism functions as a distraction for the work ahead. One cannot miss the postmodernist stance of rejecting causality in intersectionality. Since equal preoccupation with gender or race flattens serious engagement with the class. Besides, it is unclear how readers process Butler’s mythical creation of Earthseed as intersectional and not as foundational. It is one way of claiming that God “…does not need to break into history, as it does not exist outside of history.” (p. 52) and is completely different to say that God is the embodiment of change or a trickster and where adherents have to develop an adaptive belief system literally. The first claim is that Butler sees nothing new under the sun because the core principle that defines humans is timeless. In the second, there is no core principle to begin with. Likewise, deeming “Monáe’s resistance to male consumption [as] not simultaneously resistant to capitalist consumption” (p. 66) questions the relevance of intersectionality as a tenable approach for Afrofuturism.

I cannot agree more with Sneed’s distinction between the erotic and pornographic in Monáe’s Dirty Computer since “Cindi is less Frankenstein’s monster and more the incarnation of the divine in cybernetic form.” (p. 68). Here, radical love becomes accessible through radical alterity à la Hegelian Christ. But while queerness is surely subversive, it cannot be revolutionary. When reading that capitalism is not the enemy, and only white supremacy and heterosexism are, then wonders if Monáe has truly seized why the capitalistic mode of production values estrangement in and for itself. This mode of production cannot stand heterosexual norms because it is precisely in heterosexuality where a real potential for bypassing capitalism lies. Historical continuity dictates the historical necessity to undo the über oppression and class exploitation. That is why eschatological destination, as elaborated in chapter seven, remains nowhere as nearly helpful. Sun Ra’s film points toward the posthuman. But restarting life on another planet is exactly what white supremacists want Blackness to do. This explains why Afrofuturism should avoid apocalyptic preoccupations and the celebration of estrangement lest it engages in half a revolution.  

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524

fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz

Ford, Joseph. 2021. Writing the Black Decade: Conflict and Criticism in Francophone Algerian Literature. Lexington Books: New York and London. Kindle $ 45.00

In studying Francophone Algerian Literature of the 1990s, a period otherwise known as the Black Decade or la Décennie Noire, Ford finds out that the literary outputs reify it instead of clarifying the conflict.  Indeed, literary outputs published by celebrity figures both during the 1990s and after not only stay neutral before the ideological struggle between the secular-and-military status quo on the one hand and their Islamist contestants on the other but deem it their mission to testify for posterity. 

That war was tagged cultural and simplified to the point of pitting progressivists against depressives. Such a binary portrayal gained currency during the post-Cold War context, where ideas of the clash of civilizations became the Modus Operandi. Generations of Algerian authors, Ford specifies, have uncritically fallen to that categorization less because they were complicit with the state’s narrative but more due to channels of reception in France. Often, those channels recourse to timeless portrayals that reactivated the spectacle (never the essence) of Algeria’s war of independence: enlightened Algerian democrats as Les pieds noirs against bearded medievalists, reactivating FLN recidivists. Only from February 2019 onward, the literary scene starts to disentangle this framing, counting some writers who dare to explore the black decade with less bias and a satisfying complexity.     

In discussing Francophone Algerian literature, Ford follows a chronological approach. Chapter One studies testimonial novels by authors such as Rachid Mimouni. Written in realism, Mimouni’s novels, like Rachid Boujedra’s, have been behind instituting the binary and reductive approach. To their credit, Assia Djebar and Maïssa Bey practised restraint, specifying that they prefer not to subscribe to either representation or testimony.  

Chapter Two explores the writings of Salim Bachi as the latter recourses to myth, a promising mode of writing that breaks with Mimouni’s testimonial fiction. The mythical undertaking registers his embrace for historical readings of the Black Decade. But 9/11 sees him falling on the trope of the clash of civilizations.    

Chapter Three focuses on imaginative outputs by Habib Ayoub. Here grotesque renditions of leaders deconstruct the ways ordinary Algerians become complicit in orchestrating their own apolitical lives. Both leaders and the subaltern equally evoke the language of heroism besetting the war of independence.  

Chapter Four examines Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête and finds that contrary to the nuanced approach besetting the work, the framing of the work and its reception by heavy French media and the polemics marking Daoud’s journalistic writings have been behind a resurgence of the old binary lenses.   

Chapter Five reviews Mustapha Benfodil’s Archéologie du chaos (amoureux). Fords find this work a bold statement elucidating its author’s dissatisfaction with the testimonial mode and his radical disentangling from simplistic reading. Ford assumes that conceptual experimentations such as ‘wild readings’ or les lectures sauvages do reverse political power because complicity with the powers that be is thought to be rooted in mistaken readings.     

The transition of the Algerian novel that addresses the Black Decade from the realist to the mythical to the grotesque to quasi-historical to the modernist mode of expression illustrates promising progress. Undoing the complicity of oppositional discourses with the status quo can only be possible through undoing the binary matrix that has stigmatized both the practices of power and society throughout the Black Decade and since.

Ford seems to be in awe of Benfodil’s experimentations and is somehow satisfied with the overall evolution of Francophone Algerian authors’ perception of what took place during the 1990s. Perhaps, he should read these experimentations for what they are: mere lexical excitations. Benfodil’s spectacled readings cannot allow him to fundamentally grasp the Black Decade or even the hirak of February 2019 as a class struggle. Grappling with Daoud’s fiction and journalism remains a promising path for approximating that struggle irrespective of media framings.    

Fouad Mami

Professor of English

University Ahmed Draia—Adrar, Algeria. 

fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz 

Two Book Reviews On The Muslim Brotherhood- by Fouad Mami

Victor, J. Willi, 2021. The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt 1968-2018. Cambridge University Press. Hardcover: $90.76; Paperback: $30.45; ISBN-10: ‎ 1108822452; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1108822459; pp. 588.

Lorenzo Vidino, 2020. The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood in the West. Columbia University Press. Hardcover: $80.51; Paperback: $30.00; ISBN-10: ‎ 023119367X; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0231193672; pp. 296.

Can one emancipate with a structure that is largely non-emancipatory? And what is the exact role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the massive insurrections known as the Arab Spring? Several observers underline a situation where the revolution has been present, whereas the revolutionaries have been largely missing (Bayet 2017, Traboulsi 2014). Others note that both the revolutionaries and the revolution have been active, but the reversal of the Brotherhood’s fortunes indicates a cycle wherein the counterrevolution has gained the upper hand and that ascendency has not spared the Brotherhood, even when the latter has always “avoid[ed] revolutions and revolutionary change [as they are thought to] lead to unexpected consequences.” (al-Anani 2022, 2) Still, the predomination of the counterrevolution does not in any sensible way guarantee that history will work in favour of the counterrevolution indefinitely. Much has been at play, and the following review essay accelerates the magisterial findings in both books to go beyond what each one highlights.

To begin with, Willi’s The Fourth Ordeal presumes that the demise of the Brotherhood—its fall from grace—in the coup of July 2013 is a tactical error. Differently put, had the proponents of the Society’s fourth Guide (el-Tilmsani) prevailed, the Qutbists (a vanguard subgroup within the Society that follows the ideology put forth by the radical jihadist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)) would have little chance in fragmenting the Brotherhood both just before the surge of the Arab Spring and after the group’s victory in the presidential elections in June 2012. In what follows, I will show that rapid ascendency, while plausible, remains untenable in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, the demise of the Society could not have been avoided regardless of which competing wing within it had been in control. The demise of July 3rd, 2013 and the subsequent fragmentation had not been a tactical miscalculation. And rather, it has been the undistorted translation of the motoring principle within the soon-to-be a century-old movement.

My contention presupposes an unbridgeable methodological divide between strategies of and for reform and those of revolt. Since Egypt was caught amid a radically incendiary situation, the means and the mindset of reform subscribe more to the prerequisites of the counterrevolutionary moment and its demands. This is different from ascertaining that the Brotherhood is categorically (as a matter of principle) a regressive or restorative force like, say, the military. Rather, it is the Society’s pseudo-revolutionary dynamic, its political duplicity that borders on naivety, which is another facet of its theoretical poverty and distrust of radical youth forces that dictated its vulnerability to counterrevolutionary forces. The combination of all these shortcomings has dictated its fourth ordeal.

This review essay pleads for a radical distinction between the social means of a revolution, seeking a rupture with the manners of the past, and those tools aiming at reform, stressing gradualism and long-term change. Once this distinction serving a methodological axiom is set, the Brotherhood’s performance in the revolutionary situation put forth by the post-2011 situation cannot be mistaken. This distinction also serves in reading Vidino’s The Closed Circle as it zooms in on what he chooses to study: the Brotherhood’s international branch, meaning: the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Western Europe and the U.S. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, both the original/Egyptian Brotherhood and its structure in the West (Western Europe and North America) are reformist. And unlike Willi, Vidino seizes on the logical implications when opting for a reformist track, taking part in the political game and hence the reverse of fortunes coming with the impasse of its project in both Egypt, Tunisia as well as in France, Denmark, Sweden, the U.K. and, certainly, the U.S.

Both Willi and Vidino, from the start, embraced the method of oral history: conducting not a small number of interviews with rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood and certain leadership figures and dissenters both in Egypt and abroad. This method the authors contrast with the approach that reads the Brotherhood as a social movement. The advantages they advance are multiple. For interviews-based approach facilitates seeing the movement less like a solid structure and more as a social actor in the real world, combined with a heterogeneous pool of opinions across the movement’s hierarchal spectrum. In contrast with Vidino, the interviews Willi conducts are massive, and so are his readings of memoirs, brochures, and news updates on blogs and websites. Still, both authors’ command of Arabic boosts their grasp on the thematic they engage with. The result shows in a plethora of details that corroborate their thesis rooted—unfortunately in Willi’s case more than Vidino’s—more in speculation than in a solid historical reading of these facts they amassed.

In Chapter I: “The Society of the Muslim Brothers”, Willi stresses that the niche for his study lies in the lack of serious, reliable, and unbiased literature addressing the Brotherhood. Most of what exists is produced by attention-grabbing pseudo-scholars and think-tanks. Against a background rampant with simplistic studies and severely lacking in written archives, Victor’s project of doing oral history explains the importance of spelling out the details of the “great saga” (12). He does this by zooming in on al-Banna’s project of reviving the faith within a colonial context in which Egypt was a British protectorate. Contextualization is vital in beating up cliches. Willi then considers Banna’s precursors in the political revival of Islam: Mohammed’ Abduh, Jamal din Afghani and Mohammed Rachid Rida. The book does not overlook the Sufi elements in the Banna’s vision serving as a ‘pure’ fountain for the reactivation of the faith in the sociopolitical order of the 1920s and 1930s. Later, the reader encounters al-Banna’s organizational seven-step blueprint and the basic literature of the movement. He ends the chapter by reassuring Western audiences that al-Banna’s idea of the caliphate is more of a metaphor, “a catchphrase” (33) for founding a Muslim parallel to the European Union or the United States of America.

Chapter II: “The Second Founding (1968-1981)” invokes the post-1954 incarceration of the Brotherhood’s leadership under President Nacer. The latter almost cancelled the Society from existence. However, in the wake of the Arab defeat of 1967 in the war with Israel and the Student Protests of 1968, the leaders of the Brotherhood were freed from prisons and connived into Egyptian social life. But it was until President Sadaat’s tenure that Brotherhood members were grudgingly tolerated a political role. ‘Omar al-Tilmsani became the third Guide officially in 1973 and it was his gradualist approach as specified in his book, Preachers, Not Judges (1969), resonated with President Sadaat’s policy of appeasement on two levels. The first comes in the context of a rival group, Jama’at al-Muslimin (Society for Muslims). The latter aligns itself with a radical jihadi ideology as outlined by Sayyid Qutb, which was then on the rise and threatened to destabilize the country. The second, which is no less important but overlooked by Willi, is the prominence of socialist and communist parties, exerting pressure on the powers of the time. Thus, al-Tilmsani’s rendition of the Brotherhood and his balanced approach served Sadaat’s policy of personalist rule. Sadaat’s rapprochement with Tel Aviv and his eventual assassination in 1981 dictated that this arrangement with the state becomes now lacking.  

Chapter II: “The Rise of the Vanguard (1981-1991)” refers to how al-Tilmisani’s adherents (proponents of gradualism in dealing with the powers that be as well as in the decision-making structure inside the Brotherhood) started losing currency to the more radical elements. Instead, it is now the vanguardist approach, those followers of Sayyid Qutb’s ideology as specified in the latter book, Signposts on the Road (1964), who are gaining momentum. Other than the takfiri and jihadi articles of faith, the vanguardists trust in the Qutb’s philosophy of jahiliyyah or modern-day structural ignorance whose raison d’être explains Society’s need for the vanguards, those people “who engage with society while practising mental and emotional withdrawal from it.” (107) With the vanguards in charge, the Brotherhood expanded both nationally (to all governorates in Egypt) and internationally (literally, worldwide). Meanwhile, it expanded into all professional syndicates and won an important number of seats in parliament. 

Of capital interest in understanding the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood is the section titled: “The Brotherhood’s Neoliberal Turn” in Chapter IV: “Brotherhood Incorporated (1991-2001).” The section traces the rise of the business-minded cadre in the Guidance Office, the likes of Khairat al-Shamir, who, while a vanguardist and jihadist, is similarly a business tycoon and strategist. The rise of al-Shamir and his cliques, Willi outlines, echoes the Brotherhood’s overall change of perspective where “Quranic ideals with newly acquired market economy concepts…the emerging Islamic discourse embraced the modern business corporation as a model through which one could articulate specifically Islamic policies and objectives.” (157)  A subsequent section bearing on the consequence of the seismic turn marks the “Transformation of the Social Base” within the several-decades long Brotherhood, ending in a quasi-class struggle within the movement. Therefore, the decade preceding 9/11 not only witnessed the break up between various Brotherhood national Chapters over the first Gulf War but a rupture with classical Brotherhood formation in Egypt itself.

Chapter V: “Struggle for Leadership (2001-2011)” carefully reads the decade spanning the period between 9/11 and the kick-off of the Arab Spring as it marked a further split between the gradualists and vanguardists groups within the Brotherhood. The denialist narrative of 9/11 by people introducing themselves as members of the Society complicated the relationship with the U.S., given how neoconservative orientalists branded political Islam. The Guidance Office started a public relations campaign denying allegations of its alleged static disposition and succeeded in establishing a rapprochement with the U.S. administration. On the eve of the January 25th Revolt, Willi specifies that the Brotherhood spearheaded by the vanguards was never in its best shape. The author lists several strategically fatal decisions paving the way for its fourth ordeal.

Chapter VI: “Revolution, Rise, and Fall (2011-2013)” enumerates several strategic miscalculations that resulted in the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood. Chief among those several miscalculations, in Willi’s opinion, is the inability of the Vanguard group to register the steam and the scale of the real and unexpected change that the revolutionary situation of post-January 25th has made possible. Victor notes a mental lag between the old school activism that marked the leadership on the one hand and the Brotherhood’s youth revolutionary zeal and ardour. Against the specific warnings of the Brotherhood’s youth, the leadership harried toward a hasty and farfetched alliance with the Egyptian military, expecting to be rewarded for its allegiance with power (al-Aswany 2021). The fiasco illustrates not only how (contrary to its youth) the negotiating cadres of the Brotherhood showed a lack of imagination but deep-seated duplicity, as shown in incidents such as the Maspero and the Blue-Bra Girl. The race for power for its own sake sealed the Brotherhood’s unfortunate fate.

Chapter VII: “The Beginning of the Fourth Ordeal (2013-2018)” starts with how General Sissi’s cracked up on the Brotherhood sit-ins in both Rab’a and al-Nahda Squares in August 2013 instead of uniting the remaining leaders, those who managed to escape or go underground in time, had fragmented them further. The crack-up, Willi finds out, has been unprecedented in intensity since Nassers’ times in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally, the second rank leadership had its chance in steering the Brotherhood. But the vanguard group, both from prison and exile, refused to secede important prerogatives, resulting in a feud, which, whether motivated by ego or by ideology, Willi does not specify. However, he specifies that a non-negligible section in the Egyptian leadership of the Brotherhood has propagated towards the necessity of the revolutionary path, including the armed struggle against General Sissi’s dictatorship. But with the execution of Mohammed Kamel in October 2016, the revolutionary path lost currency. Rivalry and division remain, however, endemic, marking the Brotherhood to this day (the first half of 2022) even when the book closed its study in 2018.  

Even if Vidino’s The Closed Circle approaches the Western chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, it does not substantially differ from Willi’s monumental gathering of facts and analysis. Eternalization of politics and duplicity in using it or the unprincipled deployment of religion rank supreme among Vidino’s critique of the Western Brotherhood. The seven testimonial chapters are sandwiched between two introductory chapters varying between definitions and hypothesizing and two concluding ones as they synthesize the findings and read those findings beyond the amassed evidence. Hence, concerning Vidino’s volume, I am saving the readers the middle chapters because all the seven testimonies (in the seven middle chapters) are squeezed into the synthesized findings and the methodological readings that go beyond the evidence. 

Chapter I, “What is the Muslim Brotherhood in the West?” starts with a methodological note regarding the sea of confusion in identifying Brotherhood organizations in the West. The reasons are multiple, but chief among which is the stigma the name recalls, given the 9/11 attacks and the steeped Orientalist portrayals that often present the movement outside space and time. Therefore, policymakers in the West are indeed in the dark, and Vidino’s volume sells its credentials to facilitate practical ways of dealing with not a small number of Brotherhood offshoots in the West. While invariably sharing the belief that Islam is complete in and for itself, the Brotherhood groups do not seek to Islamize Western societies, aiming to facilitate the integration of Muslim immigrants into these societies. Vidino identifies three major categories of Brotherhood organizations. He counts a- pure Brotherhood bodies, which prefer non-public or secretive networking; b- Brotherhood spawns where affiliated members maintain an emotional link with the original organization but are not structurally tied to it; c- there are those groups who are only distantly influenced. All the three varieties have a vested interest in being representative of Muslim communities and collaborating with governments bodies in a way that channels partnerships over funds and political capital in the countries where they are based.    

Vidino outlines in Chapter II: “Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood” the criteria for selection of members and subsequently the reasons for these recruits’ disillusionment which are inducive for parting ways with the movement. As to joining, the Brotherhood selects its cadres, not the other way around. No application in the classical sense is reported. The selection criteria have to do more on signs that promise piousness and obedience. Now, concerning leaving the movement, Vidino zooms in on two principal reasons. The first is disenchantment with the leadership and or dissatisfaction with the inner workings of the Society. The second specifies the group’s ideology, particularly the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and its political duplicity. At the end of the chapter, Vidino broaches upon the dissenters’ own life after leaving the Brotherhood, often reported as tough as the former members had had little, if at all, social life outside the movement.  

All the seven chapters from the III to the IX examine those moments of recruitment in detail. They contextualize both the joining and the leaving and provide reasons for each. The format used is a testimony that the author recomposes from face-to-face interviews and email correspondence. The common thread is the appeal or radiance that the Brotherhood holds, the enchantment of the early days and months, even years, and the expectations of serving in a larger-than-life cause in a movement whose name inspires owe and pride. No less common is the stifled dissatisfactions stamping the secretive nature of the Society’s inner working, which the dissenters find no solid reason for maintaining except perhaps due to greed for power and manipulation of the lower and mid-ranking brothers. Most of the common testimonies Vidino brings note how the penchant for secrets could be quite an in place when working under or dealing with autocratic governments such as Egypt, Jordon, or Syria but certainly out of context when operating in Western democracies. Likewise, the testimonies note that leading Brothers, those involved with the real decision-making, rarely bother to read the languages of the Western societies they live in, say little as to genuine attempts at understanding these societies’ histories and complex dynamics.     

Chapter X: “Joining and Leaving: What the Evidence Suggests” underlines a methodology in reading the problem of dissenting from the Brotherhood. Most dissenters left because they thought “current leaders have strayed from Hassan al-Banna’s original message.” (179). Others raised the concern of secrecy and doublespeak in the proceedings, which is thought to serve only “a small nomenklatura of interconnected activists, an aristocratic elite.” (179) Differently put, ideological convictions are hardly the reason. Only a tiny minority of the dissenters (Ahmed Akkari, Mohamed Louizi, and the American Brothers) zoom in on the motoring principle behind the various chapters of the Western Brotherhood and find it problematic. They list the leaders’ duplicity in playing politics with the powers that be. The face-saving infuriation concerning the Danish cartoons that featured Prophet Muhammed from 2003 to 2007 reveals how the key leaders can go in trading with their presumably principled defence of the faith. Other less fatal problems are listed in the chapter.

The last chapter: “The Western Brotherhood’s Future: From the Arab Spring and Beyond.” The video draws the picture of the Western Brotherhood transitioning toward post-Islamism. Contrary to Western governments’ lack of policy, Saudia Arabia and UAE cracked up on their local chapters and tagged the principal Brotherhood in Egypt (following the July 2013 coup) with its Western wing, a terrorist organization stipulating a major geostrategic turn. Adding salt to injury, as soon as the Arab Spring started, Western Brothers joined Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places (their countries of origin) to assume leading positions there. Still, they left their former positions in the West empty. For converts and those Muslim staying behind in the West, that move, like Ghannouchi’s, dealt a serious blow to the image of the Western Brothers, pilling evidence of the opportunism of these leaders and the uncertain future of the Western Brotherhood as a whole. Vidino suggests that the scene is perhaps ready for post-Ikhawanism, like post-communism during the 1970s and the 1980s.  

The extensive details about the extremely divergent pool of opinions between the Brotherhood’s inner circle, the small group of decision-makers, and their contestants, as well as the dissatisfactions, even the dissenting voices of second rank leaders in the provinces, as brilliantly displayed in Willi’s study, however, are never a waste of time for the perceptive reader. Such details specify that Willi has actually spelt everything except the essential, or perhaps he has gradually broached upon that essential. For if they amount to anything, these extensive details remain food for thought because they confirm how a structure or movement founded for reform cannot by any stretch of the imagination propagate towards reform’s antithesis: revolution. Such a situation does not result because of the overblown narcissistic drives of certain leaders or the fact that an ageing leadership in the Guidance Office was cut off from rapidly evolving reality, the way Will tries to convince us.

With a rapidly evolving revolutionary situation or overblown egos, leaders’ out-of-touch are solid empirical factors. However, as the historical experience of the long durée shows, they remain marginal because each of Willi’s listed factors enjoys no autonomous scenario of its own. The fact that the radical Qutbists won over the al-Telemsani-influenced members of the Shura council or became dominant in the Guidance Office does not alter the situation that the Brotherhood remains marred in theoretical poverty as literally not a single figure among its presumed thinkers dares to question the bedrock of the world’s political economy. The Brotherhood’s early bidder for the presidency before Morsi was Khairat el-Shatir, a proponent of the Qutbist ultra-conservative approach but equally an ambitious business conglomerate with literally billions of dollars. As his asset! The contradiction in combining piety and worldly success in a world deemed by Qutbists corrupt to the marrow is worthy of a study all on its own. That study can explain how the Brotherhood has had no qualms over sending emissaries to Washington DC and freely giving assurances concerning Israel’s future security. Not a small number of observers mistake this Brotherhood’s maneuverer as realpolitik. It offers a death blow to ordinary Egyptians’ expectations for a substantial rupture from Mubarak’s era. This is an example of Willi’s impressive display of facts minutely scanned but are not pressed enough to yield and distil a solid historical reading showcasing that reform cannot befriend and accommodate revolt, in the sense that it cannot meet the people’s minimum expectations in the wake of ousting an enduring dictator such as Hosni Mubarek.     

The Brotherhood’s appeal to the U.S. establishment specifies two issues, not one. Apart from showcasing the leadership’s lust for political power (al-Anani 2022, 10), its readiness to play with the available-but-abusive so-called ‘rules of the game’ indicates the extent to which the movement suffers from a severe theoretical confusion. The stipulation of the theoretical clarity stands at odds with Willi’s broodings over tactical issues such as the Brotherhood’s decades of incarceration and overall underground work carried out as an opposition entity made the movement apathetic to, not just, unready to assume political rule. All these are true but theoretical muddiness made the Brotherhood it is own worst enemy because that muddiness renders it incapable of embracing its historical responsibility. Indeed, the shallowness of its theoretical foundation largely decides its incapacity of spotting an alternative to the post-1945 American order. The combination of putting people of the like of al-Shatir’s calibre in key positions in the movement illustrates that they take the laws of the market economy for granted. Similarly, their unconditional readiness to compromise on matters both delicate and of principle, such as the Palestinian Question, confirms those readings which trust in the Brotherhood as a radical alternative to Mubarek’s corrupt ways are not only slightly mistaken but fundamentally false.

Suffice it to note that ever since its inception in 1928, the Society has never introduced itself except as a fundamentally reformist movement. Why pity the Brotherhood against reformism, the reader legitimately asks? The short answer is that Islam is either revolutionary or it is not. In this context, it is worth noting that Prophet Muhammad did not rub shoulders with the Meccan capitalists of his own time, not because he was not capable or that the opportunity did not present itself. For historical accuracy, the Meccan lords pleaded with him to preside over them. And it is he who did not accept because he knew he would be serving their caravans and businesses, and he was looking for a world without caravans and businesses. In the case of the Brotherhood, as Willi’s succinct study brilliantly shows but rarely seizes on the fact that the Brotherhood had never been missing committed activists with exceptional talents and organizational skills. Therefore, to blame one faction or pity one subgroup against another is to participate in confusing, not elucidating, Egypt’s revolutionary/counterrevolutionary situation.

Vidino’s synthesis from the interviews and email exchanges puts its hand directly on the spot where it hurts the Western Brothers the most, that is, on the future of the movement as a whole. I learned how the multicultural Society envisioned by Western Brotherhood is exactly the opposite of what Western governments have in mind or plan for their nations. Pierre Durrani and Mohamed Louizi’s testimonies both note how the Brotherhood flouted multiculturalism to maintain its parallel societies or ghettos: anti-universal Muslims communicating with like-minded Muslims and cheating the hospitality extended by Western societies. For anti-universal Muslims nurse the illusion that they can conquer Rome from within one day. Rome here is that mythical Western capital in the prophetic tradition. Despite Vidino being bemoaning how Western governments lack a long-term and consistent approach to the Society, this very duplicity in bending laws and abusing multiculturalism could be behind the U.S. policy planners’ decision to let Morsi and his government down. Likely, U.S. planners did not want another heart-breaking Islamic republic, à la Iran. And in cutting the head of the mother movement in Egypt, its Western offshoots will be automatically powerless. In this context, we can read the ongoing feuds between Brotherhood leaders inside and outside Egypt, Ghannouchi’s statement in favour of post-Islamism, and the assassination of Mohamed Kamel, rendering the Brotherhood’s revolutionary bid into nought.   

The powerful point of the two books is how they allow Brotherhood members to speak and allow several voices and insiders’ informed opinions to sketch the readers’, not necessarily the authors’, final analysis. The fact that the two authors speak and read Arabic, along with other languages, is an asset and facilitates their intentions to translate their humility and patience (unlike attention-grabbing Orientalists carrying out pseudo-scholarly works) to learn from the materials and synthesize their learning in these two books. The two authors are likely to transform how Islamist movements are approached and understood through such studies. Willi’s study, in particular, highlights the role of functional social movements (in a similar vein to functional states) as the American establishment does not want to divulge the Brotherhood from a functional role, namely: quelling genuine revolutionary movements or those that can propagate toward upsetting the post-1945 world order. In The Fourth Ordeal, readers find that “U.S. strategic planners used an active and conscious policy of mobilizing political Islam to crush ideologies unfavourable to U.S. interests.” (117). Unfortunately, Willi overlooks this methodological thread where he has failed in his critical observation, for the Brotherhood was specifically founded to suppress the nationalistic aspirations that emerged in 1920 (Soueif 1999, 224).

Speaking of the number of ordeals and given the reformist agenda of the Brotherhood or, more precisely, its lust for power, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will cease playing with fire from which it bitterly tasted four times so far. Other ordeals will follow suit because, at the moment of composing these lines, reliable news reports circulate that the Brotherhood has been repeatedly involved in direct talks with representatives of General Sissi’s government, the very person who caused the Brotherhood’s demise. The fact that the Brotherhood is even willing to sit and consider proposals by Sissi’s representatives is evidence of its political naivety. Many will rebut that aspiration to play a role in the future of their country. The number of ordeals, and the vocabulary itself, as the word mihnā or ordeal in Arabic stipulates a momentary but also necessary hardship from which a positive situation will eventually follow, expresses a willingness to impersonate the naïveté of an idiot and cancel ordinary Egyptians’ historical destiny.    

References:

Al-Anani, Khalil. Ed. 2021. Islamism and Revolution Across the Middle East: Transformation of Ideology and Strategy after the Arab Spring. I.B. Tauris.

Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2021. The Republic of False Truths: A Novel. Knopf: New York and London. Trans. S. R. Fellowes

Bayat, Asef. 2021. Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England.

Bayat, Asef. 2017. Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford University Press.

Soueif, Ahdaf. 1999. The Map of Love. Bloomsbury Publishing, London and New York. 

Traboulsi, Fawwaz, 2014. thāwārt bilā thouwār. (Revolutions without Revolutionaries) Dar Riad al-Rais for Publication and Distribution, Beirut, Lebanon ISBN-139789953215723

The Hammer and the Anvil: Dispatches from the Frontline of the Russian Civil War, 1918-1919 By Larissa Reisner, translator Jack Robertson.London: Bookmarks Publications, 2021.

In depths of legend, heroine, you’ll walk,

Along that path, your steps shall never fade.

Tower like a mighty peak above my thoughts;

For they are quite at home in your great shade.

In Memory of Reissner-by Boris Pasternak

“Larissa Mikhailovna Reissner’s work on newspapers and her presence on the newspaper staff made us – newspaper labourers as compared with that great craftsman in style – somehow more wary and tense. How can you treat style and form with disdain when sketches like Reissner’s are printed alongside your own? Even someone who never thinks especially much about form starts to reflect. For my part, let me say that none of the seekings of the Formalists (i.e. the advocates of formalism in literature) has made an impression on me. But the last articles of Larissa Mikhailovna Reissner made me learn a thing or two. I believe, too, that more than one generation of pupil-trainees at the State Institute of Journalism will learn the model of a good revolutionary style from her sketches”.

In Memory of Reissner-by Lev Sosnovsky

“Having dazzled many, this beautiful young woman swept like a hot meteor against the backdrop of the Revolution. With the appearance of an Olympic goddess, she combined a subtle ironic mind and the courage of a warrior. After the capture of Kazan by the whites, under the guise of a peasant woman, she went to the enemy camp for reconnaissance. But her appearance was too unusual. She was arrested. A Japanese intelligence officer interrogated her. During the break, she slipped through the poorly guarded door and disappeared. Since then, she has worked in intelligence. She later sailed on warships and took part in battles. She devoted essays to the Civil War that will remain in literature. She wrote with the same vividness about the Ural industry and about the workers’ uprising in the Ruhr. She wanted to see and know everything, to participate in everything. In a few short years, she grew up to be a first-class writer. Having passed unharmed through fire and water, this Pallas of the Revolution suddenly burned out from Typhus in the calm atmosphere of Moscow before reaching thirty”.

My Life-Leon Trotsky

“Much better to die in open combat, among comrades, with weapons in their hands. That is how I want to die. That is how hundreds and thousands die for this republic every day.”

Larissa Reisner

This new collection of work containing the writings of the outstanding Russian revolutionary Larissa Reisner was put together and published by Bookmarks which is the publishing arm of the British Socialist Workers Party. Despite having fundamental political differences with this group, the SWP and especially the translator Jack Robertson deserve significant recognition and commendation for this book.

Larissa Reisner was an extraordinary member of the Bolshevik Party. She was a leading revolutionary figure and the first woman to be a political Commissar in the revolutionary Red Army. She was also an author and journalist. Much of the work published in this collection will be unknown to the modern-day reader. Reisner is best known to English speaking readers through her book Hamburg at the Barricades.[1] Her literary output was huge. Unfortunately, little has been translated into English. Hence the significance of this new collection. This new translation by Jack Robertson is based on her collected works currently being held in the British Library. The book contains 100 pages of Larissa Reisner’s on the spot reports from the Red Army front from 1918 to 1919.

One jewel in the British Library collection held at Boston Spa is the 1948 English language pamphlet Svyazhsk: An Epic of the Russian Civil War – 1918, produced by the then Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, founded in 1935.[2][3]

This new book concentrates on battles fought by the Red Army against White armies supported by Western imperialist governments. Reisner shows what a bloody conflict it was. The White counter-revolutionaries committed mass murder against anyone suspected of Communist sympathies, including the elderly, women and children.

Reisner refers to many key Bolshevik leaders of the era. Many held her in high regard. None more so that Leon Trotsky, commander in chief of the Red Army. In his autobiography My Life, he wrote about Reisner, saying she “flashed across the revolutionary sky like a burning meteor, blinding many… Her sketches about the civil war are literature. With equal gusto, she would write about the Ural industries and the rising of the workers in the Ruhr. She was anxious to know and see all and participate in everything.”

Amid the death and destruction of the Russian Civil War, this highly educated young woman managed to write in an informative, pulsating and almost poetic way. She writes, “It is a strange feeling to be moving about in an unfamiliar building with windows and doors slammed shut, knowing full well that a battle to the death is about to take place in this godforsaken hotel. It is a racing certainty that someone will be killed, some will survive, some will be taken, prisoner. At such moments, all the words and all the rationalisations that help preserve your presence of mind go out the window. All that remains is an acute, penetrating sorrow — and underneath it, barely perceptible, a disorienting question: whether to flee or stand your ground. In the name of what? Face screwed up, choking with tears, the heart reiterates: stay calm, do not panic, no humiliating exodus.” (36-37)

Her description of a particular event in which she witnessed the brutal slaughter by White troops of innocent bystanders as being something out of a Goya painting will stay in mind for a long time. Her work compares favourably with another outstanding chronicler of the Russian Revolution, John Reed, whose book Ten Days That Shook The World is required reading for anybody interested in this period of history.

One of the most important things that come out of her portrayal of the events of the Civil War is that she believed that the Revolution was a mass event. People were prepared to fight and die for this Revolution because a great cause inspired them. This was not just some coup organised by a handful of conspirators.

Reisner writes “Of course, individuals do not make history. However, in Russia, we had so few people and characters of his calibre. It was so difficult for them to break through the undergrowth of old and new bureaucracy that they rarely found themselves in the real-life, life-and-death struggle. It is because the Revolution had men like this, men in the highest sense of the word, that Russia was able to rally and recover. At decisive movements, they stood out from the general mass, and all of them displayed an authority – a full, genuine authority. They were aware of their heroic task and by their actions were able to rouse the rest of the wavering and pliable masses”.

Particularly striking are Reisner’s comments about the importance of the Red Army leader Leon Trotsky. In addition to Reisner’s writings, the book contains two pieces from Leon Trotsky’s My Life, A Month in Sviyazhsk and The Train. Reisner attaches great importance to Trotsky’s leadership in defence of Sviyazhsk, which turned out to be a turning point in the civil war.

One facet of her character that permeates the book is her bravery. She thought nothing of risking her own life in order to save others. One such example is when The Red Army, along with thousands of others in Kazan, fled to Sviyazhsk in 1918. Reisner believed that her husband, the Bolshevik Fyodor Fyodorovich Raskolnikov, had been taken prisoner by the Whites. She risked her neck by trying to rescue him by returning to Kazan. Her problem came when because she was such a high profile Bolshevik, she was easily recognised by a White officer. As she writes in the book, she managed to escape when a driver of a horse cab who was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks helped her, saying he “saved people like me, humbly and resolutely, just like they saved thousands of other comrades scattered all over the Russian highways.” (62) 

Larissa Reissner died on 9 February 1926, in the Kremlin Hospital, Moscow, from typhoid; she was 30 years old. There is no small element of tragedy in this life cut so short. To produce such an important body of work at such a tender age is remarkable. No doubt, had she lived, she would have been able to add substantially to that work.

It is also clear that had she lived, that work would have taken on a much different character. Her close association with Leon Trotsky (she worked on Leon Trotsky’s Commission for Improvement of Industrial Products) would have undoubtedly led to her arrest and possible execution at the hands of Joseph Stalin’s counter-revolution. One thing is certain she would have defended not only herself but the Revolution from Stalinism.

It is perhaps fitting to end this review with a quote from a close associate of Leon Trotsky- Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky, who wrote, “she died at the height of her powers, intellect and beauty. She died in a clinic from an unexpected, absurd and accidental illness after long-suffering had worn her out. She should have lived, however, and she should have died somewhere on the Steppes, at sea, or in the mountains, clutching a rifle or Mauser in her hands, for she was renowned for her spirit of adventure, her unceasing restlessness, her courage, greed for life and strong will. This was a fighting spirit, and, without sparing herself, she gave herself completely to the revolution”.[4]

Further Reading.

Trotsky, Leon, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Harmondsworth, 1979). X.708/22026.


[1] www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/reissner/works/hamburg/ch02.htm[2] See Svyazhsk … An epic of the Russian Civil War-1918. Maradana : Hashim Press, 1948.LLSP [Extracted from “The Front.” Translated by John G. Wright and Amy Jensen.Larissa Reisner- From Fourth International, vol.4 No.6, June 1943, pp.184-189. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi/vol04/no06/reissner.htm[3] See also Trotsky, Sri Lanka and an ‘Olympian goddess-https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2016/10/trotsky-sri-lanka-and-an-olympian-goddess.html[4] Aleksandr Voronsky-Art as the Cognition of Life-$24.95-Mehring Books

Faruqi, Daanish and Fahmy F. Dalia. 2017. Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism: Illiberal Intelligentsia and the Future of Egyptian Democracy. Oneworld Academic. pp. 400. ISBN-10: 1780748825; ISBN-13: 978-1780748825; Paperback: £10.99

This edited volume traces the fortunes of liberalism in Egypt, not Egyptian liberalism, for almost a century and a half now. It examines the political positions of self-proclaimed liberals in the country and finds them consistently engaged in a feud against the Islamists to the extent that liberals in Egypt enforce the military, a completely illiberal force, principally to attack their political adversaries. Such an illiberal posture testifies to the contrast between rhetoric and liberal practice in Egypt, particularly when the fortunes of members of the Muslims Brotherhood are on the rise.   

What triggers the research for this volume is how Egypt’s liberals could firmly stand behind the military coup of July 3, 2013, and further justify the bloodshed of hundreds in Rabaa and El-Nahda squares that followed a few weeks afterwards. For the editors and the contributors alike, the support and the justification are mind-boggling. Regardless of excuses, the book finds that in throwing all their weight and legacy behind the military establishment, Egypt’s liberals become themselves victims. How so? Given their biases against the Islamists, figures like Mohamed El Baradei, Alaa Al-Aswany, Ibrahim Eissa, Dr Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and Mohammed Abol Ghar, among others, grossly exaggerated the Islamists’ threat, mistook their target, and misread the motives behind calls to unseat President Mohamed Morsi. At heart, the military dictatorship was never against the Brotherhood or the Islamists as such, that is, for ideological reasons. General Sisi and members of the deep state were against the democratic experiment itself. The military establishment could neither fathom nor pardon whoever took part in the revolution of January 25, 2011, forcing President Mubarek, another deeply-entrenched military, to abdicate. As soon as General Sisi was done with the persecution of Islamists, he immediately turned his fury against the liberals, some of whom contributed to this volume. Even when all contributions in the book do not explicitly highlight the benefits of the liberal predicament in the country, the evidence each contribution brings specifies that anyone who dared to actively imagine a future for Egypt outside the immanent framework in favour of the military has been targeted. Given their predicament, the liberals have never ceased on this basic reality. That explains why liberals of Egypt keep crying over spilt milk. For it is precisely they who are completely passed over by the new order they helped to bring and sell as a national necessity for Egyptians.   

The book contains four sections, counting exactly twelve chapters (the introduction included) and a conclusion. Like with all edited volumes, not all contributions merit the same attention, particularly when attending to the predicament of liberalism in Egypt. That explains why I am examining only those critical contributions that engage with that predicament.

Daanish Faruqi and Dalia F. Fahmy’s introductory chapter leads readers that the insurrection against President Morsi was a popular demand from the outset. Still, they think that liberals should have practised restraint and not fall in for supporting the counterrevolution, military or otherwise. By liberals, the editors trust in self-identification. Still, the book ensures that the liberals it refers to are not armchair intellectuals or fair-weather political activists (p. 4). Rather, most derided liberals have been outspoken individuals for democracy and the rule of law. Some suffered under the pre-2011 ruling establishment by languishing in prisons or being forced to exile. In order to make a case for the problematics of the book, the chapter contrasts such self-proclaimed liberals’ and democrats’ statements before and during the revolution against other statements and positions taken after the rise of the Brotherhood’s candidate to power in June 2012. Indeed, the chapter finds that the liberals’ substitution from initial commitments for civil society, freedom, and democracy has “emboldened the nation’s recidivism into authoritarian rule” (p. 10) despite a long legacy that calls for democratic order, freedom and the rule of law.

Chapter Two: Dalia Fahmy studies the structural illiberalism of Egyptian party politics. For the 2013 coup is now read as an instantiation of “an illiberal political order, enshrined and perpetuated at a systemic level.” (p. 31) As parliament under President Sisi becomes a rubber stamp for formalising the illiberal will of the executive, Fahmy is understandably enraged. That rage translates into the evaporation of decades-long liberal activism. She encourages readers to register the extent of civic and democratic regression. Indeed, the coup of July 2013 has turned “a healthy system of party politics not only absent but has been rendered constitutionally impossible.” (p. 53)

Following the structural approach that Fahmy starts, Hesham Sallam, in Chapter Three, examines how the illiberal practices during Nasser and Sadat’s rule, mostly characterised by pitting Islamists against liberals, have impacted contemporary liberals distrust of Islamists. A healthy polity can be founded—the chapter claims—by uniting the activism of both liberals and Islamists, and this can only be achieved by bypassing the preexisting and decades-long divide. Considering the period from the 1952 coup to 2011, Sallam finds that “the organisational asymmetries” (p. 83) between, on the one hand, the Islamists who clandestinely built their networks given their illegal status and the liberals, on the other, the state granted official status but simultaneously stifled their every move spelt in the long run that the Muslim Brotherhood stands in 2011 at an unparalleled advantage overall political actors including the military. Undoing an unhealthy and deeply polarising political arena can set the state for both Islamists and liberals to stop being pawns for the military, each time played against one another by giving the illusion at one point that it pampers the Islamists (between 2011 and early 2012) at another, the liberals (between late 2012 to 2013 and afterwards) while in fact, it approbates none but the eternalisation of its order.

Mohamed Elmasry, in Chapter Six, addresses the fortunes of civil society through the media. In particular, the chapter traces the illiberal turn of celebrity journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa who systematically demonises the Brotherhood through his live shows. Eissa’s example underlines how pretending liberals sold ordinary Egyptians the reductive image that President Morsi and the Brotherhood from which the latter emerged as incompetent and an existential threat to Egyptians: “outright treasonous to Egyptian state and society” (p. 176). Hysterical portrayals, entrenched in myths than in anything else and of the sort propagated by Eissa, led Egyptians to uncritically embrace those hegemonic narratives which paved the way for entrusting the military: finding no qualms with coup nor the massacres and other human rights abuses that followed.    

In Chapter Nine, Ahmed Abdel Meguid and Daanish Faruqi find that both liberals and Islamists are more complicit in the climate of mutual distrust than what each is willing to admit. Worse, they both trusted uncritically in statism, the logic which finds only state a means of carrying out the presumed needful work of social engineering. Theoretically clouded, they both sought “a Hobbesian conception of the nature and role of the state as the sole and ultimate interpreter and implementer of the Egyptian social contract” (p. 254). This chapter finds the logic of statism that explains frenzied and depleted mindsets between ‘frenemies’ that naively handed the keys to the military-led counterrevolution. Elevating the state to the point of invisibility at the expense of the individual’s liberty results in illiberalism, pure and simple. And here comes the liberals’ historical alliance with elitist postures as they classically distrusted the populace, viewing common men as little more than mouths to feed and flesh to cloth. The two contributors find that well before Nasser’s coup of 1952, “liberal figures increasingly welcomed the idea of a left-wing reformist dictatorship, or a “just tyrant” (al-musta’bid al-‘adil) to emerge and create the conditions for a liberal civil society, purge the existing political order of its corruption and patronage networks,  and then to forcibly inaugurate the modernist reforms they sought”  (p. 263)  Therefore, liberals’ reaction to Sisi’s coup of 2013 did not constitute a rupture, but rather a continuum, even a historical totality with earlier liberals’ firm and biased approach against ordinary Egyptians. Hence the chapter calls for an invigorating brand of liberal politics that goes beyond the constraints of state and statism because that logic can ruin the chances for a positive change, ushering in an era of post-statism.  

Chapters Ten and Eleven can be read together as Emran El-Badawi and Joel Gordon contrast the careers of eminent liberal activists. El-Badawi compares the Egyptian Gaber Asfour and the Syrian Buran Ghalioun. This study finds that liberal activists’ public engagement remains opposed to their theoretical excitations regarding freedom and civil liberties. The contrast evinces severe limitations. How so? Liberal activists remain staunchly statist and vehemently against political Islam. This explains why they could not mobilise the masses (p. 297). For her part, Gordon juxtaposes Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany with the satirist Bassem Youssef. Gordon finds, never falter from a long string of liberal luminaries in contemporary Egyptian history, such as Taha Hussayn and Muhammad Husayn Haykal, as they internalise secular versus religious binary division. Nowhere this internalisation manifests more than in how the counterrevolution of July 2013 capitalised on the presumed threats such as the “Brotherhoodization” of the state. Liberals’ flirtations with fascism during the 1930s (p. 318) come as a solid reminder that liberalism has not evolved much after all. When Bassem says in his final TV show: Egyptians, I apologise for misunderstanding you; you did not need a revolution, did not understand it, and did not deserve it. I will leave you this stagnant water that we tried to clear for your sake… (p. 333). In deriding his audience and people and with such bestiality, Bassem makes the book’s rationale and its zooming on the crisis of liberalism ever more pressing.  

The editors deem Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat, among others, true Egyptian liberals as they vehemently condemned the ousting of the democratically elected President Morsi aside from their consistent opposition to his policies. With this background in mind, we read Hamzawy in Chapter Twelve, who counts five anti-democratic deceptions that the liberals fell into: “…contribut[ing] to the militarisation of Egyptians’ collective imagination, which began with the people’s search for a ‘military saviour'” (p. 338). These ‘liberal-made grand deceptions’ range from sequential (the entrenched belief that transition to democracy must be tenable only when poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment become past) to incremental prerequisites for the success of democracy (traced in slogans such as nothing is more important than…), national necessity, religion station of politics and politicisation of religion, state above all else. The deceptions do not stop as deceptions but degenerate toward emboldening the military to mount its coup, aborting the brief democratic experiment in the country and initiating “a break from history and human values.” (p. 339)

Emad El-Din Shahin brings the volume to its conclusion by recalling robust and renewed faith in liberalism. Towards this end, he reminds readers of the bleakest day for liberals where El Baradei stood with Sisi in the coup announcement on July 3, 2013. Shahin calls for a new brand of liberalism, “grounded in the nuances of particularities of Egyptian society, and construct an indigenous liberal model with its creative frame of reference” (p. 362). He recommends that in order for true liberals to reconstitute their project, they will have first to disavow neoliberal forces from their midst. At a second level, they will have to undo the religious-secular divide. Other than being misleading, the divide gives regressive forces leverage to exploit the dynamic forces of society, liberals, and Islamists.

Methodologically considered, the volume remains at its strongest when it sticks to its own proclaimed long durée approach, tracing the governing dynamic that dictated the work of the long liberal history in Egypt. To embrace this approach, none but Hesham Sallam underscores its utility: “Simply put, history did not begin on January 25, 2011” (p. 63). The statement is almost Hegelian in perspective; it brings that significant evidence has been amassed, and any approach worthy of its own has to interrogate that experience critically. The method serves students of social movements lest crude opportunism and a predisposition for clientelism become explanatory principles.

In Chapter Six, Mohamad ElMasry’s stipulations vis-à-vis the Egyptian press can be confusing for readers. One wonders if it is indeed the lack of professionalism on the part of the Egyptian news outlet that led to the sinister portrayals of the Brotherhood. How does this explanation corroborate/sit with the method of the long durée? The author keeps referring to technicalities such as the Egyptian press system, which stays receptive to this anti-Brotherhood discourse as if such a system or any other has an autonomous existence of its own. Arguments such as lack of sound journalistic training and journalists without journalism degrees translating “a completely servile media apparatus” (p. 179) do not explain how liberals went into bed with the military. The same applies to arguments that chase Morsi’s slips of the tongue or his alleged Brotherhoodization of the country. Elmasry does not broach upon the role of foreign influence and Gulf Sheikhdoms’ mortal fear of the success of the democratic experiment in Egypt. Indeed, the Sheikhdoms pumped their petrodollars behind the restoration of the L’ancien régime.

More troublesome, though and given his Islamist biases, Khaled Abou El Fadl, in Chapter Eight, remains fixated with what he calls the “secularly minded and secularised intelligentsia whose thinking on democracy and constitutionalism is hopelessly opportunistic and muddled.” (pp. 235-6) He does not say how much opportunistic and how much muddled because other contributors find more muddled thinking than pure grab or opportunism. With opportunism, one will be zooming on another category of the Egyptian elite, les arrivistes, but these are neither liberals nor truly influential. The military establishment knows that this category has no symbolic capital. Meanwhile, true liberals like El-Baradei or Aswany, referred to by name in the volume, cannot be dubbed as carpetbaggers or bootlickers. To keep counting them so is a methodological genocide. A purely legalistic approach, concerned solely with legitimacy and social contract as methodological armaments, happens to be the counter-revolutionists’ approach. Despite what looks like an incendiary critique of liberals in Egypt and the depleted human existence in the abstract, Abou El Fadl maintains that the elites are endowed with the power to generate ideas, not that material reality generates ideas and determines their circulation. But he is right to note, though, that “the actual coup was a mere formality” (p. 250) since what he calls the ‘secularised intelligentsia’ already had had power firmly in its hand, and the Brotherhood accepted to engage in a game lost well in advance. Precision is key. The secularised intelligentsia had nothing to do with the coup; it was the military with the global capitalists behind them that planned and carried out the restoration.      

In his contribution, Hamzawy rushes to conclude that initially, Egyptians “wanted a true liberal order” (p. 340), and it was the military establishment that thwarted that popular demand. Nothing can be further from the truth since Egyptians massively voted for the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. Still, Hamzaway does not reject developmentalism as he criticises the liberals’ trust in linear approaches to modernity and their defence for an authoritarian order under the guise of waiting until the time Egypt scores a level of development conducive to democracy. This future is constantly postponed (p. 341). In outlining the final deception, Hamzawy overlooks how the state with classical national borders is no longer a viable player under the neoliberal global order. Specifically, it is precisely that powerful state that has to be liquidated for commodities to circulate and for capital to keep extracting value.

Emad El-Din Shahin, a professor at the American University of Cairo, was sentenced to death in 2015 on the alleged charges of destabilising the country, refusing domestication and elitism. Despite his credentials as a true liberal, and like other contributors, Shahin keeps fixated on the palliative. When some medicament is not working, the sensible policy is to seek a second opinion and try a new medicine. Perhaps worse than these confusions, the editors and contributors alike still believe in the existence of what is an extinct class, the Egyptian bourgeoisie (p. 365), a class which, after WWI, had universally gone extinct. In recommending disengagement from the authoritarian state, readers are left wondering why future liberals of Egypt would behave any differently? That explains how Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism cannot be a critical reconsideration or revision, as the editors want us to understand, but a re-legitimisation. Instead of a project for the future that Egyptians should axiomatically adopt, anyone reading the recommendation, in conclusion, cannot overlook an onerous retrenchment project of liberal democracy. The amount of indisputably historical evidence this volume brings amounts to how that conventional wisdom of a renewed faith in the liberal project has exhausted its utility.  

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524

fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz

A Review-Storming Heaven-Denise Giardina-Ivy Books-1987

A guest article by James McDonald and David Walsh. The original article appeared at www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/03/09/stor-m09.html

Meeting the responsibilities of historical fiction

Denise Giardina’s novel Storming Heaven (Ivy Books, 1987) is a gripping work of historical fiction set in West Virginia during the first two decades of the 20th century. It takes as its subject the rapacious conquest by coal mining companies of southern West Virginia and the courageous battles waged by miners and their families in defense of their land, their labor and their lives. The novel culminates with the Battle of Blair Mountain, which took place in the late summer of 1921.

Typically in historical fiction, invented characters encounter historical figures, invented places are juxtaposed with actual places and the fictional plot incorporates historical events. In Storming Heaven, Giardina has carefully integrated her characters and the fictitious Justice County, West Virginia, into the landscape and history of the Coal Wars.

Giardina uses four narrators to tell her story, each with an effectively distinctive voice. C.J. Marcum (“Cincinnatus Jefferson, after the two greatest men that ever lived”) becomes the mayor of the fictional town of Annadel, West Virginia. Annadel is a racially integrated community whose previous mayor was the African-American Doctor Booker. Doc Booker is a socialist who befriends C.J. and wins him to the ideas of socialism, though C.J. always falls asleep when he tries to read the books by Karl Marx that Doc lends him.

Rondal Lloyd, a dour, solitary man is nevertheless a thoroughly dedicated union organizer. In fact, he has given up on his thoughts of becoming a doctor in order to organize the mines. Rondal’s life at once reminds a reader of the countless intelligent and promising humans whose dreams are swallowed up by a difficult working class life and of those courageous workers who fight for justice and dignity on behalf of others.

Rosa Angelelli, a Sicilian immigrant brought to West Virginia by her husband Mario, voices a number of short sections in the novel. Desperately homesick, she works as a housekeeper for a wealthy mine operator whose butterfly collection both intrigues and troubles her. Rosa suffers tremendous loss because of the mine, and her fate as depicted by Giardina is genuinely heartbreaking.

Carrie Bishop, whose home is in Kentucky, is a bold and free-thinking girl who as a woman becomes a nurse in a mining town, and she comes to dominate the novel with her compelling voice and story. Hopelessly in love with Rondal Lloyd, and appalled at what she sees of the miners’ conditions, she joins the dangerous, clandestine struggle to bring the United Mine Workers to Justice County. Carrie’s brother Miles, however, has become a representative of “the operators,” which confronts Carrie with conflicting loyalties and hard decisions.

Other notable characters in the novel include Talcott Lloyd, Rondal’s younger brother, who has fought in the Great War and become desensitized to violence, and Isom Justice, scion to Annadel’s wealthiest citizen, is an especially intriguing creation of Giardina’s. Not a miner himself, Isom nevertheless participates in the miners’ cause as a kind of adventure and comes to represent a certain type of middle class activist, individualistic and lacking in political principle and discipline. Albion Freeman, who loves and marries Carrie, is a gentle Hardshell Baptist preacher who does not believe in hell.

Storming Heaven is also peopled by the multi-ethnic miners, the blacks, Italians, Irish, Hungarians and Poles who live in their own impoverished enclaves and look askance at each other until the union movement brings them together, enlightening many of them. Finally, there are the “gun thugs,” the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency goons brought in by the operators to put down the miners’ attempts to organize. True to history, the Baldwin-Felts men in the novel beat, torture and murder suspected organizers. At one point a socialist organizer is thrown into an oven.

Giardina’s narrators, with the exception of Rosa, are highly reliable, Carrie, Rondal and C.J. each being particularly clear-eyed, honest and self-aware. While the novel might sacrifice something in the way of ironic complexity with such narrators, it gains more. The three speak straight and plain, and Giardina speaking through them allows no trace of sentimentality into these hard lives. Love is unpredictable, stubborn and inconvenient as well as beautiful. Fear and spite are given their due, and the thirst for justice is a burning, immediate need.

Logan County Sheriff’s deputies during the battle of Blair Mountain

Giardina also has a keen eye for observation and an excellent writer’s touch. Here is a passage from Carrie, describing Justice town where she goes to nursing school:

In Justice town, the houses stabbed pillars of stone and wood into the flesh of the hillside and clung there like a swarm of mosquitoes.

With such crystalline sentences she shows us mining towns and verdant hills, one-room homes, coal tipples, box cars and flat cars and the simple dress of the mining families. One element almost absent from Storming Heaven, however, is the mines themselves. We go down in a mine only twice, early in the novel and briefly each time. Nevertheless, Giardina shows us enough in these scenes to establish vividly the inhuman conditions and mortal danger of the work.

Realizing that any hopes they have of improving their lot will depend on their forcing the coal operators to back down, the miners begin to arm themselves. Led by C.J. Marcum and Doc Booker, a contingent of deputized miners declare their town “Free Annadel.” When Baldwin-Felts gun thugs arrive on the train, Isom Justice, who has been made chief of police, attempts to arrest them. What ensues is Giardina’s fictionalized treatment of the 1920 Matewan Massacre. In Storming Heaven, as in the actual event, two brothers of the co-founder of the agency, Thomas Felts, are killed. One was shot by the actual police chief, Sid Hatfield, who became a hero among mining families.

The miners strike and are immediately turned out of their homes. Scabs are brought in to work the mines, and the striking miners set up a tent city. Giardina conveys the boredom, frustration and discomfort of life in the tents, and with the coming of winter she portrays the horror the miners endured.

The final section of the novel brings the characters to the Battle of Blair Mountain, in Logan County, where over 10,000 armed miners assembled to confront Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin’s force of approximately 2,000 “deputies.” The WSWS in September 2021 featured 100 years since the Battle of Blair Mountain, which made this important point:

What dominated the march on Logan was a spirit of class solidarity, regardless of race or nationality. They marched wearing red bandanas tied around their necks to distinguish themselves from the gun thugs, who tied white handkerchiefs to their arms. The red bandanas, no doubt associated in the minds of the miners and mine owners with revolution and socialism, ironically became the source of the term “redneck,” later used to disparage Appalachian workers as ignorant and backward.

Giardina is careful to portray the leading role socialists played in organizing the miners, though she does not discriminate among those in the novel who call themselves socialists where such discrimination would be useful. For instance, some who identified themselves as socialists among the West Virginia miners in fact subscribed to a nationalism that supported the US intervention in World War I. Then as now, the term “socialism” tended to be eclectically used and abused.

Nonetheless, from Doc Booker to C.J. and Rondal, it is the socialists in the novel who take the initiative in the struggle to organize the miners. A point Giardina seems to want to emphasize is that the miners in the Coal Wars of the early 20th century were both militant and class-conscious.

Ultimately, the miners were defeated, both because Sheriff Chafin had planes drop bombs of explosives and poison gas left over from World War I on the miners and because President Warren G. Harding sent in federal troops. At the end of the novel, characters are left with a sense of waiting for a day that has still not arrived.

At 35, as a picture of the ferocity of the class struggle in the US, Storming Heaven is as compelling as ever. In Alabama, miners at Warrior Met have been on strike for 11 months for better wages and work schedules. The miners belong to the United Mine Workers of America, the same union the miners at Blair Mountain fought and died to join a hundred years ago. Today, the UMWA, with only a fraction of its former membership, is an extension of the company and the government, operating to prevent strikes and, when workers’ determination makes strikes impossible to prevent, as in the case at Warrior Met, to isolate and sabotage them.

Denise Giardina, an American Book Award winner, was born in Bluefield, West Virginia in 1951 and grew up in a small coal mining town in McDowell County. She attended West Virginia Wesleyan College and the Virginia Theological Seminary. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, she “is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church.”

Storming Heaven was her second novel, and it was followed by another set in the coalfields, Unquiet Earth (1992), which treats the period from the 1930s to the 1990s.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia also describes Giardina as “a political activist” who “participated in and wrote about Appalachian labor-capital conflicts of her day, including the A.T. Massey (mid-1980s) and Pittston (1989–90) coal strikes.” In 2000, she ran for governor of West Virginia as the candidate of the Mountain Party, the state’s affiliate of the national Green Party, highlighting environmental issues in particular. She was also once a campaign volunteer and Congressional aide for Democratic Rep. Bob Wise (later West Virginia governor).

Mass picket of coal miners during the A.T. Massey strike of 1984-85 — UMWA president Trichard Trumka’s betrayal of this strike paved the way for a wave of union-busting and state violence against the miners.

Both the AT Massey and Pittston strikes were sold out by the UMWA. In the former strike, five miners were framed up and sentenced to decades in prison. In 2010, the WSWS noted that the union’s betrayal of the A.T. Massey strike “set the stage for a wave of violent union-busting, frameups and the murders of militant miners over the next decade. Time and time again, from the 1989 Pittston strike, to the frame-up of the Milburn miners, to the 1990 murder of former A.T. Massey miner John McCoy, to the 1994 frameup of striker Jerry Dale Lowe, the pattern was the same—the UMWA left its members defenseless and collaborated with management and the state authorities against them.”

Giardina’s novel is artistically and socially valuable and moving as a presentation of the class struggle in the early 20th century. Readers of Storming Heaven will be drawn into the lives of the characters and inspired by the courage of the miners. They must look up from the book, though, and see that the unions that coal miners and others fought to build in the early 20th century no longer exist as workers’ organizations.

Moreover, the crisis of American and global capitalism is profound and systemic, demanding new types of organization and a socialist and internationalist perspective. If the novel’s rose-colored view of militant trade unionism and elemental solidarity was made into a program and applied to present conditions, it would prove wholly inadequate.

Vitalis, Robert. 2020. Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunts U.S. Energy Policy. Stanford University Press; pp. ‎ 240 pages; Paperback: $22.00; Hardcover: $22.47; ISBN-10 :1503632598; ISBN-13: 978-1503632592

The premise of Vitalis’ book is that oil cannot be the bloodline of the U.S. economy, least of all, of U.S. national security. There are several minerals (a little over seventy) which the industrial world badly needs a constant and secured supply of and which civilization itself cannot do without, but they are not treated as important as oil. Such a state of affairs serves us in questioning contents spread by news cartels! At least, the average observer has never heard that this or that country has waged war or is willing to wage one to ensure reliable shipments of aluminium or copper. What is it so special, then, with oil? Precisely, what is at stake when it comes to oil?

According to Vitalis, oil is less the story of oil, the crude matter, and more the story of cooked data and produced-under-demand type of evidence. Powerful interest groups and lobbies inside the U.S. corridors of power steer such data and evidence toward selling the myth which nearly all people are born to embrace as self-evident. Indeed, the fear of failing to ensure a constant supply of oil (and strangely only) from the Persian Gulf is supposed to spell a trauma. The myth sits on another no less powerful and enduring myth. Both science and reason ensure that there has never been a dwindling supply of oil or any other natural resources. As technology advances, enough reserves of all types of minerals are constantly discovered. The only way to free the U.S. democracy, nay, the very political system and ensure a solid role model for the rest of the world is to shed off these myths. They cripple U.S. policy planners and ruin the U.S. reputation in the world.  
The book comprises five chapters wherein the first serves as an introduction and the last as a conclusion. Chapter One “Opening” sets the stage for revisiting President Bush’s conquest of Iraq in 2003. Since both then and now, the argument goes that the U.S. acted on behalf of large Oil conglomerates. If so, Vitalis rebuts. The proper and easiest way for the U.S. to access that oil was to lift its own 1990s sanctions on Iraqi exports. Like this, oil companies would have entered the market and the problem resolved. Besides, with the rise of prices in the early 2000s, the abundance of hydraulically-fractioned oil has made the U.S. a major producer of oil itself. The U.S. import of oil from the Middle East is around 18 per cent.
Nevertheless, “Junk social science” (p. 5) keeps the scary narrative aflame. In a context where luminaries and public intellectuals are fixated on their myth of ‘oil-as-power’, the term ‘oilcraft’ recalls witchcraft more than statecraft. Vitalis’ analogy is a call towards dispelling confusion and talismanic obsession by promoting a rationalized understanding of decisions about energy policy. When the only evidence ‘junk’ social scientists provide is the rising of prices, then one comes face to face with what Roger Stern ably calls ‘oil-scarcity ideology’ (p. 6). Vitalis stresses the method whereby every statement we encounter in the archive should be taken with a grain of salt.
To counter such an erroneous methodology, he proposes that readers must not overlook three facts: 1- the world is rich in minerals; anyone has access to raw materials. The possibility of oil-as-weapon is at best incorrect and a ‘chimaera’ (p. 14). Instead of embracing the confirmation bias, the abondance should incentivize us to question what lies beyond the phenomenal; 2- the imagined threats to oil supply—even when real—cannot be addressed militarily; 3- oil prices are dependent on other raw materials. A simple comparison of oil prices against other minerals in the long durée—as Roger Stern does—will conclude that oil cannot be the lifeblood of the American way of life.     
Chapter Two, “Raw Materialism”, posits that the idea of a single source being of critical importance for a given national economy is reductionist at best and misleading at worse. Vitalis brings to evidence proponents of the early twentieth century Columbia School (scholars like Edward Mead Earle and William S. Culbertson) wherein the latter notes that U.S. policy since 1918 has been rooted in “bogeys” ranging from rapid depletion of natural resources to British monopoly of these resources (pp. 26-7). Back then, like now, there existed an industry behind the studies fueling these bogeys, infuriating the public and policymakers alike about such imagined threats. Vitalis finds that the idea of ” ‘control’ of foreign oil fields” (p. 29) becoming a priority for the U.S. economy has been sown in Americans’ unconscious fairly recently, during the 1990s. Culbertson finds that wars do not emerge from the need to control or ensure extended supplies of raw materials but from the need for markets to commercialize industrialized commodities. (p. 32) That is how embracing mid-nineteen century protectionism triggers bouts of scarcity syndrome. But a generation or two later, these findings made during the 1920s were all forgotten. The Cold War context made it more likely that the Soviets could threaten U.S. access to Middle East oil. Vitalis adds that even Noam Chomsky falls into confirmation bias wherein “the progressives of the 1970s were a pale imitation of their 1920s ancestors.” (p. 55) as they just kept parroting criticism of American foreign policy without registering the immanent discourse on oil or where that criticism might be heading.
Chapter Three, “1973: A Time to Confuse”, rereads the much-mediated event of October 17, 1973, or the alleged OPEC oil embargo. Upon checking the evidence, Vitalis finds the event was anything but a spectacle. Under no stretch of the imagination, the event can be seriously called or even approximated to a threat of cutting supplies, let alone an embargo. Back then, “only 7 per cent of U.S. oil imports originated from the Middle East” (p. 57). Besides, Arab nationalists only expressed a half-hearted and face-saving gesture in the wake of their humiliating defeat against Isarel in June 1967—gestures meant for popular consumption at home only.
Nevertheless, the scarcity-thesis driven by media and the cult of trusting experts and intellectuals for gaining monopoly made it look as if scarcity is imminent and can usher at the end of the world. Vitalis discusses the five hundred pages report by David S. Freeman’s A Time to Choose, released when Americans were experiencing long lines in gas stations. The report makes it super easy to jump to the conclusion that the long queues were a reverberation from the much-publicized shock that spelt serious disruptions of supply and all presumably orchestrated by the Arab Embargo. In reality, though, OPEC “sought a fairer share of the windfall.” (p. 64) In its effort to protect local crude producers from the effects of the unstable market, the U.S. government used a preferential tariff with local crude producers. However, the Nixon Administration decided in 1971 to reverse the preferential tariff policy and open the U.S. market to non-American producers. This new policy, not OPEC’s action, explain the interruption in supply and long queues; the embargo was only a surrogate. Far from disrupting supply, Arabs were terrified of losing their market shares.
Chapter Four, “No Deal”, elaborates on the motoring principle behind the myth that stipulates the invisibility of oil for the American policymaker. It is the key chapter as it uncovers the motive behind portraying oil as the bloodline of the American economy. Vitalis notes that this myth could not become as intense as now without the fantasy-embraced-as-history. Given their nefarious stature in consequence of 9/11, the Saudis, or Al Saud, more exactly: the ruling oligarchs of Saudi Arabia, have invested heavily to paint themselves as peace-loving and reliable suppliers of oil for the U.S. economy. They invented a genesis for a presumed memorandum of understanding or a deal between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt on board the destroyer U.S.S. Qunicy near the end of World War II. The presumed deal which the author finds no trace in the archives or the records hypothetically listed that the Saudis will ensure reliable shipments of crude and the U.S., on its part, will guarantee the protection of the king and his dynasty after him. Vitalis adds: “The only problem is that no account of U.S.-Saudi relation for the next fifty years said any such thing.” (p. 87), underscoring a situation that leads anyone to conclude that “The Saudis, the P.R. firms, and their many friends in Washington would milk the meeting with F.D.R. for all it was worth after 2001”. (p. 91) Indeed, Vitalis is aware that this Saudi fabrication counts among the latest in the arsenal of forgeries specifying the invisibility of oil. Differently put, the deceit and the fable could not go unnoticed without interest groups at home. These interest groups profit from recycling oil dollars in the U.S. economy through purchases of U.S. treasury bonds, consumer goods and, of course, armament bills with astronomical price tags attached to them. That is how it is for the long-term interest of the U.S. to distance itself from a retrogressive and degenerate monarchy. That proximity does considerable damage to the status of the U.S. as a superpower. The crumbling of the Saudis’ rule will be an event that will boost, not hinder, U.S. supremacy or at least its leadership credentials.
Chapter Five, “Breaking the Spell”, concludes Oilcraft by reclaiming each chapter’s key pieces of the argument. Vialis starts with underlying that “[p]opular and scholarly beliefs about oil-as-power also have no basis in fact” (p. 122). But the irony that the myth posits is that policymakers who sincerely want to break from this fixation can do little to break the immanent structure whereby oil is received as invisible. The assumptions are that powerful that any attempt to go against them ends in discrediting, if not ridiculing, the credible policymaker. Hence, the first step of leaving that fixation starts with getting the scholarship correct, never allowing unchecked opinions to go for knowledge. Knowledge starts by first making sure that crude producers have no choice but to sell their outputs. Before harming the U.S. economy, cutting supplies will strangle their economies and destabilize their hold on power. Second, one needs to be certain that besides the fact that deploying an army to protect crude supplies cannot be tenable and efficient, the deployment itself raises tensions and causes supply interruptions. Third, the Middle East is a volatile space, and it does not behove a superpower to be constantly dragged into the mess out there. Fourth, by the same depleted logic of scarcity, why does not the U.S. go and chase bauxite, tungsten, tin, rubber lest other powers appropriate them? Fifth, there lies the fallacy with which the degenerate left sells its credentials: as soon as the U.S. steps out of the Middle East, “the fossil-capital-led order” will fall all on its own hence an era of plenitude automatically emerge. In the end, Vitalis notes that “Oilcraft today [has] hijack[ed] the mind of the scientifically literate” (p.128), speaking less of the average person whereby oil passes as an explanation for almost every that is wrong with the world today. Sixth, Saudis’ money should not be allowed to finance studies. Funding (Vitalis rightly calls it “the paid-to-think-tanks” p. 131) will only bring about pseudo-science whose consequences are more confusion and befogged policies, but the propaganda which the funding generates will cover for the asphyxiation of liberties in the Middle East and the world at large. In the end, Vitalis rightly addresses the U.S. policymaker: “why fear an Arabia without Sultans?” (p. 133)
Vitalis finds that well-intentioned and respectful policymakers and advisers stay disabled in the face of the enduring myths. Over the decades, these myths have taken a larger dimension than life. He is correct that the journey to undo their effect starts with unbiased research. But there are instances where Vitalis’ reliance on Posen’s suspicion of the ideology that oil is all but powerful recalls the theory that colonies cost metropolitan centres more than what the latter could squeeze value out of them. But his subsequent elaboration that correlation does not necessarily lead to causation lifts the confusion.
Perhaps what remains missing in Vitalis’ discussion of Columbia scholars’ findings of the 1920s regarding those in favour of open trade and their opponents is how during the time where capital expansion needed nationalism, oil was treated (and for good reasons) as the lifeblood. Vitalis indirectly calls for updating sedimented thinking since capitalistic growth since the 1920s (exactly after WWI) is not conditioned on the old mystique view of oil-as-bloodline, given the abundance of supply. Producers cannot afford to withdraw crude from buyers lest they risk losing their share in a highly competitive market. Similarly, no major power can hinder access to oil because oil remains evenly available everywhere.
At play, there have been two temporalities of capital accumulation, not one: formal and real dominations. The two temporalities explain why Moon notes the necessity (which is, in fact, Karl Marx’s) that animate these temporalties wherein occupying a colony becomes financially inhibitive after WWI. Self-less or anonymous capital is self-regulating at an advanced stage of primitive accumulation. Differently put, during the era of real domination (post-1918), there cannot be a need for a class of bourgeois pioneers to intervene. That explains why the bourgeois class has disappeared. In its place, there emerged a capitalistic class who controlled nothing yet. They pretend they are in charge of managers/administrators (C.E.O.s) appointed by shareholders to speak on behalf of the latter interest. Hence in this context, we read of Parker T. Moon’s quote where “raw materials are colour-blind.” (p. 36) and that colonies are a burden to maintain.
Likewise, Vitalis’ analysis in Chapter Four dwells on the corruption of the Saudis, and their dizzying pace of change ‘from camels to Cadilliacs’ (p. 95) paid for by oil rent may sound racist stays inconsequential in the overreaching impact of oil wealth. For that, oil wealth decides less their conservative outlook but more significantly intensifies their adamant predisposition against the founding of the semblance of an egalitarian polity all over the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region. The counter-revolution that quelled the uprisings of the Arab Spring both in 2011 and 2019 have been fueled and financed by their medieval outlook. On the aside, Vitalis notes that with recycled petrodollars, the Saudi acquired F-15 jets that have been since March 2015 bombing civilians in Yemen. But he could have pushed his liberal outlook a little further by noting that worse than the F-15s lies the regressive and ultra-conservative brand of the faith whose sole agenda appears to be the crashing all social movements that promised to propagate towards a lifestyle free from the dictatorship of oil.      
Overall, there are instances where Vitalis’ debunking of myths such as ‘oil-as-power’ falls into the right, and there are other instances where the same debunking falls more into the left. Still, sometimes he can be counted even as a devout communist. But the undecidability of classification is the quality of great scholarship, where he passionately elucidates his points regardless of class or ideology. Indeed, Vitalis embraces his mission to eradicate facile portrayals because masquerading beneath so-called ‘self-evident conclusions’ lies not only the perpetuation of mistaken decisions but the squandering of the U.S. taxpayers’ savings as well subaltern of the MENA chances for a future in dignity.   
 
Fouad Mami
Université d’Adrar (Algeria)
ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524
fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz

 

Historians capitulate to war propaganda over Ukraine

David North@davidnorthwsws

Mar. 4 2022

This article was initially posted as a thread on Twitter. It is a guest article by David North. The original article can be seen at www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/03/04/acad-m04.html

The war is having a devastating impact on historians. There are entirely principled and leftwing grounds upon which the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be opposed and which do not require adapting to the US-NATO coverup of fascism in Ukraine’s past and present. But, unfortunately, even historians who have written major works on the fascist Stepan Bandera, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) are renouncing their own scholarship to suit the needs of the US-NATO propaganda campaign.

The “Statement on Ukraine by scholars of genocide, Nazism and WWII” is a disgraceful example of the intellectual and moral capitulation of significant segments of the academic community to the demands for historical falsification.

The statement begins with reference to World War II, bizarrely attacking Putin for being “obsessed with the history of that war,” as if it is abnormal for a Russian president to be “obsessed” with a catastrophe that cost the lives of approximately 30 million Soviet citizens.

One must assume that the statement’s signatories, who have devoted their professional lives to the study of genocide, are also “obsessed with the history of that war,” whose central event was the Holocaust in which Bandera and OUN-B played a critical role. The statement’s signatories declare: “We do not idealize the Ukrainian state and society. Like any other country, it has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups. Ukraine also ought to better confront the darker chapters of its painful and complicated history.”In the context of its history, this statement is indeed an idealization of the Ukrainian state and society. Ukraine is not “like any other country” which has “right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups.”

Supporters of far-right parties carry torches and banner with a portrait of Stepan Bandera reads ‘Nothing was stopped the idea when its time comes’ during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)As the historians know, despite the horrific genocidal crimes committed by the OUN, under the leadership of their “Providnyk” (fuehrer) Stepan Bandera, the legacy of the fascist nationalists continues to exert an immense political and cultural influence in Ukraine.

Among the statement’s signatories is the historian Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, who is the author of an important 652-page scholarly work, titled Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist—Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. Rossoliński-Liebe’s book, Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist – Fascism, Genocide, and Cult. This book not only documents the crimes committed by Bandera’s movement. Rossoliński-Liebe also examined his cult-like status among broad segments of contemporary Ukrainian society.

In the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, he writes: “Many monuments devoted to the victims of the Ukrainian nationalists or to heroes of the Soviet Union were replaced with monuments devoted to Bandera and the OUN and UPA’ heroes.'”Bandera and Ukrainian revolutionary nationalists again became important elements of western Ukrainian identity.

“Not only far-right activists but also the mainstream of western Ukrainian society, including high-school teachers and university professors, considered Bandera to be a national hero… whose memory should be honoured for his struggle against the Soviet Union.” Rossoliński-Liebe made the following significant and troubling observation: “The post-Soviet memory politics in Ukraine completely ignored democratic values and did not develop any kind of non-apologetic approach to history.” How is this damning commentary on the post-Soviet intellectual life of Ukraine reconciled with the statement’s cynical and historically apologetic reference to “independent and democratic Ukraine”? Rossoliński-Liebe also called attention to the significant international connections forged by Bandera’s followers with the United States and other imperialist powers during the Cold War.

Iaroslav Stets’ko, who “had written letters to the Fuhrer, the Duce, the Poglavnik [the top Croatian Nazi], and the Caudillo [Franco], asking them to accept the newly proclaimed Ukrainian state, was in 1966 designated an honorary citizen of the Canadian city of Winnipeg.” The historian continues: “In 1983 he was invited to the Capitol and the White House, where George Bush and Ronald Reagan received the ‘last premier of a free Ukrainian state,'” i.e., which had existed under the control of the Third Reich. “On Jul. 11 1982,” recalls Rossoliński-Liebe, “during Captive Nations Week, the red-and-black flag of the OUN-B, introduced at the Second Great Congress of the Ukrainian Nationalists in 1941, flew over the United States Capitol.

“It symbolized freedom and democracy, not ethnic purity and genocidal fascism. Nobody understood that it was the same flag that had flown from the Lviv city hall and other buildings, under which Jewish civilians were mistreated and killed in July 1941…”

Given the history of Ukrainian fascism and its truly sordid contemporary significance, the apologetics in which the historians are engaged is as contemptible as it is cowardly. The Russian government is engaged in its own propaganda-style falsification of history, which must be exposed. Putin—a bitter opponent of the internationalism of the October Revolution—counterpoises Russian nationalism to Ukrainian nationalism. The competing nationalist narratives must be exposed—in the interests of uniting Russian and Ukrainian workers in a common struggle against the US-NATO imperialists, their fascist allies within Ukraine, and corrupt regime of capitalist restoration in Russia.

David North has played a leading role in the international socialist movement for 45 years. He is presently the chairperson of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site and the national chairperson of the Socialist Equality Party (United States).

The Great Post Office Scandal: The fight to expose a multimillion-pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail by Nick Wallis, Bath Publishing, £25 544 pages

‘I WANT someone tried and jailed like I was, then I am settled,’

Harjinder Butoy,[1]

‘All who were convicted following a trial had grim punishments imposed upon them, including in some cases immediate sentences of imprisonment. Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute.’Reputations were destroyed, not least because the crimes of which the men and women were convicted – theft, fraud, and false accounting – all involved acting dishonestly. People who were an important, respected and integral part of the local community that they served were in some cases shunned.

Jason Beer QC

Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.

—Balzac

The Great Post Office Scandal, a door stopper of a book weighing in at 544 pages, catalogues at great length the numerous campaigns and legal cases that finally made the Post Office admit there was the elephant in the room. Post Office executives spared no cost in defending their position of prosecuting innocent people for crimes they did not commit.

Nick Wallis’s book highlights the shocking and criminal actions of the Post Office, who deliberately prosecuted Postmasters and Postmistresses despite knowing full well that their Horizon computer system was faulty. The Post Office bosses jailed, ruined the lives of and caused the suicides of many people in a manner that would not look out of place in a Nazi courtroom.

As Rory Cellan-Jones said in his review, “hundreds of sub-postmasters have had their reputations besmirched, their livelihood and liberty taken away and been sent into a spiral of depression that has in one instance ended in suicide, all because of a misplaced faith in the wisdom of computers”.[2]

In 1999 The Post Office introduced a computer system called Horizon designed by Japans Fujitsu. It sought to revolutionise how Post Offices worked, but in reality, it produced a nightmare that made Dante’s Inferno look like a tea party.

During the four years after its introduction, the system miraculously began to find incredible levels of fraud. Instead of investigating whether the system was malfunctioning, the Post Office went to extraordinary lengths not only to cover up the fault but by 2014 had 736 people prosecuted. Both the Post Office and Fujitsu lied through their teeth to protect a malfunctioning computer system, even denying that Fujitsu employees had any power to intervene with branch transactions. The Post Office deliberately withheld evidence that prevented workers from having a fair trial.

The book is meticulously researched and well written. Wallis’s tenacity in pursuing the Post Office is a sight to behold. The book is an engrossing account of how the Post Office was forced to admit that it deliberately ignored and covered up Horizon’s malfunction. The Post Office’s hands are dripping with the blood of many workers.

Wallis did not break the story, but he was one of the few brave souls to break the wall of silence surrounding the scandal. Initially contacted by Davinder Misra, the husband of Seema, who was pregnant and in prison. She was accused of a shortfall in her account of £74,000, and was jailed for 15 months for theft.

Trade Union and Labour Bureaucracy

The reason the Post Office could jail people like Seema and many more is down to the fact that the Labour and Trade union bureaucracy never lifted a finger to stop it. At no stage did the unions involved either the Subpostmasters trade union or the CWU(CommunicationWorkers Union) call for strike action to prevent people from being jailed for crimes they did not commit. At no stage did the CWU expose the rotten Labour governments that presided over this miscarriage of justice on a grand scale.

This crime against the working class began under the Blair-Brown Labour governments. Gordon Brown became PM of the Labour government on 27th June 2007.

The union bureaucrats of the CWU fully shared the essential thrust of Blair and Brown’s right-wing policies. They shared Labour’s pro-business agenda, which included allowing innocent workers to be jailed and ruined by a Government-owned company without lifting a finger to help.

Conclusion

The Great Post Office Scandal is not an easy read, not just because it is too heavy. I hope it gets a wide readership. Wallis will donate money from the sales to fund the court cases still to be undertaken. Aside from that, it is an important book. It is conversational and contains many interesting vignettes, sometimes making it read like a crime novel.

The book works on many levels. It is attractive for the general reader, and academics will find much that interests them. From a legal standpoint, many lawyers will find this a goldmine.

While this scandal could be compared with other crimes against the working class like Enron, Theranos, Wirecard that has devastated so many lives in the pursuit of profit, it would be a mistake to believe that the Post Office is just a bad apple in an otherwise healthy basket. The decisive question that is not raised in the book, let alone answered, is what driving forces within the capitalist economy could have led to the situation where The Post Office could pursue and jail innocent people and act with impunity.

What was the role of the Labour and Trade Union bureaucracy in allowing the Post Office to act with such impunity? The answer to these questions will not be found in the book or in the current enquiry, which will be another will be a whitewash.

Why has no Post Office executive has been held personally accountable, let alone jailed? The Post Office Chair and CEO are still in their jobs, and the previous CEO, Paula Vennells, was given a CBE and a cushy job as Chair of Imperial College NHS Trust. CEO Paula Vennells was given a £5 million golden handshake and a CBE for “services to the Post Office and charity”. Workers must reject this phoney enquiry and must demand a worker’s inquiry.


[1] Harjinder Butoy was given the longest prison sentence at three years and four months, was wrongly convicted and jailed for stealing £208,000.

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/77a3b8cd-26f1-4328-b226-84200fc14808

Book Review: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein. New York, One World, 2021.

(A guest article from the writer and historian Tom Mackaman. The original article can be found@www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/02/21/proj-f21.html)

An old idiom advises to never judge a book by its cover. Yet the front cover of the recently released book version of the New York Times’ 1619 Project speaks as much in a few short words as the following 600 pages of text. The Project, the over title reads, is “A New Origin Story,” which has been “Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones.” The dust jacket flap adds a touch of clairvoyance, explaining that the volume “offers a profoundly revealing vision of the American past and present.”

The Times, which wishes readers to take the 1619 Project seriously as a “reframing of American history,” has said more than it intended.Origin stories lie in the realm of myth, not history. Premodern societies produced, but did not “create,” origin stories. They were the work of whole cultures, emerging out of oral traditions that first humanized nature and then naturalized social relations. But in modern times, origin stories have indeed been created. Closely linked with nationalism in politics and irrationalism in philosophy, origin stories aim to fuse groups of people by lifting “the race” above the material class relations of history. Indeed, from the racialist vantage point, history is merely “the emanation of the race,” as Trotsky put it in words he aimed at Nazi racial mythmaking, but that serve just as well to indict the 1619 Project, which sorts actors in history into two categories: “white people” and “Black people,” and deduces motive and action from this a priori racial classification. [1]

That the 1619 Project was a racialist falsification of history was the central criticism the World Socialist Web Site leveled at it immediately after its release in August 2019, timing ostensibly chosen to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia 400 years earlier. All of the 1619 Project’s errors, distortions, and omissions—its insinuation that slavery was a uniquely American “original sin”; its claim that the American Revolution was a counterrevolution launched to defend slavery against British abolition; its selective use of quotes to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a racist indifferent to slavery; its censoring of the interracial character of the abolitionist, civil rights, and labor movements; its insistence that all present social problems are the fruit of slavery; its stance that historians had ignored slavery—all of this flowed from the Times’ singular effort to impose a racial myth on the past, the better to “to teach our readers to think a little bit more” in the racial way, in the leaked words of Times editor Dean Baquet. [2] 

The exposure of the 1619 Project by the WSWS, and by leading historians it interviewed, has never been met forthrightly by the Times. Instead, Hannah-Jones, the Project’s journalist-celebrity “creator,” egged on race-baiting and red-baiting social media attacks against critics, while New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein demeaned them on the pages of the Times as jealous careerists, even as he surreptitiously altered the Project. All the while, backers of the 1619 Project said, “Just wait for the book. It will erase all doubts.” This drumroll lasted for two years.The mountains have labored and brought forth a mouse.

The central achievement of the book version of the 1619 Project, released in December, appears to be that it is bigger. Weighing in at two pounds and costing $23, it is probably ten times heavier than the magazine given out free by the thousands, errors and all, to cash-strapped public schools. Unfortunately for the Times, the added weight lends no new gravitas to the content, which, in spite of all the lofty rhetoric about “finally telling the truth,” “new narratives,” and “reframing,” remains unoriginal to the point of banality. The book does not inch much beyond the warmed-over racial essentialism that has long been the stock-in-trade of right-wing black nationalism, and which has always had a special purchase on the guilt feelings of wealthy liberals. The late Ebony editor, Lerone Bennett, Jr., remains unmistakably the dominant intellectual influence on Hannah-Jones and the entire project. [3]

The Times has spared no expense to keep afloat its flagship project. This much shows. The volume is handsomely presented. The book’s 18 chapters include seven new historical essays, interspersed with 36 poems and short stories, as well as 18 photographs. If anything justifies the book, it is these photographs, which alone among the contents manage to convey something truthful about American society. Yet, in their artistic depiction of everyday black men, women, and children, the photographs actually express the commonness of humanity, contradicting the 1619 Project’ racialist aims.

The rest of the volume, the poetry and fiction included, bears the fatal marks of the racialist perspective. What emerges is an even darker and more unyielding interpretation of race in America than that which came across in the magazine. The book is replete with blatantly anti-historical passages, such as: “There has never been a time in United States history when Black rebellions did not spark existential fear among white people …” (p. 101); “In the eyes of white people, Black criminality was broadly defined” (p. 281.) One could go on. Every contributor engages in this sort of crude racial reductionism. There are no immigrants, Asians, Jews, Catholics, or Muslims, and only a few pages on Native Americans. The 1619 Project sees only “white Americans” and “black Americans.” And these monoliths, undivided by class or any other material factor, had already appeared in colonial Virginia in 1619 in their present form, prepared to act out their racially defined destinies.

A new preface by Hannah-Jones attempts to motivate the book by noting that Americans know little about slavery. She points to a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found only 8 percent of high school students can cite slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. This statistic is not surprising. It would also not be surprising to learn that less than 8 percent of recent high school graduates know, even roughly, when the Vietnam War happened, or whether The Great Gatsby is a novel or a submarine sandwich. This is not the fault of students or of teachers. The public schools have been starved of funding by Republicans and Democrats alike. History and art have been especially savaged in favor of supposedly more practical “funding priorities.”

In any case, the 1619 Project will help no one understand why the Civil War happened. The book’s overriding theme is that all “white Americans” were (and are still) the beneficiaries of slavery. This makes the Civil War incomprehensible. Why was the country split apart in 1861? Why did it wage a bloody war over the next four years, fighting battles whose death tolls stunned the world? Why did 50,000 men fall dead or maimed at Gettysburg in the first three days of July 1863, a half year after Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation? Historian James McPherson, in works such as Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and For Cause and Comrades, answers these questions. The 1619 Project cannot.

The 1619 Project’s denial of slavery’s role in the Civil War is probably clearest in the essays by Matthew Desmond, Martha S. Jones, and Ibram Kendi. Desmond’s essay, “Capitalism,” which appeared in the original version and now reappears in slightly longer form, argues that Southern slavery was the dynamic part of the antebellum economy, and that the wealth generated from it also built Northern capitalism. Desmond has it backwards. The demand for cotton in the North, and especially in Great Britain—a demand itself contingent on capitalist economic growth—gave a new impulse to Southern slavery, and not the other way around. When the slave masters seceded and launched the Civil War, among their miscalculations was to overestimate their worth in the global economy, an error Desmond repeats.

Over the years of 1861-1865 the Southern planters were destroyed as a class. Yet their clients in Britain and the North found new sources of cotton and emerged still richer. Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, was brought on by the 1619 Project to pay some attention to economics. But he winds up denying a material cause and a material effect of the Civil War. Desmond’s theory cannot explain why the war happened, why the North defeated the supposedly more advanced slave South, and why it is that today we live in a world dominated by the exploitation of wage workers, and not chattel slaves.

In her essay, entitled “Citizenship,” Martha S. Jones reduces the antebellum struggle for equality to the activity of the small free black population in the North, focusing on the Colored Conventions movement that began in 1830. She simply writes out of existence the abolitionist movement, which was majority white and eventually reached even into small towns across the North. The abolitionist movement was undoubtedly a major political factor in the expansion of civil rights to free blacks—ostensibly Jones’ subject—and in the coming of the Civil War, ultimately fusing with the anti-slavery Republican Party through figures such as Frederick Douglass. This counts for little to Jones and historians like her. They erect a wall between agitation against slavery, which they dismiss as mere cover for white racial interest, and what they call “anti-racism,” a contemporary moral-political posture they impose on history. “White Americans” of the past, even the most dedicated and egalitarian opponents of slavery, can never pass muster before these examiners.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879

This “immense condescension of posterity,” to borrow a phrase from the late English historian E.P. Thompson, reaches new depths in the essay by Kendi, whose career as an “anti-racist” has been so challenging to the powers-that-be that he has been showered with millions of dollars by the “white institutions” of the publishing, academic, and corporate endowment worlds. Kendi thinks he has discovered that the pioneering abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a patronizing hypocrite who “actually reinforced racism and slavery” (p. 430). No one in Garrison’s time, neither friend nor enemy, thought so. It should be recalled that Garrison was himself nearly lynched by a racist mob in 1835. Frederick Douglass, in his beautiful eulogy delivered in 1879, said that Garrison moved not with the tide, but against it. He rose not by the power of the Church or the State, but in bold, inflexible and defiant opposition to the mighty power of both. It was the glory of this man that he could stand alone with the truth, and calmly await the result… [L]et us guard his memory as a precious inheritance, let us teach our children the story of his life.

After tarnishing the “precious inheritance” of Garrison, Kendi moves on to Lincoln. He rehashes the thoroughly debunked claim that the Emancipation Proclamation, the greatest revolutionary document in American history after the Declaration of Independence, was a mere military tactic. In Kendi’s way of seeing things, Lincoln’s order only made it “incumbent on Black people to emancipate themselves.” He goes on, “And that is precisely what they did, running away from enslavers to Union lines…” (p. 431).

Kendi does not seem to fathom that the Emancipation Proclamation made these men and women legally free when they ran to Union line, rather than runaway slaves with the property claims of their masters still operative. But then again, Kendi does not even ask himself what the Union army was doing in the South. His essay is called “Progress.” This must be meant ironically. Kendi sees no progress in history.

The bringing in of Jones, of Johns Hopkins University, and Kendi, of Boston University, is meant to clothe the 1619 Project in immense authority. A couple of other efforts have been made along these lines. Here too, a law of diminishing returns seems to have imposed itself on the Times.

Stung by criticism that she had no sources in the original publication, Hannah-Jones has plugged in, ex post facto, 94 endnotes to her “framing essay,” which the editors have now given the title “Democracy.” Not much else has changed from the original version, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in commentary—not history—for what the prize committee charitably called Hannah-Jones’ “highly personal” style. The new footnotes lead to many URLs as well as personal conversations with historians, including Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina, who has staked his professional reputation to the 1619 Project.

Sent in to provide authority, Holton is responsible for the most clamorous new error introduced into the present volume. Hannah-Jones quotes Holton as saying that the Dunmore Proclamation of November 7, 1775, a British offer of freedom to slaves of masters already in revolt, “ignited the turn to independence” for the Virginian founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (p. 16), supposedly because they feared losing their human property. Unfortunately for Holton, at that point Washington was already commanding the Continental Army in war, Jefferson had drafted his tract A Declaration of the Causes & Necessity for Taking Up Arms, and Madison, then only 24, had joined a revolutionary organ, the Orange County Virginia Committee of Safety.

This is not an innocent mistake. Holton and the 1619 Project get the sequence of events wrong to support another fiction: that the true, never-before-revealed (and undocumented!) motivation of the Founding Fathers in 1776 was to defend slavery. These are fatal errors. And yet there is a still larger issue. Whatever the individual motives of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—even if a single letter, article, or diary entry might one day be found from among their voluminous writings demonstrating that they “staked their lives and sacred honor” to defend slavery—in assessing the significance of the American Revolution much more than this must still be taken into consideration. Why was it that the great slaveless majority of colonists supported America’s second-bloodiest war for six long years? Why did thousands of free blacks enlist? And further, what was the relationship between the American Revolution and the Enlightenment, whose thought contemporaries believed that it embodied? What was its relationship to that which historian R.R. Palmer called “the age of the democratic revolution” that swept the Atlantic in its wake? What was its connection to the destruction of slavery in the US and elsewhere over the next century? How did it relate, ideologically, to subsequent anti-colonial struggles? An utter lack of curiosity about these and other critical questions characterizes the entire volume.

A few contributors manage to make certain valid historical points. Times columnist Jamelle Bouie provides treatment of the vociferous pro-slavery advocate, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina “who saw no difference between slavery and other forms of labor in the modern world” (p. 199). Khahlil Gibran Muhammad gives a useful survey of the sugar plantation system. But as a whole, and Bouie and Muhammad notwithstanding, the book’s various chapters are formulaic in the extreme. They identify present-day social, political, and cultural problems in exclusively racial terms, and then, each performing the same salto mortale, impose the present diagnosis on history.

Health care, the massive prison population, gun violence, obesity, traffic jams—these, and many more problems, the Times wishes us to believe, are rooted in “endemic” “anti-black racism” first imprinted in a national “DNA” in 1619. The Times, a multi-billion dollar corporation closely tied to Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, does not want readers to consider more obvious, and much more proximate, causes for America’s social and political ills—for example, the extreme polarization of wealth that has reduced 70 percent of the population to paycheck-to-paycheck existence, while the ranks of billionaires swell, their wealth doubling with astonishing frequency.

As it turns out, it is all about wealth, and more specifically, cash, as Hannah-Jones admits in a concluding essay: “[W]hat steals opportunities is the lack of wealth … the defining feature of Black life,” she writes (p. 456). This essay is entitled “Justice.” A call for race-based reparations for blacks—any individual who can show “documentation that he or she identified as a Black person for at least ten years….” (p. 472)—it originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine on June 30, 2020, under the title “What is Owed.”

“Lack of wealth” is not the defining feature of “black life” in America. It defines life for the vast majority of the American and world population. But Hannah-Jones is not calling for any sort of class redistribution of wealth. On the contrary, if her proposal were put into effect, the federal government, which has not authored a substantial social reform since the 1960s, would inevitably direct money away from the little that remains to support students, the poor, the sick, and the elderly of all races. The proceeds would go to blacks regardless of their wealth, including to people such as herself, for whom “lack of wealth” is not a “defining feature” of life. Only recently, for instance, Hannah-Jones charged a California community college $25,000 for a one-hour, virtual engagement—this being the charitable discount rate of her speaking fees.

In putting its imprimatur on a call for race-based reparations, the Times could not have come up with an “issue” more beneficial to the Trump-led Republican Party than if it had been dreamed up by Stephen Bannon himself. Hannah-Jones, of course, claims that her proposal is not meant to pit races against each other. She simply takes it for granted that “the races” have separate and opposed interests. On this, black nationalists and white supremacists have always agreed. Indeed, Hannah-Jones appears to be completely oblivious to the dangerous implications of “the federal government,” which would distribute the money, dividing Americans up by race (p. 472). The categorization of people into races by the state has been the starting point of some of history’s worst crimes—the Third Reich’s annihilation of Germany’s Jews being only the most horrific example.

The existence of chattel slavery is also one of history’s monumental crimes. But it was a crime in an unusual, premodern way. Slavery was inherited blindly, without questioning, from the colonial past. It was the most degraded status in a world where personal dependency and unfree labor were the rule, and not the exception—a world of serfdom, indentured servitude, penal labor, corvée, and peonage. The American Revolution, for the first time in world history, raised slavery up as a historical problem —in the sense that it could now be consciously identified as such, both because its existence was obnoxious to the revolution’s assertion of human equality and because slavery stood in contradistinction to “free” wage labor, which grew rapidly in its aftermath. These contradictions breathed life into various attempts to end slavery peacefully. Such efforts came to naught. In a cruel paradox, the growth of capitalism, and its insatiable demand for cotton, nurtured the development of what historians have called a “second slavery” in the antebellum. Historical problems as deep-rooted as slavery are not given to simple solutions.English convicts—men, women, and children—chained and bound for the colony for “terms of service”

Yet, “four score and seven years” later, the Civil War, the Second American Revolution, ended American slavery, hastening its demise in Brazil and Cuba as well. In the longue durée of slavery’s history, which reaches back to the ancient world, this is a remarkably compressed period. There are many people alive today who are 87 years old, a time span that separates us from 1935. That year, the high-water mark of the social reformism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Wagner Act was passed, securing the legal right for workers to form trade unions of their own choosing. The New Deal never did succeed in securing a national health care system, a relatively modest reform that has since been realized by many nations, but which has eluded the US for the intervening 87 years. By way of comparison, in the 87 years separating the Declaration of Independence from the Gettysburg Address, the United States destroyed slavery, an entire system of private property in man. It did so at a terrible cost. Lincoln was not far off when he said in his Second Inaugural Address that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” might be “paid by another drawn with the sword.” Some 700,000 Americans had already died when he said those words.

Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. He is visible in the upper left, hatless

Lincoln’s political genius lay in his unique capacity to link the enormous crisis of the Civil War to the American Revolution, and to the still larger question of human equality—that is, to extract from the maelstrom of events the true, the essential. He did this most famously at Gettysburg, when he explained that the war was a test of whether or not the founding principle “that all men are created equal … shall perish from the earth.” Lincoln knew well, as he put it in another speech, that “the occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion,” before quickly adding, “We cannot escape history.”

Our time is also “piled high with difficulty,” and we can no less escape history than those alive in the 1860s. Nearly 1 million Americans have now died in the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a global death toll of some 6 million, according to the official counting. There is a clear and present danger of war with nuclear-armed Russia and China. Social inequality has reached nearly unfathomable levels. Basic democratic principles are under assault. Manmade climate change threatens the ecology, and ultimately the habitability, of the planet. These are major historical problems, to say the least. It was once commonplace—and certainly not unique to Marxists, as Lincoln’s words show—to appreciate that major problems cannot even be understood, let alone acted upon, without an objective, truthful approach to history.

[1] “Leon Trotsky: What Is National Socialism? (1933).”

[2] “Inside the New York Times Town Hall.” Slate. Accessed February 8, 2022. 

[3] Hannah-Jones has repeatedly acknowledged Bennett’s influence. See Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago, Ill.: Johnson Pub. Co., 2007; and Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 2007.