Interview conducted by David Barsamian on 11th March 2016
“Socialism” was the most looked-up word in 2015, and several polls indicate young people in the 18-to-29 bracket, have favorable views of socialism. Were you surprised by this?
It’s not so much surprise as uncertainty. The question is what they mean by it. I suspect what people mean by it is something like social democracy, which is essentially New Deal welfare-state capitalism. I imagine that’s what meant. And if that’s what it does mean, it is not surprising, because polls have shown for years that these are very widely held goals of most of the population. There have been studies of the sectors of the population where the slogan is “Get the government off my back” or “Small government,” and even in these sectors there’s typically support for more spending for education, for health, for the needs of poor people. Not welfare, because welfare’s been demonized, but for what actually is welfare, yes, there’s support for it. So aid for women with dependent children, yes, fine, but not welfare.
Foreign aid is an interesting case. When people are asked, “What do you think about the expenditures for foreign aid?” they typically say, “They’re way too high. We’re giving money away to these undeserving people out there.” When they’re asked to estimate what foreign aid is, they estimate it as way beyond what it actually is. And when they’re asked to estimate what it should be, it’s way beyond what it actually is.
So if by socialism people mean their own attitudes, it’s not too surprising that many people are in favor of it.
Talk about coalition building. Let’s say you and someone else are fervent supporters of gun control. But then you learn that on almost every other issue this person is totally opposed to your views. So what do you do? Do you join hands with this person or do you say “Get lost”?
I don’t think there is a general answer. It’s a question of how important to you are the several issues involved, gun control on the one hand and whatever the other issues are on the other. You have to make a judgment that way. That’s common in life. Forget coalition building. You want to interact with other people, you agree with them on some things, you don’t agree on others. There’s no algorithm that tells you how much and what dimension of agreement is necessary to keep being friends or to work together on some project.
You’ve been involved in myriad struggles and actions over the decades. Are there any that come to mind that would have applicability for today?
Just about all of them. Take organizing poor people for better rights. The civil rights movement has plenty of applicability to that, the poor people’s movement does, the labor movement does. Basically, there are certain common elements to all kinds of organizing. We have to find issues that meet several conditions. First, people have to care about them; second, they have to be feasible; and third, it has to be possible to convince people that they are feasible, because one of the major impediments to organizing is the feeling you can’t fight city hall. So you have to show you can fight city hall. The way that’s typically done in successful organizing is to find small things that people recognize could be achieved, see if they can achieve those, encourage the sense that we really can go on, and proceed.
Take a real case that I heard of not long ago. A very good organizing group right here in Boston, South Boston in the poorer, working-class immigrant communities did make significant gains. At the very beginning, just to break through the sense of hopelessness, they began with something very simple, like women organizing to see if they could get the town to put in a traffic light where their kids have to cross to go to school. They worked on it and they pressured, and they finally got it. They recognized, Look, we can do things if we work together. Let’s go on to the next thing. That’s how you build. That’s organizing and activism.
In the wake of multiple police killings of African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement has arisen. And I notice one of the books on your desk is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. What about that movement? Have you been tracking it?
Yes. I would like to see an inquiry into something that I’m not sure of. My strong suspicion is that the multiple killings are a statistical blip, that is, that it’s really going on all the time and it probably just happened that several things clustered and broke through the general silence and apathy. Which is a good thing. But I think, if it’s correct, what it points out to us is that it’s not something that’s happening right now, it’s just a fact of life. I think there’s plenty of evidence for that.
For example, I have a friend who served on the New Jersey state police force for many decades. He told me once that when you go in in the morning and you get your assignments, you’re were told, “When you’re patrolling the Jersey turnpike, if you see a black guy driving a car, pull him over, see what you can find. Maybe there will be drugs there or something.” That’s not killing, but it can lead to killing. It’s the general stigmatizing of part of the population which leads, at the extreme, to killings.
Let’s move to India and the ruling BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party, and its leader, Narendra Modi, the prime minister. The Guardian reports, “The government has repeatedly been accused of seeking to repress free speech and of encouraging extremist nationalists, who systematically intimidate critics.” In February of 2016, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU, in New Delhi have been arrested and accused of what’s called antinational activities and sedition. What’s going on there?
There were slogans by the students calling for a free Kashmir, opposing the pretty cruel and bitter Indian repression in Kashmir. There was also support for an executed activist who was accused of crimes. There was questioning at the time of the validity of the charges. They supported him.
That was Afzal Guru.
Yes. The police were called in to repress it. They arrested the student leader. Faculty members were picked up, taken for harsh interrogation. That includes people I know who told me about it. It’s not just at JNU. Similar things have been happening in other universities. And it is against a background of increasing Hindu nationalist violence and repression—murdering a Muslim because they claim he did something to a cow. Things like this are going on around the country. Hindu nationalism is a frightening phenomenon, like other forms of extremist nationalism. And, of course, India has a huge Muslim population, which is under significant threat now, and even more if this continues. Modi himself has a background which is disputed, but he was in charge in Gujarat at the time of a major massacre, thousands of people killed. He at least tolerated it. It may have been more than that.
He was the chief minister of the state. This was in 2002.
He was theoretically in charge and certainly at least tolerated, and some claim played a role in instigating, the massacres. What the truth about that is I don’t know. It’s another one of the moves towards authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism that we’re seeing around the world. One aspect of it is indeed repression of freedom of speech and inquiry. Incidentally, you can’t just blame the BJP for this. The Congress Party was responsible for passing the sedition laws that are now being applied. So the BJP may be an extreme element, but the Congress Party was implicated significantly as well.
And a certain broadcaster you know was banned from India during Congress rule.
That’s true. But, of course, as an Armenian nationalist radical, that’s understandable. (laughter)
Talk about the growing military ties between India and the U.S. and India and Israel.
It’s certainly been going on. That’s a shift. India was a core part of the nonaligned countries under Nehru. Its military links were closer to Russia. In recent years India has increasingly shifted to the U.S. orbit. That includes closer relations with Israel. A central part of that is anti-Muslim sentiments common to all three: Israel, obviously, not just any Muslim but any Arab; India, a big Muslim population in a Hindu-dominated state; the U.S., first of all, extensive anti-Islamic sentiment among the general population, the so-called “war on terror” directed against Muslims, the invasion of Iraq, of course, the invasion of Afghanistan. So these are big issues in all three countries. And it’s changed. It’s kind of a mixed story.
Take, say, nuclear weapons. The U.S. has actually supported the development of nuclear weapons in all three of the countries that have not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel, obviously. There was an agreement by Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir back around 1970 that the U.S. would keep the issue of Israeli nuclear weapons off the table; it wouldn’t affirm or deny, but wouldn’t object to them. Of course they knew they were developing them. In the case of Pakistan, particularly under the rule of the worst of the Pakistani dictators, Zia-ul-Haq, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration pretended that they didn’t know that they were developing nuclear weapons. Of course, they knew and they were. Primarily so that they could maintain their flow of aid for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and tighten their connections with the Pakistani ISI, the secret intelligence agency, which has a very influential role in the country internally and its international politics.
In the case of India, the big switch was under the second President Bush, when he shifted. The U.S. did have an official policy, legislation, in fact, banning nuclear assistance to countries that had not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and were developing nuclear weapons. Bush rescinded this, meaning aid to develop nuclear facilities could proceed with India. They claim that they are civilian facilities, but that’s meaningless because, first of all, the aid is transferable from civilian to military uses, and secondly, it frees up India to devote more of its efforts towards nuclear weapons. The Bush administration also succeeded in twisting the arms of other countries so that the nuclear suppliers group was willing to accept this. So that’s essentially building up India’s nuclear weapons facility. By now the alliance is becoming much tighter.
The Israel-India alliance, which is a natural one, on ugly grounds, anti-Muslim sentiments, is intensifying. This is an alliance system that’s certainly growing. At the same time, the U.S. is also supporting India’s main enemy, Pakistan, in competition now with China, in fact, in competition way back with China, but it’s now increasing with Chinese development programs in Pakistan, part of China’s general geostrategic planning of breaking out of the maritime blockade. It’s not a total blockade—but on the Pacific side China is kind of surrounded, contained by hostile powers: Japan, South Korea, U.S. military bases, Guam, all the way to the Straits of Malacca, Indonesia. One of the ways they’re trying to break out of this is moving into Central Asia. This has been going on for some years. It’s now extending to further development in Pakistan, development of a port in Gwadar, and railroads over the mountains, development aid. This is sometimes called New Silk Road programs, involving energy, other interactions.
China and Pakistan have a common interest in what’s called antiterrorism. In the Muslim regions in the Western part of China, Uyguhr areas, Turkic-related ultimately, there are guerilla and other actions that China is repressing pretty harshly. They have links to Pakistani Taliban, some kind of links, even personnel links. So there’s cooperation on that. There is a possibility that Chinese aid to Pakistan will actually be developmental in character, as contrasted with U.S. aid, which has been overwhelmingly military, which could be positive. The general system that China is slowly constructing throughout Eurasia, which will reach all the way to Europe pretty soon, is a major development in world affairs. Control over Eurasia has been recognized for a long time to be critical to global power, sometimes even regarded as the key to global power.
Turkey has been sliding toward more and more autocratic and authoritarian rule. Newspaper offices are raided, journalists and academics are threatened and arrested. Erdo?an, the president of the country, mentioned you recently by name and in fact invited you to visit Turkey. What is the background of that? And did you make that trip?
No, I didn’t. It began with a terrorist bombing in Ankara that killed a lot of people, which Erdo?an blamed on the Kurds, though it was probably ISIS, which Turkey is tacitly supporting, incidentally, in many ways. That led to repression against the Kurds. And that’s very serious. There have now been maybe several months of intensive curfews in southeastern Turkey, which involve hundreds of thousands of people. They’re very harsh and brutal. There are many deaths, people can’t leave their houses, there are snipers on the roof, heavy military equipment, sometimes dead bodies are left in houses to decay because they can’t removed. It’s a harsh repression.
Turkey, I should say, has for some years now had either the worst or close to the worst record in the world on repression of journalists. If you look at Reporters Without Borders, the international journalists’ association, they rank countries annually in terms of repression of journalists. Turkey has been on top or close to on top for a long time. But it accelerated. It accelerated again after this terrorist attack. A couple of journalists had written about Turkey’s involvement with ISIS, which is tacit but real. Turkey provides a kind of a funnel through which jihadi fighters can go to the so-called Islamic State territories in Syria. It’s exported oil from ISIS. In general, a passageway. Some claim it even has—I don’t know if this is true—hospitals for ISIS fighters on the Turkish side. The journalists who reported this were immediately jailed.
That led to a protest. There were maybe a thousand or so Turkish academicians who wrote a petition protesting this. They got some international signers. I was one of them. And when Erdo?an reacted by attacking the academics, which is serious for them, he also castigated me personally for this terrible attack on Turkish honor and said, Why don’t you come here and see what the reality is? I was asked to write a comment, so I wrote a couple of lines. But that’s the end of that.
It’s gotten much worse recently. A couple days ago the Turkish government took over a main newspaper Zaman, which is in both English and Turkish, a big enterprise, which has been critical, and immediately started producing pro-government propaganda. This is continuing. It’s a very serious issue, both the repression and the curfew and actions in the Kurdish areas. It begins to be reminiscent of the real horrors that took place in the 1990s.
In northern Syria, a mostly Kurdish area called Rojava is apparently inspired by the work of Murray Bookchin, a U.S. writer and thinker who died in 2006. What’s going on there in Rojava?
It’s not entirely clear. For one thing, the circumstances are horrible. Syria is just imploding, it’s descending to suicide, and the conditions are awful. There’s constant fighting. There’s a kind of a semi-truce between the Kurds and the Assad government. They don’t seem to be attacking each other much. But the Kurds are perhaps the main ground force defending the population against the ISIS monstrosity. Their leader remains ?calan. He came from a strong Stalinist background, but over the years in prison he’s shifted his attitudes considerably, at least his writings. And he did pick up Murray Bookchin’s work, a kind of communitarian, anarchist approach. It was accepted by the Kurdish groups, both the PKK in Turkey and northern Iraq and the Kurds in the Rojava areas, Syrian Kurdish areas. To some extent this was implemented. To what extent, hard to say. It does include some things which everyone agrees have happened, like emphasis on women’s rights and women’s involvement, some kind of communal programs. It’s pretty remarkable under the circumstances. How far it goes informed commentators either disagree or are just kind of watching with interest.
One analyst actually contrasts the Rojava Kurds with what she calls “the more feudal nationalism of Iraqi Kurds.”
When you speak of Iraqi Kurds, you’re speaking of the native Iraqis, not the PKK, which is Turkish and is mostly centered in northern Iraq because it was driven out of Turkey.
Right, Erbil Kurds.
Yes. That’s probably true. That seems to be the case. There does seem to be a considerable difference in that regard. The Iraqi Kurds, first of all, were split themselves, in fact, had a pretty bitter civil war not long ago, the 1990s. But it has been authoritarian, based on expectations of oil-driven wealth, which didn’t work out, so in Erbil there are apparently empty skyscrapers and that sort of thing. But there is some kind of development there. Exactly what, I don’t know. There are mixed reports.
Illustration: Hajra Cheema
Full interview available from Alternative Radio