From the U.S. to Ukraine, crises and revolts call for philosophy

May 5, 2014

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2014-2014

From the U.S. to Ukraine, crises and revolts call for philosophy

This special issue carries our Draft Perspectives Thesis, part of our preparation for the national gathering of News and Letters Committees. We publish it because our age is in such total crisis, facing a choice between absolute terror or absolute freedom, that a revolutionary organization can no longer allow any separation between theory and practice, philosophy and revolution, workers and intellectuals, “inside” and “outside.” Join us in discussing these Perspectives.


The sharpness of revolution and counter-revolution contending now, while the prolonged global capitalist economic crisis refuses to end, cries out for a philosophical direction. The question arises: where is the needed banner of total uprooting of the system and creation of new human relations as the goal? This objective need is present in every struggle from outright revolution in the Middle East to movements in the U.S. Beset by attacks and contradictions, they have in turn sparked counter-revolutions.

I. Dialectics of revolution and counter-revolution

A. Revolt and invasion in Ukraine

The rulers aim to bury the revolutionary content of revolts like Ukraine’s not only in life but in thought. In its outward achievement, it was a political revolution, but in the experiences of the occupation of Maidan Square–and other occupations across the country–are the seeds of social revolution. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has besieged it, not only by annexing Crimea and leading a pro-Russian revolt in the east, but through a propaganda war all too eagerly swallowed by segments of the international Left.

As against Putin’s phony claims to champion self-determination in Crimea, the real truth of the annexation is told by the thousands of Crimean Tatars who turned out for the March 18 funeral of Reshat Ametov. Ametov, a Tatar laborer and human rights activist, disappeared after standing in silent protest of pro-Russian Crimean “self-defense forces” blockading the Cabinet building in Simferopol. He later turned up dead with signs of torture. His murder is the tip of the iceberg of a racist campaign to expel the Tatars from Crimea, which would repeat Stalin’s 1944 ethnic cleansing of Tatars. This is the character of the retrogression Putin unleashed in response to the uprising that toppled Ukraine’s President Yanukovich.


Unlike the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which dissipated after opposition parties took over the government, the new uprising came in the midst of the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia three years ago. None of the uprisings have as yet brought the new post-capitalist society into being, but powerful revolutionary new beginnings have been born out of struggles from below, just at the time when capitalism’s global crisis has undermined its ideological strength.

The masses remember how 2004 left Ukraine in the hands of billionaire oligarchs and corrupt politicians. Thus, the army is central to Russia’s counter-revolutionary moves, regardless of the risk of confrontation with the U.S. and the European Union, and even a wider war. Russia’s war moves–not only the takeover of Crimea but the massing of troops on Ukraine’s eastern borders while Putin organizes separatist revolts–threaten to unleash a militarization that could eclipse what comes from below.

Even before Yanukovich fled the country, the U.S. too was trying to short-circuit the revolution by brokering a deal similar to the resolution of 2004, substituting, at best, bourgeois democracy for the radical democracy and liberation movements brewing in the occupations. The aim was to stop the political revolution from developing into social revolution, an aim the U.S. shares with the parties now in charge in Kiev.

All these parties and states want to take the initiative away from the masses, and yet have not stopped maneuvering against each other. The Kiev government and aspirants to power like former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko pose closer ties to the European Union, including a harsh austerity program like those suffered by people in Greece and Ireland, as the only alternative to domination by Russia. The bankruptcy of their politics is seen in how the Kiev parliament stoked nationalism by passing a law (soon rescinded) downgrading the official status of the Russian language as one of its first post-Yanukovich acts. In stark contrast, the Maidan occupation united Russian and Ukrainian speakers, Muslims, Christians and Jews.

The ruling classes’ reactions to capitalism’s economic crisis and the ever-present currents of revolt have fostered militarism and narrow nationalism and fueled international conflicts. This background of ongoing tension means that the specter of a broader war lurks behind each individual flashpoint, from U.S. and Israel vs. Iran; to China’s territorial disputes with Japan, The Philippines, and other nearby countries; to North Korea vs. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. In each case, past episodes of brinkmanship are no guarantee that the next time will manage to stop at the brink. It’s not as if wars aren’t already being waged, including the 13-year-old war in Afghanistan, as well as battles in places like Somalia and eastern Congo, where fighting continues a decade after the end of the “African world war.”

It is also true that history did not end with the Cold War. Just as the meager “peace dividend” soon evaporated in the U.S., chaos and lowered life expectancies appeared in Russia. The West abandoned the people of Russia and its former satellites to “free market” shock treatment, in collusion with the new oligarchs, who overlap with the old “Communist” elite. At the same time, the Clinton and Bush administrations expanded NATO and ran roughshod over Iraq, which is still suffering the aftermath of war and military occupation. The Obama administration greatly expanded the drone assassination program as well as the U.S. military presence in Africa and an open “pivot to Asia.”


But Putin judges that the U.S. has been weakened after its adventurous blunder in Iraq and the collapse of its “red line” in Syria. To the extent that it has been weakened, it is not so much due to “feckless” policies as it is due to mass disgust after over a decade of war combined with the deterioration of the superpower’s economic base. That is not helped by a military budget exceeding the total of the next 13 top military spenders. In the same way, huge factors in the USSR’s collapse were its own economic sickness, worsened by sky-high military spending, and its population’s disgust at its war in Afghanistan together with the explosions of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

However, the U.S. and the even more weakened Russia both possess nuclear arsenals sufficient to destroy human civilization many times over. The fact is that the threat of nuclear war is still very much present. Dmitry Kiselyov–head of Rossiya Segodnya, the Kremlin’s official international news agency, who acts as Putin’s chief propagandist–warned that Russia is “capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.”[1]

Ironically, some in the Western Left justify their support of Crimea’s annexation by pointing to the presence of fascists in Ukraine, disregarding the nature of Putin’s regime: chauvinist, militarist, patriarchal, dreaming to restore Stalin’s empire, and simultaneously rehabilitating Stalin and the Russian Orthodox Church, all within the framework of authoritarian state-capitalism under a maximum leader. State-backed violence against ethnic minorities, Gays and political dissidents is rampant.


There is not a single move Putin makes abroad without an eye to keeping the population at home in line. The collapse of the USSR accelerated Russia’s economic decline, worsening conditions of life and labor to a level from which many people have not recovered. With all its oil and gas exports, the country has one of the world’s highest rates of economic inequality, with 110 citizens controlling 35% of its household wealth, even worse than the U.S. The draconian repression Putin oversees indicates just how worried he is about revolt. It has not exploded on a scale anywhere near that of the Ukrainian uprising, but that uprising is especially threatening because of the close links between the two countries’ peoples.

B. From Bosnia to Turkey: ‘Mental sediment’

Some participants in the latest uprising in Bosnia have called it the “Bosnian revolution” or “Bosnian Spring” in recognition of its links to the Arab Spring. This revolt, detailed in “Ukraine and Bosnia: historic uprisings” (March-April N&L), led to the birth in numerous cities of a form of organization called plenums, the same word used for direct-democratic general assemblies formed in the 2009 wave of student occupations in Croatia, followed in 2011 by student occupations in Slovenia and Serbia. [2]

In Turkey, although the occupation in Gezi Park was broken last year, relentless revolt and discussion of ideas of freedom provoked a division within the state so severe that Prime Minister Erdogan has increasingly tried to gain sole control of the state’s organs of force, from police to courts. In desperation he even attempted to block Twitter in Turkey, with little success. On March 12, multi-city mass protests again broke out, sparked by the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who had been mortally wounded last June by police attacks on the Gezi protests.

Even massive repression cannot destroy what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mental sediment” of mass strikes, which she declared “the most precious, because lasting, thing” in the 1905 Russian Revolution.[3] As one occupier of Gezi Park summed it up:

“It was important for us to experience that kind of life. If you were hungry, the food was free. If you were wounded, someone would carry you to the emergency tent. If you needed a lawyer, he is always there. Gezi gave us a powerful sense of a world based on solidarity and equality, which we could not imagine before. No one can take away what we experienced in the park.”[4]

That “mental sediment” is just one of the dimensions Luxemburg grasped in spontaneous mass upsurges. At the same time, today it should be even more clear that spontaneity alone cannot bring about the new society. As Raya Dunayevskaya noted,

“Luxemburg was absolutely right in her emphasis that the Marxist movement was the ‘first in the history of class societies which, in all its moments, in its entire course, reckons on the organization and the independent, direct action of the masses.’ However, she is not right in holding that, very nearly automatically, it means so total a conception of socialism that a philosophy of Marx’s concept of revolution could likewise be left to spontaneous action. Far from it. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the 1905 Revolution, where spontaneity was absolutely the greatest, but failed to achieve its goal. The question of class consciousness does not exhaust the question of cognition, of Marx’s philosophy of revolution.”[5]


To unleash the full potential of today’s movements, we need to turn to Dunayevskaya’s philosophic breakthrough as expressed in her May 1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes. News and Letters Committees published them 25 years ago in The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, together with her June 1, 1987, presentation. That presentation made the category of those letters expressed in the book’s title, and it viewed them in terms of the dialectics of organization and philosophy. In those letters she revealed Hegel’s Absolutes as a dual movement between theory and practice.

There is not just a movement from practice to theory, but that movement is itself a form of theory, as seen with the coal miners on strike against automation in 1949-50, who raised the question of what kind of labor a human being should do, and questioned the division between thinking and doing. They concretized Karl Marx’s concept of alienated labor and of the need to break down the division between mental and manual labor.

That entailed a needed new relationship between theory and practice. The movement from theory must begin by grasping the new beginnings coming from the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory, but it cannot end there. Theory must take up the challenge to self-develop toward philosophy and revolution in permanence.

In the present wave of revolutions, we must start by recognizing that the masses did create new forms of organization and in the heat of struggle established new human relations in embryo. Dismissing these events because they have not achieved social revolutions leads some Marxist and other theoreticians to learn nothing and contribute nothing to the self-development of these revolts. At the same time, to act as if everything can be left up to spontaneity saps resistance to the retrogression coming from within the revolution.


Self-limiting ideologies are influential in today’s revolts, straining to confine revolution to achieving political democracy, whether they assume that it is necessary “for now” and “for practical reasons,” or that to go further only leads to totalitarianism, or that there simply is no alternative to capitalism. While the illusion that revolution is no longer possible has been shattered, the fear that it cannot abolish capitalism and achieve full liberation weighs like an incubus on the heads of humanity.

The so-called “leaderlessness” of the square occupations must not be allowed to mean a philosophical void, which leaves the field to the influence of self-limiting ideologies. Rather, the movement from theory must create an opening for a vital interaction between philosophy and organization, beginning with making categories out of the experiences in the occupations, from new relations between women and men to self-organization from below, from breaking down divisions between religious communities to the links with strikes and other labor struggles, bringing out the potential for workers’ control of production and workplaces and a new relationship between work and creative self-activity.

C. Egypt and Syria at historic crossroads

In both Egypt and Syria, in different ways, the Arab Spring’s drive toward freedom confronts obstacles embedded in a decaying capitalism driven to reach out to whatever reactionary social relations or ideas it can to continue its exploitative existence. The strength of counter-revolution makes clear that a philosophy of liberation is an urgent practical need.

Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the military made use of widespread rejection of President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government to bolster their own power. Yet they can only look backward to Nasserism for their legitimacy–that is, they have to look back before Tahrir Square and the Jan. 25 revolution of the masses. It is, in the end, as much a fantasy as was Morsi’s piety.

Behind that fantasy is the same Egyptian economy that inspired the strikes that led up to Tahrir Square. Already a new wave of strikes has begun to eat away at this facade of legitimacy.[6] Egypt’s capitalist economic dilemma still requires the state to wage a war against the working class to attempt to compete in the world market. Tahrir Square saw the first steps in transcending that logic. The elements of a working-class revolution are already in existence.

But it has to be noted that al-Sisi was able to seize power partly because the revolutionary movement hadn’t been able to articulate a concept of second negativity–that is, to project what they were fighting for, and not only what they were against. Thus, while the huge protests against Morsi’s government were a legitimate part of a worldwide movement against religious fundamentalist rule, al-Sisi turned a large part of that sentiment toward the most narrow, reactionary nationalism. This in turn obscured the greater idea of freedom and solidarity embodied in the Square, and eked out another lease on life for the exploitative system.

In Syria, the “orphan revolution” that has starkly revealed the essence of this decaying state-capitalist world continues to develop. The death toll has passed 140,000, including at least 12,000 children. There are over 2 million refugees–the largest refugee population in the world–and over 8 million internally displaced persons. The terrorist “barrel bombs,” designed to maximize civilian casualties; the starvation sieges of cities, villages, and the devastated Palestinian Yarmouk camp; the use of rape and torture, show that Assad’s regime is committing genocidal war crimes.

Nevertheless, outside powers continue to prop up this monstrous regime. Russian military and political support, along with that of China, and the troops provided by Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah and the Badr brigades, have become its only pillars of support. Their intervention has given the revolution the character of a war of national liberation.

In the face of every obstacle, the Syrian masses continue to struggle against both Assad and the reactionary forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. While Hezbollah’s aid allowed Assad to win a few pyrrhic victories, as at Yabroud near the Lebanese border, these have come at a higher price than his allies expected. In other areas, the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groupings have also won a number of important victories.

The disintegration of bourgeois thought in the face of Assad’s genocide is almost unprecedented. The disgusting remark of Ambassador Ryan Crocker that “we may have to learn to live with Assad” is matched in practice by the threat of the UK to deport Syrian refugees. But it is the rulers’ silence that is most deadly.

The lack of solidarity with the Syrian Revolution among a large section of the Left is only the more shameful. In the words of Syrian Marxist Yassin al-Haj Saleh,

“If there is a culture and an ideology that justify killing and undermine the intellectual, symbolic and moral barricades that protect the lives of the poor and the weak, then any powerful party that feels the need to kill its adversaries and opponents will find in that culture and in that ideology a symbolic arsenal of weapons of mass extermination. No one will be safe if we do not undo this ideology, its factories and its cultural output.”[7]

On the other hand, as exemplified by Saleh and others, the intense clash of revolution and counter-revolution has begun to inspire serious rethinking. Syrian woman poet Alisar Iram has written an important essay critiquing the nihilism of both Assad and the extreme fundamentalists who have attempted to usurp the revolution’s goals of freedom and dignity, non-sectarianism, and social justice. In contrast, Iram articulates the absolute reality of the idea of freedom as it is born in the heart of struggle:

“Revolutions are great mass movements carrying within themselves the promise to stop time for a while then perform a jump either into the future, or bend upon themselves to jump backwards and revert to a point in time where dichotomies are revealed in all their glaring disruptiveness in order to unravel them. There is no revolution that does not shake and rock the old frame of references, the systems of thought and the sensibilities that prevailed before. Revolutions generate a tornado of dynamism that will inevitably spend itself in rebirth or destruction, but where the revolution moves what it leaves in its wake is a changed landscape, altered beyond recognition. Yet in this altered landscape I would like to see, as an artist and a writer, the intellect and consciousness assert themselves. In order to protect the Revolution we have to ensure the survival of its legacy by means of the creative word and thought…

“Even if the Syrian revolution fails, what will keep it forever a source of courage, hope and faith for mankind is the body of thought, the legacy of consciousness, awareness and sensibility that it has engendered and will generate. The undying, noble word will be its bequest. Therefore write, you who can write eloquently, who can turn insight, vision, dreams and truths into that which will remain alive in the very core of human thinking and sensibility.

“The politicians have failed the Syrian Revolution because they are individuals without vision and do not possess the kind of all-embracing humanistic compassionate imagination to bond with the simple, downtrodden, trampled-on common people and victims.”[8]

…Continued at Part II…


1. “After Crimea: What Putin might do next,” by Howard LaFranchi, March 27, 2014, Christian Science Monitor.

2. See “Bosnia and Herzegovina: all power to the plenums?” by Mate Kapovi?, Feb. 22, 2014,

3. The Mass Strike by Rosa Luxemburg (Harper Torchbooks, 1971), p. 36.

4. “Whose Turkey Is It?” by Suzy Hansen, New York Times Magazine, Feb. 9, 2014.

5. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya, p. 60.

6. “Egyptian strike wave topples cabinet,” March-April 2014 News & Letters.

7. “Assad’s Killing Industry and the Role of Intellectuals,” Yassin al-Haj Saleh, L’Express, 21 March 2014.

8. Where to Syria of the Sorrows?” Alisar Iram, January 25, 2014,

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