Reading Monthly Review

by Barry Weisleder


Lately, I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up on my reading of Monthly Review, one of the finest socialist publications you will encounter. Like every other one, it has strengths and weaknesses. Yet every edition I’ve seen has at least one or two articles worth reading and noting well. To encourage enjoyment of its bounty of useful information and analysis by a wider readership, I wish to draw attention to just a few articles published in MR in 2007.

A good place to begin is the survey of the biggest country in Latin America, five items grouped together under the heading “Brazil Under Lula” in the February edition. It constitutes a cautionary tale about the co-optation of the PT from a “workers’ party” into an instrument for domestic bourgeois enrichment and political hegemony, and its use of revenue from a booming resource sector to fashion a passive popular support base through income transfer programmes, the renown “Bolsa Familia.”

While dutifully paying off usurious “loans” to the World Bank and the IMF, the Lula regime plundered the pension funds of state employees, and for good measure engineered labour law “reform” that undermines the independence of unions, allows firms to recruit strike breakers, and keeps the minimum wage below the level required for survival. Land reform is thwarted, and peasants who take direct action to seize farm land have suffered fatal consequences.

Israel in the U.S. Empire,” by Bashir Abu-Manneh, is the Review of the Month in March 2007, critically examining the emergence and limitations of “post-Zionist” thought amongst Israeli academics, while providing a compelling chronology of the tragedy of Palestinian bourgeois nationalism.

It points out that, on the one hand, “Israeli interventions have ended up pushing the whole geopolitical alignment of the Arab elite into the American sphere. And that has been an enormous and sustained effort. Control of oil in and of itself cannot achieve that: the United States needed an activist warring state to help it perform this task. For this service Israel has been substantially rewarded” (in the form of huge U.S. subsidies and successive waves of territorial expansion — BW).

On the other hand, “The PLO aborted the Intifada…legalized the occupation, and became Israel’s colonial enforcer.” This helps to explain the rise of Hamas, along with a further evolution of imperial policy.

“Once a Cold War ally against nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism has turned into a foe.” “The Muslim Brotherhood is an example of the latter. It went from being supported by Israel against nationalist Fatah, to mutating into Hamas and becoming the main agent of anti-colonial struggle and Palestinian self-determination in the Occupied Territories.”

The “militarized and fundamentalist Israel” fostered by the U.S., in the process, has accelerated colonialism, buried even the illusion of the “two-state solution,” and I believe, may unleash a new stage of mass anti-apartheid Palestinian actions of the kind seen recently both on the fortified Gaza-Egypt border and inside Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries.

In “Socialist Strategies in Latin America,” in the September edition of MR, Claudio Katz argues that the collapse of both the USSR and of the neo-liberal prescription for Latin America opened a new period for the left and for class struggle on the continent.

What Katz calls “the novel strategic problem: the general presence of constitutional regimes” presents both a challenge and an opportunity — “unforeseen access to government by left nationalist or radical reformist presidents who are rejected by the establishment.”

The author reminds us that “The dominant classes do not give up power…. For this reason, any policy that indefinitely postpones the anti-capitalist goal ends up reinforcing oppression. Socialism requires preparing and consummating anti-capitalist ruptures.” Reformists propose “winning space within the institutional structure,” while revolutionists “promote parallel organs of peoples’ power.” Katz correctly insists that more than a social movement is needed to lead and consolidate the decisive rupture with capitalism. Nothing less than a revolutionary party is required to play a leading role in the process by which the working masses win power and transform society.

“Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution” by George Ciccariello-Maher, in the same edition of MR, maintains that the formation of communal councils (to be endowed with fiscal autonomy) in Venezuela, is deepening a revolutionary situation, somewhat reminiscent of Russia in 1917, and standing in stark contrast to Lula’s Brazilian project. Will the grassroots power of workers, farmers and the urban poor, organized in independent councils, replace the bourgeois state? Will the new United Socialist Party of President Hugo Chávez become a sufficiently coherent, programmatically and strategically revolutionary instrument to lead the rupture and transformation envisioned? Only time will tell. But Chávez, unlike Lula, is openly and vigorously agitating for both the councils and the party required, and moreover is strategically allied to revolutionary Cuba.

The Dismantling of Yugoslavia” by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson is a 60-page opus that dominates the October edition. It argues persuasively that the U.S.-induced NATO assault on Bosnia and Serbia was hypocritically premised on a double standard and was designed to pave the way for extended U.S. military unilateralism, as occurred de facto subsequently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where the article gravely disappoints is in its tendency to discount the responsibility of the Milosevic regime for collaboration with ethnic cleansers, and in the authors’ failure to explain fundamentally the breakdown in social solidarity across Yugoslavia that was the precursor to its dismantlement.

We are treated to a rather elliptical formulation of the preceding “internal and external factors” at work, including “the economic disparities that no amount of state planning and redistribution ever countered,” along with “the loss of the wartime generation of leaders (which) left fewer defenders of socialism as well as federalism.” This approach absolves the Stalinist team centered on Tito of its responsibility for decades of bureaucratic, top-down rule, for dismantling the planned economy itself, and for facilitating the privatization that fostered massive layoffs, emigration and foreign debt.

The demise of Yugoslavia exemplifies, once again, how imperialism and Stalinism reinforce one another, not how the latter resists the former. Residual confusion on this point contributed to the weakness of the global left and workers’ movement in opposing the U.S./NATO intervention, not a “Western liberal-left intellectual and moral collapse” (as stated in the article’s sub-title by the authors.)

More Unequal — Aspects of Class in the United States” by MR associate editor Michael Yates in the November edition, is the introduction to his book of the same name published by Monthly Review Press in 2007. It examines media establishment accounts of “The glaring increase in economic inequality evident in the United States over the past thirty years.” So-called explanations that attribute this outcome largely to technological change (computers) or to government policies (Republican rule), are shown to be superficial and evasive of the realities inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

Yates probes the reasons “for the lack of class consciousness in the United States and its brethren capitalist nations” in the nexus of state and nation, especially in the context of “the impact of scores of years of nationalism within the world’s biggest and most aggressive imperialist power,” as “occurs in all the rich capitalist nations.”

Until we discover “how we may break out of this consciousness impasse…the class divide will continue to grow and the conditions of the working class will continue to worsen.”

In “China, Capitalist Accumulation, and Labor” (MR, May 2007), Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett de-bunk the so-called success story of “now predominantly capitalist” China.

They record how “China’s growth has been driven by the intensified exploitation of the country’s farmers and workers, who have been systematically dispossessed through the break up of the communes, the resultant collapse of health and education services, and massive state enterprise layoffs.” They add that “China’s gains have been organically linked to development setbacks in other countries.” And: “Finally, China’s growth has become increasingly dependent not only on foreign capital but also on the unsustainable trade deficits of the United States.” The accumulating “national and international imbalances…are bound to require correction at considerable social cost for working people in China and the rest of the world.”

It should never be forgotten that the 1949 Chinese Revolution was the precondition and the launch pad for a massive industrialization process, the infrastructural gains of which are now being usurped — increasingly by foreign capital.

Loss of sovereignty and economic dependency historically go hand in hand. So, while “the share of foreign manufacturers in China’s total manufacturing sales grew from 2.3 percent in 1990 to 31.3 percent in 2000,” the fact is that China “does not in any real sense manufacture…[high technology] goods. Rather it assembles them from imported parts and components. For example, domestic value-added accounts for only 15 percent of the value of exported electronic and information technology products. All the rest is import content.”

China is thus reduced to being a supplier of cheap labor, while its working population is “being forced to battle conditions very similar to those in Latin America.”

From 1990 to 2002, jobs in state and collective enterprises fell by 59.2 million, while non-state employment rose only by 24.1 million. That represents a decline in formal sector employment of 34.1 million. “Thus, growing numbers of Chinese workers have been forced to accept irregular employment which, with an increase of 80 million, now comprises the largest single urban employment category. A growing share of this irregular work is accounted for by China’s burgeoning sex industry. While the Chinese government says there are 3 million prostitutes nationwide, independent estimates put the figure at up to 20 million (with sex work accounting for up to 6 percent of China’s GSP) once sex laborers in massage parlors, entertainment establishments, and even barber shops and beauty salons are properly included.”

The trend towards worker displacement into irregular employment is unfolding across East Asia, including Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. It exemplifies the infamous “race to the bottom” — what economist David Harvey refers to as “accumulation by dispossession” (the separation of workers from access to the conditions necessary for their production and reproduction). It is a process not limited to early capitalism, “but is rather integral to the system’s ongoing historical development especially in its latest, neoliberal phase.”

Hart-Landsberg and Burkett conclude: “Seen from this perspective, it is clear that the answer to worker problems in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere for that matter, is not to be found in supporting policies designed to replicate capitalism’s so-called Asian success stories. Rather it lies in building national and international movements with an accurate understanding of, and a commitment to overcoming, the dynamics of contemporary capitalism.”

The above and other MR articles can be read on-line at: www.monthlyreview.org. I highly recommend that you pay the site a visit.