It is to be hoped that most readers of Critical Legal Thinking who enjoy a passing acquaintance with twentieth-century history or the writing and activism of Angela Davis, will recognise Eric Heinze’s article ‘Angela Davis’s Racism‘ for what it is: a pompous and purblind character-assassination, whose ignorance of history and political bad faith make old school anti-communist polemics seem like paragons of fairness and scholarship by comparison.
Heinze’s ‘argument’ is easily summarised: Angela Davis campaigns against racism, Angela Davis supported communist regimes, communist regimes were racist, ergo Angela Davis is a racist and a hypocrite. Implicit corollary: Angela Davis has no legitimacy as a critic of racism and should thus not be given a prominent platform from which to voice her position. Now, Heinze presents his argument as a kind of corrective to a prior, and far more classic piece of red-baiting, Alan Johnson’s tawdry little blog editorial in The Telegraph.1Alan Johnson, ‘What does Angela Davis know about freedom?’, 25 October 2013, available at: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/alanjohnson/100243058/what-does-angela-davis-know-about-freedom/ Though he evidently shares Johnson’s political inclinations, he wishes to strike a more sophisticated, academic pose. So we get a superficially reasonable preamble chiding Johnson for not attending to the contentiousness of Cold War alignments, or acknowledging that Davis’s idea of freedom does not belong to Johnson’s liberal canon. Whence Heinze’s Gamble: ‘immanent critique’.
Perhaps Heinze really doesn’t know what ‘immanent’ means, incapable as he manifestly is of inhabiting Davis’s position with a modicum of accuracy for even a moment, thus mistaking critique for inquisition. Staking his ground, he writes:
Unlike Johnson, I am asking not about an anti-discrimination activist who, by openly supporting Soviet politics, flagrantly embraced attacks on other people’s civil and political rights. Let the world judge that as it may. Rather, I am asking about the anti-discrimination activist who cheerfully embraced other people’s discrimination.
Now, baseless as this slur is (if not quite as slanderous as branding Davis ‘the Honorary Queen of Soviet Imperial Apartheid’), it also misrepresents Davis as a moral advocate against discrimination, rather than a political (and for a long while openly revolutionary) militant for feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist emancipation. Though Heinze insists on seeing her thinking in a moral register (‘condemning’, ‘provoking’, etc.) her idea of freedom and of justice has insistently been oriented towards social transformation.
In his only nod to legal matters, Heinze also perplexingly identifies Davis’s ‘starting point’ as a ‘critique of legal formalism’. Rhetorically, this may be expedient: it allows Heinze not only to feign distance from Johnson’s Cold War tirade, but to simulate a proper respect for Marxian critiques of law. Yet not only is this not ‘immanent’, it betrays a staggering lack of historical attention and moral taste. Davis’s starting point, and the enduring domain of her thinking and activism, is the concrete experience of gendered and classed racial oppression and its embeddedness in the ongoing US history of capitalist exploitation and imperialism. As a mere glance at her inspiring work on the systemic racism that drives the US carceral system would reveal, this has little in common with a critique of legal formalism blandly considered.2See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003).
Heinze evidently has no interest in or affinity with this kind of work, or with this kind of politics. So much for immanent critique. What of the main plank of his polemic, Eastern Bloc racism? Here Heinze demonstrates how shallow his apparent distancing from Cold War diatribes is. The first false step is to follow Johnson in taking his moral authority from Solzhenitsyn. Despite the indisputable force of his narratives of the gulag archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was a notorious Great Russian nationalist who defended the Vietnam War, attacked Daniel Ellsberg for publishing the Pentagon Papers and, not least, has been repeatedly criticised for anti-semitic opinions. Perhaps not the best source for a moralistic screed against inconsistency. Heinze then proceeds to present the Soviet Union as some kind of white supremacist Empire, to shore up his repugnant analogy between Davis attending state celebrations in her honour in East Germany and politicians flying in to praise racist Alabama in the 1950s — even more in bad taste considering that this is where Davis originates from, and where some of the most horrific violence of white supremacy struck very close to her.
There is no disputing that ethnically-directed campaigns of terror were employed under Stalin, most brutally in the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush in 1944 and in the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ episode of 1953, when an explicit campaign of state-led anti-semitism was halted by Stalin’s death. But presenting the entire history of the USSR as a history of white power is absurd — even the Sovietological quote that Heinze uses to backup his claims about Soviet racism relies on a statement by Lenin against Russian chauvinism. The real, if ambivalent, presence of national and ethnic self-determination in the ideology and practice of the USSR is a matter of historical record and only myopic self-serving moralism would mutate this into the caricature of the Soviet Union as a racial state founded on discrimination. A recent consideration of the debate, written by a Harvard University scholar who one hardly imagines is a Stalinist plant, puts the state of the debate as follows:
The views of Western scholars on Soviet nationality policies have changed over time. In the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars believed that the Soviet government was engaged in an extensive and deliberate program of Russification that was aimed at destroying minority languages and cultures. This viewpoint was consistent with the dominant paradigm of the Cold War, which portrayed the Soviet Union as first and foremost a repressive state that aimed to eradicate all differences among its citizens in its efforts to create a ‘new Soviet man’. With the end of the Cold War and the concurrent explosion of nationalism in the Soviet Union and throughout the former Communist world, this dominant view was replaced by its opposite. The current dominant perspective among Western scholars is that not just the policies but even the very structure of the Soviet state strengthened ethnic identity among Soviet minorities.3Dmitry Gorenburg, ‘Soviet Nationalities Policy and Assimilation’, in Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine, edited by Blair Ruble and Dominique Arel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Also available at: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~gorenbur/gorenburg%20assimilation.pdf. Gorenburg does stress the continuity in policies of Russification, rectifying the new paradigm, but does not frame this in terms of either ethnic cleansing or racism.
Heinze is clearly an extreme and uninformed exponent of the ‘Cold War paradigm’. His inability to discern between morality and moralism also leads him into extreme hyperbole. Honecker is referred to at the beginning in rather purple tones as ‘one of the last century’s overlords of terror’. Would he add JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon (or Blair for that matter: if we’re doing body counts, he far outstrips Honecker) to this kitsch rubric of political judgment? One wonders if Heinze, so attentive to the moral blindness and hypocrisy of anti-imperialists, begins every one of his public lectures denouncing the US and UK for their crimes, which, unlike those of Stalinism, happen to be occurring in the present.
Matters take an even worse turn when, in a splenetic turn to the seemingly impertinent issue of Israeli apartheid, Heinze asks:
How racist should we deem any number of scholars who gladly spent the Cold War branding, for example, Israel an apartheid state, yet never once thought to use that epithet for an empire spanning a colossal Euro-Asian landmass!—and who, to this day, still ‘forget’ to call China an apartheid state? What kind of a brain discriminates in such a way, justifying its own racism simply (as we see in the USSR or China) by parading it in the Orwellian newspeak of ‘anti-racism’?
Curiously, the first person to describe Israel as an apartheid state — which as a scholarly trope is more of a post-Cold War phenomenon — was one of the architects of apartheid, Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd, bemoaning Israeli hypocrisy for disavowing their commonalities with South Africa.4Ronnie Kasrils, ‘Apartheid in duplicate’, Middle East Monitor, 2 July 2011, available at: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/guest-writers/2545-apartheid-in-duplicate David Ben-Gurion also warned that continued occupation after 1967 would generate an ‘Apartheid State’.5http://mondoweiss.net/2010/06/not-just-barak-and-olmert-ben-gurion-predicted-apartheid-40-years-ago.html Whether apartheid is the most appropriate term to define the settler-colonial forms of rule and exclusion exercised by the Israeli state is not our concern here, but if the word is to mean anything (and not merely be elided with racism, ethnocentrism or discrimination) spatial segregation, hierarchy and exclusion based on ascribed racial characteristics would need to be part of it.6Article 2 of the Apartheid Convention defines it as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. See John Dugard, ‘Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’, available at: <http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/cspca/cspca_e.pdf>. It is worth noting that the USSR and GDR voted in favour of this convention. The US and UK, along with Portugal and South Africa voted against. Israel abstained. To get a sense of the ideological map over the question of racism and apartheid in 1973, the year of Angela Davis’s visit to the GDR’s Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students, it is worthing casting an eye over this map (countries in green voted to condemn apartheid): http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/ICSPCA-members.PNG Ethnic discrimination and violence in the Soviet Union and contemporary China are a matter of record. But why evoke apartheid, if not to undermine Palestine solidarity today? Were there Russian-only roads under Stalin? Are there legal prohibitions for Han Chinese nationals to marry Tibetans today? Similarly, people have long made claims for ethnic or national self-determination in Tibet, Chechnya, and elsewhere in the socialist and post-socialist world, but to lump these experiences of oppression with the racism of white supremacy is analytically and politically sterile. Incidentally, the fact that Heinze does not pause to reflect on how racism has manifested itself with such virulence in Eastern Bloc countries, and particularly Russia, after 1989 — including in the virulence of racist ideologies of whiteness repressed under Soviet rule — shows that his concern is with smearing Davis not with furthering the cause of practical anti-racist solidarity.
But the nub of the question is to be found in Heinze’s castigation of the GDR’s ‘visceral appeal’ for Davis. Puzzlingly, this ethnically-cleansed bastion of white hegemony publicly celebrated the achievements and example of a black woman. Were there instrumental reasons for this? No doubt. Was the GDR repressive? Of course. But it is entirely impossible to understand the relationship between anti-racism, black internationalism and Eastern Bloc communism without a sense of the long history of this relationship, and of the particular geopolitical and ideological conjuncture that framed Davis’s visit.
Davis was welcomed in the GDR and the Soviet Union at a time when she was being personally persecuted, the FBI was engaged in a campaign of murder and repression against the Black Panthers and other black and left militants, and the US state was in the midst (among other conflicts) of a vast, racist war against the Vietnamese (the ‘gooks’)7http://www.davidroediger.org/articles/gook-the-short-history-of-americanism.html — in contrast to which, if we’re playing the ‘what about?’ game, Honecker’s crimes pale. It doesn’t take such a flight of the moral or political imagination to understand how East Germany may have appeared as an attractive port of call for a black US communist woman, just as the Soviet Union could have drawn the hopes — however misplaced — of black communists like Claude McKay in the 1920s, when lynching was still a reality in the US South, or Claudia Jones in the interwar period, when the CP was campaigning against the frame-up of the Scottsboro Boys for rape, or of WEB Du Bois in the 1950s, when Jim Crow and McCarthyism defined the American polity.8This is not to ignore the profound rifts among black and anti-racist militants about the role of both Soviet Communism and Marxism to their struggle. The intellectual biographies of CLR James and WEB DuBois, to name but the two most important figures in the ‘Black Marxist’ tradition, attest to this complexity. Anyone actually interested in ‘immanent critiques’ of black Communism could profitably turn to them. But see also the very stimulating recent crop of books on ‘black and red’ encounters and the communist genealogies of black left feminism: Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922–1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), esp. Ch. 1 on McKay and Ch. 3 on Du Bois; Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Komozi Woodward, Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis (eds.), Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Truth: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). We should also not ignore that this was not just true for radical intellectuals; it was a lived reality for masses of racially-oppressed people in the US and abroad for whom Communism represented the possibility of self-emancipation. As David Roediger writes in an illuminating review of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, a study of communism among the black Alabaman poor in the 1930s:
the wild, often ultra-Stalinist and sectarian Third Period that preceded the Popular Front better undergirded Black organization among tenant farmers and industrial workers. The extreme confrontational rhetoric of the Third Period Communists was not taken seriously by Alabama’s early Black party members, who avoided posturing and suicidal confrontations whenever possible. But on another level, rhetoric regarding a “new world”, which probably appeared extravagant to other working class audiences, resonated among African Americans, whose traditions emphasized both a struggle for survival and the transcendent hope of deliverance. Help from a powerful ally, even one as far away as Moscow, could seem a source of power and possibility.9David Roediger, ‘Where Communism was Black’, in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 56–7.
Surely, we can recognise the reality of this hope, and its often positive effects, without forgetting the contemporaneous and devastating violence of the Stalinist Terror.
Heinze accuses Davis (and Mari Matsuda)10Eric Heinze, ‘Truth, Myth and Critical Theory’, in Reza Benakar (ed.), Rights in Context: Law and Justice in Late Modern Society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). of succumbing to a ‘peculiarly American parochialism’ yet at the same time, entirely ignores the international context of the struggle against racism. Precisely because Davis was (and is) not simply an ‘anti-discrimination’ activist but a political militant for race, class and gender emancipation, she understood the struggle of black and other oppressed peoples in the United States as part and parcel of a broader international movement in which struggles for national liberation played a prominent role. In particular, she — and many other black radicals of the time — saw the struggle as intimately linked with the world’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. Here, one can hardly say that the stances of the USSR or China were ‘transparently bogus … anti-racist platitudes’. Whilst — again — one cannot ignore the self-interested motives at issue here, one equally cannot ignore the material, political and ideological support that the ‘second world’ gave to anti-colonial and national liberation movements, and the central role that Communist Parties played in them.11Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations (New York: New Press, 2007) details this very well. China too was a core part of the Third World movement.
Indeed, as Bill Bowring has noted, many of the anti-colonial international legal innovations were only achieved through the action of the USSR.12Bill Bowring, The Degradation of the International Legal Order (London: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008), pp. 9-38; see also John Quigley, Soviet Legal Innovation and the Law of the Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 115–24, for an account of how Soviet legal practices impacted upon racial equality legislation. This is another reason why a huge number of radical anti-racists in the US identified — in complex ways — with either the Soviet bloc or the People’s Republic of China.13See, for instance, Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, ‘Black Like Mao’, Souls 1.4 (Fall 1999): 6-41. Available at: http://kasamaproject.org/race-liberation/2006-38black-like-mao-red-china-black-revolution-part-1 One can certainly object to these identifications, but on Heinze’s account one would be forced essentially to write off a huge swath of radical, racially-oppressed individuals as ‘racist’.14Max Elbaum details how the US New Left was closely bound up with the national liberation Marxism in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002). To put it mildly, this is perverse.
It is patent that Heinze has no interest in Davis’s actual politics. Through a particularly unsubtle sleight of hand, he tendentiously argues that Mari Matsuda criticises American law in comparison to that of the Soviet Union. Yet at no point does he actually demonstrate that Davis criticises the US because it was somehow wanting in comparison to the USSR, or that this was a central element of her political vision. Indeed, we actually hear nothing about what the USSR actually had to do with Davis’s politics, simply that she made political visits to several countries in the Soviet bloc (it is worth noting that in her autobiography Davis does mention the contrast in her own experience of racism in East and West Germany). Davis’s critique of racism and oppression manifestly does not rely on comparing it to some imagined standard.
Moreover, Heinze notes that Davis ‘renounced her membership of the US Communist Party many years ago’. What he doesn’t note are the circumstances of her departure from the CPUSA or what her politics inside of the Party were. Here, we might simply point out that Davis was part of the reform wing of the Party, purged after its hardliners backed the 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup.15Erwin Marquit and Doris G. Marquit, ‘Party survives, but as a shell’, Minnesota Daily, 19 February 1992. Available at: <http://archive.is/b1L8j>. Hardly the actions of an unreconstructed supporter of the old Soviet system.
Here Heinze’s moralism once again rears its ugly head. One is left wondering what the actual stakes of his intervention are. Even if we go along with him in entirely decontextualising black radicalism and black internationalism, we have to ask the question: what exactly should Angela Davis have done differently? Presumably she should have stayed in the US and faced whatever the state threw at her, stoically accepting the same fate as Fred Hampton or Bobby Hutton. And now, before she ever speaks, she ought to go through a list of the problems and crimes of the Soviet bloc, express contrition, wring her hands. One assumes that Heinze’s lengthy denunciations of American and British imperialism (as opposed to the one or two throwaway platitudes he makes in this respect) are to be found in some other article.
It is this ultimate lack of attention to the specificity of Davis’s politics and its historical context which betrays something more troubling about Heinze’s intervention. Early in the piece he argues that he is concerned ‘not with Davis per se, but with a powerful political attitude which she embodied back then, and which, in new guises, lives today’. Smearing a radical black woman as a ‘racist’ in pursuit of some broader abstract point is problematic in and of itself. But one is ultimately left wondering what Heinze’s real target is. Who now operates with this ‘powerful attitude’? In this respect, one might note the previously mentioned reference to the idea of Israel as an apartheid state. This reflects the general tenor of the piece, namely that one cannot criticise any specific oppressions without first condemning every other oppression there has ever been. These tactics — ‘whatabout?’ and ‘will you condemn?’ — are a well-known hallmark of those both on the ‘left’ and the right who have sought to blunt and suppress criticisms of imperialism (up to and including supporting the Iraq war) and to stifle opposition to Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians.16http://decentpedia.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/decent-blitzkreig.html
In this respect, is it a coincidence that Heinze’s smear comes on the eve of Davis’s participation at an event on Palestine, G4S and the prison industrial complex?17http://www.waronwant.org/news/events/18019-on-palestine-g4s-and-the-prison-industrial-complex-an-evening-with-angela-davis-and-gina-dent To launch such a specious attack on an eloquent and courageous fighter against oppression is bad enough. To do so in order to undermine her defence of a people bearing the brunt of unrelenting military, political and economic violence would be despicable.
Robert Knox is a PhD Candidate in Law at the London School of Economics. His PhD focuses on the concept of imperialism in Marxist and Third World approaches to international law.
Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea.
The authors would like to thank Brenna Bhandar and Adam Hanieh for their comments and suggestions.
- 1Alan Johnson, ‘What does Angela Davis know about freedom?’, 25 October 2013, available at: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/alanjohnson/100243058/what-does-angela-davis-know-about-freedom/
- 2See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003).
- 3Dmitry Gorenburg, ‘Soviet Nationalities Policy and Assimilation’, in Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine, edited by Blair Ruble and Dominique Arel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Also available at: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~gorenbur/gorenburg%20assimilation.pdf. Gorenburg does stress the continuity in policies of Russification, rectifying the new paradigm, but does not frame this in terms of either ethnic cleansing or racism.
- 4Ronnie Kasrils, ‘Apartheid in duplicate’, Middle East Monitor, 2 July 2011, available at: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/guest-writers/2545-apartheid-in-duplicate
- 6Article 2 of the Apartheid Convention defines it as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. See John Dugard, ‘Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’, available at: <http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/cspca/cspca_e.pdf>. It is worth noting that the USSR and GDR voted in favour of this convention. The US and UK, along with Portugal and South Africa voted against. Israel abstained. To get a sense of the ideological map over the question of racism and apartheid in 1973, the year of Angela Davis’s visit to the GDR’s Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students, it is worthing casting an eye over this map (countries in green voted to condemn apartheid): http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/ICSPCA-members.PNG
- 8This is not to ignore the profound rifts among black and anti-racist militants about the role of both Soviet Communism and Marxism to their struggle. The intellectual biographies of CLR James and WEB DuBois, to name but the two most important figures in the ‘Black Marxist’ tradition, attest to this complexity. Anyone actually interested in ‘immanent critiques’ of black Communism could profitably turn to them. But see also the very stimulating recent crop of books on ‘black and red’ encounters and the communist genealogies of black left feminism: Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922–1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), esp. Ch. 1 on McKay and Ch. 3 on Du Bois; Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Komozi Woodward, Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis (eds.), Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Truth: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
- 9David Roediger, ‘Where Communism was Black’, in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 56–7.
- 10Eric Heinze, ‘Truth, Myth and Critical Theory’, in Reza Benakar (ed.), Rights in Context: Law and Justice in Late Modern Society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).
- 11Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations (New York: New Press, 2007) details this very well.
- 12Bill Bowring, The Degradation of the International Legal Order (London: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008), pp. 9-38; see also John Quigley, Soviet Legal Innovation and the Law of the Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 115–24, for an account of how Soviet legal practices impacted upon racial equality legislation.
- 13See, for instance, Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, ‘Black Like Mao’, Souls 1.4 (Fall 1999): 6-41. Available at: http://kasamaproject.org/race-liberation/2006-38black-like-mao-red-china-black-revolution-part-1
- 14Max Elbaum details how the US New Left was closely bound up with the national liberation Marxism in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002).
- 15Erwin Marquit and Doris G. Marquit, ‘Party survives, but as a shell’, Minnesota Daily, 19 February 1992. Available at: <http://archive.is/b1L8j>.
Dear Robert and Alberto,
Disagreements on fact and disagreements on method clearly separate us. What strikes me is that we nevertheless agree (although you phrase it differently) that the vast and brutal Soviet empire was thoroughly divided and remained governed along longstanding, entrenched ethnic lines; and that Angela Davis enthusiastically promoted that regime’s public profile.
Our disagreement is not on that particular fact, but on how to interpret it. For my part, I reject Davis’s choice of such an alliance, which I see as complicity in an odious regime of ethnic hierarchy (along with its other sinister and coercive hierarchies). In my view, that harm cannot be wiped from history through the familiar apologetics for Soviet policies (which, yes, always include the ritual nods to Soviet shortcomings). For your part, by contrast, you have chosen to applaud Davis’s high-profile gestures of support within the Soviet bloc. So be it.
I further agree with you that ‘many of the anti-colonial international legal innovations were only achieved through the action of the USSR.’ After all, that position was easy for the USSR to take. Its ethnically pure Russian elite had decided, unilaterally, that its own vast roster of subordinated nations (Chechnya, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, not to mention, say, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or East Germany) did not count as colonial vassals. Abracadabra, the USSR had no one to de-colonise, and could therefore spend its time on what you call its ‘internationalist’ commitment to ‘anti-colonialism’ and indeed ‘anti-imperialism’. China has enjoyed that same metaphysics in Tibet. A word might also be thrown in about both state’s successive roles in creating and then maintaining North Korea.
Indeed, some proof for that metaphysical—to use your term—‘transformation’ seems be to that, by the time of Angela Davis’s visits, none of those minority groups in the USSR or in China ever seemed to be objecting to their colonised status! Both of you are certainly right that Davis never needed to worry about what you call ‘emancipation’ movements there. No Chechnyan Ghandi. No Estonian Malcom X. The only problem, of course, is that any such leader, let alone any ‘anti-colonial emancipation’ movement would have been extinguished on the spot. And while we’re praising the art of Soviet ‘anti-colonialism’, let’s certainly recall the Soviet response to Hungary in 1956 or to Czechoslovakia in 1968 (and its later invasion of Afghanistan), as undisputed masterpieces of their own particular ‘anti-colonialist’ genre. The USSR did indeed show the West, and the world, how to hear the cries of the voiceless.
Once again, we can thank Orwell for reminding us of the newspeak whereby these vast colonial empires mystically become ‘anti-colonial’. When it comes to ‘listening to the voice of the colonised Other’, you and I certainly can agree that the Russian and Chinese powers, along with the West, have had loads to teach humanity. While Western colonialism was indeed heinous, the default Soviet remedy, which you call ‘anti-colonialism’, witnessed the Kremlin setting up franchise one-party states (miraculously like its own), not to remove structures of arbitrary and brutal domination, but rather to entrench dominant ethnic groups which could repress, impoverish, and even extinguish less powerful ethnic groups. No, the West often did little better, but those certainly were remarkable ‘anti-colonialist’ gestures from the Soviets.
We can also certainly agree on ‘how racism has manifested itself with such virulence in Eastern Bloc countries, and particularly Russia, after 1989 – including in the virulence of racist ideologies of whiteness repressed under Soviet rule’. Yes indeed, immediately ‘after’. There was no temporal break at all. I agree: that is an odd result for societies which, for decades, purported to be teaching anti-racist messages to their citizens, from the youngest ages, and to be doing so far better than the West was doing it—not least by using a willing Angela Davis as their peremptory tool for such ‘education’. Particularly noteworthy is the skyrocketing of anti-Semitism immediately following the demise of the USSR. Surely the East bloc’s studious and vigilant downplaying of the Holocaust (again, conspicuously unimportant to Davis) cannot have had anything to do with that? And anyone who thinks the homophobia is somehow a break with the Soviet time, rather than an obvious sequel to it, is living a fantasy.
But now it seems our two ‘experts’ are—among their myriad of either illogical or poorly researched claims—now actively choosing to collude in the legacy of Soviet anti-Semitism. They are asking readers of the Critical Legal Thinking website to believe that Soviet ‘state-led anti-semitism was halted by Stalin’s death’ in 1953! That is a frightening fabrication (notwithstanding whatever perfunctory lip-service may otherwise be rendered about anti-Semitism). I can only agree with both of you, once again, that someone certainly does need to ‘pause to reflect’ on this curious little puzzle of post-Soviet intolerance towards minorities, and where its roots may lie. Leaving aside persecution of Jews continuing well up to the time of Davis’s visits and beyond, the former two-star Romanian Securitate Lt. Gen. Ion Pacepa later disclosed how the Soviets, along with their massive, colonial empire, managed to preserve yet another heirloom from the tsars: ‘In the mid-1970s we . . . started showering the Islamic world with an Arabic translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tsarist Russian forgery that had been used by Hitler as the foundation for his anti-Semitic philosophy.’
In a 2006 National Review article, Pacepa explains how the KGB actively spread that and similar materials throughout the Muslim world—materials whose language, down to the slightest words and phrases, has resonated verbatim through Muslim media and culture ever since. The then KGB-chief (later to succeed Brezhnev) Yuri Andropov had told Pacepa that the USSR planned to ‘whip up’ Muslim states’ ‘illiterate, oppressed mobs to a fever pitch.’ Pacepa adds that, according to Andropov, ‘We needed to instil a Nazi-style hatred for the Jews throughout the Islamic world, and to turn this weapon of the emotions into a terrorist bloodbath against Israel’ (See http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/218533/russian-footprints/ion-mihai-pacepa) I’ll say one thing to Robert’s and Alberto’s credit: that certainly was an international effort by the Kremlin.
Davis, to be fair, could not easily have detected that particular plot. It speaks volumes, however, about what you, Robert and Alberto, praise as the Soviet Union’s ‘internationalism’, particularly in view of your references to the crisis of the Palestinians and its causes.
A further note of agreement. You both refer to ‘These tactics – “whatabout?” and “will you condemn?”’, which you call ‘a well-known hallmark of those . . . who have sought to blunt and suppress criticisms of imperialism’. Yes that may well be correct, since you have both certainly used that tactic, purporting to remind me of the atrocities of US government policy, which I had already clearly recognised at the outset—and for no apparent reason other than to fashion your apologetics of Soviet and Chinese imperialism.
But if, despite using that tactic effusively, you remain unable to understand questions of basic hypocrisy as fundamental elements, recognised over thousands of years of philosophical literature, in any reasoning about ethics and politics (particularly prominent, as you have failed to notice, in Marx), then, quite frankly, it becomes hard to understand what you think you are achieving when you purport to reason about ethics or politics. If David Cameron were to criticise a Labour MP for tax fraud, only to find out the next week that a Conservative MP had committed the same kind of fraud—well, yes, I certainly would ask “whatabout?” and “will you condemn?”. And I would find it illegitimate, indeed downright odd, for Cameron to reply that I was simply seeking ‘to blunt and suppress criticisms of’ the Labour Party.
In the context of Israel, that certainly does not mean that we Israel must receive not an iota more nor less criticism than other states receive. Far from it. Rather, at the UN and in other leading fora, Israel has received exponentially more hostility than the colossal abuses of the USSR and her successor states, China, and any number of other hideous regimes. Here to, either the failure or the sheer refusal to see the USSR as one of the chief architects of that perversion is deny strands of history so decisive as to distort that history utterly.
Finally, as to whatever it is you mean by ‘moral taste’, you write with shock that I ‘present the Soviet Union as some kind of white supremacist Empire’. Although I do not use that phrase, given that the USSR, one of history’s most multiethnic empires, was ruled by an ethnically cleansed Russian elite, please do feel free to propose a more ‘morally tasteful’ locution. Did the Kremlin suddenly become multiethnic simply because it knew how to shuttle Ms Davis around a stage?
Your aesthetic complaints stretch further, rejecting my condemnation of ‘politicians flying in to praise racist Alabama in the 1950s’. You call it ‘even more . . . bad taste considering that this is where Davis originates from, and where some of the most horrific violence of white supremacy struck very close to her.’ Yes, that ‘horrific violence’ in Davis’s home state was precisely the point of the analogy. Did people in the Soviet bloc, notably East Berlin, the location of at least one particularly mediatised visit, not also have homes where state-perpetrated violence (such as people shot for trying to escape) had taken place? If it is bad taste for me to recall violence in Alabama, why was it good taste for Davis to ignore the violence that ruled everyday life in or around the homes of people living under the Soviet empire?
We have no wish to get involved in a tiresome and doubtlessly sterile exchange with Prof. Heinze, who is clearly intent on depicting us as apologists for Stalinism, so we’ll limit ourselves to two points of clarification.
1. Heinze would like to smear us too, with the charge that we are engaging in a ‘frightening fabrication’ regarding anti-semitism in the Soviet Union. Are we ‘asking readers of the Critical Legal Thinking website to believe that Soviet “state-led anti-semitism was halted by Stalin’s death” in 1953? By no means. We were bringing attention to the fact that Stalin’s death interrupted an ‘explicit campaign of state-led anti-semitism’, i.e. official, ideological anti-semitism, not denying the fact of discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union.
2. Heinze persists in wishing to claim that the Soviet Union was ruled by an ‘ethnically cleansed Russian elite’. This is a travesty. In the 1970s, to stick with the period of Davis’s visit, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’ included Azerbaijani, Ukrainian, Georgian, Uzbek, Latvian, Belarusian and Kazakh members. Needless to say this representation of ethnicities at the level of Party elites does not deny the realities of ethnic discrimination in the Soviet Union, but it does refute Heinze’s depiction of the Soviet Union as a racial state founded on Russian supremacy.
(1) Following even the most rudimentary knowledge of the USSR, we are, of course, discussing nothing like ‘Stalinism’. This discussion has focussed on both the history and the character of the very different Brezhnev era. The types of apologetics offered in this ‘response’ piece (like Davis’s own political gestures), right down to Robert’s and Alberto’s sweet fairytales of Soviet ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-colonialism’, as flagrant covers for an ever-churning machine of repression and of social division and decay, are vintage Brezhnev-era whitewashings of the Soviet imperial machine. What the authors call ‘Stalinism’ is indeed irrelevant, both to my challenges, and to the specific content of their own apologetics—and, of course, to Davis’s high-profile support.
(2) I am glad we agree, then, that the most odious anti-Semitism continued directly until the time of Davis’s visits (its superficial changes after 1953 being obviously irrelevant), and that the policy was nevertheless entirely unimportant to Davis, as it is still to Robert and Alberto. The USSR’s imperial (or, as we’re so charmingly asked to call it, ‘internationalist’) presence in the region, as one Middle East state after another openly adopted Soviet statist models, and followed the Kremlin’s hideous anti-Semitic formulas, set the stage for a lethal regional politics for decades, far beyond what could ever be simple-mindedly and reductively attributed either to one or to the other side of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
(3) I am also glad we agree, as I stated earlier, that, yes, empires do typically draw on members of their conquered or colonised peoples to perform mid-level functions; but that anyone blind to the conspicuous ethnic homogeneity where the highest Soviet power was actually being exercised, is, again, dreaming the sweet, Brezhnev-era fairytales of Soviet ‘internationalism’ and, as our authors call it, ‘anti-colonialism’.
It seems rather a stretch to refer to the Politburo as mid-level functionaries
An update, of course, now screams out to us, in view of the Ukraine crisis. The authors will surely agree that we would have to be, in their words, “purblind” to fail to link the current crisis to what the authors deem to be the Soviet regime’s anti-racist “internationalism”, unreservedly deployed by Davis. Bill Bowring, cited by the authors, has kindly authorised citation of the following comments from a discussion hosted on his Facebook page:
“I have been expelled from Russia twice (in 2005 and 2007)… and my wife is half Tatar – the other half Mordovian, also conquered by the Russian Empire, But she is Russian and not constitutively racist – however Russian regimes like their British counterparts have been and are constitutively racist!”
Bowring’s original post:
“The real victims of Russia’s illegal and dangerous actions in Crimea are the Crimean Tatars, whose homeland this is. A sense of history is in order. The Russian Empire conquered the Crimean Khanate and subdued the Crimean Tatars in the 18th century. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was the military action and invasion by Britain and France to stop the Russian Empire’s dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the war, Karl Marx wrote a coruscating account of Britain’s connivance with the Russian Empire – “Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century” Marx-Engels Collected Works Vol.15 (London, Lawrence & Wishart) 25-96, originally published in instalments in The Free Press August 1856 – April 1857; and London, Swan Sonnenschein; available in Project Gutenberg at http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/…/gutbook/lookup… and in the Marx Archive at http://www.marxists.org/…/marx/works/1857/russia/index.htm. Under Stalin the Russian Empire reached its widest extent, and the USSR committed genocide when in August 1944 half the Crimean Tatar population died when the entire population were deported to Central Asia. The first violence of the present events occurred when Crimean Tatars, who have been returning to their homeland since the late 1980s and are now more than 12% of the population, assembled to welcome the Maidan, and were attacked by Russians – most of the Russians in Crimea are former military and intelligence. As for the US and NATO, the objective of the US has always been to complete the dismemberment of the USSR, with bases in Kyrgyzstan, and (for a time) a client state in Georgia.”
Perhaps someday our authors will explain to us why it would not have been Davis’s role to side with ethnic majorities against an empire, instead of siding with that empire’s Orwellian double-speak of anti-racist “internationalism”.
Apologies: for “ethnic majorities” in that final sentence, please read, of course, “ethnic minorities”.
Dear Professor Heinze,
Your views regarding Angela Davis have been most enlightening. She is scheduled to visit our small college this month for a presentation. I have also enjoyed your lively exchanges with Robert Knox and Alberto Toscano. I would only add that their characterization of the Vietnam War as ‘racist’ was not justifiable, since the U.S. allied itself with the Vietnamese people in the southern part of that (then) divided nation. The North Vietnamese were opposed because of their political ideology (communism), not because of their ‘race’/ethnicity.
Gary, it takes a special kind of ignorance and indifference to suggest that U.S. “alliance” with the South Vietnam was anything but one of convenience and military strategy. To suggest that because U.S. allied with the Government of South Vietnam that it had no racist motives with regards to the reckless murder of the Vietnamese people, going so far as to using chemical weapons and napalm indiscriminately, is beyond asinine.
Eric Heinze, you have displayed remarkable persistence to grasping thus addressing any of the valid criticism directed at your immature hit piece.
There is nothing more idiotic than to suggest Angela Davis was a racist for supporting USSR because unlike the defining characteristics of the U.S. state policy and attitude towards black people, USSR didn’t at any stage of it’s existence adopt institutional racism, nor the problems that ethnic minorities faced under the Bolsheviks were in any way comparable in magnitude and persistence of those faced by black people in the United States.
What’s even more perplexing is that you have completely ignored the context in which Davis was voicing support for USSR, a regime which has for purposes explained to you (they should be obvious but whatever) provided material and political aid to oppressed people.
If you had a consistent bone in your body, you should’ve made the argument that everyone in U.S. and U.K. were genocidal racists with blood on their hands because these countries provided not only moral, but actual material support to Stalin’s USSR during WW2.
The ignorance in this response is astounding. That you would label US aid to South Vietnam as a matter of military and political convenience and strategy yet ignore the very same implications that would have on Soviet aid to oppressed people shows a willful lack of follow through on your own logic. The asinine thing to do would be to draw up an assumption of racial motivation for a clearly politically and militarily motivated conflict in Vietnam. It would also ignore the clear ethnically motivated attacks on minority ethnic groups committed by the North Vietnamese state following the war. It is clear that you refuse to actually read or analyze the piece written by Heinze or evaluate his commentary. if you had done so, you might have even realized that the key point he had made was not necessarily her racism, but her hypocrisy in ignoring racism and bigotry in these states that supported her economic theories while using those same things as the linchpin of her argument against Capitalism and the West. The devaluing of the genocide and atrocities committed against minority groups within the USSR shows particular ignorance. The fact that you state their experience were not “in any way comparable in magnitude and persistence of those faced by black people in the United States” really shows the ignorance you have towards the experiences of ethnic groups in Eastern Europe both under the Soviet Union and even under the prior Tzarist regime in Russia. The number of people killed and forcibly relocated by Communist regimes in China and Russia alone make slavery and the racism experienced by African-Americans in America look minor in comparison. And those numbers occurred in a much shorter period of time. That would be an unfair statement though, and, truly, the experiences of black people in the US should not be minimized in this way. The things experienced by African-Americans in the US were awful and should not be treated as lesser than other groups. But the issue is that this minimization of other people’s experienced is exactly what you have done. Finally, you treated an act of political and military convenience committed by a nation-state as comparable to the enthusiastic and uninhibited support of a nation-state and a system of government by an individual. This is. once again, an obvious attempt to ignore the realities of a situation. A state can and will often times ally with other nation-states, not because they like or support the other nation-state but rather because they both are opposing a common enemy and need to ally to defeat said enemy. An individual in this situation, however, has willingly supported and advocated for a state largely for its political and economic situation. her stance was not one of convenience, but one of enthusiastic support for those states and what they stood for. I do think you were aware of the issues with your response, but were simply bending a twisting things to meet the narrative you were already seeking.
funny enough, I came across this when sorting through old bookmarks, never realizing that I made a babbling idiot foam through the mouth months after my response…
“The number of people killed and forcibly relocated by Communist regimes in China and Russia alone make slavery and the racism experienced by African-Americans in America look minor in comparison. ”
and here we have someone whose stupidity and ignorance goes miles beyond the realm of the imbecilic and the clueless, with such lack of self-awareness to insult others on their intellectual abilities or knowledge of political affairs. The crucial point, that your puny mind fails to grasp, is that these were mostly politically motivated events and were no longer remotely in full effect. The fact is that you can’t point to the 60s and 70s and demonstrate a state sanctioned racism by the USSR and her allies, proves to me you have already lost the argument.
The atrocities committed by the USSR, directed towards minorities (except for a brief period of Stalinist anti-semitic madness) never amounted to a state sanctioned ideology or programs. Most importantly By the 1960’s and 70’s Jews, Ukranians, Azeris and many other ethnic groups were represented in the political, economic and social landscape of the Union, whereas US still (if one can believe the good intentions of the leadership) struggled to de-segregate schools, end police violence on black men, create economic opportunities for black people etc.
The irony of your stupidity is that while you make the claim that Vietnam war was motivated by political and military goals (while failing to express how that would rule out the racist motivations in how that war was carried out), yet insist that any policy carried out against any minority in USSR had to be clearly racially motivated, ignoring that events like the Ukranian famine, relocation of Chechens etc. were calculated political decisions in order to strengthen central grip on these areas and hardly as a result of the opinion of Soviet leadership or doctrine.
Back on the Vietnam issue, if you think for one second that the sheer dehumanization of the Vietnamese can be overlooked as a reason to why and how the distinctly violent that campaign was carried out, you’re even dumber than I originally thought. What’s even more idiotic (as if that’s possible at this stage) is that you are ignoring the vast history of racist colonialism which allied with “natives” in order to subjugate and exploit. This was the case in Africa, colonization of the West, South America etc.
There was no hypocrisy on part of Angela Davis, whatever racial issues present in Soviet Bloc in the 70s were minuscule in comparison to what she and her comrades faced “at home” and the policies of the communist bloc nations were eradicating these issues. Russification were no longer in effect, quite the opposite, local languages were taught and promoted in early education and academia.
“But the issue is that this minimization of other people’s experienced is exactly what you have done.”
By the 70s, there were no mass scale racially motivated discriminatory policies in the USSR, so I can’t minimize what can’t be experienced. Angela Davis’ can’t be called a hypocrite for not pointing out something which wasn’t there.
My good sir, take that stick out of your bum!
What a deluded fool you are.
The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. Did Angela Davis ever criticize any of these invasions?