The Haitian Coup and the Tragedy of the Left
by J. C. Myers
March 13, 2004
In the fall of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, some will undoubtedly find a contemporary staging of the Great Tragedy of the Left: revolutionary leaders — brought to power on the shoulders of a popular movement — sink into a mire of corruption and repression, only to be overthrown by the same forces that once lifted them into office. What begins with a drive by Lavalas to reverse the brutal exploitation of the Duvalier regimes ends with accusations of thuggery and gangsterism directed against Lavalas itself. It is this particular morality play — or, perhaps more accurately, this particular interpretation of history — that has pulled scores of Left intellectuals toward the anti-political philosophies of anarchism and postmodernism. If politics is always and everywhere corrupt and repressive, then politics itself must be part of the problem, rather than a means to the solution.
But while these anti-authoritarian critics are normally rigorous and detailed in their search for abuses of power by Leftist governments, all too often, they seem blind to the pressures brought to bear on socialist states by the forces of reaction. By now, however, the capitalist Right's playbook is all too familiar.
Step one: Make the economy scream. This was Richard Nixon's instruction to CIA chief Richard Helms after Salvador Allende was elected to Chile's highest office in 1970. A similar philosophy guided the American Cold War arms build-up, whose purpose was not to counter a Soviet military threat, but to bait the USSR into an arms race that would cripple its economy. The traces of this strategy are clear in the Bush administration's suspension of economic aid — and its signals to the IMF and the Organization of American States to cut off their support — to a country already so grindingly poor that it simply could not withstand another blow.
Step two: Send lawyers, guns, and money. Would the opponents of Nicaragua's Sandinista government have amounted to anything other than a discontented minority of former elites had the Reagan administration never supplied them with military advisors, weapons, and suitcases of cash? The world will never know. Nor will it be clear how the WWII surplus M-1 rifles visible in the first photos of Guy Philippe's rebel army were mysteriously transformed into shiny, new M-16s and MP-5s. The circumstantial evidence, however, points in the direction of Washington.
Step three: Accuse the Left of repression when they resist. War, as Carl Von Clausewitz taught, is the continuation of policy by other means. Arming the opponents of a socialist government, then, is nothing more than a way for the capitalist Right to carry the political struggle beyond the ballot box. And what better way to seize the moral high-ground in that contest than to declare shock and horror when a state under siege attempts to defend itself?
The political orientation of the Left, broadly speaking, demands that we take seriously the monopolization of political power by an elite, the exploitation of workers by bureaucrats, or the repression of dissent. None of these are compatible with our vision of a good society. Yet, the realities of power in our world also demand that we take seriously the tenacity with which the capitalist class and its allies will fight to retain control where they hold it or to regain control where they have lost it. I recall Eric Hobsbawm, in a post-graduate course on 20th century history putting the matter this way: The decisions Lenin and the other leaders of the Russian Revolution make are open to criticism, but in a real revolution you either make the tough decisions today or you don't get to make any more decisions tomorrow.
Perhaps the thin line dividing politics from war is one the Left should never cross. But if so, we should be clear about the fact that we are giving up on the project of running governments — at least until the capitalist Right agrees to play by the same set of rules. Without vigorous criticism, political leadership is likely to degenerate into cronyism and corruption. But without rigorous realism, criticism is likely to degenerate into utopianism and betrayal.
J. C. Myers is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.