Beyond the Cold War
Blackshirts & Reds: by Michael Parenti
by Michael ParentiCity Lights Books, San Francisco 160 pp.
REVIEW BY STAN GOFF
In 1983, I worked with a man named Karl who was teaching me and other special operations soldiers in the U.S. Army a subject called tradecraft, the insider term that refers to spying and running spy rings. He had supervised a spy ring for eight years along the Czech border with Germany, where he collected information against the Czech government from Czech citizens on his payroll. It had been part of the war (hot and cold) which this country waged against socialist nations for most of the century.
By 1991, after laying siege to socialism for 74 years, transnational capital succeeded against Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. That same year, I ran across the title Inventing Reality by Michael Parenti. I had just returned from Peru, my fifth conflict area, after Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada and El Salvador. I was working as a Special Operations Medical Sergeant with 7th Special Forces. My capacity for denial was nearly exhausted, and my thirst to make sense of my own experience was nearly insatiable.
I had long experience with the brutal Realpolitik of U.S. foreign policy and with the consistently myopic reflection of those realities by the press, the punditry and official histories. I was ripe for an analysis of that experience that rang true, and I read Parenti’s book in one sitting. It was pivotal in directing my political consciousness. Inventing Reality was a clear, concise account of the corporate media’s essential ideological function on behalf of organized, concentrated economic power.
Six years later, I found another Parenti title, and my excitement was rewarded with another trenchant critique of official stories, this one hearkening back to my lessons in tradecraft with Karl and his stories of penetrating Czech society with spies. Blackshirts & Reds discusses the great combat between fascism and socialism that is the defining feature of the 20th Century, and takes every official version to task for its substitution of moral analysis for critical analysis, for its selectivity and for its errata.
By portraying the struggle between fascism and Communism in this century as a single conflict—not a series of discrete encounters between the need for new capital and the survival of a system under siege—Parenti defines fascism as the weapon of capitalism, not simply an extreme form of it. Fascism is not an aberration, he says, but a rational and integral component of the system.
To ignore the role of White Guard civil war, foreign intervention, economic isolation, espionage and sabotage, calculated subversion, and the resistance and reaction of pre-Communist owning classes, and to focus only on the coercion of Communist states is tantamount to presenting only the plaintiff’s evidence to a jury and disallowing the defendant’s. Parenti argues that, in the recounting of U.S. history, every matter in extenuation and mitigation is taken into account. The U.S. economic reality now is seldom judged with reference to state-sponsored genocide, slavery, imperial conquests, and two centuries of gunboat diplomacy, but every perceived aberration of Stalin is referred to even in discussions of Soviet life long after Stalin was dead.
"In the United States…the ruling interests tirelessly propagated anticommunism among the populace, until it became more like a religious orthodoxy than a political analysis," Parenti writes. "During the cold war, the anticommunist ideological framework could transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence."
Parenti emphasizes existing communist societies because the problem with the anticommunist "left," he says, is that they are committed only to "pure socialism," one that has never existed, and eschew any form of "existing socialism," which in the real world was "siege socialism."
Led by popular anarchist scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, who can be perceived as comparatively harmless by the ruling class—having foregone organized power to dismantle organized capitalism—left anticommunists, Parenti says, have reduced revolution to a protracted academic discussion that embraces a fundamentally infantile analysis. The achievements of Communism—from public ownership of productive forces, priority placed on human services, the elevated status of women, support of national liberation struggles, rapid industrialization, reduction of economic inequalities, and the role a socialist alternative played in our own civil rights movement—were ignored by the anticommunist left, and still are.
"Was an open, pluralistic, democratic socialism actually possible at this historic juncture?" Parenti asks. "The historical evidence would suggest that it was not." The comfortable American left, especially among those who have experienced neither prison nor war, often has no stomach for such reflections.
For me, as someone on the left who continually encounters this knee-jerk reaction among "progressives" who do not share my own experience working on behalf of fascist regimes as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy for more than 20 years, confronting left anticommunism is the most important role this book can play. Objective realities are not beholden to comfortable moralities. The right recognizes this; the left’s failure to grasp this simple fact disarms us. "For a people’s revolution to survive," writes Parenti, "it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come."
Truth is hard. The idea that everything worthwhile can be accomplished while maintaining a perfect and bipolar morality is an article of pure (and puerile) faith, and an insult to those willing to engage the realities of a deeper and more meaningful morality.
Emotional evaluation becomes particularly hypnotic, Parenti indicates, with regard to personalities. Any personality, like the Dalai Lama today, regardless of how reactionary his or her true histories are, that can be fobbed off on a credulous public as a symbol of freedom receives accolades from members of an uncritical left. A perfect example is the first post-Communist leader of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. Parenti writes, "The many left-leaning people who also admire Havel seem to have overlooked his reactionary religious obscurantism, his undemocratic suppression of leftist opponents, and his profound dedication to economic inequality and an unrestrained free-market capitalism."
Formerly Communist Czechoslovakia today is in economic shambles. Like the rest of the former Warsaw Pact nations, guarantees of jobs, medical care, free education, housing, and simple physical safety in the streets have become fading memories of the supposedly "bloodthirsty Communist dictatorship." Public assets were sold off at garage sale prices. Speculators are moving in like hyenas on the opportunities provided by massive unemployment, and common gangsters have become a new ruling elite.
The hard truth is that when my tradecraft instructor, Karl, was probing Czech society he was being directed to dismantle a system, however flawed, that blanketed the entire Warsaw Pact, one that subordinated the economy to the needs of its citizens and not to the avarice of a few capitalists. Karl’s activity was part of an ongoing war, and failure of the Pact to recognize an existing state of war would have resulted in exactly what is happening to Czechoslovakia today. The rules of a peaceful society would have been suicidal, and the misguided urge to open its society to Western penetration in 1968, from the standpoint of survival (not some vacuum-packed morality) had to be stopped. The Soviet incursion, in the context of an existing, albeit undeclared, state of war, was based an what has proven today to have been an accurate analysis of Western intent and Czech reformers’ dangerous naivete.
This kind of re-evaluation of our (manufactured) popular moral (mis)judgments with regard to Communism is what Blackshirts & Reds is all about. It is not about condemning or forgiving or apologizing, but about seeking more critical and less emotional assessments of our epoch in the context of material, social, economic, and political realities that conditioned this century.
Stan Goff retired from the Army in 1996. Most of his career was spent in Special Operations. He is writing a book about the Haiti intervention of 1994 in which he participated. He lives and works in Chapel Hill, N.C.