Stan Goff is a former US Special Forces Master Sergeant with three decades of military experience, now heavily involved in anti-war work with Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now campaign. He is also the author of two books, Full Spectrum Disorder, an analysis of the US military action, and Hideous Dream, a memoir based on his military experience.
Below, in an extensive interview, Goff discusses the current configuration of the American political landscape in light of all the scandals exploding around the administration, and what the Left can do to take advantage of them. He also talks about the politics of the anti-war movement, why liberals refuse to endorse immediate withdrawal, and on a personal note, how is own son came to sign up for the military. Finally, Goff offers his thoughts on the Venezuelan revolution, its achievements, and its implications for neo-leftist ideas that declaimed against the state as a site for social change after the USSR’s demise.
Alam: A political sandstorm is brewing for the Bush administration on so many fronts: Iraq, Plamegate, Katrina, gas prices, the Delay indictment and the judicial debacle. Broadly speaking, do you think the left will be able to capitalize on Republican weakness, or does the centrism of the Democrats stand in the way of significant gains?
Goff: The crisis of the Bush administration has just been further deepened by the mass protests and political cold shoulder he got when we visited Latin America to flog the FTAA. Hugo Chavez declared that the agreement would be buried in Mar de Plata, Argentina. And huge, militant street actions ripped the costumes off the perception management act.
A Zogby poll now shows that the majority of military personnel in the US armed forces disapprove of their commander in chief’s performance. The CIA gulag is being exposed. More Abu Ghraib photos will soon be released, just as Janis Karpinski’s expose is released. While we don’t hear about it here any longer, the incident in Afghanistan where Special Forces troops burned the bodies of dead Muslims remains a source of seething fury in the region. A little-reported Shia rebellion is gaining strength in Basra, while Sistani talks about the new government demanding American withdrawal. And Karen Hughes, Bush’s PR flak, recently had her head publicly handed to her when she tried to lecture Indonesians on democracy as she tried the kind of historical mythologizing that she gets away with in the US.
The crisis here is one of legitimacy. There is no immediate threat to the general stability of US imperial power. There is a threat, however, to the Republican Party that is being borne into the party by a fairly reckless lame-duck government, and the latent threats to imperial power are growing everywhere.
If the US left doesn’t encumber itself with unrealistic expectations, there is ample room to make some headway in the next period. But we have to understand which points we push on will give way and which won’t.
Standing on the sidelines during the Republican terramoto to show how above bourgeois politics we are strikes me as pretty foolish and self-indulgent. We definitely have to unite with this gathering storm surge of resistance to the seated government, even when it does provide some short-term opportunities for the Democratic Party.
Internationally, this crisis of legitimacy is not perceived as a Republican issue, but a US issue. Most of the rest of the world has some real sense of what US policy internationally translates into for them, and the distinction between Republicans and Democrats is fairly meaningless except to a few pet NGOs. I think these perceptions abroad are more accurate than our perceptions here.
The left in the US is clearly out of the left-sectarian sandbox right now with regard to the war against Iraq. At least the majority in the US now believes it was a bad idea–for a whole host of reasons–and that it’s time to get out. So mass organizing has created a huge new discursive space here for the left, and we need to ensure we don’t blow it by using shotgun propaganda–that is, approaching every sector in the movement and every audience with the same message, couched in the same terms.
It always amazes me that the same people who can explain something as nuanced and philosophically complex as commodity fetishism can fail to appreciate the formidable epistemological barriers that prevent most other people from understanding the same things. But if we learn to do public pedagogy effectively, beginning with the reduction of these barriers through popular education and the development of different approaches for different sectors, there is a huge potential to consolidate the left itself, and to win over key new layers of the mass movement to at least an anti-imperial consciousness.
This is a crucial step along the path to refounding a US left that has the power to go beyond the demonstration dynamic and actually begin to put down local roots in communities where they can develop some institutional infrastructure. This seems like an organizational development imperative.
But the left also has the responsibility to weaken the obstacles to progress toward refoundation of a vital left in the US, and my own feeling is that this involves the eventual euthanasia of the Democratic Party even though I don’t think we should underplay the risks of this for polemical advantage. It is very risky, and so we need to calculate those risks, then move forward.
The key is to expose and isolate the opportunistic leadership of that party without attacking its rank and file. Calling people stupid for voting Democrat is a fine cathartic outburst, but it doesn’t seem like a very good strategy for wining over the next layer of people to an anti-imperialist consciousness.
We are already dong a fairly good job of exposing the Democratic Party on the war against Iraq right now, or rather, the Democratic Party is dong a fine job of exposing itself. But there are two points of vulnerability that haven’t been taken up as aggressively as they should be and that is making the connections between the social conditions of oppressed nationalities in the US and the Palestinians.
Many people want to make a preposterous case that the Republican neocons are in the pay of Israel and that the US is somehow subordinate to Israel. This is not only idiotic, it is often anti-Semitic world Jewish conspiracy stuff. The problem is that people in the US are spectacularly ignorant about Palestine and the state of Israel. The more dominant belief is that Israel is an island of white civilization in a sea of Arab deviance, of course, and an alarming number of Republican partisans have convinced themselves that the Israeli state is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the end times. The political reality is that the Republicans have seized on Zionism so aggressively to undermine the Democratic Party, whose Zionism is almost legendary.
So I guess I believe that we should be working three fronts hard.
On a practical level, relating to the Iraq war, we have to up the ante in terms of war resistance and strengthen our efforts at counter-recruitment. This materially weakens the war effort, and the US military failure in Iraq is an advance for the whole world. It also means attacking Republicans, and uniting with mass disillusion about Republicans.
On an organizational level, it seems we have to consolidate the left wing of the movement, isolate the reactionaries who are trapped in this legitimacy crisis, and work a lot harder and smarter to win over new layers of the antiwar movement and oppressed nationalities to an anti-imperialist orientation.
Finally, we need to develop durable, local social and political infrastructure I’m thinking here of three groups I know, the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark, and the whole city block in Chicago developed around the Puerto Rican Cultural Center–where I recently had the honor to visit. Black Workers for Justice here in North Carolina has always looked in this direction, too, with a workers center, clinics, the World Cultural Center, and so forth.
Alam: Turning to the anti-war movement: Cindy Sheehan has been a remarkable symbol of the anti-war movement–mother of a soldier lost to the war, active, principled, and outspoken. However, the anti-war left still seems trapped in the same kind of circular, sporadic protest-conference dynamic. What could the hard left do in terms of its own behavior that could change this circle into an upward spiral of action?
Goff: Just for myself, I don’t see the process as an upward spiral, and I’m not trying to quibble over metaphors here. I see it as moving into abandoned spaces. That’s why though I believe the demonstrations are important, the real work to consolidate the advanced activists has to happen at the local level. I’m thinking here about the ten-point program of the Black Panther party, and how that was paired with the development of local social and political infrastructure. Yusuf Nuruddin recently wrote a good piece on this for Socialism and Democracy.
Symbolic politics has great catalytic value, but a limited life expectancy.
Locally-rooted, and culturally homogenous organizations with an anti-imperial consciousness are not only more effective at pursuing counter-recruitment work and pressuring elected officials on the war, they are on the front lines against the attack against their own living standards. Katrina is showing us, if we care to look, an accelerated version of what may be the most important issue facing Black and Brown communities in the US, and that is gentrification.
Alam: Liberals who express disillusionment and anger with the war–like Juan Cole – nevertheless object to immediate US military withdrawal because they argue it would result in total anarchy and chaos. They also say the US has certain obligations to Iraqis in light of its policies the past two years. Are these objections valid, or are they cover for a more visceral concern about the US losing “credibility” if it leaves?
Goff: They are an expression of white supremacy. I don’t think there is any way to sugarcoat this. The racism of reactionaries has been isolated to a large degree. We can start a fight over the Minutemen or the Daughters of the Confederacy and pretty much win the public debate. Liberal racism is a far more destructive force in this society, largely because it is still unacknowledged. The argument to stay the course from liberals is based directly and absolutely on a latter-day version of the “white man’s burden to civilize the darker races.”
The political cover is not to protect US credibility. The leadership of the Democratic Party wants to stay in Iraq for the same reason the Republicans do. This is, from the point of view of the US state, an absolutely necessary re-disposition of the post-Cold War American military. The argument between D’s and R’s is about how to accomplish it.
The reason we saw next to zero official Democratic Party participation in September 24th was that the Democratic Party leadership disagrees with us. They want those permanent bases in Iraq every bit as much as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz do. There is simply no other way to explain why the most visible leaders of that party continue to argue for expanding the war with more troops and garnering more international support for it, when the polls show this to be an increasingly unpopular position like free trade agreements, another issue where the public opposes, and both parties agree. This is a pretty good indicator that transnational capital operating through the US state regards these positions as non-negotiable.
Alam: Turning personal for a moment: you’ve been very active in the anti-war movement as a member of Military Families Speak Out, you spent about 30 years in the Special Forces before you became a socialist, and you have a son who served in the military Iraq. The question sort of presents itself: how did the son of a Master Sergeant-turned-Marxist end up joining the military?
Goff: My son grew up on a military installation. That was a good life, from his standpoint. Military installations are socialist societies. Everything on them is held in common, and almost every facility and support activity is available universally to all members of the armed forces. Good schools, health care, housing allowance or free housing, recreation facilities, and for inter-racial kids like my son, a whole population of kids like him. Inter-racial marriage is far more common in the Army than in US society generally. He saw me get a check twice a month, and I never had to worry about being fired.
His own child had just been born, and he was working at McDonalds. So he went to what he knew. Fort Bragg is where my kids have their most enduring sense of place. And Fort Bragg is a nice place. It is well kept, and it is not cluttered up with commercial billboards. There are all sorts of things to do–fishing, swimming, craft shops, gyms, theaters, libraries, walking trails, and so on.
I won’t speak for him on the question of the war, because I do not have his permission to do that. But if he never had to go back to Iraq, I doubt he’d be calling for an appointment with mental health to deal with his disappointment. He’s 22. He likes to fish and dance and play video games and hang out with his pizos. My kids are aggressively apolitical it’s a separation thing, I suspect.
Alam: One of the often unrecognized consequences of resistance in Iraq is the US government’s inability to direct its full wrath at an enemy much closer to home: Hugo Chavez. What are your thoughts about Chavez’s progress in cultivating what he calls 21 century socialism?
Goff: How can I not like Hugo Chavez? He was a paratrooper like I was, who learned to love the people and got political. He represents a nation where the armed forces fused with the masses to disrupt a US-supported coup d’etat. He is exploiting his assets and minimizing his liabilities to stick his finger in the eye of the Imperium.
He has accomplished so much, but there are a couple of things in particular that resonate with me. He led the process to rewrite a bourgeois constitution and make it an instrument of popular sovereignty. Women’s equality was written straight into that document, and he destroyed the most undemocratic political institution in the country, the Senate. I wish we could do that. But the other thing he did was to organize a nationwide literacy program around that constitution, making this document a weapon that was handed to the masses.
Now he is taking on a leadership role in the whole region, where we are seeing what I call a political version of continental drift. Latin America is awake again, and it is trying to gain its feet. That process is strengthened by US overstretch in Iraq. I don’t have a crystal ball to see where all this will go, but I do know that when I visited the very independista Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago that I mentioned earlier, they had sent their youth to Venezuela, and his picture was everywhere. That all seems very positive.
As to how the Venezuelans feel their way into the future, I am neither informed enough nor close enough to Venezuela to make any kind of critique. That the Venezuelan state is the instrument for returning power to the masses is enough to make me smile.
Alam: You’ve been one of a handful of leftists who has spoken strongly against the romanticization of Zapatistas and the dismissal of the state as a means of social change–positions long championed by John Holloway and Michael Hardt and others post-USSR. Does Venezuela present a definitive answer to their neo-Marxist/anarchist formulations, or is too early to tell?
Goff: I don’t know if I’d characterize the Zapatistas themselves as anarchists. I just don’t know enough about their internal processes to make a judgment like that. They are immensely popular, however, with petit bourgeois radicals in the US, precisely because of the stalinophobic simplicity of thinking by semi-leftists who are still trapped in a consumer-capitalist episteme. They want to divorce themselves from the history of the left because it doesn’t square with the good-guy/bad-guy thinking of metropolitan progressives. They are interested primarily in a moral evaluation of the 20th Century instead of a critical one.
I find this metropolitan hyper-idealization of the Zapatistas almost orientalist, a kind of fawning over the charming natives who are seen as modern-day Robin Hoods. And they hardly ever actually use their guns, which further endears them to American progressives who vicariously dress up like revolutionaries in a film script, but who can’t seem to handle the moral ambiguities of any active armed struggle that actually shoots anyone.
The left has to critique 20th Century state socialism, no doubt. But you can’t enter that process with a moral agenda, or even an ideological one. That isn’t just an issue I have with anarchists, who are stunningly ahistorical except to pronounce moral judgments on specific events without the least concern for context. I have the same issue with anyone who engages in this critique to attempt the apotheosis of his or her favorite dead communist. Here is a news flash. We are not living in Russia in either 1917 or 1937. We are not living in China in 1950 and neither are the Chinese and Russians.
In that process of studying the 20th Century, not only do we have to ask how the Soviet bloc was defeated or how capitalism is being restored in China, but how has Cuba managed to preserve so many of its accomplishments until now and what about Cuba makes its strategies uniquely Cuban.
The Zapatistas seem to have adopted a strategy that focuses on civil society as a means of influencing the state. That might be anarchist, or it might be Gramscian, or it might be something else. That doesn’t seem to be the issue, at least to me. The issue to me is what works. Has this project advanced the interests of the indigenous people involved, or has it been defeated, or where is it along that continuum?
I won’t compare it directly to Venezuela for a number of reasons anyone could infer with a moment’s thought. But I will say that having state power provides a lot of advantages in advancing the interests of the masses. If it didn’t, the US wouldn’t be so hell-bent on contesting it, either through interference in the elections of other countries, or with coups like those in Haiti and Venezuela.
Having clear territorial boundaries, access to public revenues, control over the legal interpretation of what property means, the ability to openly and legally maintain armed forces, international diplomatic recognition, trade agreements with other nations these are clear. If anyone tells me these are not useful in the hands of a popular government to protect the people from imperialism, then I want him or her to share what they are smoking.
On the other hand, Venezuela is not just a challenge to anarchist and liberal orthodoxy, it is a challenge to leftist orthodoxy of the more adventurist kind that says the only way to state power is through revolutionary civil war.
I don’t think Venezuela is teaching us anything about “models,” except that there are no models. It’s teaching us a lot more about the value of embeddedness for social movements and the need for tactical agility.
M. JUNAID ALAM is co-editor of the leftist youth journal Left Hook, where this first appeared, and a journalism student at Northeastern University.