Friday, June 27, 2008

What is Tony Karon Smoking?

This makes no sense. Tony Karon, who runs the normally very high-quality Rootless Cosmopolitan, has an article comparing al-Qaeda to...Trotsky?! The gist of this bizarre line of thought is that al-Qaeda refuses to compromise with nationalism, remaining ideologically "pure," while groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the clerics of Iran provide a more pragmatic and ultimately successful model for Political Islam. Supposedly, this is where Trotsky fits in. While Trotsky remained ideologically pure and had to go into hiding, representing no real organized force, Stalin(ism) embraced nationalism and was able to mobilize millions of people behind it.

There is a basically endless list of things wrong with this argument. First of all, there are no shortage of politically irrelevant forces. First among these in the United States, in my opinion, is the Communist Party, the representative of official Stalinism in this country. If one goes to the CPUSA's website of national political meetings, the last one is from 2005. One could also bring up Patrick Buchanan, or any number of other irrelevant hacks. The decision to pick Trotsky seems to me explicable only by some kind of anti-Trotsky tack. To be sure, there's nothing disingenuous about being anti-Trotsky, but this article really does nothing to advance such an argument; it merely asserts it in a kind of rhetorical bad faith (equivalent to "when did you stop beating your wife?").

Second, and more importantly, the picture of Stalin as a pragmatist deserving our praise is positively dangerous, though not entirely untrue. It's true that Stalin was a pragmatist. He was perfectly willing to compromise with the entire project of socialist revolution to industrialize Russia, at a cost of millions of lives. He was willing to compromise and sign a treaty with Hitler that resulted in the decimation of Poland. He compromised after the war, agreeing to tell the Communist parties of Western Europe that revolution was off the agenda, squandering the tremendous cache those parties had built in the Resistance. Far from being a point of praise, Stalin's pragmatism had the most gruesome consequences.

To be honest, I'm still not sure why Karon wrote what he did. It's true that al-Qaeda is largely irrelevant, but this point could be made perfectly well without giving Stalin a hand up from the dustbin of history.