No campaign for poor men (or women)

Democracy – a word we derive from the Greek: demos (the common people); kratos (rule) – hence democracy: rule of the common people.[1] Except there is nothing very common at all about the obscene wealth being used to try and “democratically” elect the most powerful man (or woman) in the world. The average cost to date in the race to become the Republican candidate for U.S. president is $32,283,430. This isn’t surprising, as the Republicans are the “right-wing” pro-corporate party. But their union-backed “alternative”? Average cost per candidate to date is $44,847,149 for the Democratic Party.[2] Let’s be clear – this is no campaign for poor men (or women).

Here’s the breakdown. The Republican candidates have to date raised $258,267,439 to spend on their various campaigns, led by the rich (but hapless) Mitt Romney ($90,076,402) and followed by the rich (and vacuous) Rudy Giuliani ($61,645,421). Both these rich white men have dropped out, put in their place by John McCain whose campaign has so far raised $42,094,077.

But these guys have nothing on the Democrats. Hillary Clinton leads the way with receipts of $118,301,659 followed by Barack Obama at $103,802,537. Total receipts for the Democrats so far – $313,930,041. Now, when you total up the money raised for both parties and throw in the $140-million raised by the Democratic and Republican National Committees, then the total cost to date to select a candidate for these two parties is – $712,634,261. Let’s say that in words – seven hundred twelve million, six hundred thirty-four thousand, two hundred sixty-one dollars.

Now remember – we’re just getting started. These campaigns are not over, and once they are – the real campaign begins, the actual contest for president. The final tally for both parties will be well over $1-billion. It will be even higher next time around, because if you look back at previous campaigns, it is clear that the cost of being president is going through the roof. In 1996, total cost for both parties for primaries, conventions and election campaigns was $478-million, in 2000 it was $649.5-million, in 2004 it was $1,016.5-million.[3]

Time to introduce another couple of Greek words: arkein (rule) and oligos (few)– hence oligarchy: rule of the few. Given how few of us travel in the world of seven, eight and nine-figure fund-raising, it might be a better fit.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] All derivations from the Greek taken from William Little, The Oxford International Dictionary (Toronto: Leland Publishing Company Ltd., 1957).
[2] All figures for the 2008 campaign derived from CNN, “ElectionCenter2008 Primaries and Caucuses: Money
[3] Federal Election Commission, “Presidential Pre-Nomination Campaign Receipts Through December 31, 2004

Fidel Castro: ‘Our revolution is not red but olive green’

Fidel Castro has announced that he will step down as president after almost 50 years as the president of Cuba. He has outlasted two generations of U.S. presidents, dedicated to his overthrow. In 1959 – the year of the revolution – Castro said: “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist! … Capitalism sacrifices the human being, communism with its totalitarian conceptions sacrifices human rights. We agree neither with the one or the other … Our revolution is not red but olive green. It bears the colour of the rebel army from the Sierra Maestra.”[1] No wonder generation after generation of young people, fighting for social change, have identified with both Castro and the revolution he personified.

When you study the history of Cuba, you can understand why the young Castro described his revolution as “neither capitalist nor communist.” Before the 1959 revolution – which overthrew the corrupt U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista – hidden from most histories is the magnificent uprising of 1933.[2] In the context of the catastrophic Great Depression, a massive movement engulfed the country. Richard Gott cites one eyewitness account. “Within less than a month the number of mills under labour control was estimated at thirty-six. Soviets were reported to have been organized at Mabay, Jaronú, Senado, Santa Lucía, and other centrales. At various points mill managers were held prisoners by the workers. Labour guards were formed, armed with clubs, sticks and a few revolvers … Workers fraternized with the soldiers and police.”[3]

Batista emerged into history as the central figure who helped to restore capitalism by leading the counter-revolution. Tragically, the communist organization at the time – the Partido Unión Revolucionaria – eventually did a deal with Batista. Their international organization – the Communist International – could say that “The people who are working for the overthrow of Batista … are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.”[4] This alliance with Batista would last a decade, from 1937 to 1947. Castro’s movement in the 1950s was, then, a movement against a regime which the Communist Party had helped legitimize. The Communist Party was completely discredited, and Castro’s revolution was “not red but olive-green.”

Bitter opposition from the United States has defined Castro’s rule. This has nothing to do with a supposedly “democratic” U.S. against an “authoritarian” Castro. On taking power, to make even small improvements in the lives of Cuba’s poor, Castro had to challenge both landlords and capitalists. The U.S. has never forgiven him.

Cuba like much of Latin America, had an economy disfigured by centuries of imperialism. A handful of very rich landlords controlled the vast majority of land, while thousands of peasants were completely landless. Castro took three steps. First, he restricted most landholdings to 1,000 acres. Second, he divided up 40 per cent of the countryside into small holdings for the poor and landless peasants – giving them on average plots of 67 acres. Third, he stated that in future, land in Cuba would be owned only by Cubans. This infuriated the Americans, because the majority of foreign landowners were from the U.S.[5]

So when 300,000 tons of desperately needed crude oil arrived from Russia (in exchange for Cuban sugar), under pressure from the U.S. government, Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to allow the use of their refineries. Castro expropriated the refineries. The U.S. then attacked the sugar industry – the lifeblood of the country, taking away Cuba’s sugar quota. “They will take away our quota pound by pound, and we will take away their sugar mills one by one.”[6] The sugar mills were nationalized, along with all major American properties on the island. So the U.S. “struck back … with the most powerful economic weapon in its armoury: an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.”[7] That embargo has continued to this day, and has made life in Cuba extremely difficult.

But Castro’s Cuba has nonetheless survived – in fact it has more than survived. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Cuban troops fought side by side with liberation fighters in Africa, helping win national liberation struggles against European imperialism. Critically, in 1987 and 1988, Angolan troops supported by Cubans, fought repeated battles in Angola against an invading army from apartheid South Africa. The inability of the South African military to defeat the Angolans and Cubans was a critical factor in the subsequent collapse of the apartheid regime.[8]

But the brutal U.S. embargo had the disastrous impact of driving Cuba into the camp of the Stalinist Soviet Union. An economy dependent on the export of sugar to the United States became an economy dependent on the export of sugar to the Soviet Union and its allies. And working too closely with the Soviet Union sometimes meant taking the wrong sides in international disputes. In the 1970s, Cuba provided military support to the repressive Russian-backed regime of Ethiopia against the people of Eritrea who were fighting for their independence, an action that left a legacy of bitterness in Eritrea.[9]

Most analyses of Cuba accept that its society is now “post-capitalist” in some sense. This is misleading. No country as poor and isolated as Cuba can, on its own, make a transition to socialism. It remains caught in the web of the world economy, forced to “market” itself as a tourist designation with all the social ills which come with carving out such a “niche” in the capitalist economy.[10] Cuba under Castro needs not to be romanticized as a new socialist society, but understood as a country that has mobilized and stood up to imperialism over half a century.

In 1953, while on trial with 100 others for their assault on the Moncada Barracks, the then 26 year old Fidel Castro entered the stage of history. “The guilty continue at liberty and with weapons in their hands – weapons which continually threaten the lives of all citizens. … I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”[11] As Castro prepares to step down as president of Cuba, more than half a century later, there is no question that history has absolved him. The revolution he led remains a beacon for millions in the Global South.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Cited in Peter Binns and Mike Gonzalez, “Cuba, Castro and Socialism,” International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980, p. 6
[2] See Luis E. Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972)
[3] Cited in Richard Gott, Cuba: A new history (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 136
[4] Cited in Gott, pp. 143-4
[5] Gott, pp. 170-1
[6] Gott, pp. 183-4
[7] Gott, p. 185
[8] “Cuba & The Liberation of Southern Africa,” Pan-African newswire, November 8, 2005
[9] D. Fogel, Africa in Struggle, (San Francisco: ISM press, 1982), pp. 281-336
[10] See Antonio Carmona Báez, State resistance to globalisation in Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 1-85
[11] Fidel Castro, “History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive

Return of the Cold War?

February 21, a three-stage Navy SM-3 missile hit a satellite the size of a school bus, and blew it to pieces.[1] The bizarre explanation for this from the Pentagon, was that they were concerned for peoples’ health. The fuel tank on the satellite (which was falling out of orbit) contains several hundred pounds of something called hydrazine, which is a health hazard. Don’t believe the “health” explanation. The missile strike marks a serious escalation in the arms race, a race that may have slowed after the end of the Cold War, but never really went away.

First, the hydrazine “threat” is completely overblown. As Time magazine pointed out, “It’s extremely hard for a spacecraft component to survive reentry even if you want it to … The hydrazine tank … is unlikely to make it through the heat and aerodynamic violence of the plunge that awaits it, meaning that it will spill its contents high in the atmosphere, where it will represent barely a breath of gas that will disperse harmlessly.”[2]

The real reason for the satellite strike is military competition with Pentagon rivals. CNN reports that: “In January 2007, China used a land-based missile to destroy a 2,200-pound satellite that was orbiting 528 miles above the Earth.”[3] The destruction of the hydrazine-carrying satellite this month by the Pentagon is their way of saying to China, “what you can do, we can do better.”

In fact, the missile used in the strike is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, an integral part of what the Pentagon calls “Missile Defense” but what most of us call “Star Wars.” In 2002, the system was tested “successfully” according to the Missile Defense web site. Not all agreed. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists was very sceptical, saying that missile defense would require hitting a tiny object, maybe one metre long, while the target used in the test was huge – a 10.5 metre long rocket. But it had to be that big, they said, because of the “relatively poor capability” of the radar used to track incoming missiles.[4] The Pentagon concluded they needed to test this technology “against more stressing ballistic missile targets and target scenarios.”[5] That is exactly the opportunity presented by the satellite that was falling out of orbit. It became the Star Wars equivalent of a clay pigeon to test the capabilities of a system which is designed for the terrifying prospect of war in space.

What we have is a return to what we thought was over – an arms race between Great Powers, playing Russian Roulette with the lives of the people of the world.

Most thought this was over because the last arms race was embedded in the Cold War, which was almost universally seen as a competition between capitalism on the one side and communism on the other. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, analysts both left and right saw this as the triumph of capitalism over communism, and the end of the conditions which created the arms race.

This was terribly misleading. The Soviet Union, at the centre of the competition with the West, was a completely class-ridden society – a million miles removed from anything resembling communism or socialism. We cannot judge societies by the labels attached to them by their rulers. Socialism has to do with the deep extension of democracy to every aspect of the economy and the state. With the rise of Stalin, all aspects of democracy in the Russian state were expunged – and the wonderful economic democracy of the early years of the Russian Revolution disappeared when the workers’ councils (soviets) ceased to be more than rubber stamps for the state-appointed managers.

Russia was state-capitalist, and the competition to carve up the world between the U.S. and Russia world was no different in kind from the competition to carve up the world between England, France, Germany and Italy in an earlier epoch. The reason an arms race has “returned” is that it never went away. When societies are class-ridden and based on the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of tiny minorities, then competition between these powers is inevitable, and the “classic” form of competition between states is military.[6]

We know that the Pentagon does not represent the forces of “freedom” that it always uses as justification for its muscle-flexing. By the same token, the Chinese state which is blowing up satellites with missiles is no more “communist” than the Russian state under Stalin, Brezhnev and others who used military force to crush revolution in Hungary, lay waste to Afghanistan, and throw away masses of money on a what remains the world’s second largest collection of nuclear ballistic missiles.

Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could barely control his glee when announcing the successful strike against the rogue satellite. His smile might get even broader if the U.S. Congress approves its budget request. Submitted to Congress in the first week of February, the 2009 budget asks for $515 billion, up eight percent from the amount allocated last year. According to The Christian Science Monitor: “This request, adjusted for inflation, is the biggest since the end of World War II.” And it doesn’t even cover “war operations” whose first tab will be $70 billion for 2009, which likely represents “only a down payment on next year’s war costs.”[7]

To wipe the smile off the Pentagon’s face will require a movement against war that is every bit as international as the militarism of Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Peter Grier and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Missile Shoots Down Satellite – But Why?” The Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 2008,
[2] Jeffrey Kluger, “Was a Satellite Shootdown Necessary?” Time, February 20, 2008
[3] “Pentagon confident satellite’s toxic fuel destroyed,”, February 21, 2008
[4] David Wright, “An Analysis of the 25 January 2002 Test of the Aegis-LEAP Interceptor for Navy Theater-Wide,” Union of Concerned Scientists Working Paper, March 3, 2002
[5] Missile Defense Agency, “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD),”
[6] For more on the theory of state capitalism in Russia, see Tony Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London: International Socialism, 1964), Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Nature of the Russian Economy,” The New International, December 1946/January 1947, and C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, “State Capitalism and World Revolution”, 1950
[7] Gordon Lubold, “Pentagon asks for Biggest Budget Hike Since World War II,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 2008

Venezuela: The spectre of Big Oil

FEBRUARY 21, 2008 – “Never again will they rob us – the ExxonMobil bandits. They are imperial, American bandits, white-collared thieves. They turn governments corrupt, they oust governments. They supported the invasion of Iraq.”[1] This was the response from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to the successful lawsuit by the world’s biggest corporation (ExxonMobil), freezing $12 billion in assets of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA – a serious escalation in Big Oil’s long running dispute with Chávez and the movement he represents.

ExxonMobil isn’t suing PDVSA because it needs the money. The world’s largest publicly traded corporation recorded profits of $40.6-billion (U.S.) in 2007, up three per cent from 2006’s record of $39.6-billion. “If Exxon were a country, its 2007 profit would exceed output of two-thirds of the world’s nations. Its 2007 revenue of $404-billion (U.S.) would place it among the 30 largest countries, ahead of such middle powers as Sweden and Venezuela.”[2]

ExxonMobil claims it is suing PDVSA because of a June 2007 deadline given by Chávez to Exxon and other Big Oil corporations operating in Venezuela, demanding they cede majority control in their heavy-crude upgrading projects in the country. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips filed arbitration requests with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, and ExxonMobil simultaneously took legal action in courts in the U.S. and Britain, which on February 7 agreed with their claim, and ordered the freeze of PDVSA assets.[3]

But there is much more at stake than a simple legal disagreement. First – many other Big Oil companies have agreed to Chávez’ terms and not gone to court – among them, Chevron Corp., Norway’s Statoil ASA, Britain’s BP PLC and France’s Total SA.[4] Second, Venezuela is not the only country to confront Big Oil and demand that old contracts be renegotiated. Here in Canada, Newfoundland’s Danny Williams demanded and won an ownership share in the multi-billion-dollar Hebron offshore oil deal.[5] Even the Tories in Alberta are forcing Big Oil to pay higher royalties.[6] And in Russia, “both BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC have ceded control in big, lucrative Siberian projects to Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.”[7]

The truth is, ExxonMobil’s ultimatum has more to do with politics than economics. Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin holds office because of his ties to the secret service, his crackdown on public debate, and his commitment to pushing Russia back into the world of Big Power politics. That world of corruption and repression is comforting and familiar to the owners of ExxonMobil. Chávez, by contrast, holds office because millions have again and again been willing to put their bodies on the line against multinational corporations and their local allies. That revolutionary movement is terrifying to ExxonMobil.

So – working with courts in the U.S. and Britain (the two biggest western imperialist powers) – ExxonMobil is testing the water, seeing just how strong the revolutionary movement in Venezuela is. This is especially critical, given the setback faced by Chávez in the recent constitutional referendum.

And we shouldn’t doubt the capacity of multinational corporations to use a legal fig leaf to pursue their “right” to pull exorbitant profits out of the Global South. “BP won an arbitration case against Libya in the 1970s … and chased tankers of Libyan crude around the world to seize them as payment.” In 2006 and 2007, “Western companies that purchased debt for unpaid construction work in the Congo have tried to seize tankers of Congolese oil to satisfy arbitration awards.”[8]

The ExxonMobil attacks have been met with defiance in Venezuela. PDVSA denies that any significant assets have been affected by the court action. “PDVSA is operating at 100 percent and is exporting oil all over the world,” said Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez.[9] February 11, Chávez said that if ExxonMobil does succeed in freezing PDVSA assets, he would halt oil exports to the United States.[10] This is a threat the U.S. has to take seriously. As well as being the fourth largest exporter of oil to the U.S., if Venezuela succeeds in certifying an additional 200 billion barrels of oil reserves to the 100 billion already certified, it will officially have the most proved reserves of oil, in the world.[11]

With so much at stake, U.S. imperialism and its corporate allies are not at the moment in a position to launch a sequel to the failed coup of 2002. Venezuela’s movement is too big, and Venezuela’s oil is too important for that to happen – for now. But we know from the bitter history of Big Oil and the Global South that this is not the last confrontation between corporate and popular power in Venezuela.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Venezuela: The spectre of Big Oil.”, 26 February.


[1] Cited in Saul Hudson, “Chávez warns he’ll stop oil shipments to U.S.,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 11, 2008, p. B.3
[2] Shawn McCarthy, “Exxon profit hits $40.6-billion,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 2, 2008, p. B.7
[3] Peter Wilson, “Big Oil’s Victory in Venezuela,” BusinessWeek, Feb. 7, 2008,
[4] Brian Ellsworth, “Exxon, ConocoPhillips won’t bow to Chávez,” The Globe and Mail, June 26, 2007, p. B.12
[5] Colin Campbell, “How to win, in a fight with Big Oil,” Maclean’s, September 10, 2007, p. 62
[6] Guy Chazan, “Oil Sands Are Shifting in Alberta,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2008, p. A8
[7] Russell Gold, “Big Oil looks for Plan B after Venezuela,” The Globe and Mail, June 27, 2007, p. B.13
[8] Russell Gold, “Big Oil,” p. B.13
[9] “Venezuela denies PDVSA asset freeze,”, February 9, 2008
[10] Simon Romero, “Chávez threatens to end oil exports to U.S.,” International Herald Tribune, February 11, 2008,
[11] Steven Bodzin, “Exxon Gives Chávez Biggest Fight Over Nationalization,”, February 13, 2008

Louis Riel Day

The children of Manitoba are more astute than the professional politicians who rule Ontario. Those politicians, in their wisdom, decided that Ontario’s new long overdue February holiday would be called “Family Day”. By contrast, when 100 schools in Manitoba were given a choice, among the random and funny holiday names submitted (ranging from “Bison Break” to “Winnipeg Jets Day”), fully eleven schools chose “Louis Riel Day”.[1] And so today, February 18 2008, Manitobans get a day off in honour of a man, who on November 16, 1885, was executed[2] for standing up against the first expressions of Canadian imperialism.

The Canadian state – effectively a sovereign state from 1848 – officially came into being in with Confederation in 1867. Its first project was a straightforwardly imperialist one – expand into and conquer the western lands, so Europeans could settle them, with or without the consent of the people’s inhabiting those lands. An interesting history of this period dubs these lands west of Lake Superior as “Canada’s First Colony.”[3] Forget what you have read about Canada being an “oppressed” neo-colony. Canada emerges into history as a capitalist and imperialist power.

Riel’s people were the Métis, who, as Riel wrote just before he was hanged, “have as their paternal ancestors the former employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies; and as their maternal ancestors Indian women belonging to different tribes.”[4] Riel’s people “made up the majority of the population in the Red River settlement” in what is today Manitoba. “[T]hey were kinsmen of the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot.”[5] Their territory was part of the “North West” – a vast territory that was a protectorate of Britain, who had “delegated all ruling authority in the region to the Hudson’s Bay Company”[6] which “imposed a ‘seigniorial despotism’ on the colony.”[7]

In the wake of Confederation in 1867, Liberal and Tory representatives of the new Canadian state were united in coveting these North West Territories. Liberal leader of the opposition, Alexander Mackenzie, said that because central Canada no longer had “vast tracts of fertile land,” he was “prepared to do all in his power to assist in the acquisition and opening up of the North Western territory.” Macdonald’s intentions were starkly revealed in his private correspondence. In a letter to J.Y. Bown, member of parliament from Ontario, he said that “the game was to establish calm with the ‘wild people’ of Red River by unspecified yet ‘considerable management’ until enough newcomers like Bown’s brother had moved west. “’In another year,’ he wrote, ‘the present residents will be altogether swamped by the influx of strangers.’”[8]

But Macdonald failed to take into account the resistance of the Métis. In October 1869, Riel was central in the formation of the “Comité national des Métis”. By August 1870, This Métis Committee had 500 armed horsemen, and was able to block access to their territory to representatives from Ottawa.[9] On December 8, the Métis leadership published the magnificent “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West.” “A people,” it said, “when it has no government, is free to adopt one form of government in preference to another …”[10]

The resistance of the Métis led to a major concession. The Manitoba Act, passed on May 12, 1870, established a new province giving equal rights to the French language. But secretly the Tories were at the same time, planning a use of military force to make sure that the new province was under theirs and not Riel’s control. Riel barely escaped with his life, was forced into exile, and the Métis moved west to what is today Saskatchewan.

Their reprieve was short-lived. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan lay in the road of the great instrument of Canadian capitalism – the railroad. Stanley Ryerson, who is without peer as a historian of early Canadian history, describes the railways as “both an instrument of colonialism – extracting raw materials and semi-processed products required by the metropolis – and … engines of industrialization, stimulating the growth of local manufactures and of a home market.”[11] It was Macdonald’s life-ambition to secure Canadian sovereignty across the entire North West, that meant finishing the railway, and that meant imperialism and the use of force.

The military intervention against the Métis in 1870 had been stymied by the absence of the railway. But by 1885, rail lines had been pushed across Ontario, across Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. The coming of the rails and industrial capitalism brought with it also the military force of Canadian imperialism. So this time, when the Métis stood against the forces of Canadian expansion, 3,000 troops came down the rails to confront them – an overwhelming force against the few hundred poorly armed Métis. The rebellion was crushed, Riel was tried and hung, and – in the same month that the execution took place – the transcontinental railway was completed.

Studying this rebellion can teach us much. Resistance – even when unsuccessful in the immediate term – can spur important change. Macdonald, worried about keeping the Métis rebellion of 1885 localized, made major concessions, including “a diversionary franchise bill that included proposals for nearly universal suffrage for white men and extension of the vote to certain single women and the Six Nations of Loyalist Indians in Ontario.”[12] This in spite of the fact that, according to his biographer Joseph Pope, “Macdonald, until the last day of his life viewed universal suffrage ‘as one of the greatest evils that could befall a state … The idea that a man should vote simply because he breathed was ever repellant to Sir John Macdonald’s conception of government.”[13]

We can also learn that in Canada in 1885, the one place there was huge sympathy for this rebellion against imperialism was in Quebec. On November 22, 1885, reports one unsympathetic historian, “an enormous mass meeting of protest” was held “in the Champ de Mars, in Montreal … a total of thirty-seven speakers competed with each other in ferocious denunciations of the ‘hangman’s government’ at Ottawa.”[14]

The Quebec people identified with the Riel rebellions in part because the Métis spoke French. As one historian says, the goal of the Tories was to transform “the Quebec of the West into a new Ontario.”[15] But the people of Quebec – just like the kinsmen of “the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot” who rebelled in 1870 and 1885 – had also known rebellion and repression. It was just 1837 that Quebec’s own attempt at achieving sovereignty was crushed. In the aftermath, in 1838, the jails were “packed with prisoners.” Eventually, 58 prisoners were deported to Australia and 12 executed – including one 18 year old, two aged 20, and one just 23.[16]

So hats off to the school children of Manitoba – thanks to them, Louis Riel has a day in his honour (and John A. Macdonald does not). Thanks to them, Riel will be remembered, at least every February. And if we remember Riel, we just might get a clearer insight into the imperialist nature of the Canadian state – and of an absolutely inspiring history of resistance.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Manitoba’s new holiday: Louis Riel Day,” CBCnews, September 27, 2007
[2] Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1973), pp. 438-9
[3] D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), pp. 19-32
[4] Cited in Stanley Ryerson, Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1975), p. 379
[5] Ryerson, p. 380
[6] Sprague, p. 19
[7] Sprague, p. 4
[8] Sprague, p. 30
[9] Ryerson, pp. 384-5
[10] Cited in Ryerson, p. 386
[11] Ryerson, p. 258
[12] Sprague, p. 176
[13] Cited in Ryerson, p. 355
[14] Creighton, p. 442
[15] Sprague, p. ix
[16] Ryerson, pp. 79-81

George Habash – ‘These borders will fall’

The sad passing of George Habash January 26, is an opportunity to learn the lessons from his long life of struggle. In the 1970s at the peak of his influence, he embodied the hopes of thousands struggling to win Palestine freedom against the forces of imperialism, Israeli militarism and capitalism.

Often known as “Al Hakim” (the doctor or wise man),[1] Habash was born in 1925 or 1926 in Lydda Palestine. Like many Palestinians, his hometown has “vanished” – what was Lydda, Palestine now being called Lod, Israel.[2] When only 22, he was “witness to the ethnic cleansing of his home town,”[3] part of the horror of the Nakba (Catastrophe) – the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by the emerging Israeli state. Studying medicine at the American University of Beirut when the Nakba began, he “rushed back to Lydda to serve as a medical orderly as the Zionists advanced on the town and drove out its inhabitants.” From that point on, his life as a doctor was to be combined with his life as a freedom fighter. Over the next three years he would both help in the founding of the Arab Nationalist Movement and graduate from university, “first in his class.”[4]

His political evolution was organically linked to the many phases of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Like many thousands, his first position was that Arab unity could defeat the state of Israel. He was a supporter of the Pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Israel’s shattering defeat of Egypt and other Arab states in 1967’s Six-Day war, drove Habash like many in his generation to look to more radical solutions. In the wake of the 1967 war, Habash helped found the organization with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It became one of the key components of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), second in importance only to Fatah.[5]

Habash is often portrayed as a “terrorist.” The Enclycopaedia Britannica says that “under the leadership of Habash, the PFLP staged several airplane hijackings.”[6] They don’t mention that, according to Oxford University’s Karma Nabulsi, “the tactic of aeroplane hijackings … was never his (and over which he expelled Wadie Haddad from the PFLP).”[7] And of course they do not mention that if we are to talk about terrorism in Palestine – and if terrorism is to be understood as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”[8] (the definition offered by The Enclyopaedia Britannica) – then without any question the biggest terrorist in Palestine is the state of Israel. The ethnic cleansing of Lydda during the Nakba is just one of many examples of the Israeli state terrorism which has fuelled the liberation struggle in Palestine.

Habash was a true internationalist. Inspired by the struggle in Vietnam, he and the PFLP “argued that the liberation of Palestine would be impossible without the liberation of Arab countries from the regimes imposed by the West and Israel. Looking to Vietnam, Habash called for Arab ‘Hanois,’ and stated that the liberation of Palestine passed through every Arab capital.”[9] Habash was also a man of the left. After the founding of the PFLP, he openly embraced Marxism.

We need to also learn the limits of Habash’s politics. The Marxism that he and his generation learned was tangled up with the complex anti-democratic reality of the so-called “socialist” states. Habash was at first openly critical of the Soviet Union, but like many he for a time tried to find an alternative in the equally anti-democratic traditions of “Communist” China. By 1973, according to As’ad AbuKhalil of California State University, the PFLP “had joined the ranks of Arab communist organizations that pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union.”[10] The inability of the left in the Middle East to fully break free from the long shadow of Stalinism made it less and less attractive as a liberation ideology for the oppressed masses of the region. The decline of the left of Habash’s generation meant the marginalization of his organization, the PFLP. “One can’t speak of the PFLP since 2000, when Habash voluntarily resigned from the leadership.”[11]

But the oppression of Palestine continues, and a new generation has taken up the resistance. Habash lived that last years of his life in poverty and exile in Amman, Jordan. But he had his dignity – refusing to the end the corruption that engulfed many of the leadership of his contemporaries in Fatah. And Habash, to his death, was dedicated to the liberation of Palestine.

Karma Nabulsi, in his obituary to Habash, tells a story that is a fitting epitaph. “Just before his death, Habash was told how young Palestinians from a different political party had audaciously destroyed the walls of Gaza, setting free its people. Habash smiled and said: ‘You see, the day will come when these borders will fall and Arab unity will be achieved.’”[12]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] David Hirst, “George Habash,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008
[2] “Habash, George,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008 .
[3] Karma Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008.
[4] Hirst, “George Habash”
[5] As’ad AbuKhalil, “George Habash’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle, The Electronic Intifada, January 30, 2008
[6] “George Habash”
[7] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”
[8] “terrorism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008
[9] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[10] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[11] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[12] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”