How to Start a Revolution… Or Not

Capitalists always seek to undermine the organizing efforts of the working-class. Thus, in the wake of World War II the US government increasingly relied upon the class fighters of their newly launched Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to crush the democratic aspirations of ordinary people. Part of this secretive work involved the manipulation of electoral processes, with vast sums of money being channelled by the CIA to pro-capitalist political leaders and their parties to help them beat their socialist adversaries. Another component of this dirty political warfare directed millions of dollars towards the task of sabotaging the trade union movement. None of this is too surprising. Nevertheless, we need to be conscious of such anti-democratic interventions if we are to eventually beat our adversaries and ensure the socialist transformation of society. 

Part of this toxic history of the CIA’s ‘democratic’ manoeuvrings are recounted in Ruaridh Arrow’s book Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution (2020) – a hagiography of the late Gene Sharp (1928-2018), a man who is now remembered as one of America’s most influential theorists of nonviolence despite his umbilical connection to state department elites. This essay therefore aims to review Arrow’s book as a means of exploring how the ruling-class has co-opted the tools of civil disobedience to serve their own nefarious political ends.

To start with it is critical to highlight that Arrow, the ever-doting biographer, is adamant that despite Sharp’s friendly relations with America’s leading elites there is “no basis” for any accusation that the theorists work was in any way entangled with that of the imperial machinations of the US government or the CIA. With this proviso in mind Arrow launches into his book by accurately recalling how the CIA’s first “involvement in election manipulation… began with a growing horror that the communists were likely to win the Italian election due to be held in 1948.”

Arrow explains how the US intelligence agency then replicated similar anti-democratic interventions all over the world until their covert activities were finally exposed by ‘The Church Committee’ — a government body that “was set up in 1975 to publicly investigate the role of the agency in overseas elections.” But the lasting damage to global democracy causes was already done; and here Arrow provides a chilling illustrative example of the CIA’s democratic subversions by looking at the case of Chile.

“In an operation that was virtually a clone of the Italian plan,” he writes, the CIA interfered in the 1964 elections to stop Salvador Allende winning, with the agency spending “nearly four million dollars supporting political parties, publishing and broadcasting propaganda and radicalising slum dwellers.” These covert attacks on democracy then intensified when Allende became Chile’s president in 1970 and came to a violent head in 1973 when the CIA “backed a military coup which brought to power General Augusto Pinochet, [a leader] who went on to perpetrate some of the worst human rights abuses ever recorded.”

Such anti-democratic intrigues continue through to this day; indeed, they are a vital part of capitalist statecraft. But partly as a response to the American public’s revulsion to the Church Committee’s sordid findings, the US government decided that the best cover for continuing such anti-democratic work would be to carry it out under the cover of democracy. As Arrow notes, under President Reagan’s supervision the CIA’s “political warfare campaign” now evolved, “Instead of continuing these programs in secret under the CIA, [Reagan] opted to take democracy promotion out of the shadows. In effect, he privatised it.”[1]

In 1983 the President marked this foreign policy shift by launching a new organization called the National Endowment for Democracy. This groups four affiliate institutions — the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute – then received Congressional funding to enable the US government to overtly intervene in other countries political affairs. Arrow explains:

“The US press were sceptical and pointed out, correctly, that this was work previously conducted by the CIA, now being repackaged and brought out into the open. The Wall Street Journal quoted one official as saying, ‘we used to do some of this covertly… but when we stopped being able to keep our secrets in these matters, people became unwilling to accept out money’.” (p.83)

This backstory is apparently recounted in Arrow’s book because of its relevance to understanding Gene Sharp’s role in promoting nonviolent means of overthrowing foreign governments. This being done to debunk the accusations that Sharp’s revolutionary work has any relationship with the type of activities historically undertaken by the CIA. You might now begin to understand why Arrow’s book is so confusing.

To be clear, no physical evidence has been unearthed to prove that Sharp worked with the CIA: but it remains the case that the primary reason why Sharp’s critics have raised concerns about his work is because the theorist’s writings were closely aligned with the political interventions undertaken by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). And while it is true that Sharp’s nonviolent activism has received direct funding from the NED, Arrow remains perplexed why anyone would be bothered by this relationship. Arrow simply repeats: “I could find absolutely no evidence that he worked for or with the CIA or in pursuit of its objectives.”

Still, Arrow at least acknowledges that “a convincing case can be made that [Sharp’s] body of work, always in the public domain, was effectively co-opted by the US political warfare project with little consultation from the man who developed it.” And while this could be true, there remain many, many good reasons why Sharp has attracted so many detractors. Some of these reasons are provided within Arrow’s own text. For example, from early on in his long career Sharp had consciously set himself the unusual task of trying to convert the war-mongering members of the ruling-class to adopt the principles of nonviolent struggle, not a normal working-class pursuit by any means. Thus, from as early as 1960, Arrow writes, Sharp “had already decided that co-opting the system was the only way that change could be made.” [2] 

The violent side of nonviolence

Sharp, however, was not the first academic to demand that his government integrate nonviolent resistance into its repertoire of power. And in many ways his career echoed that of retired naval commander Sir Stephen King-Hall: a military man whose 1958 book DefenseintheNuclear Age had first “brought the notion of non-violent defense into the realm of strategic debate by urging it upon the UK, NATO, and the US, in lieu of nuclear weapons.”[3] King-Hall, as we know now, failed to popularize this novel idea, and it was only Sharp’s unrelenting persistence that led to his contemporary notoriety for pushing this elite-centred approach to social change.

In the mid-1960s Sharp made especially good headway into infiltrating elite circles after getting headhunted by one of America’s leading war strategists, Thomas Schelling, to join the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. The Center representing “a think tank for the up and coming US foreign policy elite,” as Arrow puts it.[4] Now based in the same department as Henry Kissinger — the powerbroker who famously went on to oversee the US-backed coup against Allende — you can begin to understand why some people became suspicious about Sharp’s allegedly objective approach to civil disobedience. As Howard Zinn famously said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”[5] Arrow continues Sharp’s story noting how once in America:

“Schelling began looking for funding for Gene’s work from the Ford Foundation, set up by Henry Ford’s family to spread democratic values, but it was the US Department for Defense ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency’ (ARPA) which would stump up the first serious cash. Although he was not aware of it at the time, the ARPA money was a component of a classified US government effort to develop weapons and strategies for fighting counter-insurgences and curtail communist advances in remote parts of the world.” (p.74)

Considering the sinister nature of such research it is not wholly unsurprising that just a few years later the Center for International Affairs would become a focus for angry student protests.[6] And as a point of record, the Ford Foundation (like the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Foundation) were, at that very time, working hand-in-glove with the CIA (that is, throughout the 1950s and 1960s) although Sharp would not have necessarily known it at the time. (An early and well-read article highlighting the connections between liberal foundations, the CIA, and the warmongers at Harvard was published by Ramparts magazine in October 1969 as “Sinews of empire.”) Still, while Sharp may have been unaware of such connections, Arrow should have been better informed — especially considering the subject matter covered in his own book — than to naively describe the Ford Foundation as a conduit for “spread[ing] democratic values”. This really is quite inexcusable given its past history.

Now, to return to Sharp’s personal views on obtaining military funding for peace research, Arrow says that:

“When challenged on this later by members of pacifist organisations, Gene was unapologetic about receiving the Department of Defense money. He’d been arguing since his time at Oxford that governments should finance research into nonviolent resistance as a substitute for war and that this should be fully integrated into national defense strategy.” (p.74)

Sharp however evidently drew a line in the sand when it came to the CIA. And Arrow goes on to explain how:

“In 1975, Gene was searching for another two-year funding grant and Schelling recommended him back to the Department of Defense. It was clear Schelling had potential funding contacts in the CIA, but Gene was adamant that he would refuse to take their money.” (p.76)

This subject had come up for discussion after Sharp had submitted a “funding proposal to Schelling’s Department of Defense contact – the head of the newly created office of ‘Net Assessment’ – a discreet unit of Pentagon futurologists whose job was to plan for strategic problems 30 years ahead.”[7] As part of his two-year funding bid for a colossal $452,000 grant, Sharp had sold his research plan to his potential funders like this:

“Basic and problem-orientated research, coupled with deliberate efforts at refinement and development, would very likely increase significantly the effectiveness of this nonviolent combat technique, as has been done with the technique of war. In addition to research, other means may help improve effectiveness, including contingency planning, training, and specific preparation to make the technique operational in conflicts in which war or other violence would otherwise be used. Such deliberate development of the effectiveness of this technique may extend the types of situations in which it is a viable option, even against extremely powerful and ruthless regimes.”

In this instance the head of Net Assessment had decided that the proposal was not appropriate for his department, so evidently, he had passed the grant application on to the CIA appending a note saying: “I thought the CIA might be interested in this work.” Sharp, as Arrow points out, was not keen to apply for CIA funds as he “feared from the stories in the press that the intelligence agency had gone rogue and would hijack the work for what he described as ‘bad dealings’.”

Sharp’s funding worries would however soon be permanently resolved as the following year one of his students, a young millionaire named Peter Ackerman, completed his own Ph.D. at Tufts University before going on to become Sharp’s generous benefactor. In the 1970s Ackerman had “earn[ed] millions of dollars” as a Wall Street banker specialising in ‘junk bonds’, and in 1982 he then took the decision to secure Sharp’s research future by funding the creation of two new groups: the first organization was ‘The Program on Nonviolent Sanctions’ which was based at Harvard, and the second was the privately based Albert Einstein Institution.[8]

A nonviolent banker

In the coming decades, most of the funding for Sharp’s two research/training groups were derived from Ackerman’s millions, but a quick perusal of the annual reports that were filed online by the Albert Einstein Institution lends credence to the logic that Sharp’s work continued to be highly entwined with imperialist foreign policy making elites. For example in May 1987 the Institution received a $50,000 grant from the US Institute for Peace, a group which at the time maintained close links to the intelligence community and is considered to be a sister organisation to the NED. By way of a contrast to the intelligence-linked USIP, Arrow explained that when the NED was created their founding board of directors “voted to forbid any employment of CIA personnel or allow the CIA to influence its programs.” [9] The same cautious approach did not hold true for the USIP, and an early critical article that was published in Z Magazine highlighted how:

“The idea of a national peace institute was long in the making and approved by a wide spectrum of peace advocates. But by the time the USIP was formally established in 1984, its board looked like a ‘who’s who’ of right-wing ideologues from academia and the Pentagon. By law, the USIP is an arm of the U.S. intelligence apparatus. The legislation that established the USIP specifies that ‘the director of Central Intelligence may assign officers and employees’ of the CIA to the USIP, and the Institute is authorized to use and disseminate ‘classified materials from the intelligence community.’

“In practice, the USIP intersects heavily with the intelligence establishment. Nearly half its board members played some role in the Iran-contra operations, and an analysis of the USIP’s grantmaking priorities since 1986 reveals substantial funding for ‘scholars’ already on the take from other military and intelligence agencies.”[10]

In the second decade of its existence, a summary of the varied work undertaken by the Albert Einstein Institution between the years 1993 and 1999 provides further details of their bad dealing supporters. Over this period stand-out financiers (which are listed on the first page of their report) included the National Endowment for Democracy, the USIP, the International Republican Institute, and the German-based Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. In addition, the Albert Einstein Institution received aid from two of America’s most influential liberal philanthropic organizations, the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. “The origin of Gene’s work in the belly of an establishment” Arrow writes…

“…which was deploying political warfare would later lead to the often repeated theory that [Sharp] was a CIA asset and the Albert Einstein Institution a front for the destabilisation of governments not aligned with US political and economic interests.

“Those who believe this version of events can easily be forgiven because the weight of circumstantial evidence is convincing. The type of activities pioneered in Italy in the late 1940s would be easily recognisable in the funding priorities of the National Endowment for Democracy 50 years later. There is no doubt that the US, first under the CIA and later through the arms of the NED sought to influence and build democracies favourable to US policy interests.” (pp.88-9)

This is all very interesting, and Arrow explains that Sharp had received his first NED grant in the early 1990s which was used to enable his Institution to train Burmese democracy activists.[11] This delicate educational work was delivered by a new recruit to the Albert Einstein Institution named Colonel Bob Helvey who was fresh from serving as was the Dean of the United States Defense Intelligence School. With all the CIA-linked accusations flying around Arrow assures his readers that Sharp took every precaution in choosing to employ Helvey.

“Gene asked him frankly whether he had ever worked for the CIA. Bob understood the concern and assured Gene that as a brigade intelligence officer in Vietnam his duties had been exclusively tactical military intelligence, not political intelligence. As defense attache in Rangoon, his role had also been exclusively military intelligence and he had not been involved in political intelligence or what he termed ‘manipulations’ on behalf of the CIA. Bob also assured Gene that his work with Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu and the democratic opposition in Burma had been strictly personal and not part of any military assignment or responsibility.” (pp.152-3)[12]

Weaponising nonviolence, and the case of Venezuela

For reasons that will perhaps remain unknown, during the 1990s Ackerman took the decision to focus less on banking and more on his academic – and inaccurate – studies of the history of nonviolence. In 1999 he therefore helped raise $3 million to fund the 1999 Emmy-nominated film A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, whose creation also received additional financial support from the USIP. Then in 2002 Ackerman co-authored a book with the same name — a text that has gone on to become something of keystone book amongst nonviolent activists, despite all its serious shortcomings. The release of this publication also coincided with the launch of Ackerman’s new pet project which was christened as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).

According to Arrow, in November 2003 Bob Helvey had become upset with the lack of funding that Sharp was getting and so he informed Ackerman that the Albert Einstein Institution “needed to embark on a major fundraising effort to fulfil the mission properly.” But “Ackerman disagreed strongly – he felt he had donated enough to perform the basic tasks and didn’t want any of Gene’s time wasted on fundraising.” Ackerman was already providing Sharp “with an annuity that would provide a salary for the rest of his life” and now he had his own new Center to manage. This argument apparently brought Sharp and Helvey into a serious disagreement “with their major donor” Peter Ackerman. Nevertheless, the pair “decided to press ahead” in open defiance of their multi-millionaire benefactor which resulted in Ackerman “threaten[ing] to remove all of his funding.” Arrow recounts how “In a phone call, Ackerman repeated the ultimatum, to comply with his request or he would cease further funding of the institution.” But Sharp was adamant that he was not beholden to his powerful financier, which led to Ackerman cutting him free. As Arrow observes: “The money had been stopped and there was barely enough left to meet existing staff costs.”[13]

“Peter Ackerman now turned his attention soley to his own organisation, the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). He began a more active promotion of nonviolent resistance training, funding Bob Helvey and the Serbs from CANVAS to carry out consultations with democracy groups around the world.

“The activities of the ICNC now meant that Gene’s work was turning up in places that Gene and Jamila [Raqib the Institutions executive director] had had no direct contact with. When a training camp carried out by Bob Helvey for Venezuelan activists was discovered by the government, the first thing Gene and Jamila hear about it was Hugo Chavez personally denouncing Gene on Venezuelan national television.” (p.219)

This is a nice story but is not completely true. Chavez did, it is true, attack Sharp’s activism in June 2007 during a short segment of his regular TV show, Alo Presidente, but it is wrong to suggest that Sharp knew nothing about this training camp. This is because in the Spring 2006 edition of the Albert Einstein Institution’s newsletter they reported that in May 2005 the Institution had “hosted a strategy workshop for Venezuelan nonviolent activists” that took place in Boston with funding provided by the ICNC.[14] Earlier still, in 2004, another report (which is reproduced on the Albert Einstein Institution’s web site) discusses President Chavez’s “increasingly authoritarian” “regime”. The report goes on to state that since December 2001 “Chávez’s popularity began to wane” and, as the Institution asserts, to retain power his “government responded with violent repression against… protesters”. Sharp himself, along with other staff from his Institution, then met with citizens opposed to Chavez’s presidency to “talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country”, which, in April 2003, led to the Institution organizing a nine-day in-country consultation to “develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela.”[15] Although it is not clear which groups Sharp consulted with during this period, we do know that at the same time the NED was playing an important role in providing aid to the very same opposition groups that had coordinated an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Chavez in 2002.[16]

The CIA connection

Another group worth discussing whose ‘democratic’ mission is directly related to the US government’s broader democracy promoting establishment is Freedom House – an organization upon whose research Sharp relied heavily upon in determining which countries needed his aid. In 1988 Noam Chomsky gave a succinct summary of this group’s activities when he wrote:

“Freedom House, which dates back to the early 1940s, has had interlocks with… the World Anticommunist League, Resistance International, and U.S. government bodies such as Radio Free Europe and the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.”

Even Arrow, in his muddled history of US democracy promoting activities singles this group out for special attention noting that it had “carried out training for activists and civil society organisations” throughout the Cold War and should be considered an “outlier” owing to its links to the CIA. And although it is not accurate to say it is an outlier in any meaningful sense, Arrow is right to note that: “Freedom House was not made subject to any of the controls on former intelligence personnel which bound the NED organisations”. Arrow continues “in fact, former CIA director, James Woolsey, would later become chairman of the Freedom House board of trustees.”[17]

What remains unexplored by Sharp’s naïve biographer is that Woolsey served as Freedom House’s chair between 2003 and 2005 before handing on this honour to Peter Ackerman. Such elite connections were normal for Ackerman, who is a longstanding member of the “imperial brain trust” known as the Council on Foreign Relations (joining their board of directors in July 2005). As socialist commentator John Bellamy Foster observed in 2008: 

“Ackerman [also] sits on the key advisory committee of the CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, devoted to overthrowing governments opposed by Washington by political means (or where this is not practicable, using political low intensity warfare to soften them up for military intervention). The CPA is headed by Reagan’s former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General John W. Vessey, who oversaw the invasion of Grenada. The members of the advisory committee of the CPA, including Ackerman himself, have all been heavily involved in helping to fulfill U.S. war aims in Yugoslavia, and the Center has recently focused on overturning Chavez’s government in Venezuela (see John Bellamy Foster, ‘The Latin American Revolt,’ Monthly Review, July August 2007). On top of all of this Ackerman is a director of the right-wing U.S. Institute of Peace, which is connected directly through its chair J. Robinson West to the National Petroleum Council, which includes CEOs of all the major U.S. energy corporations.  On the domestic front, Ackerman has been working with the Cato Institute to privatize Social Security.”

The irony is that the very person who funded nearly all of Sharp’s work throughout the 1980s and 1990s specializes in working in cooperation with members of the intelligence community. While another researcher of nonviolence who upholds such a dubious legacy is Professor Erica Chenoweth; an individual who first worked as a consultant for the ICNC in 2006 and later served as the co-chair of their advisory board before co-authoring the much-quoted book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011). Arrow introduces her work in his own biography and goes so far as to celebrate her book saying this was the first study that “proved” with “evidence that nonviolent campaigns could be more successful than violent campaigns”.[18] Again this is not entirely true. And we also know that this type of research remains of huge interest to both the military and to the intelligence community, and while Chenoweth was serving as the ICNC’s co-chair she was simultaneously a member of the CIA’s “Political Instability Task Force” and rather unsurprisingly her research has been showered with millions of dollars from her military paymasters.[19]

Bringing ‘democracy’ to Venezuela

Finally, it is appropriate to observe that following in the ‘democratic’ footsteps of her nonviolent mentors, Professor Chenoweth would keep alive a strong hatred of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan “regime” and its authoritarian legacy. This was made clear in Chenoweth’s latest book Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know which was published last month by Oxford University Press. Herein she discusses how “authoritarian” regimes like to countermobilize their supporters “by paying loyalists to hold patriotic parades, setting up encampments, or turning out in pro-government marches”. She uses three examples to make this point: the first two are the unquestionably authoritarian regimes of Bashar al- Assad in Syrian and Putin in Russia, but her third example is that of Hugo Chávez, who she says went on to establish his “so-called Bolivarian Circles, or pro-government grassroots neighborhood organizations, in the slums of Venezuela”.

In relation to Chavez’s recent political successor Nicolás Maduro, Chenoweth applauds the “millions of people joined marches and demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro in 2017 and 2019.”[20] She then moaned that…

“…Maduro’s government in Venezuela responded to protests in 2019 by expelling American diplomats, citing evidence that the US government had conspired to support a coup against his government.” (pp.234-5)

Of course, Maduro’s reaction was far from controversial, as earlier in her own book Chenoweth herself acknowledged that Maduro had good reasons for being suspicious of the US government. But it seems that the peace-loving professor is primarily concerned about Venezuelan government conspiracies because she had idolized the right-wing opposition movement. Ironically, it seems that Chenoweth is not generally supportive of US interventions in other countries as, she says, such foreign support “may actually undermine a civil resistance campaign’s critical source of strength: mass participation.” Chenoweth continues:

“This is arguably part of what happened to the pro-democracy movement in Venezuela in 2019 and 2020. A diverse, inclusive movement to challenge the power of Nicolás Maduro began to shrink in size and diversity once the United States began to double down on economic sanctions against Maduro and his close associates, actively support opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and threaten armed intervention to install him.” (p.138)

It is important to note here that the “pro-democracy” protest that Chenoweth refers to was in reality a US-backed coup that was led by right-wing politicians and fascists. The events surrounding these right-wing attacks on Maduro also featured in an online magazine that includes Chenoweth as one of its founders.[21] On February 1, 2019 the magazine thus discussed in frank terms how it was routine for American presidents to engage in “foreign-imposed regime change”. The following day the magazine then ran an article by a longstanding ICNC contributor (who is a current USIP senior scholar) which described Maduro’s government as a fully-fledged dictatorship which had needed removing. And while socialists have criticisms of the capitalist governments of both Maduro and his popular predecessor (Hugo Chavez), we by no means follow the imperialist line which sees the likes of Chenoweth and her magazine providing uncritical support to Guaidó’s fascist-leaning reactionaries.

Writing at the time of the coup in January 2019, Socialist Alternative thus explained that ordinary people “cannot have the slightest confidence in the Maduro government, the bureaucracy or the senior army officers if we want to prevent the victory of the reaction.” Instead:

“The first task of the working class and the politically conscious and combative people of Venezuela is to organize resistance against the coup. We must begin by denouncing the true objectives of Guaidó, the right wing and imperialism. We have to organize assemblies in each company and place of work to discuss what our needs and demands are and how the economic plans and policies of the right mean a mortal danger. It is urgent to create action committees in defense of the rights of workers and the people in each work center and each neighborhood, defending a genuinely socialist class program, which proposes the expropriation of the big private monopolies and banking to end the hyperinflation and corruption, the abolition of the privileges of the bureaucracy and that strives to transfer real power to the hands of the working class and the oppressed. We must organize massive mobilizations and the legitimate self-defense of the people against the violence of the right.”[22]

These democratic solutions are a million miles away from the type of sanitized capitalist-friendly resistance that is promoted by the likes of Chenoweth, Ackerman and Sharp.

But it is not true, as Chenoweth asserts in her book, that Marxists are “skeptical of the idea that nonviolent struggle could overcome entrenched economic inequality and bring about true economic justice.” This is because Marxists believe that it is precisely through the building of huge mass political movements and the organization of powerful general strikes across the world that the working-class can lay the groundwork for the final overthrow of the capitalist status quo. Of course, in the process of organizing nonviolent mass movements globally there is no question that capitalist elites will at some point attempt to drown such resistance in blood. This is why Marxists believe it is common sense that people have the right to defend themselves from capitalist violence.

And if you wanted a good example of how far the ruling-class will go to prevent the socialist transformation of society we need only reflect upon Chenoweth’s own examples where, in passing, she states that the US government have “fomented unrest and backed right- wing movements and insurgencies in many… countries, from the Contras in Nicaragua to armed militias associated with the Indonesian military during anti- communist mass killings of 1965– 1966.”[23] In the latter instance the CIA intervened directly with logistical assistance to help organize the slaughter of up to one million socialists and trade unionists. So, once you get you head around the utter depravity of the powers that be one can better understand why democratic movements of workers must always be able to defend themselves. History would seem to show that nonviolent resistance alone might not be enough to protect genuinely revolutionary movements of the working-class.


[1] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.vii, p.76, p.80, p.82.

[2] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.89, p.48. In an 1987 article, anarchist researcher Brian Martin discussed some of the major problems associated with such a pro-military approach to nonviolence which I previously discussed here, “From Sharp to Lovins: elite reform as progressive social change,” Swans Commentary, July 26, 2010.

[3] Gene Keyes, “Strategic non-violent defense: the construct of an option,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 4(2), June 1981, p.126.

[4] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.72. In 1965 Sharp departed from his prestigious intellectual base at Oxford University — where he had carried out his Ph.D. — to settle in America.

[5] In March 2006 Howard Zinn served on the founding board of directors of a group called the International Endowment for Democracy which was formed to challenge the anti-democratic work of the National Endowment for Democracy. Perhaps unaware of the problems associated with the work of the Albert Einstein Institution, Zinn’s name would later appear in the Spring 2006 issue of the Albert Einstein Institutions newsletter where he lent his support to the Institution’s ongoing funding appeal. Likewise, in 2010 Zinn controversially signed an open letter that defended Sharp and the ICNC from legitimate criticisms that stemmed from the problematic relationships they maintained with the NED.

[6] Between “1968-72, the Center was so beset by student protests and upheaval that it could barely get its work accomplished.” Howard Wiarda, Harvard and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA): Foreign Policy Research Center and Incubator of Presidential Advisors (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010), p.41. Wiarda makes the point that it was quite likely that the Center was funded by the CIA as “Robert Bowie, CFIA’s first director, had an extensive CIA background and could have been a channel for CIA funding, and we do know that CFIA’s sister institution down Massachusetts Avenue, the Center for International Studies (CIS) at MIT, did receive extensive CIA funding during this same period.” (p.43) Bowie also served as CIA chief National Intelligence Officer from 1977-1979.

[7] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.80.

[8] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.81, p.85.

[9] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.83.

[10] Sarah Diamond and Richard Hatch, “Operation peace institute,” Z Magazine, July/August 1990. The authors observe that one of top three “organizations receiving the largest number of grants” is the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at Tufts University (where Ackerman obtained his Ph.D.). They note “About $90,000 has gone to the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, where liberal peace researcher Gene Sharp studies the political impact of nonviolent sanctions… But a careful analysis of the USIP’s annotated list of 238 grant projects through early 1990 reveals undeniable favoritism toward researchers committed to Cold War paradigms. No recognized left scholars—let alone anyone with the Rainbow Coalition or European Green movements—has been funded to date.”

[11] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.157. Arrow notes that later in 1995 “the National Endowment for Democracy granted the Albert Einstein Institution an additional $45,000 to continue providing training in political defiance alongside consultation visits.” Bob Helvey was “accompanied” on these training missions by a project officer from the IRI. (p.170)

[12] Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu were cofounders of the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB) which was founded in America in September 1986. “The CRDB’s parent organization, the Foundation for Democracy in Burma, was formed in conjunction with CRDB, as was its political party, the New Republic Party of Burma. Of the founding Burmese members, Tin Maung Win (vice chairman and general secretary) and Ye Kyaw Thu (executive director) seem to have played the most direct roles in organizing and directing the CRDB’s activities. Both Win and Thu had ‘long been in the national and revolutionary politics’ of Burma and ‘had participated in leadership in the armed struggle’ before migrating to the US in the 1970s, after which they kept the line of communication with the revolutionary leaders ‘active and healthy’.” Brian Denny, “The warden’s dilemma as nested game: political self-sacrifice, instrumental rationality, and third parties,” Government and Opposition, 56(1), April 2019, p.11 This article also discussed the nature of the training provided in Burma by Helvey which was supported by the NED.

[13] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.216, p.216.

[14] The Albert Einstein Institution Newsletter, Spring 2006, p.10.

[15]Report on activities, 2000-2004,” The Albert Einstein Institution, 2004, pp.20-1. “The nine-day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miller in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition.” (p.21) The relevance of this report is discussed here: George Ciccariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Making excuses for empire: reply to defenders of the AEI,” Venezuelanalysis.com, August 4, 2008.

[16] Kim Scipes, “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: déjà vu all over again,” Labor-Notes, April 1, 2004.

[17] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.84. Later he writes: “The Egyptian offices of American democracy promotion agencies, like IRI and Freedom House were being provided with so much money by the US government in 2006 that they couldn’t work out how to spend it. That year Freedom House received a grant of $900,000 for development of Egyptian civil society advocacy and reform, but spent less than half of the money – mainly due to restrictions the Egyptian government placed on funding of groups they deemed too threatening.” (p.245)

[18] Arrow, Gene Sharp, p.64.

[19] I discussed these murky CIA connections in more depth here, “Why civil resistance works and why the billionaire-class cares,” CounterPunch, May 3, 2017.

[20] Chenoweth, Civil Resistance, p.235, p.230.

[21] The magazine in question, Political Violence @ A Glance, is supported by a university think tank that is funded by the military, and by philanthropies that include the Carnegie Corporation and the Charles Koch Foundation.

[22] George Martin Fell Brown, “Venezuela: for mass mobilization of workers to build real socialism and put an end to corrupt bureaucracy!”, Socialist Alternative, January 24, 2019.

[23] Chenoweth, Civil Resistance, p.136.

The COVAX Smokescreen: Charity in The Service of Pandemic Profiteering

The rich get vaccines, and the poor get empty promises. The world thus remains divided between the greed of a handful of billionaires and the urgent health needs of the billions: all the while a self-obsessed ruling-class engorge themselves at the expense of our futures. Ordinary people in their billions, are thereby forced to endure poverty and degradation, while philanthropists like Bill Gates shout out from the rooftops about their humanity while propping up a failing economic system that thrives upon inequality.

In the midst of this deadly pandemic, pharmaceutical corporations happily join with Gates in celebrating his tech-savvy saintliness, but for the majority of the world’s poor Gates (the mortal) is seen in a less flattering light. He is correctly seen as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the world. He is the gentler side of capitalism personified. Gates doesn’t just take… he gives back too; if only to ensure that the global capitalist machine that he worships can keep ploughing our bodies into the earth to yield profits for the few.

Over recent decades Bill Gates has moved frictionlessly from the world of computers to that of global public health, and in doing so has reinvented himself as the architect of health interventions that, most of all, benefit the powerful. This, of course, is not how Gates likes to present his almsgiving to the public. But he, more than any other individual, has succeeded in bringing the principles of privatisation into the heart of global health systems; working to synchronise the goals of multi-lateral organisation like the World Health Organization with the needs of Big Pharma.

Now it is common-sense that with effective vaccines in existence, these should be made available to the entire world, not just to those people residing in the richest countries. But this solution remains but a utopian dream. This distribution problem therefore represents a serious concern for ordinary people, and it is one that Bill Gates is fully aware of; in fact, it is an issue that Gates himself never stops warming the world about. For instance, on March 31, 2021, he blogged that:

The more the virus that causes COVID-19 is out there in the world, the more opportunities it has to evolve—and to develop new ways of fighting our defenses against it. If we don’t get the vaccine out to every corner of the planet, we’ll have to live with the possibility that a much worse strain of the virus will emerge.”

He then referred his readers to his own preferred COVAX initiative which he boasted had “recently announced that it’ll be able to deliver 300 million doses by mid-2021” – doses that will go to some of the poorest countries in the world. But this effort, as nice sounding as it is, represents far too little far too late; and even the philanthropic king himself admitted that “the world is going to need a lot more if we’re going to truly stamp out the threat of COVID-19.” Moreover, considering that his COVAX facility still represents the main means of getting vaccines out to every corner of the planet, it is more than a little concerning that COVAX is totally incapable to doing its stated job. We should also remember that COVAX’s existence would not even be necessary if it were not for Bill Gates’ own early and ongoing efforts to oppose the waiving of patent rights on vaccines: an inhumane action which helps ensure that vaccines remain largely inaccessible and unaffordable to the world’s poor.

The roots of COVAX

Launched in June 2020, COVAX is the vaccine pillar of the “Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator” (ACT-Accelerator) which had been set up in April by Gates and his lackeys as a means of counteracting popular demands that any forthcoming vaccine roll-out should prioritise global public health instead of protecting patents and corporate profits. The launching of this initiative therefore quickly marginalised the World Health Organization’s own COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), a project which took a more progressive approach to the pandemic by calling for “the global community to voluntarily share knowledge, intellectual property and data necessary for COVID-19.”

As the influence of Gates’ billionaire lobbying had been central to the emergence of COVAX it is unsurprising that its day-to-day operations are currently being led by GaVi, the Vaccine Alliance, a well-known pro-corporate health initiative that was established by the Gates Foundation in 2000. The prioritising of markets and corporate profits (through the use of public-private partnerships) has always been central to Gates’ personal modus operandi, although you would be forgiven for missing this aspect of his so-called humanitarian work if you have ever read any of the propaganda about his do-gooding that saturates the mainstream media. Nevertheless, although studiously side-lined by Gates’ many powerful corporate-backed sycophants, the philanthropist’s many critics have always made their numerous and well-informed concerns with Gates’ charitable work crystal clear to all who were willing to listen. Writing just over a decade ago two such public health authors observed:

At the first GaVi-partners meeting, the head of SmithKline Biologicals outlined the conditions for industry participation. These included ‘a guarantee for ‘reasonable prices’, support for a credible and sustainable market, respect for international property rights, a tiered pricing system including safeguards against re-export of products back from developing countries to high-priced markets, and a prohibition on compulsory licensing.’ Each of these conditions prioritizes profits over children’s lives. Moreover, industry representatives opposed technology transfer arrangements, claiming that vaccines were too complex for public research institutes and local production in developing countries.”

These are very much the same priorities that have been enshrined within COVAX’s operations. Indeed, one of the novel financing method utilised for securing COVAX’s ambitions is based upon the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm), a facility that was founded in 2006 to better inoculate GaVi’s global health decision-making from democratic oversight. As described on their web site:

“IFFIm receives long term, legally binding pledges from donor countries and, with the World Bank acting as Treasury Manager, turns these pledges into bonds. The money raised via Vaccine Bonds provides immediate funding for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.”

Critics of Gavi’s “vaccine bonds” however have demonstrated how the use of such bonds means that the setting of public health care priorities can now effectively “bypass national governmental control in recipient countries while simultaneously providing an ethical cover for business as usual by pharmaceutical companies”. And it this model of financing – overseen by GaVi — that was meant to help undergird COVAX’s so-called Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which as of April 7 had raised the hardly awe-inspiring sum of US$6.3 billion. (Presently the UK government remains one of the few countries making heavy use of COVAX’s IFFIm option and has made a US$675 million commitment for the period covering 2021 to 2025 but has only offered a direct payment to COVAX of US$61 million. Other large direct payments have come from the Gates Foundation which has chipped in US$156 million, with the biggest contributor being the United States, who had made a direct payment worth US$2.5 billion.)

In addition to utilising IFFIm, the COVAX AMC – as their own report (dated April 15) notes – “builds on the experience of the US $1.5 billion Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV) AMC launched in 2009” by Gavi. This earlier “model” AMC is not however without its own significant problems and last June the campaigning group Doctors Without Borders criticised the PCV’s supposedly successful use of AMC funding. They pointed out that:

While the funding was intended to help encourage competition to reduce the overall price of PCV, in reality the bulk of the money essentially served as a subsidy for Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which until December 2019 were the only two manufacturers of PCV. Of the $1.5 billion, $1.238 billion (82%) was disbursed to Pfizer and GSK.”

Their report concluded that while the vaccination effort had some successes, often partial,…

“…the AMC mechanism in effect increased profits of multinational pharmaceutical corporations at rates higher than necessary to incentivize their involvement to achieve vaccine access in developing countries, while doing nothing meaningful to stimulate competition from developing-country vaccine manufacturers.”

COVAX inequality

On April 15, 2021, COVAX optimistically boasted that “around 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been reserved, but not yet locked in, through the COVAX AMC from a range of manufacturers.” But these doses are for potential use into 2022, which means that even if all these doses do arrive at their planned destinations, then COVAX is still absolutely failing in its efforts to vaccinate the world. But of course, COVAX’s aims were far more limited in the short-term, as they are only attempting to vaccinate 2.5% of people in the poorest 92 AMC-eligible countries by the end of May – countries which have a combined population of nearly 4 billion people.

Of course, COVAX does plan to provide more than 2.5% coverage in later months and years, and pledge to vaccinate 20% of any given country’s population, but these conservative ambitions are nowhere near good enough to prevent the global spread of the pandemic in the here and now! Afterall what is the point of a handful of rich countries being able to vaccinate most of their own populations while the pandemic continues to ravage human life in the rest of world while undergoing dangerous potentially vaccine-resistant mutations?

Making matters worse, many of the COVAX vaccines that were planned to be distributed all over the world over the past few months were to be produced and shipped from India, but owing to the devastating nature of the pandemic surge in India, their government — which is COVAX’s main supplier – has taken the decision to block most vaccine exports. This means that COVAX is now only able to potentially “deliver 145 million doses instead of about 240 million” by the end of May (enough to vaccinate less than 2% of the populations of the poorest 92 countries). Furthermore, contrast the woefully insufficient 1.8 billion doses that COVAX has so far managed to reserve (but has not locked in) with the more than 500 million doses that were ordered by the UK government alone. Or consider the fact that richer countries are still able to purchase vaccines directly from COVAX stocks: the most recent example being the Venezuelan government which purchased around 11 million doses from COVAX for an initial outlay of US$64 million (with another US$60 million to be paid later).

Finally, it is important to contextualize the relatively small sums of money being ‘donated’ to COVAX and other critical global health initiatives by the most powerful countries in the world. For example, total annual funding for the World Health Organization runs at just over US$2 billion — representing “less than the budget of many major hospitals in the United States”. And while COVAX has received just over US$6 billion — with the largest chunk of funding coming from the US government (with another US$2 billion pledged) — it is informative to compare the scale of this funding to the recent increase in US military funding. Thus just before the pandemic broke President Trump announced a record-breaking annual request of US$740.5 billion for national security, which President Biden evidently deems insufficient as last month he requested a life-sapping US$753 billion (a 1.7% increase) to be spent on warmongering, and this is their military budget for just one year!

Releasing the patents

Socialists and critical public health experts have always opposed the use of market-based solutions to resolve pressing public health problems that are inflicted upon the world by the likes of Bill Gates and his friends in high places at the World Bank. But in mid-February even the president of the World Bank went on the record to express his concerns with COVAX’s severe limitations, stating the obvious fact that “manufacturers are reluctant to commit the doses to developing countries while they have the chance to sell it, or provide it, at a higher price to the advanced economies”. As if all this were not bad enough, around the same time Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, noted that their ACT-Accelerator (of which COVAX was just one part) was “still $19 billion short of the funds it needs to expand access not just to vaccines but also to diagnostics and treatments like oxygen.” Little wonder that the Lancet medical journal concluded that “COVAX is wholly unequipped to resolve many of the most pressing threats to its mission.” (Lancet editorial, March 13, 2021)

A rising tide of public anger at the major shortcomings of the global response to the pandemic, however, is now serving to push more critical arguments in the mainstream press. For example, last month Dr. Tedros finally felt pressurised to raise more far-reaching criticisms about COVAX in an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times (April 22). First off, he pointed out the increasing disparity of health outcomes between rich and poorer nations highlighting how:

[O]f the more than 890 million vaccine doses that have been administered globally, more than 81 percent have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Low-income countries have received just 0.3 percent.”

The WHO head had seemingly reached the end of his tether and he emphasized that COVAX had so far proved “totally insufficient” having only “distributed 43 million doses of vaccine to 119 countries — covering just 0.5 percent of their combined population of more than four billion.” Dr. Tedros went on to point out how “many of the world’s biggest economies” currently funding the COVAX initiative had simultaneously “undermined it” with “a handful of rich countries gobbling up the anticipated supply as manufacturers sell to the highest bidder”. Likewise, he added, “vaccine diplomacy has undermined Covax as countries with vaccines make bilateral donations for reasons that have more to do with geopolitical goals than public health.” It is for such reasons that Dr. Tedros asked medical companies if they could now step up and support the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool — the WHO’s more progressive alternative to Gates’ ACT-Accelerator. Yet perhaps the most significant solution proposed by Dr. Tedros to redress the ongoing problems caused by COVID-profiteering was “to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 products” – something that was argued for last October at the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the governments of South Africa and India amongst others.

Similar demands for opening access to vaccine patents have been repeatedly made by health experts throughout the pandemic. A recent article published by four influencial health commentators made the obvious point that for “low-income countries, COVAX is a vaccine lifeline when the prices of bilateral agreements become too high.” They then went on to highlight how the limited resources devoted to COVAX by high-income countries means that vaccine hoarding countries can falsely emphasize to the world how caring they are while still relying on COVAX supplies as “an insurance mechanism should their bilaterally-agreed supplies fall short.” Little wonder that the writers concluded that “COVAX is serving as a smokescreen to cover up vaccine nationalism.” They continued:

“The cost of medicines is seen as the root problem of access to vaccines and technology. Hence the campaign for a temporary suspension (waiver) of intellectual property rights protected under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement of the WTO for all medical products required to fight the pandemic.

“South Africa and India put forward a proposal for a vaccine waiver supported by developing countries and civil society campaigns. However this was blocked by the EU, US, UK, and Switzerland among other high-income states.”

This deadly blockage on the production of the necessary vaccines — which can help alleviate the spread of the pandemic — serves to endanger us all, but particularly those in the world’s poorest countries. This is why it is necessary for trade unions and community groups in high-income states to demand that their governments place the need of humanity before protecting the needs of corporate profiteers. An example of such effective organising can be seen though the recent activism of Socialist Alternative councilmember Kshama Sawant. By working alongside various trade unionists and civic groups Sawant managed to force Seattle City Council to pass a resolution (on April 26) calling on President Biden to end his government’s opposition to the international campaign for an Intellectual Property Rights waiver from the WTO for COVID-19 vaccines. On the day this resolution was passed, Councilmember Sawant said:

I congratulate our movement on winning today’s City Council resolution, urging the Biden administration to put human lives before billionaire profit, and remove the WTO patent restrictions to allow all billions of people to have access to the life-saving vaccine. This resolution demonstrates our movement’s rejection of the status quo of profit-driven vaccine apartheid and vaccine nationalism, and our fight for vaccine internationalism, for a People’s Vaccine!…

“Billionaires are lying when they claim that these profits are necessary to develop future vaccines and treatments, because clinical innovations have been possible only thanks to overwhelming amounts of public funding, and the hard work of many publicly-funded salaried researchers, not by billionaires.”

But passing resolutions is not enough to force the hands of the billionaire-class, which is why Sawant continues to organise on the streets to build the type of socialist mass movement that can wrest a People’s Vaccine from the capitalist class. On May Day this saw Sawant and her supporters take their protest to the offices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle where they demanded that Biden and Gates immediately act to remove patent restrictions to allow the production of generic versions of all lifesaving COVID-19 devices.

Bill Gates and the question of public funding

The focus on Bill Gates’ unique role in blocking solutions to the COVID nightmare enveloping the planet is worth reflecting upon here for two reasons: firstly because of his widely publicised defence of the indefensible, that is the protection of patents for COVID vaccines; but also because of his role in ensuring that one of the first vaccines that made it to market remained accessible only to those with the requisite buying power. The vaccine in question is now widely referred to as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, but we should recall that when it first successfully developed by researchers at Oxford University in April 2020, the researchers involved in its discovery had promised that the rights for producing their vaccine would be made freely available to all drug manufacturers. This after all was a vaccine that was developed, like most vaccines, as a direct result of public sector funding – with less than 2% of the identified funding for the development of the Oxford vaccine derived from private industry. But Gates knew better than to allow a vaccine to be used to help the world, and with a little persuading a “few weeks later, Oxford—urged on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—reversed course. It signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices”.

AstraZeneca subsequently arrived at a rare compromise with the rest of the world when they promised that, in the short-term, the corporation would not turn a profit from its COVID-19 vaccine. But it turns out that there remains an important clause in this agreement, which determined that as soon as the corporation believes the pandemic is over, then their profiteering can begin. Other problems similarly reside in the small print, as prices paid for the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine vary considerably. Such discriminatory variations, as one might expect, caused some controversy in South Africa – one of the countries where the Oxford-AstraZeneca was trialled on humans – who found out that they were sold the vaccine at nearly 2.5 times the cost it was sold to the European Union (with the EU paying less for the vaccine that the UK government – costs per dose were US$2.15 for the EU, US$3 for the UK, and US$5.25 for South Africa).

Global solidarity?

As this pandemic has starkly illustrated, we are struck in the tragic position where the most powerful countries in the world are refusing to take the necessary actions to help prevent the spread of the pandemic. It seems that the only time that such capitalist powerbrokers ever act with any urgency is when they feel they can turn a profit, either for their country or for their billionaire friends.

So, with good knowledge of the funding problems that laid ahead, in March 2020 the World Health Organization created the first means by which members of the global public could contribute towards their COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Yet as is so often the case, in reality it seems that the main target donors for this so-called solidarity fund were members of the billionaire-class seeking to garner some cheap publicity. I say this because by the end of last year the WHO had observed that “more than 650,000 leading companies, organizations and individuals [had] committed over US$239.2 million” to the Fund – which works out to be an average rate of funding of US$370 per donor… hardly much of a sacrifice for the world’s leading companies. Individual donors are not listed on the Fund’s web site, but corporate donors who are prominently advertised include the likes of Facebook, Google, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, and Walmart. However, as if this poor show of international solidarity were not bad enough it seems that the rate of support for this Fund had slowed considerably, and a further 19,000 donations had only garnered another U$8 million from the global ruling-class. Compare this paltry sum to the trillions of dollars that the super-rich have amassed in savings during this pandemic. Or contrast this lacklustre display of corporate aid with the generosity of ordinary members of the public: where, in the UK alone, the public donated £5.4 billion to charitable causes between January and June 2020 (equivalent to just short of US$7.5 billion).

Perhaps partly born out of frustration with the dangerously slow pace of global vaccinations, in February 2021 the “co-creator of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab” Professor Sarah Gilbert lent her name to support a new funding initiative called “Arm in arm” which sought to collect donations from the public to help pay for the costs of vaccinating the rest of the world. Although the money generated through this program is again being channelled to the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, the difference between this initiative and the official WHO fundraising project is that the Arm in arm project has used their social media channel to raise important criticisms of the pro-corporate narrative being pushed by the likes of Bill Gates. Thus one of Arm in arm’s first tweets highlighted the results of a public survey that highlighted how the majority of British people believed “the UK government should press pharmaceutical companies to share their Covid vaccine formula to allow doses to be rolled out faster.” More recently still, on May 1, Arm in arm tweeted an article that outlined the devastating impact that Tory cuts to foreign aid budgets would have for an ongoing academic study being undertaken in collaboration with the University of Oxford that was concerned with developing “vital coronavirus research, including a project tracking variants in India”. On the same day the fund-raising initiative also retweeted a post calling for Big Pharma to waive vaccine patents – providing a link to an article that lambasted Bill Gates for promoting the lie that it would be impossible to scale up vaccine production if patents on vaccines were ever relaxed.

In contrast to adopting such a critical position on the issue of drug patents, the same questioning attitude is never likely to be vocalised by the WHO Foundation, a new philanthropic body that was formed in May 2020. The creation of this foundation is not a good omen, and in many ways only serves to reflect the increasing influence that the Gates Foundation has exerted over the recent evolution of the WHO and the corporatisation of global health care provision. In explaining why this new philanthropy was established the WHO Foundation pointed out that its formation owed much to the fact that the WHO itself “is not set up to approach individual or corporate donors.” As they went on to note:

“For example, High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) look for a personalized process in which they can invest and engage, and the WHO Foundation can provide that. Furthermore, the WHO Foundation, as an independent entity, can offer tax incentives to donors.”

In December the WHO Foundation subsequently announced that their inaugural CEO would be Anil Soni, an elite powerbroker who was recruited directly from the ranks of Big Pharma – with Soni having the added ‘benefit’ of being a former senior advisor to the Gates Foundation. And while High Net Worth Individuals seem to remain the WHO Foundation’s primary target audience, last week (on April 28) the WHO Foundation launched a new project called “Go Give One” to fund the work of COVAX. In many ways this new initiative duplicates the work being undertaken by Arm in arm, however, the primary difference between the two fund-raising initiatives is that the WHO Foundation’s messaging is unlikely to stray from neoliberal narratives that promote only personalised cross-class solutions to the deep-rooted problems that are caused by capitalist greed.

Real solutions

In February 2021, the South African delegation to the World Trade Organisation reaffirmed what most ordinary people of the world already know, that the pandemic represented a huge threat to us all and that COVAX was not a solution that was able to remedy this global problem. The South African representative observed that “the model of donation and philanthropic expediency cannot solve the fundamental disconnect between the monopolistic model it underwrites and the very real desire of developing and least developed countries to produce for themselves.” Simply put, they said, the “problem with philanthropy is that it cannot buy equality.” That is right, but to get to the real root of the issue we really need to see the underlying problem as capitalism itself. Philanthropy is after all just one tool among many that the billionaire-class relies upon to prop up a political and economic system that is premised upon inequality. This is why nice-sounding platitudes about Bill Gates (and other capitalists) wanting to help the poor need to be perpetually rammed down our throats by the mainstream media. But in peering beneath all the billionaire-classes harmonious mantras, philanthropic investments are continuing to play a critical role in sustaining a crumbling status quo that is premised upon exploitation. In this way we can see how…

COVAX presents a high-stakes demonstration of Gates’s deepest ideological commitments, not just to intellectual property rights but also to the conflation of these rights with an imaginary free market in pharmaceuticals—an industry dominated by companies whose power derives from politically constructed and politically imposed monopolies. Gates has been tacitly and explicitly defending the legitimacy of knowledge monopolies since his first Gerald Ford–era missives against open-source software hobbyists. He was on the side of these monopolies during the miserable depths of the 1990s African AIDS crisis. He’s still there today, defending the status quo and running effective interference for those profiting by the billions from their control of Covid-19 vaccines.”

Owing to Gates’ ongoing ability to reap immense profits from the current system – with his personal wealth actually increasing during the pandemic – his ability to interfere in global politics knows few boundaries and is certainly not limited to facilitating private profiteering from public health. Thus, Gates is also at the forefront of pushing false solutions to the ongoing climate disaster facing our planet, and earlier this year he even found the time to publish a book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Herein Gates makes a number of “depressingly familiar” proposals for how to prevent the unfolding climate disaster, none of which include the urgent need to transition away from capitalism towards a socialist alternative. His rhetoric, even if it is not intended to, does however give some indications of the direction of travel that is necessary to embark upon if we are to generate real solutions to both the climate and COVID crises.

Gates is right that “Every country will need to change its ways.” And it is true, as he asserts in his book, that “It would be immoral and impractical to try to stop people who are lower down on the economic ladder from climbing up.” This is precisely why socialists continue to campaign for the ending of a global economic system that prioritizes profit before human life – a system that deliberately divides the world between the haves and the have-nots, and between two classes, the ruling-class and the working-classes. And in terms of the serious environmental problems facing our planet, Gates is correct in stating:

“[T]his isn’t primarily a technological problem. It’s a political and economic problem. People cut down trees not because people are evil; they do it when the incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone.”

Such incentives are of course driven by capitalisms life-degrading priorities. And, yes, there is a very urgent need for ordinary people to deal with the very real political and economic problem that enables the ruling-class to direct and profit from the daily grind and impoverishment of the rest of us.

Finally, Gates is right that the primary answer to the ongoing oppression of our class and the destruction of our planet revolves around ordinary people taking “concerted political action”. As he puts it:

“It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a problem as big as climate change. But you’re not powerless. And you don’t have to be a politician or a philanthropist to make a difference. You have influence…”

But while Gates emphasizes the role of individuals as political actors who content themselves with working strictly within the strict limits of a capitalist system, increasing numbers of people are coming to the important realisation that the working-class will always feel powerless so long as capitalism exists.

So, if we are serious about creating the type of democratic and socialist society that works to benefit the many not just the few, billions of people will need to take “concerted political action” — whether this be through protests on the streets or by linking up to organize powerful general strikes. Only then, when we take such powerful militant actions, will we be able to begin the process of transforming society so that human priorities are able to inform our politics and economics. As ultimately it will be through this process of struggle, a fight that needs to be waged worldwide in a climate of genuine solidarity, that the working-class will be able to prevent the impending climate catastrophe and safeguard our collective futures against this pandemic and any other future health disasters.

Michael Barker is the author of the 2017 book Under the Mask of Philanthropy.

A Mistaken Take on Revolutionary Strategy, the Case of 1905

Capitalism is drenched from head to foot in the blood of the working class. This is one reason why socialists believe that if we are to rid ourselves of this murderous system then we must mobilise the full weight of our class against all our oppressors: mass revolutionary struggle is the order of the day. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the capitalist class will use always use violence to defend their pernicious system from democratic accountability. So, if we are serious about cleansing our world of a political system that looks more favourably upon fascism than socialism, workers must be able to defend themselves while struggling for this change.

To date the most important revolutionary movement that wrested power from the powerful and placed it firmly in the hands of organised workers was the Russian Revolution of October 1917. As such critical lessons can be learned from this historic event. First off, we should note that the transfer of power to the Russian masses is commonly disparaged by its ideological opponents as representing a coup d’état that was carried through by a small band of revolutionaries. This is a lie: because the October Revolution’s success was built upon the power of a genuine mass movement of millions. Secondly, the Revolution is presented by its critics as an act of violent bloodletting when it was nothing of the sort. The real violence came through the capitalist counterrevolution. Rather than let Russia’s democratic workers’ state remain intact, more than twenty foreign states unleashed a vicious civil war on the Russian people.

Violence on trial

In recent years one of the most influential books to create a false equivalence between state violence and the determined resistance of armed workers is Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict (St Martin’s Press, 2015). Written by two State Department theoreticians, this mammoth tome celebrates a hundred years of mass struggles for justice – which, as the authors admit, have taken place against a backdrop of “wars, genocide, carpet bombing, and terror”. Their book’s primary objective, however, is highly problematic, as the authors seek to convince their readers that capitalist democracy is the only remedy for oppression, and that non-violent tactics alone are the most effective method for ensuring such change.

Perhaps of most interest to socialists, the first (and longest) chapter of A Force More Powerful deals with the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin famously referred to this titanic year of struggle like this: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” Ackerman and DuVall beg to differ and summarise this mass uprising like this:

“When Lenin wrote from Geneva before the march [led by Father Gapon] on the Winter Palace [in January 1905] that the people had to be armed to secure their liberty, he would soon be disproved, as strikes and nonviolent resistance frustrated the regime at almost every turn and opened the way for constitutional change. But he and his party went right on believing it.

“The Marxists were wrong, of course. The sponsors of violence in 1905 derailed the Russian people’s first genuine assertion of democratic power in their history. Moreover, violence in 1905 sowed the seeds for violence in 1917, creating then a new regime dedicated even more systematically than the Tsar’s to violence as the basis for state power.”

But it is Ackerman and DuVall who are wrong, of course. The sponsors of the violence in 1917 were the capitalists. In the five years succeeding the revolution the armies of more than twenty foreign nations waged a bloody civil war that decimated the fledging workers’ state, liquidating millions of lives and depleting the revolutionary state of most of their leading activists. It was this ultra-violence that helped lay the groundwork for Stalin’s eventual seizure of power and the flourishing of Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. With Stalin’s betrayal of socialist ideals being encouraged by capitalist elites but bravely resisted by real revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and thousands of others who made up the Left Opposition. Yet genuine Marxists, following in the tradition of Trotsky, have always been clear that there can be no political short-cuts on the path to socialism. The only way for the working-class to assume power is when they themselves rise-up in their millions to smash our chains of capitalist exploitation.

The authors of A Force More Powerful as forthright defenders of capitalisms global beneficence have set themselves the unenviable task of falsifying history by proving that nonviolence is the only force capable of extracting meaningful reforms from violent elites. “Tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded, and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered,” all successes that were apparently obtained through nonviolent collection action alone. Furthermore, what Ackerman and DuVall refuse to mention is that most of the case studies provided in their book demonstrate how the working-class have been forced to topple violent capitalist-backed dictatorships.

Of police unions and nonviolence

In setting out their pacifying history of social change, A Force More Powerful begins with a forensic, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the 1905 revolution — a historic event which in the hands of Ackerman and DuVall places overwhelming emphasis on the role of a single act of mass nonviolence that kicked off an epic year of struggle. They surmise: “In 1905 an Orthodox priest, Georgii Gapon, persuaded 150,000 workers to walk the icy streets of Russia’s ancient capital in the century’s first public challenge to autocratic power. He ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament.” But herein lies the first example of the authors nonviolent distortions: first off, this was not the centuries first public action challenging the Tsar’s despotism, the entire country of 150 million people had been in turmoil for decades. And second, while it is true that this mass act of civil disobedience did ignite a revolutionary upsurge, the result of that year of bloody struggle was the creation of a toothless parliament with the Tsar still safely ensconced at its helm. The other major response of the Russian state to the 1905 uprising was to release a new wave of terror upon the masses, cojoined by a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms. That is why the real victory for workers came not after this first struggle for emancipation, but after the subsequent waves of mass resistance that finally allowed workers to take power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, after getting off to an inaccurate start, the opening chapter of the book does go some way towards correcting itself. It beginsby foregrounding the immense violence of the Tsar’s Christian fiefdom, noting how governors of the state “could order anyone detained without trial, and associations or clubs of the most innocent kind could be forbidden. Autocracy, in short, meant that there were no rights.” Yes, in the preceding decades ordinary people had attempted “to liberate the country from absolutism” but to no avail. Some of these underground groups in desperation therefore turned to acts of individual terror, with a focus on assassinating political opponents. And as Ackerman and DuVall observe, “a new terrorist group, the ‘Battle Organization’ of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, had become active after the turn of the century.” In their next sentence however, the authors correctly acknowledge that genuine Marxists – like those in the tradition of the leaders of the October 1917 revolution — rejected such terroristic tactics. They write: “Other radicals rejected terrorism and tried instead to organize peasants or workers for popular uprisings. Marxist ideas tempted many young people, and socialists had agitated among workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere since the 1890s.”

Father Gapon

With the Tsar inhabiting an alternative universe imbued with the tradition of plebian bloodletting, it is understandable why the head of the Russian Empire felt his authoritarian rule would remain immune from the organising efforts of the masses. But other members of the ruling-class were more cognisant of the growing threat posed by ordinary people and “feared that the state would lose ground to revolutionaries in the battle for workers’ allegiance.” “Strikes in St. Petersburg, and the involvement of Marxist activists in organizing them,” thus had a clarifying effect upon the minds of those few ruler’s conscious of this growing democratic threat. This led Sergei Zubatov, who was the head of the political police in Moscow, to set out to undermine the Marxists’ in a novel way by creating “state-sponsored mutual aid societies” which were run “under the supervision of police agents.”

By 1902 Zubatov had been transferred to St. Petersburg which soon brought him into a working relationship with the now famous Father Gapon. The priest was not altogether stupid and saw the limitations of Zubatov’s police-centred approach — which for obvious reasons did not engender the trust of most workers — and subsequently he created a more sophisticated version of such police unions. In late 1903 Gapon thus chose to launch his Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers having “convinced officials…to keep the police out of day-to-day operations of the Assembly.” In contrast to genuine democratic organs of the working-class, however, it is critical to note that this new Assembly was under the total and conspiratorial control of just one person, Father Gapon.

Igniting a revolution: the nonviolence of Bloody Sunday

With the working-class striving for their collective freedom from despotism, the priest’s efforts to provide a pro-Tsarist alternative to democratically-run trade unions were never going to be easy for one person to control, and soon Gapon’s work to misdirect the working-class became overwhelmed by the democratic impulses of his deeply frustrated members. “In early December four Assembly members who worked at the giant Putilov metal factory, the largest industrial plant in Russia, were fired or threatened with firing.” This attack had the effect of forcing Gapon’s hand, because if he couldn’t convince the employer to reinstate his members, he would lose the trust of the thousands of the members of his now powerful Assembly. The bullying factory bosses were evidently not as politically sophisticated as the priest and so refused to reinstate the four workers. And although under Gapon’s pacifying leadership the Assembly had made a principle out of opposing all strikes, events soon overtook the priest, such that the “only thing left was the sanction of last resort: a strike.” Now the workers added more demands, demands that Gapon’s Assembly had adopted as a direct result of the influence of former Marxist organisers who had helped popularise the work of the Assembly. Aleksei Karelin, for instance, succeeded in pushing forward socialist demands within the Assembly, having already helped fill-out the ranks of the Assembly because of the “’unshakeable authority’ [he maintained] among the city’s factory workers”.

“On Sunday, January 2, 6,000 Putilov workers met at the Assembly’s Narva branch and voted to strike the next day to protest the firings. By Tuesday they had closed down the plant and idled over 12,000 workers. Their demands: rehiring the fired workers, a board of workers’ representatives to oversee pay rates, an eight-hour day, the end of overtime work, and free medical care. Putilov strikers began to make the rounds of other factories, and by the end of the week, over 110,000 workers at more than 400 factories in St. Petersburg had joined the strike.”

Still, with no sign of the bosses backing down, and with the credibility of his Assembly at stake, Gapon, under the pressure of events beyond his control now felt compelled to declare that he would lead a peaceful march on the Winter Palace. And it was on this march that he planned to present a petition to the Tsar that demanded justice for all workers. Gapon it seems believed that the Tsar would have to listen — after all he wasn’t demanding a revolution, quite the contrary, his Assembly had always actively supported the Tsar’s rule. But the 150,000 strong protest, as we now know – which took place on Sunday, January 9 — and was tragically drowned in the blood of workers… hence its name, Bloody Sunday.

Wojciech Kossak: Petersburg KoneserKrakow

In the events leading up to this historic protest Marxists had warned their fellow workers that the peaceful march would be repressed, so they had urged attendees that they should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary. But with Gapon’s influence in ascendence among the masses, revolutionaries lost this important argument, and with much trepidation these same Marxists joined the march that was headed towards inevitable state violence. The result: by the end of the day, hundreds, if not thousands, lay slaughtered in the streets, but a revolution had been ignited.

“Making hollow the Tsar’s claim that he adored his people, the regime’s violence on Bloody Sunday accomplished what revolutionary agitation could not. The hope of St. Petersburg’s workers that their ruler heard their cries for justice or would act on their behalf was ravaged. No one voiced his outrage more plainly than Father Gapon.”

At an emergency meeting held on the night of the massacre, Gapon, now disguised to present his arrest “shouted out, ‘Peaceful means have failed! … Now we must go over to other means!’” However, when the violent-minded priest (now shorn of his familiar beard) “was recognized, the meeting flew into an uproar, and he fled through the back door—and then into foreign exile, no longer part of the movement he had helped create.”

Valentin Serov: Where is your glory, soldiers? – Bloody Sunday

When a priest allies with terrorists

Although not discussed by the authors of A Force More Powerful, Gapon would now join the ranks of the leading (non-Marxist) group utilising terrorism, the Socialist-Revolutionaries. And when he finally returned to Russia in late 1905 – at the height of the revolutionary movement – Gapon soon dropped his SR friends to intervene in the revolution on behalf of the Tsar. This neglected part of Gapon’s career is discussed in the book that Ackerman and DuVall relied heavily upon in writing their own chapter, this being Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford University Press, 1988). Within this text we find further highly significant details about Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigues.

It is apparent that despite Gapon’s best intentions to help his royal friends, the Tsar’s governors had insisted that Gapon would serve a more useful role for them back in Western Europe. Thus after his return to Russia Gapon was dispatched back to Europe where he…

“…assumed the role of a leader of a resurgent loyal workers’ movement. He attracted maximum publicity in the press by appealing to workers to avoid violence and by assailing the extremism of the revolutionary parties. He even spoke favorably of [the authoritarian government minister Sergei] Witte as the only man capable of saving Russia from the abyss.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.99)

It was only in late December that Gapon was allowed to return to Russia, where he re-established connections with both the police and with the prominent SR leader Petr Rutenberg. Gapon of course hadn’t changed, and he now tried to persuade Rutenberg to enter into a bizarre conspiracy that would enable the SRs to get 100,000 rubles from the police. Rutenberg then “talked to E.F. Azef, the then head of the [SR] party’s ‘Combat Organization’ and later exposed as a police agent, who insisted Gapon must be killed.”[i] This intrigue soon led to Gapon’s execution. And the Russian people, who had initially been part of the priest’s covert power play, now had to wait until 1917 for an end to the Tsar’s despotic rule.

In the intervening years it is worth highlighting that it was Marxists who had argued most vigorously against the SRs advocacy of terrorism. And when Azef’s true identity as a police spy was finally revealed in 1909 it was Leon Trotsky who, in his popular article “The bankruptcy of terrorism,” reiterated how it is always those with “a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses” that drift towards using such defeatist and counter-revolutionary violence as individual terrorism.

Self-defence within a revolutionary explosion

Returning now to the events of Bloody Sunday: no-one was prepared for the explosion of working-class anger that led to and followed on from the peaceful march on the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, general strikes now spread across the entire nation, injecting new life into the class struggle — actions which vindicated all those Marxist organisers who had spent years popularising such militant forms of industrial action. Indeed as Trotsky correctly observed: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise.”[ii]

Gapon had unwittingly set-in chain a series of events that shook the world — demonstrating once and for all where the real power lies in society, with the people. Yet not everyone agreed with such analyses, not least Russia’s liberal intellectuals who most of all feared the consequences of unleashing the democratic power and aspirations of the working-class. Commenting on the nonsense of these intellectuals’ concerns, Trotsky pointed out how:

“The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9 lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the [Marxist] Social Democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to. But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves.”

With Gapon fleeing to exile and with strikes and peasant uprisings convulsing the nation, Marxists continued to argue for a more democratic means of coordinating this almighty display of popular resistance. State violence was of course a norm that workers knew that they had to put up with (for the time being anyway). So, workers armed themselves in self-defence, not because Marxists forced or tricked them into adopting violent countermeasures, but because they were left with no option if they wanted to survive.[iii]

Demonstrating the serious threat posted to life by the Tsar’s militarism, the authors of A Force More Powerful explainhowon February 17 the government of St. Petersburg “declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers” to crush the “self-governing peasant republic” of Guriia. Such a full-frontal attack was deemed necessary because the peasants there had been in democratic control of their own affairs for the past few years. Panicking at the peasants spreading influence, the government now sought to extinguish their rebellion where “all power… was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate.”

In recounting this story about an inspiring democratic movement that was led by Marxists, Ackerman and DuVall however twist it to serve the opposite purpose, with the rebellion apparently proving Leo Tolstoy’s pacificist maxims. “Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they [the peasants of Guriia] were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.” A Force More Powerful’s ‘historians’ ignore the fact that the Marxist-led peasant republic was more than capable of using violence to defend itself, just as they had done in early 1906 when the Tsar finally succeeded in crushing this insurrection. It is also worth pointing out that when the Tsar had sent in the 10,000 troops in February 1905 to behead the uprising the military had proved powerless in the face of a determined mass movement that was prepared to defend itself. Indeed, if we refer to the source that Ackerman and DuVall draw upon in making their lopsided argument, we learn that the troops…

“…spent four months in the region without launching an attack. Not only did the rebellious peasants enjoy enormous support, but [General] Alikhanov-Avarskii feared that his troops would fraternize with them. In July he withdrew his forces completely, only to return in October to assault the insurgents in earnest. But it was not until January 1906, when the government was reasserting its authority throughout the Empire, that the insurrection in Georgia was fully crushed, and then only after much blood had been shed.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.154-5)[iv]

In yet another example of workers organising militant industrial action A Force More Powerful goes on to highlight a dispute which marked the formation of what is widely hailed as the first forerunner of the peoples’ Soviets.

“In Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a major textile center, more than 30,000 workers went out on strike on May 12. Workers from each factory elected representatives to an Assembly of Delegates, which conducted negotiations for the strikers. It drew up a list of demands, including an eight-hour day, higher wages, maternity leave, and freedom of speech and assembly, and it formed a militia to prevent violence. Only after troops attacked workers at a meeting in late May, whipping many and killing a few, did the strike turn violent: For eight days workers rioted, looted, and scuffled in the streets with police and soldiers. The strike dragged on until the end of June, when employers, under pressure from authorities, offered a few minor concessions and exhausted strikers returned to their jobs.”[v]

Although these workers failed to win most of their stated goals, this heroic struggle inspired workers far and wide particularly because of the successful formation of their democratic assembly of Deputies. Moreover, “Outside the Kingdom of Poland, it was the longest and most disciplined strike between January and October.” And most significantly, the request by the Assembly of Delegates to form an armed workers militia was prohibited by the Tsar because it effectively represented a demand “for police powers, which was even more threatening to the authorities than the demands for freedom of speech and assembly.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.150.) So, considering the murderous response of government officials throughout 1905 and beyond it is entirely understandable why workers demanded that they had a democratic right to defend themselves.

Tsardom on the brink of collapse

Strikes and protests now continued to develop across the nation (albeit sporadically), and by August the Tsar, forced by mass pressure, very reluctantly approved the formation of a consultative assembly, or Duma. This was too little too late, and the limited suffrage on offer meant “that in St. Petersburg, a city of over a million people, only about 7,000 would be eligible to vote.” Little wonder the workers were not overly impressed. When a printer’s strike then broke out in Moscow in mid-September it didn’t take long for the dispute to spread, and Ackerman and DuVall observe that soon workers “elected deputies to a council, called a ‘soviet,’ to coordinate the strike” – a strike that had spread to St. Petersburg by the beginning of October. At the same time a rail strike took the entire country by storm and “acted as a catalyst for a general strike that suspended urban life in much of the Russian empire.” Now with the collective experience gained since Bloody Sunday, workers were embarking on a political strike of historic proportions. On this development Ackerman and DuVall point out that:

“Even as they were acting together with other citizens in the general strike, the workers of St. Petersburg were setting themselves apart, as a force to defy the regime. The Menshevik faction of the Social Democrats [which included Trotsky] had been pressing workers since the summer to form grass-roots organizations. Instead of waiting for the state to grant reforms, the Mensheviks wanted workers to take the initiative and develop their own institutions, as popular movements would do in nonviolent conflicts later in the century. On October 10 they called on workers in the capital to elect deputies to form the Petersburg General Workers’ Committee. Three days later 40 deputies went to the Committee’s first meeting; by the third meeting two days later, there were 266 deputies from almost 100 factories as well as a number of unions. On October 17 the Committee voted to rename itself the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.”

Now “the [revolutionary] socialists found themselves in the forefront of a people’s movement”; and “None of them had a higher profile than Leon Trotsky… [who] became a leader among the city’s revolutionaries and a key strategist in the Soviet.” Yet despite these kind words for Trotsky’s leadership skills, the authors of A Force More Power are intent on blaming Trotsky and other Marxists for imposing violence upon what they believe was an otherwise organically nonviolent mass movement. Ackerman and DuVall therefore berate the leaders of the Soviet – most of whom, we should remember, were not Marxists like Trotsky – for forgetting “that the strike had spread easily because it was nonviolent”. Of course, strikes were usually nonviolent, so long as they were not being attacked by the state; but when threatened we should be clear that most workers were prepared to defend themselves, and so it is entirely disingenuous to pretend that it was just the revolutionaries who argued that workers should be armed.

It is also critical to emphasize that the actions taken by the Soviet were done so in the most democratic fashion in contrast to Father Gapon’s Tsarist escapades. Ackerman and DuVall admit as much: “While the Assembly had been run from the top by Father Gapon and his circle, the Soviet’s members were enamored of doing things democratically.” Moreover, while the two authors, as determined advocates of nonviolence, believe that violence should play no role in mass movements, they argue that “the Soviet helped make the October general strike into a vibrant nonviolent campaign, the century’s first.” This is true, but at the same time Marxists always argued that peaceful strikes alone would never be enough to bring an end to the oppression faced by the working-class. 

Resistance amidst pogroms

State violence never relented in its attempts to obliterate the workers’ movement throughout 1905, and on October 12 the Tsar demanded that the governor-general put up signs in the streets saying “I have ordered the troops and police to suppress any such attempt [to create disorders] immediately and in the most decisive manner [and] upon a show of resistance to this on the part of the crowd—not to fire blank volleys and not to spare cartridges.” “The public were not intimidated,” as Ackerman and DuVall recognised, and the people responded by taking control of the streets. This meant that on the day the Tsar’s message was put out in St. Petersburg “40,000 people demonstrated in the streets”. As if were not bad enough for the Tsar, as the days went on it became apparent that the ruling-class was increasingly losing control over his own repressive state apparatus. This became clear when the Tsar “opted for a crackdown [on October 17] and asked the Grand Duke Nikolai to assume the responsibilities of military dictator.” But the Duke refused, and with the Tsar’s authority visibly collapsing the despot was forced by the pressure of the masses on the streets to finally offer them his “October Manifesto” for reform (also on October 17).

Revolutionaries recognised this about face for the weakness that it was, and urged Russian workers onwards, to demand more, and to organise so they could oust the Tsar and seize the reins of power for themselves. Contrast this reaction with the liberal trend of analysis presented in A Force More Powerful which predictably sides with the Tsar, not the masses. Hence the two authors blithely assert that the mass revolutionary movement should have immediately dissolved itself, resting happy that the people had won something positive from the despot. And at this stage, in order to denigrate the revolutionary’s insistence that workers press on and fight for the end of absolutism, Ackerman and DuVall refer to the short shrift Trotsky gave to the Tsar’s Manifesto.

“From a university balcony, Leon Trotsky insisted to a horde of workers and students flying red banners that the struggle was not over. ‘Citizens! Now that we have got the ruling clique with its back against the wall, they promise us freedom,’ Trotsky bellowed. ‘Is the promise of liberty the same as liberty itself? … With sword in hand we must stand guard over our freedom. As for the Tsar’s manifesto, look, it’s only a scrap of paper. Here it is before you—here it is crumpled in my fist. Today they have issued it, tomorrow they will take it away and tear it into pieces, just as I am now tearing up this paper freedom before your eyes!’”

Not wanting to knit-pick, but Ackerman and DuVall’s decision to use a derogatory word like horde is noteworthy, as in this instance Trotsky was speaking to a 100,000 strong crowd of citizens who were fighting for their futures against a regime that had showed time and time again that it had no respect for human life. Moreover, the working-class had good reasons for not trusting the Tsar at his word. This is because at exactly the same time that the Tsar’s Manifesto was released (on October 17) the Tsar had imposed “a torrent of violence” upon the people. “The police tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged” this mayhem, the authors of A Force More Powerful remind us. “Right-wing crowds called ‘Black Hundreds’ roved Moscow and St. Petersburg for days,” Ackerman and DuVall continue, “smashing shop windows, and beating and sometimes killing students, workers, and others suspected of revolutionary activity.”

Thus, “precisely at the moment when the autocracy was at its weakest, when it had been compelled to grant it first major concession, the defenders of the old order unleashed their most intense and ferocious attack on the advocates of change.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.253) The depth of this violence knew few ends, and just months later (in February 1906) it was publicly revealed by the Director of Police in the Ministry of Internal Affairs “that in October and November 1905 a secret press in the police headquarters in the capital [St. Petersburg] had printed ‘thousands of proclamations’ urging ‘all true Russians to ruse and exterminate all foreigners, Jews, Armenians, etc. and all those who were advocates of reform and talked of restricting the autocratic power of the Sovereign.’ It also emerged that General Trepov had personally made corrections on the proofs of some of the proclamations.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.259)

An insurrectionary moment

A state-sanctioned rage that was propelled forward by the Tsar and his noblemen now ravaged the entire country from October onwards. The monarch was not known for being either rational or reasonable, and Ackerman and DuVall spotlight his reactionary nature when they write:

“The Tsar took heart from right-wing appeals. The ‘whole mass of loyal people,’ he wrote to his mother on October 27, were lashing out against the small number of ‘bad people’ who had led them astray, including ‘the kikes’ but also Russian intellectuals and agitators.”

If not clear to the above authors, it was abundantly apparent to millions of oppressed Russians that democracy could only be won by ending the Tsar’s oppressive regime; indeed, Ackerman and DuVall were right when they said: “if they stopped fighting as the Tsar was on the ropes, they could forfeit the chance for an even larger victory.” Such a victory however was never going to be inaugurated by simply striking or pleading peacefully outside of the Tsar’s Palace. Vivid memories of what had happened when 150,000 people had marched to the Winter Palace were already etched into the working-classes memories, as were a hundred other acts of brutality. It was widely understood that the Tsar was not going to hand over power without a fight, and so it was logical that socialists would argue that his regime could only be ousted by a democratic and armed uprising of the masses: a strategic decision that was democratically affirmed by the St. Petersburg Soviet the day after the October Manifesto had been announced.[vi]

It is worth dwelling on the point that violence harnessed to a democratic movement is an entirely different phenomena to the violence welded by an autocratic regime or to the violence used by individual terrorists. Revolutionaries start from the premise that it is legitimate and necessary for workers to defend themselves. This is important as the masses need to able to organise the type of nonviolent protests/strikes that can allow the working-class to assert their authority over their oppressors.

But when Marxists talk about the need for armed workers and for an armed insurrection, they are not fetishizing violence. They are merely accepting what is objectively necessary to pass from capitalist brutality to a socialist democracy. Marxists are categorical that only when the majority of people want to oust their rulers — or are at least sympathetic to such action – can a minority-led insurrection ever be instigated. This is no coup. It is at that decisive moment that power can and must be wrested from the oppressors to allow workers to control their futures. But even then, the success of any revolution remains dependent on winning the backing of the military, persuading them, by dint of the widespread support on the streets and by the masses unswerving will to win, that they should transfer their allegiance to the insurrection. It is by following such a revolutionary strategy, that, with next to no blood being spilt, the Bolshevik’s were able to seize power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, Ackerman and DuVall assert that because revolutionaries like Trotsky had insisted that the Tsar would not hand over power to the majority without a fight, it was the formers advocacy of violent means that meant they were to blame for the violence that continued to befall the people. Yet at the risk of sounding repetitive, the nonviolent provocateurs are wrong in demanding that workers who are engaged in a mass struggle for democracy must be entirely peaceful. Ackerman and DuVall might as well demand that the Tsar renounce his life’s work and become a pacifist instead! But we know the real reason why the same two authors would never place such a ridiculous demand upon the Tsar; it is because they know that the Tsar would never give-up his ability to crush his mortal enemies — the masses who were the true harbingers of a new democratic order.

In 1905 a revolutionary situation did exist, and everything was to play for, and workers had no choice but to redouble their fight to win their struggle against despotism. As Trotsky put it:

“What was there left for the Soviet to do? Pretend that it did not see the conflict as inevitable? Make believe that it was organizing the masses for the future joys of a constitutional regime? Who would have believed it? Certainly not absolutism, and certainly not the working class.

“The example of the two Dumas was to show us later how useless outwardly correct conduct – empty forms of loyalty – are in the struggle against absolutism. In order to anticipate the tactics of ‘constitutional’ hypocrisy in an autocratic country, the Soviet would have had to be made of different stuff. But where would that have led? To the same end as that of the two Dumas: to bankruptcy.

“There was nothing left for the Soviet to do but recognize that a clash in the immediate future was inevitable; it could choose no other tactics but those of preparing for insurrection.”

We should also be mindful that a violent insurrection in 1905, if it had been successful, would have caused far less violence than the continuation of the Tsar’s regime. If successful, a mass insurrection would have succeeded in winning the military to its side just as the peoples’ movement did in October 1917. The workers had to move forward. Thus, to return to Trotsky’s analysis of 1905.

“[I]in a developing revolutionary situation a planned retreat is, from the start, unthinkable. A party may have the masses behind it while it is attacking, but that does not mean that it will be able to lead them away at will in the midst of the attack. It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward. And this will happen in any revolution, however powerful its organization. Given such conditions, to retreat without battle may mean the party abandoning the masses under enemy fire.”

Although it may have been true that the objective conditions in 1905 were not conducive to a successful revolution, what we do know is that military revolts and mutinies had been a persistent feature of this joyous year of mass struggle. Moreover, a revolutionary movement does not have the luxury of waiting until the military has been completely won over before striking their collective blow for freedom. Again, as Trotsky reminds us:

“The army’s political mood, that great unknown of every revolution, can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people. The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. This majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory. Such a belief is not created by political agitation alone. Only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle – not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it – does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over to the side of the people.’”

Blame cannot lie with the participants of the St. Petersburg Soviet who democratically debated their options and determined that an armed insurrection was necessary, and that they must establish an armed militia — a force of ordinary workers who, in this case, exerted significant positive influence over the Tsar’s police.[vii] Yes, with the benefit of experience the struggle might have been waged more effectively. But Ackerman and DuVall always know better, and despite acknowledging that “In the six weeks following October 17, there were well over a hundred military mutinies”,[viii] they insist on lecturing the leaders of the revolution by saying: “If soldiers and sailors had been recruited methodically to join the opposition in 1905, the government’s means of coercion might have been less reliable when it chose to crack down”.

Petrograd Soviet Assembly meeting in 1917

Why not settle for reforms?

Of course we should not really expect any political insight into matters of revolutionary struggle from Ackerman and DuVall. This is because both authors are diehard defenders of capitalism and remain doggedly opposed to the socialist transformation of society. This defence of the indefensible helps explain why they write: “If the movement against the Tsar had capitalized on certain key opportunities, Nicholas [the despotic Tsar] might have been pressed to enlarge the scope of reform, averting the sequence of events that led to the Bolshevik revolution twelve years later.” Always prioritising reform over revolution, the capitalist-loving authors likewise blame the 1905 opponents of the Tsar’s anti-democratic regime for not “embrac[ing] the October Manifesto as the breakthrough it was—an admission that the people possessed power and inherent rights—rather than as a set of half measures to be disdained…”

Ilya Repin: Funeral of the Revolutionaries, 1905-1906

Ackerman and DuVall are now on a roll. If the mass movements, and the revolutionaries among them, had simply called off the struggle and accepted the Tsar’s pledge to reform his despotism then “the friends of reform inside the palace might have persuaded the Tsar that repression was unneeded.” Hence by not accepting the word of the Tsar at face value the two gurus of nonviolence are confident that the real people at fault in misleading the revolution were the hot-headed radicals; “violence from the right and overconfidence on the left sabotaged this opening.” An opening to what? Do the authors really believe that if revolutionaries had simply given up then the Tsar would have inflicted less violence upon them. Maybe the hate-filled Tsar might have even called off the pogroms.

But if we are to defend the actions of the revolutionaries in their decision to refuse to cooperate with the Tsar we can simply turn to one of the main books that Ackerman and DuVall repeatedly leant on in writing A Force More Powerful. This book is Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905, a book which makes it clear that it was not just hot-headed radicals who rejected the October Manifesto as a farce.

“Far from pacifying the population, the October Manifesto triggered disorders more violent and widespread than any that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution. Witte’s attempts to detach the moderate liberals from the opposition movement ended in failure.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.273)

In fact, “During the Days of Liberty, stretching from October 18 until early December… the left in fact did succeed in greatly strengthening its forces…” Trotsky’s militant writings were particularly popular amongst the residents of St. Petersburg, and Russkaia gazeta, the newspaper he coedited, “appeared in print runs of over 100,000 copies.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.275, p.276)

Ilya Repin: Demonstration on the Seventeenth of October 1905

Revolutionary lessons

What we do know is that socialists of all hues were able to grasp many vital lessons from the unexpected revolutionary upsurge of 1905, hard-won lessons that were gained through collective action and that proved essential in enabling the successful revolution of 1917. But again, we need to correct the deliberate historical distortions that have been repeated ad infinitum over the past century by commentators who insist the revolution was violence personified; no matter that the death toll of the revolution was minuscule. Furthermore, in the short-term the success of October 1917 helped bring an end to orgy of violence that was World War One, a needless bloodbath whose foremost critics had been radical revolutionaries (see for example Trotsky’s best-selling 1914 pamphlet “The War and the International”). The structural violence of capitalism was further demonstrated in the wake of the 1917 revolution, which saw twenty-one capitalist states support the White Armies counterrevolutionary forces. Although this civil war was eventually defeated, the violence inflicted upon the people’s democratic and socialist state stole the lives of around seven million people.

Marxists not pacifists are the foremost proponents of “drawing on the power of the people” (Ackerman and DuVall’s words) to build mass movements for socialist change. Marxists however do not accept that capitalists will give up their control of our class-riven society without a fight. We want to act to ensure the socialist transformation of political relations worldwide. And socialists believe that workers will need to be able to defend themselves. It would be nice if this were not necessary, but history has shown that capitalists are quite effective at crushing workers movements through force; and flowers and nice words are never enough to see off an enemy whose entire economic and political system rests upon a bedrock of violence. At the same time socialists remain determined fighters for reforms within capitalism; but we always make it clear that such reforms will always be taken away from workers as long as the ruling-class directs society. That is why alongside fighting for reforms we argue for the need for democratic workers’ control of the state. But when the workers’ movement is strong enough, there can be no avoiding it — our class will need to seize power to rid ourselves of capitalism’s toxic priorities for ever more.


[i] The full story of Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigue involving Rutenberg are recounted in Walter Sablinsky’s The Road To Bloody Sunday: Father Gapon And The St. Petersburg Massacre of 1905 (Princeton University Press, 1976), pp.305-22. This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text.

[ii] Leon Trotsky, 1905 (first published in German in 1909). This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text if only to attack Trotsky and mispresent socialist ideas.

[iii] Writing in January 1905 in an article responding to Bloody Sunday Lenin explained: “The government deliberately drove the proletariat to revolt, provoked it, by the massacre of unarmed people, to erect barricades, in order to drown the uprising in a sea of blood. The proletariat will learn from these military lessons afforded by the government. For one thing, it will learn the art of civil war, now that it has started the revolution. Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war. This war is not waged in the selfish interests of a handful of rulers and exploiters, like any and all other wars, but in the interests of the masses of the people against the tyrants, in the interests of the toiling and exploited millions upon millions against despotism and violence.” Lenin, “The plan of the St. Petersburg battle,” Vperyod, January 31, 1905.

[iv] Contrast this summary of events with that served up by Ackerman and DuVall, who stated in full: “On February 18 the government declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers. Since 1903 peasants in the remote Guriia region had not been heeding any government authority. They refused to pay taxes and burned portraits of the Tsar; they also killed a few officials (whom the gravediggers would not bury, as part of the boycott). All power in Guriia was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate. In effect, Guriia had become a self-governing peasant republic. The great novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had long preached noncooperation with state power, wrote to a Georgian follower, telling him that the Guriians were doing exactly what he had been writing and thinking about for over twenty years. Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.”

[v] Ackerman and DuValll’s sole historical source for this section of their analysis is Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.146-9.

[vi] “After the October Manifesto, revolutionaries took their bid for an armed uprising to the Soviet. The very next day, Nosar’ read deputies an executive committee resolution proposing that they arm themselves ‘for the final struggle,’ and Trotsky alerted them to prepare for ‘an even grander and more impressive attack on the staggering monarchy, which can be conclusively swept away only by a victorious popular uprising.’ The Soviet endorsed both the Nosar’ and Trotsky statements, but asking for the Tsar’s downfall inevitably separated the revolutionaries from their erstwhile allies the liberals, who disavowed any desire to overthrow the government.” (A Force More Powerful)

[vii] “The boldest undertaking of the Soviet was the establishment of its own militia, whose members, identified by special armbands, ‘interfered in the affairs of the police, gave… [them] orders and made demands of them.’” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.277)

[viii] “All told, 211 separate mutinies were recorded in the Russian army alone between late October and mid-December 1905… The elite corps, the Cavalry and Cossacks, were virtually untouched by mutiny, but one-third of all infantry units experienced some form of disturbance, and the navy was so riddled with disorders that the government feared that it could no longer be relied upon to carry out its mission.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.272) Ascher goes on to note that the crushing of the revolution in mid-December changed the “psychology of the soldier and sailors… as suddenly and drastically as it had in mid-October. with the restoration of authority in the civilian sector, the men in uniform again submitted to the orders of their superiors.”  (p.273)

Understanding the Role of Right-wing Conspiracies in the Covid Pandemic

The world is in turmoil, and it is the working-class who are being made to pay for the ongoing crises of capitalism, not only with our livelihoods but also with our lives. The question of a future of barbarism or socialism is therefore once again starkly posed. And as ever the looming threat posed by barbarism can only be avoided if we refuse to accept the dictates of our exploiters in the billionaire-class and unite to fight for the socialist transformation of society. Only by taking such action can we ensure that ordinary people are positioned to democratically decide our own futures.

Ensuring that our classes main democratic organisations are capable of leading this struggle against the powers-that-be has always been a work-in-progress; and there is no question that a lot of work still needs to be done to turn the trade union movement into a powerful and effective tool for liberating our class. But with the democratic involvement of tens of millions of trade union members both within our workplaces and within the democratic structures of our unions these organisations can play a critical role in challenging capitalist exploitation and in doing so pose the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism.

Throughout this pandemic, socialists have been at the forefront of social struggles, demanding that our government take action to protect life. But the Tories lust for profiteering means that the elites in power would rather ignore such reasonable demands and instead are abusing this crisis to escalate their plunder of societies collective wealth. This helps explain why the corporate press has been so keen (as always) to demonise and misrepresent the views of those who have been willing to forcefully challenge the government’s dangerous and wholly inadequate response to Covid-19.

With the pandemic causing massive disruption across the planet, increasing numbers of people are clear that there will be no going back to the old normal. But what is the alternative? Socialists say we need to step up our campaigning for a democratic and socialist future; but with the parlous state of Britain’s labour movement combined with a corporate-own media system that exists to perpetuate the needs of capitalism, such emancipatory solutions are not always apparent to huge swathes of society. Labour mis-leaders (like Keir Starmer) working together with the mainstream media thus continue to throw dirt into the eyes of the public. In recent years such collusive efforts to promote mass confusion were of course most clearly seen when, in 2015, a socialist was finally elected leader of the Labour Party. This led to all parts of the labour and media establishment embarking upon one of the most vicious smear campaigns in history – which most notably accused Jeremy Corbyn of being an anti-Semite! (See “The Hate Factory Vs. Jeremy Corbyn.”)

So, with pro-capitalist politicians misleading most of the mainstream political parties across the world — all being united in their refusal to represent the needs of ordinary people as opposed to corporations – ordinary people seeking out some clarity in their lives have been forced to turn elsewhere in their search for answers. And with the assistance of the internet, not to mention Facebook’s repulsive algorithms — which actively market information to people who ask questions like “how to burn Jews” — it is becoming easier for people to get absorbed in the type of all-encompassing conspiracies promoted by the far right. Indeed, rather than popularise the type of socialist ideas that might help people gain control of their lives; the corporate media (whether rightwing or liberal) continue to provide a breeding ground that allows divisive political conspiracies to flourish.

When a toxic nurse goes down the rabbit hole

One dangerous conspiracy that is currently gaining traction amongst some circles is that Covid-19 is a fiction, a plandemic orchestrated by a global liberal elite headed by the like of Bill Gates and George Soros. While another sordid conspiracy intimately linked to this plandemic narrative that continues to spew forth from right-wing media outlets is that of QAnon – a conspiracy that would have you believe that the world is run by a tiny elite of Satanic paedophiles: a demonic conspiracy in which Donald Trump is presented as the only world leader who is willing to battle against the perpetration of such heinous crimes against humanity.

This article aims to explore the roots of these disturbing and increasingly popular conspiracies. In doing so it will demonstrate that although such opportunist tales may harness some element of peoples righteous anger at an unjust status quo, such theories ultimately only serve to undermine efforts to unite the working-class against our real oppressors, the ruling-class. For illustrative purposes this article will delve into the views and actions of one of the up-and-coming stars of this growing conspiracy movement, the one-time botox practitioner Kate Shemirani, who calls herself the “Natural Nurse in a Toxic World.” Shemirani being a toxic nurse whose meteoric rise to fame led to serving as the MC of the first “Unite for Freedom” protest that was held in Trafalgar Square on August 29. The protest was organised to deny the existence of Covid-19 and successfully brought together in excess of 10,000 people in an event that had been organised by notorious climate denier Piers Corbyn.

In the wake of this huge protest The Times were quick to promote the growing anti-covid movement, devoting a double spread to explaining Kate Shemirani’s ascension to the leadership of the so-called freedom movement (see “Kate Shemirani: antivax leader is banned nurse who fears 5G network”). In keeping with the uncritical output that typifies the right-wing press, the article gave previous column inches to restating Shemirani’s proudly held anti-scientific beliefs before advertising her next planned protest (held in London on September 19). The Times explained how her popularity, like that of David Icke (who headlined the August 29 protest), had been increasing by the day. But no attempt was made to locate Shemirani and Icke’s politics within the resurgent alt-right, or to describe how their advocacy of elaborate schemes of satanic domination were feeding directly into the resurgence of the QAnon movement.

That is not to say that The Times has not exposed the anti-democratic nature of the QAnon phenomena in the past, as in mid-August they ran an article that warned that the QAnon was gaining popularity in Ireland. The article however neglected to mention that the academic report that served as the source for their article had actually emphasized that this was not just a problem for Ireland but for the whole of the UK. So it is ironic considering The Times fixation on the growth of QAnon in Ireland that when it came to their article discussing Shemirani’s role in leading the growing Covid-19 denial movement the newspaper failed to draw attention to the political credentials of the one Irish speaker earmarked to speak at her forthcoming protest. That speaker was Dolores Cahill, the chair of the far-right Irish Freedom Party. Nor does The Times bother to remind their readers of David Icke’s longstanding liaisons with the far-right, something that the newspaper was happy to discuss at some length just a few years ago.

But in The Times latest ‘advert’ for the conspiracy theorists’ mass gatherings they write: “David Icke, the conspiracy theorist and antivaccine campaigner, has seen a surge in his Twitter following, up by nearly a quarter since May.” Icke now has more than 365,000 followers they added, a surge which “indicates the rapidly growing interest in his anti-lockdown rantings.” The paper however passed on the opportunity to mention that the main argument being popularised by Icke is that we already live in a fascist state (as he stated at the August protest). Perhaps Icke’s own reactionary rants were downplayed because they are not really so different from the government’s own conspiratorial ideas, as illustrated by the recent comments made by the Tories attorney-general, Suella Braverman, who stated the government was in a “battle with cultural Marxism”. Icke of course agrees on the threat posed by cultural Marxism and views the threat of an imminent global Marxist takeover of the entire world (spreading from China) as representing an additional threat to his freedom in so-called fascist Britain.

“Do your own research”: finding the truth of the far-right

Highlighting the bizarre pedigree of many of Shemirani’s closest allies, the day after she had acted as the MC for the August freedom protest she was invited to speak on a YouTube show known as “Camelot TV” which is hosted by John Mappin, the multi-millionaire QAnon booster. Impressed by her militant anti-vax activism he rejoiced in introducing her as the voice of “the Great Awakening”; and during the course of her interview Shemirani professed to be in awe of Alex Jones (“I used to have his app on my phone”) and later pointed out how “one of the things that took away my fear of death was reading a book by David Icke and I hugged him yesterday.” She maintained that such coincidences could only be the work of God. Likewise, like many good patriotic spiritual warriors of the far-right she had internalised the QAnon mythology as the real truth, and speaking of the perversions of the world’s elite overseers she explained:

“So, when they kill these children they do a lot of satanic rituals with them. You know there is a very famous one where they strip children and all these royal elites were hunting these 14 year olds and they cut their genitals off and put them on plaques. This is all fact.”

Elsewhere in another discussion held in the extremist netherworlds of the internet, Shemirani positions herself as a “leader” for the people. And in making the case for why people should maintain hope she says:

“I have read the science, and I have read the science fiction, and I have read the Revelation. And so, it is in there and we don’t need to give up. The one thing I always say when people get really freaked out is that what if we can’t shop [for food] without [taking the Covid] vaccine and I said that the one thing that I love about humans is that if there are really smart guys on the Left that are making these things, there’s going to be really smart guys on the Right that are making fraudulent ways for us to get around it.”

Like Icke, Kate Shemirani maintains an excellent working relationship with far-right activists in the United States and she supports the work of Sons of Liberty Radio by acting as their “health and wellness expert.” Speaking to the host of this far-right Christian YouTube channel just a few months ago Shemirani talked about her understanding of the evil cult’s sinister plans. Nevertheless she ended up an upbeat note saying:

“I don’t want people to be scared because in battle it’s never just the army who are the strongest or have the best weapons that win ever, it is always the one who knew his opponents plan. We know their plan. We know their plan. Their plan ultimately is to depopulate. The devil wants us all gone, and he wants our souls; he doesn’t just want us to die because that is no good to him, he wants our souls.”

Savouring the media limelight, on September 5 Shemirani broadcast live from a protest outside Downing Street to Sons of Liberty Radio. With her megaphone directed at the Prime Minister’s residence she warned: “Boris we are waiting… Your times up. You have decided to declare war on the people of the United Kingdom. This is fourth generation warfare: quiet warfare with silent weapons.”[1] The deeper significance of this statement might be lost on most people but not on her fellow-travellers from the American far-right, as her warning referenced the name of an alleged secret document known as “Quiet warfare with silent weapons.” As outlined at some length in Bill Cooper’s militia-classic Behold a Pale Horse (1991), the nefarious goals outlined in this non-existent document were apparently proof positive of the Illuminati’s declaration of war on humanity. (Icke himself wrote about this in one of his first books and identifies it as a secret document found in 1986 which “reveals that the IRS passes personal details about American people to the Brotherhood manipulators.”)[2]

Seeking to cache in on the anger and despair of ordinary people from all walks of life, Shemirani is careful to pick her most trusted political allies from the far-right of the political spectrum. Hence on July 8 she conducted an online interview with the chairman of the English Democrats, Robin Tilbrook, where, in awe of his patriotism, they discussed his decision to challenge the tyranny of the covid laws. (Tilbrook was subsequently interviewed by Sons of Liberty.) During Shemirani’s interview with Tilbrook she made it clear that any doctors and nurses who believed Covid-19 was real “were complicit in genocide”; and both then stood in agreement that Britain is “like a police state”. This led Shermirani, in another stream of verbal diarrhoea to breathlessly assert:

“It’s like 1984, and of course Orwell’s tutor was Aldous Huxley and he was a member of the Committee of 300 and when he wrote Brave New World everyone just thought it was be best science novel ever, and it was written in the thirties – I have read it so many times – but if you actually look at it, it was a blueprint. He wrote it as a blueprint for modern society, and every single little thing in that book has come to fruition.”

Evidently impressed with Tilbrook’s take on Marxism, Shermirani invited him to elaborate. He thus droned on about how Black Lives Matter was both a Trotskyist and neo-Maoist project that bathed in the glory of communist China. As he put it BLM were simply repeating China’s cultural revolution of “smashing the four olds: old ways, old customs, old ideas, and old habits.” Shermirani added, “unless we actually get off our knees we are heading right into communism.” “Literally,” Tilbrook replied.

But even Tilbrook was not wholly persuaded by Shermirani’s belief that this Marxist scheme was part of a diabolical globalist plot to depopulate the world, as he said the “Chinese government would have no intentions of being part of a one world government unless they are the ones ruling.” Whether he knew it or not, this of course is the end game for the Illuminati as far as Shemirani understands it – with Chinese government ruling the world with the helping hand of liberal globalists like Bill Gates (an identical historical distortion to the one currently being propounded by David Icke). Having bonded during this interview, the two patriots were subsequently reunited at Shermirani’s second anti-covid protest in London (held on September 19), where Tilbrook — for perhaps the first time in his life — addressed a crowd so huge that it filled out Trafalgar Square.[3]

Who believes in the Illuminati?

Now, when it comes to the evil deeds of the so-called Illuminati – that is, the individuals accused of orchestrating the globalist plot against humanity — Shermirani regularly harps on about the depravity of something known as the “Committee of 300”. The existence of this fictional committee was popularised some years ago within the pages of John Coleman’s deeply paranoid Conspirators’ Hierarchy: The Story of the Committee of 300 (1991) – a book that was first published by a notorious anti-Semitic publishing company called America West. And although Coleman’s text takes care to avoid referring to Jews as the lynchpin of the Illuminati hierarchy, his personal views on such matters were clear as he regularly referred to the Jewish problem within the pamphlets he wrote for the Christian Defence League. This Jewish obsession makes sense when we understand that the primary political inspiration for Coleman’s book was the work of one of the twentieth-century’s most famous anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, a financially independent woman named Nesta Webster (1876-1960). Indeed, in reviewing Coleman’s updated treatise on the Illuminati, Colonel Barry Turner — an ultra-right-wing activist who in the past had helped David Icke with his own research efforts — remained aghast at Coleman’s failure to apply a rigorous referencing system within Conspirators’ Hierarchy. Turner believed that a more academic style would have lent greater creditability to the arguments presented within Coleman’ s book, and contrasted Coleman’s shortcoming with the “meticulous referencing” of Webster.

Nesta Webster it turns out was a dyed-in-the-wool fascist — whose reactionary ideas had inspired Winston Churchill’s own anti-Semitism – and she saw her own occult super-conspiracies as a fitting way to defend Christian civilization from the threat of socialism. With the help of her many aristocratic friends, Webster’s writing brought about a new renaissance in anti-Semitic theories that revolved around the hidden hand of the Illuminati. These ideas then gained a new breath of life on American shores shortly after her death, when in the mid-sixties the John Birch Society rediscovered and subsequently popularised her back catalogue of anti-communist tracts. To this day Webster’s delusions continue to inspire Christian patriots and militia activists in America, while David Icke has cleverly upcycled her toxic texts into her own variant of New Age fascism.[4]

Icke, like Webster, luxuriates upon the lewdest plots of the hidden controllers, and like the QAnon movement, both influential conspirators placed child abuse at the centre of their deeply disturbing delusions. For example, in her influential 1924 book Secret Societies and Subversive Movements, Webster describes the activities of one notably Satanic individual, Gilles de Rais (1405–1440) whose evil, she asserts, was driven by Jewish spiritual traditions. She explains that after Gilles had “offered himself to the powers of darkness” where he became involved in “perverted vice in every form” which included “holocausts of little boys and girls collected by his agents in the surrounding country and put to death with the most inhuman tortures.” These “strange perverted rites which we associate with the dark ages” were, Webster assured her readers, still “going on around us today. Illuminism, Cabalism, and even Satanism are still realities.”

In this way we can understand how Kate Shemirani’s own quest to help lead a world movement against baby-gobbling elites did not just materialise out of thin air. Such QAnon-styled witch hunts can in fact be traced back even further in time to the first century BCE and the manufactured demonisation of the pre-Christian pagan cults – a troubling history that is recalled in Norman Cohn’s classic 1977 book Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. As Cohn summarises:

“In each case, the murder and the cannibalistic feast form part of a ritual by which a group of conspirators affirms its solidarity; and in each case the group’s aim is to overthrow an existing ruler or regime and to seize power. There is no evidence that such murders and feasts took place. … But even if it could be shown that groups of conspirators really did sometimes indulge in such practices, that would not affect [the] argument. Ritual murder and cannibalistic feasts belonged to one particular, traditional stereotype …of the conspiratorial organization or secret society engaged in a ruthless drive for political power.” (p. 7)

More relevant contemporary precursors to QAnon’s ever-evolving obsession with the baby-raping habits of the powerful include the satanic moral panics that swept across America in the 1980s. As we know now, this specific panic, or witch hunt, was in large part fuelled by the overzealous interrogation of infants through the misuse of leading questioning and misplaced reliance upon hypnosis induced Regression Therapy. Together these ill-suited and high-pressure techniques led to deeply disturbing (albeit fictitious) tales of satanic childhood abuse being committed on an industrial scale. This tragic story of wrongful accusations of satanic torture is best exemplified by the McMartin preschool trial; and one far-right conspiracy theorist who built bridges between this trial and present-day obsessions with the Illuminati was a man named Ted Gunderson (1928-2011). A stalwart supporter of J. Edgar Hoover, Gunderson was a truly deluded individual, who until the late 1970s had acted as the Los Angeles Bureau Chief for the FBI.[5]

The occult enters militia country

Ted Gunderson kept alive his obsession with occult sacrifice and in the nineties went so far as to assert that there were more than 4 million practising Satanists in America who were carrying out between 50-60,000 human sacrifices every year.[6] Among the far-right milieux, of which he was a central part of, Gunderson gained most fame for exposing the existence of an alleged group called “The Finders” which, as he explained, was a “covert CIA operation” whose only purpose who to kidnap tens of thousands of children a year. The children were then allegedly sold for up to $50,000 to wealthy paedophiles. But Gunderson was adamant that “to really under this you have to go back 235 years or so when the Illuminati was established in 1773” with the central involvement of the Rothschild family who, according to Gunderson, aimed to take control of the world through the control of satanic cults. For those interested in learning more about the specifics of this dastardly mission he refers his followers to William Guy Carr’s “great book” Pawns in the Game (1958).

Again, there is a lot of continuity between various conspiracists on the far-right, and William Guy Carr’s work was greatly inspired by the work of Nesta Webster. However, although Carr certainly incorporated all manner of anti-Semitic tropes into the body of his writings, he did so in a way that enabled him to distance himself from direct accusations of discrimination. Carr tried to do this by saying that the leading role that powerful Jews had played in the satanic conspiracy (like the Rothschilds) was a clever trick hatched by the Illuminati that aimed to encourage antisemitic interpretations of history that “play[ed] right into the hands of the Illuminati.” So, while Carr believed in the legitimacy of the anti-Semitic forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion he asserted that it had originally been written by the Illuminati. This deceptive argument is one that has been deployed by many other Rothschild-obsessed conspiracists, most famously by Bill Cooper, David Icke, and John Coleman.

Gunderson like Icke became enthralled by the burgeoning militia movement during the 1990s, and speaking to a meeting of The Granada Forum (in 1996)[7] Gunderson launched into his speech by recommending that his rapt audience read Carr’s Pawns in the Game. Later, during his wide-ranging talk, Gunderson reminded his fellow patriots of the time he had teamed up with the former Nebraskan senator John DeCamp in what proved to be an ultimately failed attempt to expose a huge paedophilia ring, a story publicized in DeCamp’s 1992 book The Franklin Cover-up: Child Abuse, Satanism, and Murder in Nebraska.[8] DeCamp after publishing this book went on to serve as a lawyer for the Militia of Montana — a group which played a leading role in organising The Granada Forum.

Another Christian patriot who, in 1996, gave a now-famous talk to The Granada Forum was Cathy O’Brien – who during her speech bore personal witness to the abuse she said she received while being forced to serve as a personal sex slave to the leaders of the Illuminati. It turns out that in the same year O’Brien had published a book which detailed her own Satanic experiences (as Trance-Formation of America), which David Icke then rapidly assimilated into his own best-selling conspiracy tome, I Am Me, I Am Free (1996). In his own highly derivative book, Icke rehashed the sordid details of O’Brien’s sexual abuse for some 24 long drawn-out pages, abuse which was apparently meted out by the staff at a NASA facility (whose side-line, she says, was making pornographic films), numerous world leaders who were attending Satanic-inspired meetings at the Bohemian Grove, and by leading American politicians (Clinton, Reagan and Bush) who she says all raped her at the “covert mind-control slave camp” at the military base in Mount Shasta (California). Furthermore, flowing from O’Brien’s detailed descriptions of her abuse, Icke famously introduced his readers to the proposition that some members of the Illuminati were actually reptiles. He arrived at this bizarre conclusion because O’Brien had suggested that “holographic projections were used to give the appearance to her of people turning into ‘lizard-like’ aliens.” But Icke was not wholly convinced by O’Brien’s recollections, and asks: “What if it was not a hologram that Cathy saw?” It would seem that the truth is out there; although it is safe to say that is probably won’t be found within the pages of Icke or O’Brien’s books.

Promoting freedom

Considering the dangerous implications of the history that I have outlined so far, combined with the open support that QAnon has received from both Donald Trump and the conservative media, it is perhaps not entirely unexpected that Britain’s right-wing press would also give such divisive ideas a free ride. For example, the day before Shemirani’s latest “Resist and Act for Freedom” protest (held in London) the Daily Mail ran a piece that gave her free reign to air her troubling views. Titled “Is this the most dangerous woman in Britain?” (September 18) the article described her as a forthright and confident “epitome of conventional middle-classdom” (while drawing attention to her “working-class roots”), with the paper christening her as the “new face of the UK’s anti-vaccination movement.” The widely read tabloid then listed some of Shemirani’s many whacky ideas before telling their readers about the location and date of her forthcoming protest.

Following on from such fawning love-ins with the individuals who have become so enmeshed in the far right’s favoured conspiracies, The Sunday Times (September 20) managed to publish a marginally more critical article titled “Far-right US cult QAnon finds a ready ear in Britain.” Thearticle went on to correctly explain: “While it appears innocent at first glance, the movement is entwined with QAnon, a far-right group of conspiracy theorists that has grown rapidly since the lockdown.” Yet the article only provided a shallow examination of the politics of the centre-piece of their investigation, a new British group known as Freedom for the Children UK. Yet this was a group that has already been closely connection to the protests organised by both Shemirani and Piers Corbyn.

Although to date no meaningful effort has been made by the corporate media to really understand this new group that is ostensibly devoted to Freedom for the Children, it worth noting that its American forerunner had been launched by a QAnon devotee who works as a well-paid “New Earth Teacher”. A Trump-loving teacher who boasts of using “quantum healing techniques and timeline collapsing to trigger illumination and shifts from past/core wounds and assists in rebuilding new communication patterns aligned to manifestations in the present.”[9] It is of course no coincidence that Laura Ward, the founder of the British group, likewise considers herself to be a bit of a spiritual junky. Ward describes herself as a “network marketer dealing in cryptocurrency”, who “discovered QAnon during lockdown after undergoing what she described as a ‘spiritual awakening’ and researching the movement online.”

For more details about how Ward found herself leading Britain’s crusade against Satanists we can defer to her own words. In a recent interview she recalled:

“I’ve had a couple of awakenings in my life, one was probably about two or three years ago when I was in quite a deep depression and I just kind of snapped out of it, and my mind was just quite open and that’s when I started research and exploring the idea that there is a plan — that there is an elite agenda to control us. And to be honest I watched David Icke – a big show, big documentary that he did — and some of it was quite far out there because I was just waking up. And I was just having this first awakening, but I didn’t dismiss it because I thought, well he’s quite researched, and it kind of just sat there in my mind a little bit.

“… and then covid-19 happened, and everyone started going into lockdown and a huge, huge shift happened to me. I went from this idea that it could be happening, or might be happening in a few years’ time, to its right here, and that it is not just a theory. Because everything just matched up to everything the agenda wanted to what the lockdown was asking of us, and I just went into quite a big depression because I knew it was going on but then felt I didn’t have any power to do anything about it. … I then started to get a lot of visions about the future, who is actually controlling it, what they want, what they are doing to children, how they are hurting children, why are the children so important to their plan, and really started feeling what was happening to those kids… And with this came another bout of depression… And then the next thing that came to me was the Freedom for the Children movement.”[10]

Talking to fellow QAnon fan (Charles Ward – no relation), Laura Ward happily agreed with him when he mentioned that humanitarian groups like UNICEF and the Red Cross only work in war zones so they can kidnap children to sell them to paedophiles. Inspired to fight back against such evil, Laura was determined that her germinal child freedom movement would go “after the head of this monster” aiming squarely at the elite’s inner circle. She was however dismayed that the mainstream media were portraying Donald Trump as opposed to immigration when, as she insisted, the reality is that the “wall he put up [on the Mexican border] is to prevent sex trafficking”. Laura’s interviewer also evidently had a bit of soft spot for Tommy Robinson’s special blend of racism, and with Laura nodding in agreement, he celebrated the far-right provocateurs attempts “to expose the Pakistani paedophile gangs in the Midlands.” He added, “you start to realise why [Tommy] went after the Pakistani’s instead of the white paedophile’s, because the white paedophile’s all happen to work in the media or the government or in Scotland Yard, so he couldn’t go after those because they would have ended his life!”[11] So it seems Robinson is not racist, he was just scared of the all-powerful Illuminati!

A socialist alternative to right-wing populism

In Britain, with angry and disillusioned people now turning to conspiracy theorists in lieu of any meaningful political opposition to the Tories being offered to them by the Labour Party, minor divisions have opened-up amongst the emergent leaders of the Right. Thus, Shemirani’s September 19 protest was called in direct competition with another protest that had been co-organised by Piers Corbyn and David Icke to be held in Trafalgar Square the following weekend.[12] In detailing this angst, in the run-up to these protests The Times ran an article highlighting this fight for the publics attention (“Piers Corbyn blamed for split among coronavirus deniers”), but all the newspaper really succeeded in doing was give more publicity to both “rival resistance rallies”. Yes, there may be competition for the leadership of the covid-resistance movement but Corbyn differs little from Shemirani in terms of the dangerous ideas he is promoting. In fact Corbyn has openly supported QAnon; and he even visited John Mappin’s castle the day before Shemirani’s latest protest, where Corbyn proceeded to outline his support of Trump explaining that

“All brainwashing historically involves rituals and incantations, and here we have a lot of rituals, satanic rituals I would say — this wearing of masks, praising the NHS every Thursday, listening to monotonous, repetitive things on the tubes and the buses about masking and distancing which is just reminiscent of what George Orwell warned us of.”[13]

There are of course limits to the extent to which Shemirani, Icke, and Piers Corbyn’s ‘anti-establishment’ libertarianism will be able to secure them the ear of the increasingly enraged masses. But the left should remain vigilant to the democratic threat they pose, after all far-right populist leaders across the world are getting elected for a reason. That reason lies in the fact that the working-classes have repeatedly had their faith in electoral politics crushed by the alleged representatives of the labour movement, especially by social democrats who continue to insist on putting the needs of the capitalist establishment before the needs of ordinary people. Indeed, the dangerous ideas of rightwing leaders like Shemirani, Icke, and Corbyn can only continue to spread if our class has no meaningful political representation.

As one inquiring media commentator points out: “QAnon fills the void of information that [capitalist] states have created—not with facts, but with fantasy. If we don’t want QAnon to fill that void, someone else has to.” Attempting to salvage a scrap of positivity from the “deep mistrust” that drives alienated citizens in the arms of popularist conspiracies the same commentator states that “something like QAnon is proof that people care and people like being involved in pursuit of truth.” Even if, “In QAnon that care and pursuit are dangerously twisted.” That is why socialists though our everyday actions must continue to win people over to the type of ideas that can harness this yearning for meaning and participation to a democratic alternative that can improve the lives of the working-classes in their billions.

In Britain, Keir Starmer has made it perfectly clear that he is not willing to oppose the Tories, which means that the urgent task at hand is to construct a new genuinely democratic and socialist organisation that can undercut the false promises offered up by the right. Dark times are already upon us, and while the conspiracy theorists may be wrong about nearly everything they say, they are counting on the fact that their strenuous opposition to the chaos of the status quo will be enough to gain them the ear of millions of people who are desperately searching for an alternative to their confusion and despair. Shemirani, Icke, Corbyn and many others beside them, understand that our country and the entire world is in the process of dropping off a huge political precipice. Ordinary people are struggling through an intensifying looming economic catastrophe which will see millions of people lose their livelihoods and life as they previously knew it. And now, more than ever, billions of people across the world need political representatives who are willing to struggle alongside them to reverse the adverse impacts of this growing political nightmare!

Now is the time to think carefully and quickly about developing a strategy that can save lives and actively undermine the lies of far-right populists. Professor John Ioannidis is a respected statistician and medical epidemiologist based at Stanford University who has made some important interventions during the course of this pandemic had this to say about dealing with people who have begun to doubt the existence of Covid-19:

“…we should try to be tolerant of people who have different opinions: I am not talking about endorsing conspiracy theories, but people who are scared, people who feel that they have not understood why all this is happening, people who see their lives and their livelihoods devastated, if you call them covidiots that is not going to help. Who is going to be called an idiot and then become a good citizen? I don’t know of anyone. I think these people will just become more angry; and if at the same time their livelihoods have been destroyed — calling then idiots on top of this is not going to solve the problem.”

This is right, and he is correct to say that future public health interventions must be geared to gaining the trust and respect and all citizens. But by approaching the issue in a purely scientific way Professor Ioannidis ignores the fact that capitalist politicians are institutionally incapable of implementing the type of actions that could win back the trust of the public. Hence the continued need to fight for a socialist alternative!

NOTES


[1] In another video the host of Sons of Liberty accidentally puts up the image from an anti-Muslim grooming gang protest that he had used the day before while interviewing another right-wing Christian named Peter McIlvenna. The protest was organised by a group that Peter McIlvenna had formed with Tommy Robinson at the start of this year called Hearts of Oak – a group that say they oppose “the industrial-scale rape of tens of thousands of under-age white girls by predominantly Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs”.  (For criticisms of such groups see my earlier article “Child rape and the roots of political anger: grooming gangs in context,” Counterpunch, June 14, 2018.)

[2] Icke, The Robots’ Rebellion, p.157; Cooper, Behold a Pale Horse, pp.35-65. For more on Cooper’s influence upon the burgeoning conspiracy scene, see Robert Guffey, “The deep, twisted roots of QAnon: From 1940s sci-fi to 19th-century anti-Masonic agitprop,” Salon, August 23, 2020.

[3] The event was livestreamed by Sons of Liberty and at 22min into the footage the host recognised Robin Tilbrook and commented: “we had him on the show a couple of weeks back… in fact he is coaching Kate in a lot of the things that she is doing”.

[4] For an excellent introduction to Webster’s historical influences, see Martha Lee, Conspiracy Rising: Conspiracy Thinking and American Public Life (Praeger, 2011); and for a discussion of Webster influence on Icke, see Steven Woodbridge, “The world-view of Nesta Webster: a case study in conspiracy theory,” History@Kingston Blog, April 16, 2020; and Woodbridge, “Plots against the world: the role of the right in conspiracy theory,” Magonia magazine, No. 67, June, 1999.

Writing in 1978 Richard Thurlow surmised that: “Nesta Webster was an important influence who provided much of the occult knowledge which was used in the development of both English and American conspiracy theories. In England, with the exception of Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, she was the root source of practically all occult knowledge in reactionary right and neo-fascist movements. Her anti-secret society ideas were widely used by individuals as diverse as Henry Beamish, Arnold Leese, J. F. C. Fuller, A. K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan and John Tyndall. In the United States the John Birch Society and Alpine Publications have used her work to reinforce the occult sources of a conspiracy theory, which had been based on a native tradition which had combined Populist-Progressive anti-monopoly economic theories with Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy. Although she did not cover all the themes of the conspiracy in her work, she had fair claims to be regarded as the most important contributor to the Anglo-American tradition and represented the most significant modern connecting link in the Atlantic conspiracy underworld.” Thurlow, “Conspiracy belief and political strategy,” Patterns of Prejudice, 12(6), 1978, p.12.

[5] Gunderson personally managed to keep the McMartin hysteria going by organising an archaeological dig beneath the McMartin preschool building in an effort to prove the existence of a secret torture chamber. See Richard Beck, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s (PublicAffairs, 2015). The forerunner for the McMartin satanic scare occurred just a few years earlier with the publication of the 1980 bestselling book Michelle Remembers. This book’s links to QAnon are discussed in Jen Gerson’s article “Michelle Remembers: The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the world,” Capital Daily, August 29, 2020.

[6] For early investigations in the way by which far-right Christian groups in the US have systematically sought to colonise the anti-sex trafficking movement – a movement which from its start was based on a serious distortion of the true extent of this problem, see Elizabeth Bernstein, “The sexual politics of the ‘new abolitionism’,” Differences, 18(3), 2007; “Militarized humanitarianism meets carceral feminism: the politics of sex, rights, and freedom in contemporary antitrafficking campaigns,” Signs, 36(1), 2010; Laura Agustin, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007); also see Anne Elizabeth Moore, “Money and lies in anti-human trafficking NGOs,” TruthOut, January 27, 2015; and for a good recent overview, see Nathan Allebach, “The moral panic and myths of human trafficking,” Medium, September 25, 2020..

[7] Deborah Noel Kaplan, “Shadow republic: the concept of place in patriot movement discourse,” in: Sudeep Dasgupta and Esther Peeren (eds.), Constellations of the Transnational: Modernity, Culture, Critique (Brill, 2007), p.83. “The Granada Forum began as a local campaign headquarters for James ‘Bo’ Gritz, the former Green Beret who reputedly was the model for the movie character Rambo, when he ran for president on the 1992 Populist Party ticket together with David Duke. The forum grew to become one of the movement’s larger and more public groups, drawing 100 to 250 people from all over the metropolitan area to its weekly meetings in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana.” (p.88)

[8] The so-called Franklin coverup was popularised more recently in Nick Bryant’s Franklin Scandal: A Story of Powerbrokers, Child Abuse & Betrayal which was published in 2009 by the conspiracy publisher TrineDay.

[9] The overlap between the wellness industry and far-right health conspiracies goes back decades; and for an article that discusses this in relation to David Icke’s conspiracy mongering, see Matthew Kalman and John Murray, “From green messiah to new age nazi,” Left Green Perspectives, 1996. This troubling history however eludes the corporate media, who in an otherwise useful article argue that this problematic trend is just a recent one, see Sophie Aubrey, “‘Playing with fire’: The curious marriage of QAnon and wellness,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 27, 2020.

[10] The Dharma Life podcast, “Save Our Children with Laura,” September 6, 2020. At one point during this interview the host points out that they both have the same QAnon poster on the walls behind them, that poster being “The Great Awakening Map” that was created by another QAnon and David Icke devotee named Champ Parinya. Although clearly heavily inspired by Icke, Parinya traces his interest in politics to watching a documentary which countered Alex Jones as one of its executive producers. As Parinya recalls: “When I was awakening, 9/11 truth was one of my red pills. So when I was coming out of college I watched the documentary Loose Change 9/11 and that was one of my first red pill realisations that the government was working to have a nefarious plan to overtake most of the westernised world, and eastern world as well.”

[11] Charles Ward, “Freedom for the Children UK with Laura Ward – Against Child Trafficking! Join the Group!”, The Charlie Ward Show, July 30, 2020.

[12] The September 26 protest packed-out Trafalgar Square with around 15,000 people. Notably although the police eventually broke up the protest, they waited until 3 hours after its official start time to violently intervene to seize the protests PA system. All three of the headline speakers had just finished addressing the crowd (these being Piers Corbyn, David Icke, and Gareth Icke). The police cut short the protest shortly after Dr. Heiko Shöning started speaking. Dr Shöning is the co-founder of “Ärzte für Aufklärung” (“Doctors for Enlightenment”) and fellow-traveller of the far-right (see “Inside the weird pro-QAnon German group behind RFK Jr.’s latest anti-vaxx Stunt”). After the London protest moved to Hyde Park Dr Shöning was arrested. In response Dolores Cahill “arranged the solicitors and barristers” to secure his release. She also explained to his supporters that Dr Shöning, was one of the co-organisers of the next anti-covid protest to be help in Berlin (on October 10), an event at which she was “delighted to have been invited to speak”.

[13] Interview on Camelot TV Network (September 18, 2020), at 24min.

Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy: A Book Review

There will be no going back to the old normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. It has inspired fear and bravery, inflicted needless death on the world, and revealed the utter bankruptcy of most world leaders. But there is one thing that we must be clear on, which is that the high death toll that this crisis enacted upon the vulnerable should be blamed squarely upon the exploitative ideology and practices of capitalism – a pathological system that prioritizes profit-making over human health. Nevertheless, individual politicians must be held accountable too, and no doubt they will continue to deflect attention from their many mistakes by leaning on the authority of science. They will plead that their political choices were guided by experienced scientists and that the course of action they followed flowed objectively from the threat posed by a deadly virus: but such trite excuses will not stand up to scrutiny.

Science is not divorced from politics, and so the scientific knowledge that is currently being used to inform political choices cannot be considered in isolation from the profit-making nexus which forcibly contains scientific developments: a cage that must be overturned if the promotion of health for all is ever to become a reality. What is required is a science unencumbered by capitalist chains, a science that can serve the democratic needs of the vast majority of humanity — the global working-class. As one radical physician passionately asserted in the mid-nineteenth century: “It certainly does not detract from the dignity of science to come down off its pedestal and mingle with the people and from the people science gains new strength.” What we need is science for people not profit.

Yet in spite of all the political obstacles placed before them, scientists like other workers, do their best to serve the public good; and as in all other spheres of life, there have always been a handful among their ranks who are willing to speak truth to power. One such individual is the Danish physician and Cochrane Collaborative cofounder, Peter Gøtzsche — a researcher whose academic research is committed to promoting the type of evidence-based science that prioritizes the needs of people before corporations.

Like many critical researchers Gøtzsche goes about this work in a common-sensical way, undertaking critical reviews of existing clinical research to determine which medical interventions are backed by reliable evidence, or conversely, to reveal which treatments are pointless or sometimes even dangerous. These meta-studies, known as Cochrane reviews, are widely considered to provide a gold-standard for promoting good scientific practice. But at the same time, these studies often create much controversy, especially when they highlight ineffective and often expensive cure-alls that corporate elites have foisted upon the world – a good example being Tamiflu. Engaging in conflicts with the rich and powerful is not something that Gøtzsche shies from, something you might guess from the title of his 2013 book, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare – an important book in its own right.[1]

Gøtzsche however has recently published his latest and very timely book, Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy – an accessible text that represents another vital contribution to the reclamation of science from the powers that be. And with big pharma visibly salivating over the possibility of vaccinating billions of people against Covid-19, an examination of the politics of vaccines could not be more relevant. This is necessary because all too often the truth about the validity of many such medical interventions remain buried from sight. An issue which leads many people to correctly feel, as Gøtzsche explains, that “we cannot always trust official recommendations about vaccines, or the way authorities interpret the evidence.” It is however this issue of trust, or rather a lack of it, that acts as a major block on the challenge of developing effective medical responses to illnesses that continue to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. And it is the inability of capitalist governments to engender the trust of those who elect them that leads to exactly the type of “vaccine hesitancy” that always has the potential to endanger us all.

vaccines

A question of trust?

Politicians and their big pharma friends have a lot to answer for, but the erosion of public trust in many medical treatments is further aggravated by the “pervasive misinformation” spread so assiduously by the corporate media. This is particularly true in the case of vaccines. That being said, in spite of a longstanding campaign having been waged against vaccinations by right-wing conspiracy theorists – often with the aid of the mainstream media – those people in society who are vaccine deniers (i.e., oppose all vaccines) still make-up just a small proportion of people. But this does not mean that vaccines should be exempt from criticism.

Gøtzsche’s book therefore raises many serious concerns about the validity of a handful of widely used vaccines. Nevertheless, he is absolutely clear that science is not on the side of the fundamentalists who reject all vaccines, as in any given country “It is vastly better to get all the recommended vaccines than to refuse all of them.” Still Gøtzsche correctly asserts that “we can do much better than to simply accept everything that is recommended,” which unfortunately is often the default position of the fundamentalists on the other side of the vaccine debate, people Gøtzsche refers to as “vaccine advocates.” Although he adds that this descriptor may be “too kind for those of them who are similarly unreasonable as the vaccine deniers when they say we should accept all vaccines without asking questions.” So, contrary to holding either fundamentalist positions, Gøtzsche emphasizes the role of dissent and public debate in informing public health measures. But, as he argues, for such dissent to be effective it should be informed by the best available evidence on a case-by-case basis, and this is exactly the position from which Gøtzsche’s book approaches the question of vaccines.

The fact that huge and powerful private corporations exert so much power over governmental decisions goes a long towards explaining “why people can become sceptical towards vaccines in general, or at least ask questions about them,” Gøtzsche says. Afterall the primary goal of all corporations is to increase their profit margins, an incentive which all too often encourages big pharma to engage in criminal activities like “cheating with the clinical trials” and overstating the positive effects of their new drugs or vaccines. Making matters worse: “It is also clear that we cannot trust our drug regulators, which allow far too many dangerous drugs on to the market and are very slow to take them off again when the evidence for their lethal effects accumulates.” You could say that in many ways it is a miracle that public trust in vaccines remains as high as it does. But it is not something that we should take for granted.

Influenza vaccines on trial

Although this book review is not the place to scrutinize the evidence base for different vaccines – for this you will have to read Gøtzsche’s book — it is useful, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic, to reflect upon the questionable utility of flu vaccines. This is because, despite their widespread use, Gøtzsche demonstrates that “It has never been shown in reliable research that flu shots reduce deaths.” This is certainly the considered scientific opinion of fellow Cochrane Collaborative contributor Tom Jefferson, a leading flu epidemiologist whose work Gøtzsche cites within his book.[2] But instead of a reasoned scientific discussion being initiated about this potential oversight, with the appropriate independent trials and research being undertaken to get to the root of the matter, the opposite has been the case. This has led to the destructive situation where the public “are bombarded with highly misleading information, not only about the effect, but also about the number of influenza deaths,” whose only purpose, in Gøtzsche’s opinion, appears to be “to scare people into getting vaccinated.” Rather than governments collating accurate records of influenza deaths it appears that current vaccine policy is being driven forward by wildly inaccurate estimates. If true, this is a serious problem.

To support the case that influenza mortality rates are massively overstated Gøtzsche referred specifically to an academic study which successfully counted actual flu deaths over seven flu seasons in three Canadian hospitals. The results of this unique study (which ideally should be replicated elsewhere) determined that influenza fatality rates were actually eight times lower than the numbers predicted by government estimates. The magnitude of error in the Canadian government’s overly gloomy predictions were subsequently confirmed when the “so-called flu pandemic hit in 2009”: this is because for “the first time, there was widespread lab testing, a national reporting system, and all eyes were on potential flu-related deaths.” Only 438 flu deaths were counted in 2009, in comparison to the government’s estimate of 8,000, again revealing the huge gap between reality and the dubious estimates that guide global flu vaccination policies.[3]

This widespread problem of governments over-estimating flu deaths explains why scientists like Gøtzsche and Jefferson continue to advocate for better quality research to be undertaken in this field. This is because you can’t determine how effective a flu vaccine is until you can quantify how many people it is actually helping. But there is more besides dodgy estimates that should concern us with flu vaccines, and Gøtzsche argues that inadequate research has been conducted into the safety and efficacy of such flu jabs. He points out that even reports provided on the web site of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) – reports which are intended to encourage annual flu vaccinations — acknowledge some of these problems. These concerns even include evidence that some people have an increased chance of getting the flu if they regularly obtain flu vaccinations! A serious problem which leads the CDC says “merit[s] further investigation”. Nevertheless they still brush this issue aside and conclude that “based on the substantial burden of flu in the United States, and on the fact that most studies point to vaccination benefits, CDC recommends that yearly flu vaccination [for all age groups] remains the first and most important step in protecting against flu and its complications.” (“Vaccine effectiveness: how well do the flu vaccines work?”)

Here considering the large amount of time and money that the US government continues to spend on flu vaccinations maintaining some medical context on this intervention is crucial, as optimistic government estimates suggest that the flu vaccine averted 3,500 deaths in 2018-19. Contrast this probably highly inflated number with the US governments continuing unwillingness to enact and enforce meaningful air pollution regulations upon corporate polluters, a refusal to act that leads to an estimated 200,000 unnecessary deaths each year. Thus, at the same time as proving quite willing to spend millions of dollars on flu vaccines the US government promotes regressive policies that actively encourage polluting activities. Thereby incentivizing the creation of the type of pollution that predominantly kills the poorest people in society while exacting a disproportionately higher death toll upon black citizens.

Finally, it is important to recognize that not all health advisory bodies make the same all-encompassing recommendations regarding flu vaccines as does the CDC. Gøtzsche points out that the World Health Organization (WHO) – an organization largely funded by the US government, and whose operations are largely dictated to by the needs of big business – has a “far more modest” approach to flu vaccines. Current WHO advice is that flu vaccines should be strictly targeted at the most vulnerable, that is, the very young and the very old. This leads Gøtzsche to suggest that the US government’s recommendation that all age groups get the annual flu vaccination most probably “has a lot to do with the extreme degree of unrestrained capitalism that influences US healthcare.” This is likely true, but such kow-towing to the whims of vaccine producing corporations is not unique to the US. Indeed, conservative and social democratic politicians across the world (including those in Gøtzsche’s homeland of Denmark) continue to enact medical interventions that cater to the needs of big pharma while enacting broader social policies, like austerity, that simultaneously undermine the health of the majority of their citizens.

Force and fascism

In the early pages of his book Gøtzsche cites the British Conservative Party’s Health Minister, Matt Hancock, as providing an informative example of how elites happily demonize vaccine critics in order to force their alleged ‘cures’ upon the public. He quotes Hancock (from May 2019) as saying:

“Those people who campaign against vaccination are campaigning against science. The science is settled” … “Those who have promoted the anti-vaccination myth are morally reprehensible, deeply irresponsible and have blood on their hands.”

Later that year Hancock spoke of the strong possibility of introducing “compulsory vaccinations” for children – an authoritarian move which scientifically-minded health experts advise would be counterproductive, as coercion tends to erode trust and might even intensify resistance to all vaccines. It is of course true that for many vaccines, like the famous MMR vaccination, governments should do whatever they can to encourage mass compliance to successfully protect everyone from what are truly terrible diseases. But capitalist politicians who represent different class interests from their constituents have rarely felt obliged to take decisions that are based upon winning the trust of the working-class. Hence the default position of such politicians is to impose top-down ‘solutions.’

Accusing vaccine critics of having “blood on their hands” only leads to the stifling of the very democratic processes that enable us to hold our decision-makers to account.[4] Yet the UK Conservative government cares little for democratic norms, and after spending the last decade starving our hospitals of both finances and staff – last December they announced they were considering making flu shots mandatory for all front-line health workers. This threat represented another massive infringement upon workplace rights – nothing new for the Tories. And as Gøtzsche correctly points out, such acts of compulsion have already been successfully opposed by the British trade union movement in the past and would no doubt be resisted again. Such successes however are by no means guaranteed and rely upon an organized workforce being willing to stand united against their bosses. Hence Gøtzsche cites another case that occurred in America in 2017, when “a senior faculty member at New York University School of Medicine, who did not even do clinical work, had her faculty appointment terminated because she did not get an influenza vaccination.” “It is no wonder,” Gøtzsche comments, “that some people speak about health fascism when the doing-gooders seem to have no limits to their violations of basic human rights.”[5]

Unfortunately, the political groups that most regularly harness accusations of so-called “health fascism” are precisely those organizations that maintain the closest political ties to fascist ideologies. It is therefore no coincidence that it is the same forces on the far-right who have been the most persistent critics of socialized healthcare and government vaccination schedules (but especially mandatory ones), both of which they see as another example of the state trying to meddle with their individual liberty. A good example of how this works in practice recently occurred in Italy when in mid-2017 the government, led by the Democratic Party, decided it was necessary to make it mandatory for all children to have ten vaccinations. In response the far-right used their vocal opposition to such ill-advised compulsion to falsely present themselves as the true defenders of democratic values. Building upon the already deep public distrust of the criminally pro-capitalist political parties, Italy’s two far-right parties were thereby able to weaponize the issue of vaccinations, exemplifying the type of populist politics which helped them come to assume state power the following year.[6]

In the US context it is the far-right who have similarly capitalized on the existence of widespread distrust of corrupt capitalist politicians who the far-right accuse of acting like Nazis doctors testing dangerous drugs (in their minds vaccines) upon the masses. And it is to this libertarian “health freedom” movement — which is deeply imbued with an irrational opposition to vaccines — that Donald Trump, himself a vaccine-sceptic, partly owes his electoral success. Although here we should acknowledge that the greatest reason for Trump’s electoral success is the dire politics of the Democrats.

By recognizing that not all vaccines are equal, Gøtzsche’s book is all the more convincing in dethroning the irrational arguments of the anti-vaccination movement. And importantly, Gøtzsche does not blame ordinary people for turning to such non-solutions in attempting to understand the world around them. Gøtzsche himself having provided reams of evidence in both his latest book and within his earlier ones that lay-out why so many people distrust the capitalist healthcare establishment. Evidence of systematic corruption and wrongdoing which taken in its entirety clearly show that the future advance of medicine and public healthcare cannot be entrusted by those fixating upon profits. Nevertheless, ever the objective scientist, Gøtzsche holds back from drawing any overtly political conclusions. And so, flowing from his unwillingness to call for the end of capitalism, Gøtzsche finds himself hemmed in and forced into making the following contradictory conclusion:

“I have argued why I am against mandatory vaccinations. But I must admit that the threat to other people, not least people’s own children who cannot make decisions about vaccines for themselves, might become so large that I would favour mandatory vaccinations of some kind. Hopefully without using force, which I find repugnant, but in other ways.”

This conclusion is reached in spite of the fact that Gøtzsche readily acknowledges that the use of compulsion is self-defeating and that such mandates give wind to cries of “health fascism.” This is a problem that Gøtzsche needs to address. As, without posing a true socialist alternative to capitalism — that is forcefully pushing proposing the need for creating a socialist society that is built around generating the trust of ordinary people — it is likely that the far-right will be the ones who will benefit politically from the introduction of state compulsion in health matters. This point is far from academic, and at one point Gøtzsche recounts how one of the few Danish politicians to side with his (arguably correct) criticisms of the problems of the HPV vaccine was “Liselott Blixt, chair of the Health Committee in Parliament”. He doesn’t mention her political background, but this is relevant because despite Blixt’s welcome reversal on the question of the scientific validity of the HPV vaccine she is certainly no progressive: far from it she is a member of the far-right Danish People’s Party. Nevertheless, at this point in time, despite the sizable vote that the popularist far-right obtain in Denmark, public trust in vaccines appears to remain reasonably high with polls showing that only 4% of the population agree with the statement that “vaccines are not effective”.[7] So while Gøtzsche can say that he has “never heard about any anti-vaxxer movement” in Denmark, you couldn’t rule out that one might be in the process of developing.

Responding to pandemics

A discussion that sheds light upon the troubling vaccine controversies that ebb and flow across the world has never been more necessary. A pandemic is causing worldwide chaos, and big pharma have been tasked with developing a global vaccine. Thus, the final chapter of Gøtzsche’s book (added as an update in mid-May) endeavours to take up some of the problems associated with responses to the pandemic.

In keeping with the controversies raised in the rest of his book, one of the most significant criticisms that Gøtzsche levels at most governments around the world is their failure to respond to the coronavirus crisis using scientific best practice. For example, despite having decades to prepare for a looming pandemic, governments around the world refused to invest in making even the most basic preparations, like for instance the stockpiling of PPE. To this day governments are still also failing to undertake the type of scientific research that would enable them to get a proper handle on the virus. “What I missed the most in the early months of the pandemic,” writes Gøtzsche, “were that the authorities did not heed sufficiently the knowledge we already had, and that researchers did not embark on experiments that could tell us what works, what doesn’t and what is harmful.” He also remains sceptical that the evidence collected on the science of the new coronavirus should have led authorities to the decision to implement “draconian” lockdowns.

The issue of lockdown or not continues to remain a hot political topic to this day, and Gøtzsche was one of the first scientists to publicly challenge the introduction of lockdowns. He first made his concerns publicly known on March 8 in a “rapid response” that was published in the British Medical Journal. In this short comment piece he noted that globally only about 4,000 had died from the coronavirus which led him to argue that governments were acting like “victims of mass panic” rather than promoters of evidence-based healthcare. He later added to these criticisms in a brief blog post (“Corona: an epidemic of mass panic,” March 21) wherein he restated  the same ideas while explaining that the best analyses that he had seen so far was John Ioannidis’ article from March 17, which was titled “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.”[8] For those who don’t known, Ioannidis is a well-respected statistician and medical epidemiologist based at Stanford University, who had recently joined Gøtzsche as an advisor to his newly launched Institute for Scientific Freedom.

Like Gøtzsche, Ioannidis was concerned that government actions were not being adequately informed by scientific evidence. Ioannidis explained that governments were missing the “most valuable piece of information” that could inform decision-making which “would be to know the current prevalence of the infection in a random sample of a population and to repeat this exercise at regular time intervals to estimate the incidence of new infections.” A good point which few governments bothered reflecting upon. Subsequently Gøtzsche would publish a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that was titled “The coronavirus pandemic: can we handle such epidemics better?” It was this article, which has been available for all to read online since May 14, that served as the closing chapter of Gøtzsche’s book. Again, Gøtzsche raises many important points questioning the logic of draconian lockdowns. But perhaps his most relevant conclusion is that when the pandemic starts spreading again in a second wave:

“Scientists will need to be involved right from the start so that we may gather important evidence, e.g. by repeated and widespread testing of random samples of the population and by performing randomised trials. Not only have few of the current measures been evidence-based, we have also not had enlightened public discussions. The politicians have ensured that it will be very difficult to analyse afterwards if the measures did more good than harm. This is not how healthcare should be.”

As part of this healthy debate, scientists and politicians will need to respond in a less hysterical fashion when dissenting voices like those of Gøtzsche and Ioannidis are aired in public. Just because scientists raise concerns about the evidence-base for decisions, whether these relate to vaccine safety or pandemic responses, does not mean they should be blamed for any political resistance that develops in response to the government actions they criticize. Rather a more democratic response would involve engaging with critics and where possible offering up the necessary evidence to publicly debunk their analyses. Only such actions can strengthen public trust in any government plans to limit the pandemics eventual death toll. Yet we are where we are, and we cannot expect such democratic responses to emerge from the capitalist groupthink displayed by the vast majority of the world’s politicians, and nor will such actions be supported by the corporate-controlled mainstream media.

Political threats

What makes the current pandemic situation so tragic is that when scientists have the strength to speak truth to power, it has been far-right opportunists who have been able to co-opt such criticisms to bolster their own anti-government conspiracies.[9] Like a virus this cynical political manoeuvring has proved highly adaptive. So, when the Social Democrats in Sweden became one of the few countries that refused to implement a harsh lockdown — overseeing a herd immunity strategy – the government found that even then they were not immune from vigorous attacks from the far-right.[10] Likewise, the unfolding events in the United States highlight the flexible nature of populist opportunism. So even though it was President Trump who initiated America’s lockdown he is still tried to strike a pose as one of its leading opponents. Trump has thus ranted against the government bureaucrats, liberal scientists and the “fake news” outlets who, in his mind, collectively conspired together to force him to implement the lockdown. In this way we can see how a variety of anti-democratic actors (including the President) have capitalized on the highly limited debate around the science in favour of the lockdown. Such actors can then oppose lockdowns (with some success) by suggesting that the entire pandemic is nothing more than a nefarious fiction hatched in the minds of megalomaniacal ‘liberal’ globalists like Bill Gates. Gøtzsche warns of this issue in his book when he writes: “There is no doubt that stifling scientific inquiry is far more dangerous than publishing freely…” This is because by artificially limiting any public debate the government must promote an approach which relies upon “cherry-picking data, which is exactly what the vaccine deniers do.” And this is exactly what the pandemic deniers are doing right now.

Unfortunately, the assimilation of dissenting scientific research by the far-right is made all the easier by the manner in which too many honest scientists like Professor Ioannidis continue to pose as objective researchers who are completely detached from politics.[11] Ioannidis refers to himself simply as a “data-driven technocrat.” So it was that as soon as Ioannidis and his colleagues released a scientific study which could be used to undermine the science of the lockdown they predictably became the darlings of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Here on such hostile terrain Ioannidis’ honest enthusiasm to answer questions about his research made him an easy target for conniving interviewers and their carefully phrased and ideologically loaded questions. This in turn led to (ill-informed) accusations that all critics of the science of the lockdown were dupes of the far-right. This charge is ironic given that much of the so-called mainstream media have spent decades promoting talking points that pandered to the far-right, whether they were promoting the myth that climate chaos is not a thing, arguing that smoking might not cause cancer, that American citizens don’t want a free public healthcare system, or that socialists were the devil incarnate.

Resisting barbarism

In conclusion, while legitimate questions still need to be openly discussed about when draconian lockdowns are scientifically justified, it is apparent that the worlds basic healthcare systems, which had been eroded by decades of corporate profiteering, were in no fit state to function effectively during any pandemic. It is this deliberate neglect of our globes crumbling and sometimes barely existent health infrastructure that has quite rightly diminished public trust in capitalist governments worldwide and is now enabling right-wing populists to gain in electoral strength. These consequences were entirely foreseeable; and so, moving forward we should be clear that the working-class should no longer be made to endure capitalisms growing crises. In the first wave of this pandemic the poorest in society have already paid with their lives because of the unwillingness of our leaders to prioritize human needs over the needs of rapacious corporations. So, now the only rational way forward is for ordinary people to take direct control of their lives and join in the international fight for a socialist future.

So, what will this entail? Firstly, this will involve us recognizing that our health systems need a massive investment of finances and human resources – an expansion which must be coordinated under the democratic control of health workers, patients and trade unions. We cannot trust capitalist politicians or members of the billionaire-class to mismanage our health any longer. The necessary money for implementing such sweeping improvements already exists in abundance: this cash will be liberated from the vast surplus profits that are produced by the working-class every day — wealth which under normal circumstances is siphoned away from us by the billionaire-class.

Scientific research must now be unleashed from the stifling dictates that have been imposed on it by corporate profiteering. And the huge multinational corporations that dominate drug production must be nationalized and managed by ordinary workers, to meet the needs of the working-class. Only then, can any semblance of trust be rebuilt in all the scientific and medical innovations that must now be harnessed to improve all our lives. As part of this democratic transition all the leach-like health profiteers will need to be extracted from our health services. This will then enable us to establish the type of first-class global healthcare systems that can ensure that the majority of the world’s population are no longer forced to settle for less than the best that science can offer.

None of this will be easy, but these urgent tasks are necessary if we are to deal with the threat posed by Covid-19, the devastating heath consequences caused by the imposition of global lockdowns (which will be felt in the coming months), and other future pandemics. “As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” These words may have been first put down on paper in 1892 but they remain relevant today. So, let’s move forward together through this pandemic by vowing that we will never return to barbarism again, and pledge to fight together against our class enemies to make a socialist alternative a living reality.

Michael Barker is a socialist writing under lockdown in Leicester, UK.

NOTES

[1] Tragically the exploitation of humanity that is endemic to both capitalism and big pharma continues unabated, and in recent years the situation has only grown worse, which partly explains the need for Gøtzsche’s 2019 book Death of a Whistleblower and Cochrane’s Moral Collapse. In this text Gøtzsche outlined the corporate take-over and potential demise of the Cochrane Collaborative as an organization whose founding intent was to keep a watchful eye on scientific research.

[2] Jefferson is currently working with the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (at Oxford University). The early implications of Jefferson’s work on influenza were discussed by the Financial Times in November 2007; while an article carried in the British Medical Journal (January 27, 2020) indicates that he is currently “suing the drug company Roche in the US, claiming that it defrauded federal and state governments by falsely claiming that its antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) could be a powerful tool in mitigating a flu pandemic.” For a very useful interview undertaken with Jefferson on July 17, see “Oxford epidemiologists: suppression strategy is not viable.”

 

[3] In the US the overblown estimates for flu fatalities peaked at an unusually high 61,000 estimated deaths in the year 2017-18, which dropped to 34,157 the following year. While another related estimate for the same years is averted deaths owing to the flu shot, which for the year 2017-18 was 5,700, while in 2018-19 was 3,500. But here it is important to remember that an unknown proportion of the estimated flu deaths are likely to be related to other “less famous viruses” for which vaccines don’t even exist.

[4] Gøtzsche writes: “Unfortunately, vaccine deniers are so powerful in the United States that it has led to self-censorship for truth-seeking scientists. A New York Times reporter wrote: ‘When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me. When I did get them on the phone, a worrying theme emerged: Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized. The goal is to protect the public — to ensure that more people embrace vaccines — but in the long-term, the approach will backfire. Our arsenal of vaccines is exceptional, but it could always be better. Progress requires scientific candor and a willingness to ask inconvenient questions.’”

[5] After making this point Gøtzsche then moves on to discuss the time when compulsory flu vaccinations were introduced for pre-schoolers in New York. He notes that the initially successful legal case that was mounted against the mandate (which was passed in the final days of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor for the Democrats) was later “overturned by the highest court.”

[6] David Broder, “The deadly symptoms of Italy’s anti-vaccination movement,” New Statesman, February 22, 2019.

[7] Jonathan Kennedy, “Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: An analysis of national-level data,” European Journal of Public Health, 29(3), June 2019.

[8] The main evidence popularized in Ioannidis’ first article revolved around scientific research undertaken on the COVID-19 mortality rates observed on the cruise ship the Diamond Princess. Here despite the wide spread of the virus Ioannidis wrote that the case fatality rate was just 1%. (In later weeks more people died placing the final case fatality rate at 2% — which was still low considering that the high proportion of elderly people on the cruise ship.)

In subsequent weeks Ioannidis would go on to co-author a research paper (with 16 other academics) based upon anti-body tests undertaken within the population of Santa Clara County, California; a preliminary version of this paper was then published online on April 17 making the case that the fatality rate for coronavirus was likely much lower than previously estimated (between 0.12% and 0.2%). As the New York Times (May 14) reported: “Within hours, the paper had been leveraged by conservative commentators and activists on social media, forged into ammunition to support the protests against lockdowns and other social mitigation efforts meant to contain the coronavirus and minimize deaths.” The limitations of this single study were correctly and quickly exposed by the scientific community, with an early summary of such criticisms (published on April 22) being presented by BuzzFeed News’ science writer Stephanie Lee; and while the Santa Clara County study had many limitations, soon something resembling a witch-hunt was launched against the study’s multiple authors, with Lee writing another particularly damaging article that alleged financial misconduct (published on May 15).

Ioannidis responded (on May 9) to many of his critics concerns, and there followed a more useful interpretation of the controversy that was published on June 11 as “John Ioannidis and medical tribalism in the era of Covid-19.” As the article argues, the manner in which Ioannidis has been maligned is highly problematic, as “Ioannidis’ views on lockdowns, far from aligning with a Trumpian desire to benefit Wall Street, are consistent with his longstanding body of work, which has regularly pointed out how researchers often downplay or ignore the harms of medical interventions.” However, what is clear is that comparisons between the fatality rates of influenza (which are often vastly overstated, as discussed earlier) and the novel coronavirus only serve to confuse matters especially when undertaken “in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.”(These problems are discussed in this useful research paper, “Assessment of deaths from COVID-19 and from seasonal influenza,” May 14.)

More recently the tone of the pandemic debate in the scientific community has mellowed somewhat and on June 3 Ioannidis was able to put the case for opposing the lockdown in a short piece that was published in the British Medical Journal. Then on May 19 Ioannidis published an academic preprint of a new study he authored (which he updated on June 8) which provided a critical synthesis of existing seroprevalence studies undertaken across 14 countries (which highlighted that infection fatality rates (IFR) ranged between 0.02% to 0.78%). He concluded: “Estimates of infection fatality rates inferred from seroprevalence studies tend to be much lower than original speculations made in the early days of the pandemic.” Importantly he writes: “The median of 0.26% found in this analysis is very similar to the estimate recently adopted by CDC for planning purposes. The fact that IFR can vary substantially also based on case-mix and settings involved also creates additional ground for evidence-based, more precise management strategies. Decision-makers can use measures that will try to avert having the virus infect people and settings who are at high risk of severe outcomes. These measures may be possible to be far more precise and tailored to specific high-risk individuals and settings than blind lockdown of the entire society.” Just a few days after the publication of Ioannidis’ preliminary study he then co-authored another useful article on the web site of the International Institute of Forecasters that reviewed the reasons for forecasting failures during this pandemic; in this paper he made recommendations for how such errors might be avoided in the immediate future, see “Forecasting for COVID-19 has failed,” June 11. (The seroprevalence study was updated again on July 14.)

For the best overview of Ioannidis’ views on why lockdowns turned out to be necessary because of government incompetence see Saurabh Jha, “A conversation with John Ioannidis,” The Health Care Blog, July 9, 2020. As Ioannidis explained:

“By February, we missed the window for nipping the novel coronavirus in the bud. Had we acted earlier, with aggressive testing, tracing, and isolating, like the South Koreans, the Taiwanese and the Singaporeans did, the virus wouldn’t have spread as wildly as it did. The biggest lesson from this pandemic is that the costs of delaying controlling the infection can be substantial. Act decisively in haste or repent at leisure.

“Once we missed the boat, the lockdown was inevitable. I say “inevitable” grudgingly because I don’t think it should have reached that eventuality.”

[9] Owing to the longstanding and toxic relationship that exists between big pharma and capitalist profiteering, and the existence of toothless regulatory agencies (like the EPA and FDA), some vaguely left-leaning critics of capitalism have increasingly found themselves acting as bedfellows of far-right conspiracists. Historically speaking this is particularly the case when it comes to the false portrayal of government-promoted vaccinations as causing autism; but the same has become true regarding the questioning of the science that is guiding pandemic responses. Thus informed by legitimate criticisms of the WHO’s historic failures – which have largely been caused by its leading funders sabotaging its already limited autonomy – well-meaning journalists have ended up melding their criticisms of the dangerous pandemic response priorities caused by the profit motive with unfounded conspiracies that have been popularized by the far-right. A good example of this is provided by the 2016 documentary TrustWHO, which criticizes the corporate capture of the WHO and is otherwise generally quite useful except for one sentence in the films introduction which incorrectly suggests that vaccines cause autism (a subject that, incidentally, is not even explored by the documentary).

One non-conspiratorial critic featuring in TrustWHO is German Velasquez, a former senior WHO official who had already authored a trenchant criticism of his former employers role in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic (see “Reforming and restoring WHO to good health”). Another insider critic interviewed in the documentary is Wolfgang Wodarg, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, who believes that the current pandemic is an elite-driven conspiracy. His wrong-headed belief in a conspiracy was clearly been informed by his involvement into official investigations into the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 that had demonstrated how corporations had corrupted both the WHO and agenda-setting in global health matters (both true). Since then he has been correctly criticized for airing his conspiratorial views through far-right media outlets associated with the AfD.

In March, one of the co-producers of the TrustWHO documentary, Robert Cibis, carried out a now notorious pandemic interview with Wodarg (streamed on YouTube on March 13) which became a viral sensation. Thereafter Cibis carried out an interview with John Ioannidis (March 26) which YouTube eventually deleted, although a second interview conducted with Ioannidis on April 3 is still online. Presently Cibis is looking to bring a variety of critical voices together in a forthcoming documentary called Corona.film. As this new documentary project evolved it apparently attracted the interest of John Kirby, another film-maker who previously served as the Director for the excellent documentary The American Ruling Class (2005). Unfortunately Kirby’s apparent opposition to vaccines has led him to believe, like Wodarg, that the current pandemic is just a ruling-class conspiracy. And so in addition to undertaking a lengthy interview with Ioannidis on April 17 (as part of a series of interview entitled “Perspectives on the pandemic”) on June 9 Kirby interviewed a leading far-right anti-vaccination activist/nurse called Erin Marie Olszewski who used her interview to expound her belief that the pandemic is a hoax. (It is worth noting that Kirby’s series of contrarian interviews is promoted by the Journeyman Pictures — an independent film distributor based in the UK. This distributor was involved in the release of TrustWHO and all manner of left-leaning independent documentaries, but their tendency to trade in far-right conspiracies too is demonstrated by their 2015 decision to re-release Alex Jones’ infamous 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup.

[10] Richard Orange, “Mood darkens in Sweden as high death rate raises tough questions over lack of lockdown,” Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2020. As in other countries Sweden’s response to the pandemic failed to implement measures that could protect the most vulnerable populations from the coronavirus. This owed much to the fact that despite the positive press Sweden often receive in the liberal media outside their own country for being a rare haven for socialist ideas, over the past decades all mainstream political parties in Sweden have been attacking all the gains previously won by the organized working-class. Thus: “After decades of cuts and the privatisation of the welfare state in general, and social and elderly care in particular, preparedness to deal with a pandemic was dramatically reduced from the very outset.” It is the unwillingness of pro-capitalist leaders to fight for the needs of the working-class that helps explain the rise of the far-right in Sweden.

[11] Of course, you can’t stop right-wing propaganda outfits picking scientists that support their own favoured talking-points, as it is no different from the way in which all capitalist media networks, whether liberal or conservative, continually misreport on scientific breakthroughs to serve their own pro-capitalist political agendas. However, the end result of all this misreporting has been the creation of a public discourse that renders science and its democratic potential largely incomprehensible to ordinary people. This is not good for anyone except the capitalist profiteers who happily turn a profit from all this confusion by selling us their latest medical remedies without needing to properly demonstrate that they have provided adequate evidence to support their products often outlandish claims.

COVID-Planning for Humanity: Is It Time to Nationalise Big Pharma?

big pharma

Pharmaceutical corporations make billions providing drugs to help improve some people’s lives, in much the same way that privately-run hospitals provide care to those who can afford to pay. But Big Pharma is not a caring industry. Big Pharma has done some truly despicable things over the past hundred years or so. This is why Big Pharma and the management of our health should not remain in the hands of huge corporations. It is high time that we bring vital private health industries under democratic public ownership. This is the only way to remove the perverse financial incentives that places profit before human need.

Of course, Big Pharma and their political enablers would like us all to believe that they should have even more power over our health services. This essay therefore aims to put the lie to this self-serving propaganda. It will do so by initially bursting the bubble on the ways that Big Pharma PR to deflect attention away from its profiteering through propaganda work. It will debunk some of the nonsense surrounding the ostensibly humanitarian actions undertaken by two corporate giants meddling in the politics of global health: the first is the world’s largest vaccines company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which happens to be the only pharmaceutical giant that has committed to making any COVID-19 vaccine that they develop “affordable” for all.[1] The second is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit corporation which is controlled by Bill Gates — a philanthropist whose personal wealth has, with the help of tax loopholes, doubled over the past decade. By examining the activities of these two corporations in relation to health profiteering both before and during this ongoing pandemic, this essay will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that there is no reason to be optimistic that corporations can be trusted to promote the best interests of humanity.

Selling Big Pharma: The Good Ship “SS Hope”

Big Pharma’s flagrant disregard for human life has already been the subject of many exposés. Yet the only thing that really seems to improve is the industry’s ability to funnel record-breaking sums of money into the pockets of politicians, doctors, regulatory agencies, and journalists to help them flog their often dangerous and many times unnecessary pharmaceutical wares. To be generous to all involved, the unhealthy fixation with using propaganda to shield Big Pharma’s activities from democratic scrutiny rather than addressing inadequacies is hardly new. Take for example, the late 1950s when psychological warfare experts enlisted the support of Big Pharma and the weapons industry in donating medical supplies to the globe’s poor. Project HOPE was the name given to this enterprise and the bulk of their work was undertaken in public by Dr William Walsh, a medical doctor, but other better known voices involved included C.D. Jackson (an executive vice president at the Time-Life Corporation and a former psychological warfare advisor to President Eisenhower), Frank Pace, Jr., (the president of defense contractor General Dynamics), John T. Connor, (the president of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company), and George Meany (the right-wing head of the AFL-CIO).[2]

With Big Pharma stumping up medical supplies and much more beside, the long voyage of SS Hope – the converted war ship delivering all this aid for Project HOPE — was a propaganda coup par excellence for the US national security state. Moreover, its aid efforts were aimed not just at winning the hearts and minds of foreign subjects, but also the domestic audience too. The domestic element of this strategy eventually paid handsome dividends in projecting the pharmaceutical industry from the regulatory gaze of the state.[3] In lieu of any meaningful democratic reform of the pharmaceutical industry, actual change has been supplanted by ‘hope’ for change. ‘Hope’ provides a critical weapon in the industries ongoing efforts to divert public attention their systemic profiteering. Thus, Project HOPE is still busily promoting their novel brand of medical diplomacy across the world; and even before the coronavirus pandemic burst forth from Wuhan they were proud of their longstanding humanitarian operations covering the world which even included their having a base in this fateful city. Although Project HOPE are controversially still funded by weapons manufacturers like General Dynamics, their board room now only has room for representatives of Big Pharma: current dignitaries serving in this capacity includes Merck’s current CEO (Richard Clark), the former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (Charles Sanders), and two representatives from Quest Diagnostics – the company that was involved with the ongoing cervical smear scandal in Ireland.

 Putting GlaxoSmithKline on Trial

One key question that should be at the forefront of any discussion of the health outcomes promoted by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is whether they have been involved in any activities that may be construed as endangering public health. And on this issue you don’t have to look too far to find evidence of wrongdoing. Earlier this year it was reported that the European Court of Justice had decided to support a disputed decision made by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority that fined the drug-maker £37.6 million. As the article in the Financial Times noted, the Court “found that the pay-for-delay deals had deprived the NHS of significant price reductions, after the average price of a GSK drug dropped by 70 per cent over two years after independent generics were introduced to the market.” (Pay-for-day referring to the practice of paying off rival companies to prevent them launching cheaper copycat versions of drugs after their patent expires.)

In other news, last year GSK was implicated in a tax scandal in the UK; while earlier in the year another article in the Financial Times pointed out how the UK Serious Fraud Office had “closed its investigations” into GSK which the paper observed only sought to highlight the Office’s inability (rather unwillingness) “to prosecute individuals whose companies have been linked to criminal activity.” This political decision to offer a reprieve to the company is itself a crime as the Fraud Office had initially opened its criminal investigation into GSK shortly after the Chinese authorities had accused GSK of earning hundreds of millions of pounds “in ‘illegal revenues’ by bribing hospitals and officials to buy its medicines.” These criminal actions in China led to £300 million fine; while GSK’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty of six years standing was slapped on his wrists too and had “his total pay temporarily cut almost in half (to £3.89 million). Making matters worse instead of listening to their employee who blew the whistle about GSK’s involvement in bribery, the company’s immediate response was to attack the whistleblower and to dismiss the allegations as an unfounded “smear campaign.”

Crime seems to pay, or at best goes barely punished; and certainly few positive lessons were being learnt at GSK as, just two years prior to the Chinese scandal, GSK had to pay $3 billion “in fines for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data about a top diabetes drug”. This was, and still is, the largest fine of its kind in US history. As the New York Times states:

“Prosecutors said the company had tried to win over doctors by paying for trips to Jamaica and Bermuda, as well as spa treatments and hunting excursions. In the case of Paxil, prosecutors claim GlaxoSmithKline employed several tactics aimed at promoting the use of the drug in children, including helping to publish a medical journal article that misreported data from a clinical trial.

“A warning was later added to the drug that Paxil, like other antidepressants, might increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in teenagers. Prosecutors said the company had marketed Wellbutrin for conditions like weight loss and sexual dysfunction when it was approved only to treat major depressive disorder.

“They said that in the case of Avandia, whose use was severely restricted in 2010 after it was linked to heart risks, the company had failed to report data from studies detailing the safety risks to the F.D.A.”[4]

As the press explained at the time, GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty desperately “sought to portray the illegal actions as part of the company’s past.” Reporters also noted that despite the size of the fine GSK would be unlikely to amend their ways because it was well understood that the billions in profits derived from their illegal activities far exceeded the size of their fine.

As another illustration of the way that GSK’s corporate executives who overeee such criminal activities seem to be rewarded not punished we might take the related example of Tachi Yamada, who between 1999 and 2006 served as the chairman of Research and Development at GSK. In 2006 Yamada then became a senior advisor to a private equity firm (Frazier Healthcare) and was headhunted to become the President of Global Health Programs for the Gates Foundation. But his past GSK misdemeanours followed Yamuda to the Gates Foundation and within a year of starting work at the philanthropic foundation a US Senate Report highlighted how the esteemed scientist had acted to silence a renowned diabetes researcher for daring to suggest that users of GSK’s highly profitable diabetes drug (Avandia) had a high risk of heart disease. Jacob Stegenga, the author of Medical Nihilism (Oxford University Press, 2018) summarises this sickening episode in this way:

“When secrecy of evidence about harms of medical interventions is threatened by vigilant researchers, manufacturers can respond belligerently. Rosiglitazone [trade name Avandia], again, provides a good illustration. John Buse, a diabetes researcher, gave two talks arguing that rosiglitazone may have cardiovascular risks. GlaxoSmithKline executed an orchestrated campaign to silence him. This plan appears to have been initiated by the company’s head of research [Tachi Yamada], and even the chief executive officer was aware of it. The company referred to Buse as the ‘Avandia Renegade,’ and in contact with Buse and his department chair there were threats of lawsuits. Buse responded to the company with a letter that asked them to ‘call off the dogs.’ Later Buse expressed embarrassment that he caved in to the pressure of GlaxoSmithKline. By 2007, the year that Nissen’s metaanalysis was published, the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] estimated that rosiglitazone had caused about 83,000 heart attacks since coming on the market in 1999.” (p.149)

Thankfully Buse’s scientific career was not entirely derailed by this smear campaign, and in 2008 he was elected to serve as the President of the American Diabetes Association. Justice however was still some way off, and it would not be until July 2010 that an FDA advisory committee to finally take concrete action based upon Buse’s early warnings wherein they recommended “a recall” of Avandia and placed severe restrictions on its availability.[5]

Just a few months later GSK made the news again (for all the wrong reasons) when it had to pay the US government $750 million “to settle civil and criminal charges that it manufactured and sold adulterated drug products.”[6] Afterwards, in another case revolving around an issue first raised in 2012, in 2016 a former GSK biostatistics manager took the decision to file a whistleblower lawsuit “accusing the drug maker of firing him for alleging dodgy study data was used to tout the effectiveness of a smoking-cessation product.”[7] While in 2018 it was reported that a former GSK sales representative in India had initiated legal action against the company after being sacked for trying to expose the culture of bullying and bribery. Therefore, considering all the problems that GSK has encountered with following any form of regulatory guidance, they were probably relieved when Dr Jesse Goodman, the former Chief Scientist for the US Food and Drug Administration (2009-2014) resigned from his position of authority at the FDA so he could join GSK’s illustrious board of directors.[8]

 Pharma Philanthropy?

In the turbulent world of Big Pharma, chief executives are changed as often as corporations face public crises of democratic accountability. But the one thing that always remains the same is their relentless pursuit of profits. In 2017 Sir Andrew Witty vacated his position at the head of GSK after nine years’ service (at the time drawing an annual salary £6.7 million) to be replaced by Emma Walmsley, who only last December joined the board of directors of the Microsoft Corporation. Witty was subsequently shunted sideways into another industry, which runs parallel to Big Pharma, private health. Witty became the President of America’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group. This gargantuan insurer is the former employer of Britain’s arch-health privatiser-in-chief Simon Stevens — the current CEO of the National Health Service (NHS). With the pandemic now upon us, last month Witty was granted a leave of absence from UnitedHealth so he could join the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.[9]

While it is true that the largely US-funded WHO always had the potential to help coordinate an international response to this deadly pandemic, Witty’s secondment to their ranks merely emphasizes the organizations increasing reliance on Big Pharma. One of the most notable individuals steering the agenda of the WHO in recent years has been Bill Gates — a man who first linked up with Witty and Tachi Yamada in 2008-09 to combat neglected tropical diseases in the poorest parts of the world. Yet as the poor already know, humanitarian efforts, when driven by the pay checks of the tax-avoiding super-rich like Gates rarely end up serving the interests of the working-class.

The collaboration between the Gates Foundation and Big Pharma was initiated in 2009 when the foundation organized a project to “study the cost and feasibility of incorporating HPV vaccines, produced by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, into India’s public sector immunisation programme.” However, the trial which set about vaccinating 14,000 adolescent girls from poor families soon ran into trouble when seven of the girls died shortly after receiving the vaccine. In all likelihood the vaccine was not the cause of these deaths, but the ensuing public anger led to a formal investigation which did reveal a rather dark side to the whole affair. In 2013 the Financial Times reported:

“In August, an Indian parliamentary committee set up to probe the issue concluded the PATH [Program for Appropriate Technology in Health] project was a clinical trial in all but name and that the organization had used ‘subterfuge’ to avoid the ‘arduous and strictly regulated process’ of such a trial.

“The committee report said many of the girls’ consent forms had apparently been signed by school principals and hostel wardens, and expressed scepticism that the girls’ parents were fully briefed on the pros and cons.

“The committee also found there was no rigorous process to track adverse events, leading to ‘gross underreporting’. It came down hard on Indian government agencies for alleged dereliction of duty.”

The parliamentary committee made the additional claim that GSK were lining their own corporate pockets with their so-called aid. They explained that the “sole aim” of the project had been “to promote the commercial interests of HPV vaccine manufacturers, who would have reaped windfall profits had PATH been successful in getting the HPV vaccine included” in India’s immunisation protocols. Linsey McGoey, author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (Verso, 2015), argues that the “most alarming” aspect of this so-called trial was that the overseers’ of the Foundation project “did not implement any system for recording major adverse reactions to the vaccines,… something legally mandated for large-scale clinical trials.”[10]

As this controversy was raging in India, local non-profits like the All India Drug Action Network made useful political interventions into the intense public debate. In 2010, the Network said that, in addition to the aforementioned ethical concerns, the one issue that was regularly ignored was the importance of promoting cervical cancer screening which “is almost non-existent in India.”[11] To make matters worse, in 2018 the Network also explained that there is still “a lack of evidence” that the HPV vaccine “is effective and cost-efficient.” Yet despite that fact that the importance of screening is well understood, many health activists are concerned that there is a worrying decrease in its use (this includes in the UK). This needs to change, and even Dr Vivien Tsu, the Director of PATH’s controversial HPV vaccine project now emphasises the need for more screening. In fact only last year Dr Tse co-authored an academic paper (financed by the Gates Foundation) that determined “that immediate implementation of HPV testing has the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women in India who are beyond the target age of HPV vaccination”.[12]

But even on the fairly uncontroversial issue of promoting cervical smears in India, US-based agencies (including the Gates Foundation) managed to undermine scientific protocols and public trust again. Thus, screening research undertaken in India between 1998 and 2015 resulted in the unnecessary sacrifice of 254 women’s lives because research agencies “exploited local regulatory weaknesses and economic and social inequities” in a process that has been referred to as “ethics dumping”. This meant that “effective methods of screening for cervical cancer were therefore withheld from 141,000 women in areas where it was known to be of high incidence and prevalence.”[13] The sickening nature of this systemic exploitation are sadly nothing new. In her 2006 book The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest, Sonia Shah wrote that given all the incentives that the Indian government has made for foreign investors…

“…the potential for abuse of research subjects in India appears nearly unlimited. But if in the past government officials tolerated ethical lapses because most experimentation was oriented toward public health goals, no such trade-off exists today, for the modern body hunt in India proceeds by the logic not of public health but the profit-driven needs of distant drug companies.”

The ongoing HPV debacle in India is not the first time that corporate powerbrokers have tried to force their ‘help’ upon the poor, but it has had lasting effects upon many people’s faith in both Big Pharma and in vaccines more generally. In this regard, it is understandable that billions of people across the world have little trust in huge corporations to look after their health needs. This is why it is so vital that socialists continue to raise the popular demand that the powerful and largely unaccountable corporations that dominate our health landscape be nationalised and run under democratic control by the workers themselves. This is critically important because fear of vaccines is dangerous for us all, as vaccines represent a critical health intervention that, despite the rampant profiteering on the part of corrupt elites, continues to serve the needs of the majority of humanity. So, when Big Pharma persist in subverting democratic norms by failing to develop drugs in an open and transparent manner they are damaging trust in medicines. It is clear that we must take away their monopoly powers over the life-saving vaccines that we do need.

One of the most insightful writers on the philanthropic abuses of Bill Gates in India is the Mumbai-based journalist Sandhya Srinivasan. She has written eloquently about the Gates Foundations scandalous involvement in all manner of interventions from the HPV nightmare through to their Malthusian-inspired efforts to regulate the fertility of the poor.[14] Writing in 2014 she states that the Gates Foundation’s aim in India is…

“…to install a public health model driven by private corporations, and revolving around the use of privately-owned technological interventions, a ‘magic bullet’ for each disease. While such a model is incapable of delivering public health, it is geared to deliver a private profit.”

As history shows, pharmaceutical companies have a reputation for burying awkward results from clinical trials on drugs which show harm to human life. In a sane world clinical trials would be conducted by scientists who are financially independent from pharmaceutical corporations. This is rarely the case. Independent scientists of course continue to do their best at critically scrutinizing all available research (although much remains hidden by corporations) to make evidence-based recommendations as to the efficacy of various drugs and treatments. Often-times this leads to sharp disagreement and debates, and an important example of this is provided by recent meta-analyses of the health effects of the HPV vaccine.

On one side of this ongoing controversy are HPV vaccine advocates, many of whom work closely with the very corporations and foundations (GSK, Merck, and Gates) that seek to continue expanding the global use of the vaccine. While on the other side we have independent scientists, who have drawn attention to serious shortcomings in the manner in which the decision was made to roll-out HPV vaccines; and in doing so highlight the fact that their meta-analyses of HPV trials raise serious concerns about adverse health impacts associated with HPV vaccines. With billions of dollars of profits at stake, the unfortunate response to these reasonable if challenging questions about HPV vaccines has been to attack the messenger. This has involved launching a witch hunt against HPV critics which, amongst other things, has involved accusing critical scientists of being anti-vaxxers. Such smears are about as far from the truth as one can get. (For more on this read Peter Gøtzsche’s incisive book Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy.)

 Viral Profiteering: How Disease Breeds Greed

Profiteering takes many forms but perhaps the most despicable of all is pandemic profiteering, and getting to the root of the history of this matter is more important than ever. In an opinion piece for the New York Times Gerald Posner, the author of Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America (Simon & Schuster, 2020), reminds us how profits trumped human need during the 1976 swine flu outbreak. He explains how for “several months, four drug firms — Merck’s Sharp & Dohme, Merrell, Wyeth, and Parke-Davis — refused to sell to the government the 100 million [vaccine] doses they had manufactured until they got full liability indemnity and a guaranteed profit.” This wouldn’t be the first or last time that profiteering obscured access to life-saving drugs.

The story of the anti-viral drug Oseltamivir (known as Tamiflu), a treatment that is still reaping millions for Big Pharma despite the fact that it was initially developed (as often is the case) by public researchers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, is also revealing. Tamiflu profits keep flowing even though the considered evidence suggests that the anti-viral is next to useless. Tamiflu is the brand name drug produced by Roche and Gilead Sciences. The other related anti-viral that is manufactured by GSK to combat flu symptoms is Zanamirvir (brand name Relenza), and it too does next to nothing except make huge sales. The release of both drugs for sale is mired in controversy. As Sid Wolfe and his coauthors noted in their book Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness (Pocket Books, 2005):

“Zanamirvir was reviewed by the FDA’s Antiviral Drug Advisory Committee on February 24, 1999. This committee of 17 outside experts was asked by the FDA: ‘Does the information presented by the applicant [Glaxo Wellcome] support the safety and effectiveness of zanamirvir for treatment of influenza?’ The committee voted 13 to 4 that it did not.” (p.755)

This democratic and evidence-based decision did not please GSK profit-makers who immediately dispatched a furious and threatening letter to the FDA, who then capitulated to the pharma bully and approved the useless drug. The seventeen-page letter that had such a dramatic impact upon the FDA was written by James Palmer (who after 2000 assumed the position of GSK’s second in charge of Research and Development working under Tachi Yamada). In his warning Palmer made it clear that refusal to approve zanamirvir would endanger global efforts to stockpile drugs needed to respond to a future pandemic. Thus, as a direct result of this letter the lead biostatistician who oversaw the FDA’s independent review, Michael Elashoff, was removed from his duties. Soon after this shameful episode the FDA decided to neglect organizing an independent scientific review of Tamiflu and simply approved it for use. Of course like zanamirvir there was never any “convincing evidence that Tamiflu prevents influenza complications or reduces the spread of influenza to other people.”[15] On the contrary, as the Director of Emergency Care Research at the US National Institutes of Health states: “Tamiflu often gives you some of the very symptoms you are trying to relieve, and at best will shorten your misery from influenza by a day.”[16] Little wonder that many people remain unconvinced by the sincerity of Big Pharma’s efforts to help those other than their shareholders, especially during times of global crisis. This dire situation is aptly summed up by Peter Gøtzsche who notes:

“During the ten years leading up to WHO’s pandemic declaration of 2009, scientists associated with the companies that were to profit from the WHO’s ‘pandemic preparedness’ programmes, including Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, were involved at virtually every stage of the development of those programs. Roy Anderson, a prominent British epidemiologist and adviser to both the WHO and the UK government, gravely warned a BBC radio audience [in May 2009] that only Relenza and Tamiflu would prevent a catastrophe on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the time, Anderson was receiving £116,000 per year from GlaxoSmithKline, manufacturer of Relenza. By declaring a pandemic and linking the response to Tamiflu stockpiling, the WHO could not have done a better job of promoting Roche’s interests.”[17]

In fact, Sir Roy Anderson had joined GSK board of directors in October 2007 and remained there until May 2018.[18]

Pandemic UN-Preparation in the UK and US

When it comes to the huge pharmaceutical corporations that dominate the world of “Big Pharma organized crime” we should not be too surprised to find their dirty fingers dug deep within the public health sector. The British government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who prior to taking up this prestigious appointment had been a President of Research and Development at GSK, is a case in point. Another high-profile individual overseeing the Tories pandemic ‘response’ is Jonathan Van-Tam who previously held senior positions at GSK, Roche, and Aventis Pasteur. Currently he is the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England. This is the same individual who acted as the chair of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) that oversaw “Exercise Cygnus” in late 2016. Exercise Cygnus was the pandemic-training exercise that demonstrated to the world that the NHS was totally unprepared for any future pandemic. As the Daily Telegraph revealed: “Minutes from a NERVTAG meeting held in the wake of Cygnus show that Dr Van Tam agreed to write to the Department of Health to repeat the committee’s concerns over the NHS stockpile of personal protective equipment.” But surprise, surprise, it turns out that this advice was never acted upon. In reality, Exercise Cygnus was undertaken specifically to demonstrate how well our health services “would cope with a major influenza outbreak with a maximum national death toll of 500,000.” This is exactly the situation we are facing today.

Ultimately, however, the underlying reason why the British government was so ill-prepared for this pandemic is because the Tories initial ‘response’ was to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of people’s lives through the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. In many respects this implicit tolerance of mass mortalities is a central part of any privatised health care system: those who are wealthy enough and can afford treatment and those who can’t… well, they die. This was emphasised in an article published in the New Statesman which stated that the British government’s “planning documents – which date from 2005 to 2018 but are mainly based on the 2011 ‘Influenza Preparedness Strategy’ – suggest that Britain may in fact have been prepared, just for the wrong outcome.” That is, the Tories were wholly reliant on the initial plans first devised disgracefully by New Labour, plans which only ever planned to “mitigate rather than suppress” the impact of any pandemic.

Gates to the Rescue?

In contrast to almost all governments across the world, which failed to prepare for the type of pandemics they knew were just around the corner, in January 2017 a new group was formed in a last ditch attempt to overcome these serious problems. This was an initiative launched at an annual meeting of billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos which was called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Early founders included the governments of Norway and India, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. The billionaires present at Davos however weren’t so keen to part with their own wealth, and by December 2018 CEPI were still $250 million short of their initial $1 billion funding target. It seems unlikely that capitalists will ever act to protect the public good: with a pandemic now in full deadly affect CEPI is still short of money — although last month they received a $150 million boost from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country which is still pursuing a war on Yemen with the active support of the British government.

As it turns out CEPI’s founders were fully aware of the difficulties of getting capitalists to plan to prevent mass fatalities, and at its launch, Sir Jeremy Farrar (the head of the Wellcome Trust)[19] stated that

“…there has not been until CEPI came along, not been an ability to take those things forward when there’s no commercial drive, when there’s no market incentives, when there is no way of selling that, of making a profit. And the Coalition is determined to change that, to make sure that we have vaccines for everything that we are going to need.”

Three years later, on March 30, 2020, leading members of CEPI published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine concluding that: “A global financing system [that CEPI aims to be] that supports end-to-end development and large-scale manufacturing and deployment, ensures fair allocation, and protects private-sector partners from significant financial losses will be a critical component of future pandemic preparedness.” The stand-out part of this statement emphasized the protection of corporations from financial losses. This is a fitting priority given that the lead author of this article (Nicole Lurie) is married to the former FDA boss turned current GSK board member Jesse Goodman. Thus, considering CEPI’s professed ambitions it is appropriate that GSK’s former President of Global Vaccines is a Strategic Advisor to CEPI’s CEO. Further illustrating the pernicious way in which Big Pharma’s interests weigh heavily upon CEPI’s potentially useful activities, in late 2018 Medecins Sans Frontieres pulled out of the Coalition citing concerns that it’s revised policy “no longer guarantees that the vaccines CEPI funds will be made available at an affordable price.”[20]

In the US context, pandemic preparedness has, like in Britain, a nearly non-existent priority in government circles. “Crimson Contagion” was the code-name for President Trump’s pandemic preparation project which was carried last year and was overseen by longstanding corporate lobbyist Robert Kadlec, [21] an individual who presently serves as the US Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Like in Britain the results of this secretive training exercise “drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.” Unsurprisingly, nothing was done to address this problem.[22] Kadlec once worked closely with current CEPI board member Rajeev Venkayya in drafting the government’s 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act – a relationship that developed while Kadlec was serving as the Director for biodefense on the Homeland Security Council.

Like other Big Pharma executives, Rajeev Venkayya is well immersed in the controversies swirling around powerful vaccine manufacturers. Thus, after working on biodefense issues for the US government he became the head of vaccine delivery projects at the Gates Foundation (where he worked under Tachi Yamada), and then moved on to employment at Takeda Pharmaceutical – Japan’s largest drug manufacturer. Takeda has not been immune from the lurid crime of health profiteering. In April 2014 they made international headlines when a $9 billion fine for punitive damages was levied against Takeda and Eli Lilly “for concealing possible health risks linked to their blockbuster diabetes drug Actos.” So, when Christophe Weber, Takeda’s new CEO arrived in post at exactly this moment of global notoriety, he drew upon his years of experience in leading executive positions at GSK. Later that same year celebrated his first success when it was announced that the proposed $9 billion fine had been reduced to a paltry $36.8 million!

That profit-seeking individuals like Venkayya can flit so easily between the shadowy world of the national security state, foundations, and Big Pharma is disturbing, but especially so for conservative conspiracy theorists. But there is no conspiracy at work, as in each instance we should appreciate that such revolving doorways exist precisely because their abiding interests remain the same. All are united in their promotion of capitalist interests at the expense of human life. This helps explain why President Obama’s chose Sylvia Mathews Burwell, a former President of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program to serve as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. Burwell is a millionaire, who after her tenure in this high-ranking government position then joined the board room of one of America’s leading health insurers (GuideWell Mutual Holding Corporation) where she remains to this day.

Whether Democrats or Republicans the one thing that unites them is the profit motive, and so on the other end of the corporate political spectrum we might look at one of Burwell’s Republican forerunners, Tommy Thompson, who served as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services (holding this post between 2001 and 2005) under President George W. Bush’s administration. A focus upon Thompson is interesting in the context of the current crisis because when he retired he freely admitted that what worried him most was the threat posed by a human flu pandemic which, as he put it, could take the lives of up to 70 million people. “This is a really huge bomb that could adversely impact on the health of the world,” he said at the time. Yet on his watch, which overlapped and oversaw the biodefense efforts undertaken by Venkayya and Kadlec, his department…

“…and the Pentagon spent $14.5 billion to safeguard national security against largely hypothetical biological threats like smallpox and anthrax, even as they pursued a penny-pinching strategy to deal with the most dangerous and likely ‘bioterrorist’: avian influenza. The administration’s lackadaisical response to the pandemic threat (despite Secretary Thompson’s personal anxiety) is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last generation, writes Lancet editor Richard Horton, ‘The U.S. public-health system has been slowly and quietly falling apart.’”

This was the opinion of socialist historian Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press, 2005), who went on to add:

“Under Democrats as well as Republicans, Washington has looked the other way as local health departments have lost funding and crucial hospital surge capacity has been eroded in the wake of the HMO [Health Maintenance Organization] revolution. (A sobering 2004 Government Accounting Office [GAO] report confirmed that “no state is fully prepared to respond to a major public-health threat.”) The federal government also has refused to address the growing lack of new vaccines and antibiotics caused by the pharmaceutical industry’s withdrawal from sectors judged to be insufficiently profitable; moreover, revolutionary breakthroughs in vaccine design and manufacturing technology have languished due to lack of sponsorship by either the government or the drug industry.”

So, the current healthcare problems facing the world were hardly unexpected; instead they were planned for by a dangerous economic system that is only programmed to care for its own profits.

 Pandemic Self-Care and the Fight for Democracy

Although this essay has only touched upon the full extent of the criminal corporate profiteering that takes place under the guise of delivering health care for all, what should be apparent is that this cannot be allowed to continue. Time and time again corporations have been found guilty of the most heinous of crimes, and capitalist politicians of all flavours have been sedated by their gifts and soothing assurances that they have amended their bad old ways. Big Pharma have had their chances to change and they have failed.

In the early 1980s, John Braithwaite undertook the task of interviewing scores of the most powerful executives in the pharmaceutical industry and therein gave the world a horrifying insider’s view of the world of Big Pharma. This exhaustive research led to a book titled Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry, which documented the “abominable harm which group decision-making in the pharmaceutical industry has caused on many occasions.” Yet although it is enlightening to explore the specific wrongdoings of corporate leaders it is vital that we delve below the level of such superficial symptoms so we can understand the underlying causes of such destructive practices. Braithwaite therefore observes that…

“… most corporate crimes in the pharmaceutical industry cannot be explained by the perverse personalities of their perpetrators. One must question the proclivity in an individualistic culture to locate the source of evil deeds in evil people. Instead we should ‘pay attention to the factors that lead ordinary men to do extraordinary things’. Rather than think of corporate actors as individual personalities, they should be viewed as actors who assume certain roles. The requirements of these roles are defined by the organization, not by the actor’s personality.” (p.2)

The required cure which flows from such a systemic view of corporate crime is that the political and economic system itself must be changed, although it wouldn’t hurt if a few of the worst perpetrators of the pharmaceutical atrocities against humanity were punished too. Ultimately this must involve eradicating capitalism (to use a medical term) and replacing it with a democratic and socialist alternative.

But in order to prepare the way for achieving such revolutionary goals we must demand immediate reforms that can inoculate our body politic from the draining depredations of Big Pharma. A pandemic continues to wreak havoc across our planet, and under no circumstances can the proponents of Big Pharma be allowed to continue with business-as-usual. We urgently need a health system that can meet the needs of the global working-class and that cannot be delivered by the status quo. This means we must organize to seize control of Big Pharma’s assets so that their potentially life-enhancing knowledge and resources can be turned to the immediate goal of serving real human needs. Corporations must be democratically run by workers for workers, a process which will need to expend to other industries too. This will be a difficult task and in many situations will require the construction of new and democratic mass organizations of the working-class, but if we are to learn anything from this pandemic then it must be that the only people who are capable and willing of steering us through this current crises will be ourselves, the global working-class.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] They state on their web site that they do “not expect to profit from our portfolio of collaborations for COVID-19 vaccines during this pandemic.” Whether this turns out to true or just more corporate hot air is another matter.

[2] Zachary Cunningham, “Project HOPE as propaganda: a humanitarian nongovernmental organization takes part in America’s total cold war,” MA Thesis, Ohio University, March 2008, pp.54-5; Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination 1945-1961 (University of California Press, 2003).

[3] In April 1960 Dr Walsh was wheeled out during congressional investigations as a key witness in defence of the industry where he happily made the case that Big Pharma were genuinely compassionate about delivering care to the needy. Led by Senator Estes Kefauver these hearings did eventually wrangle some positive outcomes in terms of improving regulatory oversight of the industry — which mainly owed their implementation to the public outrage that was generated in response to the thalidomide tragedy of 1962 — but the one significant area in which absolutely no progress was made was in forcing corporations to make their drugs affordable to the majority of American citizens. Combatting such price gouging was one of the key objectives that Kefauver had set out to remedy, but it is a problem that, to this day, still haunts America.

[4] Even after this fine, GSK were adamant they would not be prepared to settle claims in the UK (their base of operations) without a court fight. This is a kick in the teeth for all those who may have suffered as a result of taking Avandia, but in many ways their inhumane behaviour is the norm: hence a newspaper report from 2013 observed that “GSK is also still defending cases in the UK from people who claim to have been badly affected by Seroxat” an anti-depressant which is known as Paxil in the US.

[5]GlaxoSmithKline tried to silence the scientist who exposed the dangers of its drug Avandia,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 12, 2017. In a 2012 interview with the Journal of Clinical Investigation Yamada recalled how he had been “shocked and embarrassed” when “in 2000, GSK sued Nelson Mandela and the government of South Africa over the pricing of HIV medicines.”  He said in the interview that “I told the board of directors I thought we should actually be making medicines for people who need them.” Thus, with funding “largely” coming from the Gates Foundation he explains that he helped GSK set up a laboratory that focused on malaria and TB production.

[6] In this instance the case was first raised by a determined and brave whistleblower in 2003 and concerned products of a “factory in Cidra, Puerto Rico, where GSK made a range of products including an antibiotic ointment for babies, and drugs to treat nausea, depression and diabetes.” On January 2, 2011, 60 Minutes aired a program titled “Bad Medicine: The Glaxo Case” which focused on this case.

[7] The case is yet to be resolved and the whistleblower “claims the company engaged in an ‘illegal, deceptive marketing program’ to promote the product ‘without justification’ as a ‘significant advance’ in nicotine treatment.”

[8] Famously, precisely because corporate executives are so rarely prosecuted for wrongdoings, in 2010 a former GSK senior executive was charged in a drug fraud case and stood accused of lying to the US Food and Drug Administration. In what would have been a landmark case, the individual was later acquitted of all charges.

[9] The WHO has always been a political tool of capitalist elites, but in recent years corporate interests have staked out a more direct control in directing the organizations priorities.

[10] Lindsey McGoey, p.162. The initial rapid roll-out of HPV vaccines in America was already considered controversial. One critic noted that in the US context: “Without regular Pap smears and followup, Gardasil and Cervarix will be at best expensive Band-Aids.” Melissa Haussman, Reproductive Rights and the State: Getting the Birth Control, RU-486, and Morning-After Pills and the Gardasil Vaccine to the U.S. Market (Praeger, 2013), p.141; also see Judith Siers-Poisson, “Women in Government, Merck’s Trojan Horse: Part 3 in a Series on the Politics and PR of Cervical Cancer,” PR Watch, July 10, 2007.

[11] Sarojini N B, Sandhya Srinivasan, Madhavi Y, Srinivasan S, Anjali Shenoi, The HPV vaccine: science, ethics and regulation,” Economic & Political Weekly, November 27, 2010 p.32.

[12] Nicole Campos, Vivien Tse et al., “Health impact of delayed implementation of cervical cancer screening programs in India: A modeling analysis,” International Journal of Cancer, 144 (4), 2019. The paper notes that “an estimated 3.1% of women in India reported receiving a Pap smear in the last 3 years.”

[13] Sandhya Srinivasan, Veena Johari and Amar Jesani, “Cervical cancer screening in India,” in: Doris Schroeder et al. (Eds.), Ethics Dumping: Case Studies from North-South Research Collaborations (Springer, 2018), p.42, p.33.

[14] Sandhya Srinivasan, “Trials and tribulations: Ethics of clinical trials and vaccine research in India,” Himal, April 17, 2016; Srinivasan, “Shifts in Medical Research: Influence of Private Capital,” in: Imrana Qadeer (Ed.), India: Social Development Report 2014: Challenges of Public Health (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[15] For a detailed discussion of this case, see Stefan Elbe, Pandemics, Pills, and Politics: Governing Global Health Security (John Hopkins University Press, 2018); also reviewed by Peter Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare (Taylor & Francis, 2013); On November 13, 2003, PBS’s Frontline aired a documentary entitled “Dangerous Prescription” that included an interview with FDA reviewer Michael Elashoff who stated: “Simply stated, Relenza just didn’t work in the United States clinical trials. It really had no effect at all on the symptoms of influenza. It had no effect at all on influenza complications. It maybe knocked half a day or less off the duration, and even that wasn’t established statistically. So, it was pretty much no different from placebo as far as efficacy.”

[16] Jeremy Brown, Influenza: The Quest to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History (Text Publishing, 2019), see chapter 8 (“The fault in our stockpiles: Tamiflu and the cure that wasn’t there”).

[17]Peter Gøtzsche, Vaccines: Truth, Lies and Controversy (People’s Press, 2020).

[18] Moreover, since December 2009 Sir Roy Anderson has served on the international advisory board of Hakluyt a “private intelligence firm… founded by former officials with MI6.” We might add that in other related breaking news, on April 19th Lord Paul Deighton, the chairman of Hakluyt’s holding company (Holdingham Group Ltd) was appointed by the UK government (at the last minute) to become Britain’s PPE Czar. Whether this turns out to a good decision is by the way, as what is most critical is that the British government should have had a pandemic plan in place for manufacturing and delivering PPE many years ago.

[19] Sir Jeremy Farrar is currently serving alongside the GSK double-act (Sir Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam) and others (including not least a Google executive) on the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).

[20] Jenny Lei Ravelo,Battle over CEPI’s access to vaccines policy deepens,” Devex, March 11, 2019.

[21]  In 2007 Robert Kadlec had left his position at the global management consulting firm PRTM to be “appointed special assistant to the president for homeland security and senior director for biological defense policy, serving as the president’s principal advisor on issues pertaining to bioterrorism and pandemic influenza preparedness.”  Then in 2009 he rejoined PRTM as a vice president in its Global Public Sector business. This is a highly profitable business, and in 2014 alone Kadlec reportedly earned $451,000 “advising a number of intelligence-related companies, including Invincea, a DARPA project, and Scitor, a contractor to the NSA.”

[22] On March 3, 2020 Robert Kadlec reported that the government only had 10% of the required respirator masks that would be needed for medical professionals if the COVID-19 outbreak erupts into a “full-blown” pandemic. But even here Kadlec had done his maths wrong and he later corrected his statement to say they only had 1% of the required masks in stock.

COVID-19: How Big Pharma and Big Philanthropy Consume the World

covid 19

Under capitalism, disease is an immensely profitable industry, and huge pharmaceutical corporations excel at extracting enormous amounts of wealth from our public health. Of course, big pharma would have us believe that without their investments in scientific research, millions of people would not benefit from the dizzying array of drugs they sell us, but the truth is far less savoury. This is because instead of reinvesting their huge profit margins in cutting-edge research, the powerful corporations that dominate the medical landscape prefer to let fledgling scientific enterprises take all the risks to push research agendas forward. Then, when a small company creates a new drug that corporate predators think they can sell — to at least the richest proportion of the global citizenry — corporations mobilise their immense financial resources to wrest control of any new patents from their rivals. It is this perpetual cannibalism of smaller businesses that guarantees maximum profits with minimum risks – a dark process which includes the consumption of other companies to ensure their drugs never see the light of day. This, more than anything else, demonstrates where the real priorities of corporations lie. What system other than capitalism would encourage the disembowelment of life-saving knowledge so that big pharma can gratify their macabre pursuit of profit?

Flowing from the relentless drive for super-profits, we can also understand the process by which big pharma makes decisions on the type of drugs they will prioritise for mass production. Medicines that can be sold to wealthy consumers in developed countries, are fast-tracked, while drugs and treatments that might benefit the poorest billions simply fall by the wayside. Human life is secondary to the pursuit of profits. This is why the chaos of the free market must be superseded by a more scientific system of planning – a socialist system, where drugs are produced to meet the needs of the mass of humanity. Pills for greed must be replaced by pills for need.

But, for the short-term at least, we remain lumbered with an inhumane big pharma juggernaut, that is both unable and unwilling to serve the needs of the many, and the rapid spread of COVID-19 is once again laying bare the corrupt and bankrupt nature of corporate powerbrokers. The difference between how ordinary people and big pharma react to this crisis are worlds apart. A new and deadly disease throws the masses together in a desperate effort to see off this harbinger of death, but rather than help, big corporations see the pandemic as just another opportunity to turn a buck. All those whose lives are presently threatened by coronavirus are simply viewed as a captive market for our globes marauding health profiteers. So where should we look to if we want to expose the mechanism by which such flagrant profiteering takes place?

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Pandemic Profiteering

US-based Gilead Sciences is a good as a place to start as any, a powerful member of the big pharma community closely associated with Donald Rumsfeld and the former Secretary of State George Shultz — a corporation that is most famous for its profiteering from Tamiflu and desire to undermine scientific efforts to submit their research on this antiviral treatment to democratic scrutiny. Historical examples of exploitation tend to repeat themselves when democracy fails to intervene and Gilead once again made international news last year for its “heartless and cruel price-gouging practices toward vulnerable groups” like those suffering with HIV. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing death and mayhem to the globe, Gilead have discovered that remdesivir, an antiviral drug they developed in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak with “at least $79 million of US government funding,” could be used to alleviate the worst effects of COVID-19. Ready to seize another opportunity to line their pockets, Gilead quickly moved to prevent other companies from selling generic versions of “their” drug. Amusingly they had assumed that these actions would go unopposed… but how wrong they were. Mass opposition to this pandemic profiteering soon forced the corporation to rescind their plans, in the United States at least. However, as Médecins Sans Frontières correctly point out, the company “has yet to commit to not enforcing its patents globally.”

Another corporate giant with similar ambitions to swell their bank accounts from this pandemic is the US-based diagnostic test maker Cepheid — a company which has “just received US FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a rapid COVID-19 test (Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2) that delivers results in just 45 minutes, using existing testing machines that have been routinely used for tuberculosis (TB), HIV and other diseases.” Aghast at such profiteering Médecins Sans Frontières state:

“Cepheid just announced they will charge US$19.80 per test in developing countries, including the world’s poorest countries where people live on less than two dollars per day. MSF and others’ research on Cepheid’s TB test (which uses a similar test cartridge for TB for which the corporation charges $10 in developing countries), shows that the cost of goods, including manufacturing, overhead, and other expenses, for each cartridge is as low as $3, and therefore each test could be sold at a profit for $5.” (“MSF calls for no patents or profiteering on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines,” March 27)

Here Cepheid provides a perfect example of how smaller and successful pharmaceutical companies get gobbled-up by big pharma. This is because at the time of Cepheid’s 2016 acquisition by Danaher, it was just one in the latest of 400 odd companies that its new parent had purchased since 1984. (That said not all mergers of this hue involve small companies and last year Danaher acquired General Electric Biopharma for $21 billion.)

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Quite rightly Médecins Sans Frontières maintains a critical eye on other more systemic forms of pharmaceutical exploitation which, as they explain, create corporate barriers which “stop people living with TB from getting the lifesaving medicines they need.” This is a critical issue because approximately 1.5 million people die every year from TB, a disease that, if there was the political will, could have easily been eradicated. The tragic scale of this needless suffering also vastly increases the number of vulnerable people who will die from COVID-19.

In an important article titled “5 barriers from Big Pharma preventing people getting lifesaving TB drugs” (March 23), Médecins Sans Frontières provide their readers with a forensic examination of the devious way in which big pharma corporation Johnson and Johnson (J&J) engages in such murderous practices. J&J produce the TB drug bedaquiline and then multiply the cost of making it by “eight times” or more when selling it to markets in poorer developing nations, states Médecins Sans Frontières. The profits from this despicable behaviour going directly to the corporation even though it is “estimated that taxpayers put three to five times the amount of funding into the development of bedaquiline as J&J.” Ever prescient of the fact that such price-gouging makes their corporation look greedy (which they are), the corporation pumps out a great deal of nice-sounding propaganda to advertise to the world that they donate some bedaquiline to the needy. Thus, despite the fact that 130,000 people in India require treatment with their drug they have only donated 20,000 treatment courses to the country – a drop in the ocean considering the corporation’s rampant profiteering.

Making matters worse, Johnson and Johnson are currently in the process of “trying to wring out yet more profits by blocking more affordable versions of bedaquiline in India for an additional four years.” And contrary to all their nice sounding words about helping the poor, the corporation, having found their own personal golden goose for TB profiteering, have along with other pharmaceutical corporations “shut down their R&D units for new antibiotics that could potentially cure the disease”.

When human life is treated with so little respect, it should come as no surprise that the board rooms of Johnson and Johnson, like many big pharma corporations, tend to overlap with those military profiteers. Thus, just taking the example of J&J, four current board members include the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the chairman of Rolls-Royce, a board member of Boeing, and a board member of Honeywell.

Not one to look a pandemic in the eye and not see a profit, Johnson and Johnson have now teamed up with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to collaborate on a potential vaccine for coronavirus. J&J note on their web site, they are “closely monitoring the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation” and have “robust business continuity plans in place across our global supply chain network to prepare for unforeseen events and to meet the needs of the patients, customers and consumers who depend on our products.” (April 2) These business plans — to rake in profits from their consumers — are of course being funded by a $0.5 billion investment from the America tax-payer, an act of corporate welfare which led to a 3.8% rise in the value of J&J’s shares.

Rethinking Philanthropy: Gates vs Trump

Most people are of course already aware that corporate profiteering is a big problem, but in the context of never-ending global healthcare crises, the philanthropy of the billionaire-class is often held up by the corporate media as the solution to the deep inequities caused by our capitalist system. Indeed many of the global health initiatives pioneered by the philanthropies of the super-rich, like that of the Gates Foundation, dominate the international news as so many “good news” stories. So, it more than a little ironic that one of the main benefits of philanthropic foundations, to the super-rich that is, is that they provide a perfect way for billionaires to avoid paying tax!

In the wake of the pandemic, ruling-class philanthropy, not their oppression of workers, is making the news in a big way. For instance, the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, has announced he is giving 0.1% of his $125 billion fortune to a charity feeding America’s poor. His $100 million donation going to a group (Feeding America) whose board room is dominated by the leading representatives of the corporate food giants that helped create the social and economic conditions that allowed COVID-19 to arise and take so many lives. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, has gone one step further and done something that most other philanthropists dare not do, he will be giving $1 billion to coronavirus related charities – a sizable sum of money which represents a sizable 28% of his personal savings. But this funding is not as good as it sounds and the first charity to receive funds from Dorsey is distributing most of the millions it raises to the same elite food project that is being backed by Bezos. And finally, now in just one more of a long line of ostensibly generous healthcare handouts, the Gates Foundation has stumped up $20 million to launch a COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator Fund.

Gates’ COVID-19 Fund is now in the process of helping coordinate a variety of essential research to test potential medicines and vaccines for the pandemic. Scientific undertakings, which, if we lived in a sane world would already be financed in a systemic and organised way by taxing big business. Why after all should the safety of life on our planet ever have to rely upon receiving piddling hand-outs from serial tax avoiders? Nevertheless, not all the Therapeutics Accelerator research is that useful, and we are meant to be thankful that some of the money from ‘Gates’ COVID-19 Fund is being used to investigate the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. These drugs are both generic antimalarials, which controversially “have been hailed by US president Donald Trump [since late January] as potential game-changers” in the battle against the pandemic. It is also not insignificant that immediately after Trump’s backing of these non-proven ‘cures’, the major US-based pharma company producing these drugs, Rising Pharmaceuticals, decided to double the price of chloroquine. Again, history appears to be repeating itself, as in December last year Rising was forced to admit to price-fixing and as ‘punishment’ had to pay $3m in fines and restitution. So, when questioned about their latest pandemic profiteering by the Financial Times, Rising executives were forced to backtrack and explain that the price rise was “coincidental”; and apparently shamed by their humiliating expose immediately Rising bosses moved to reduce its price.

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In many ways Trump’s insane advocacy efforts on behalf of unproven drugs are a mirror image to Bill Gates’ relentless promotion of elite philanthropy as a panacea to the eternal wrecking ball of capitalism. Fake news seems to reign supreme, whether it be coming from Trump or Gates. The New York Times (April 6) — which itself is perhaps the number one booster for Gates’ brand of fake news – prefers to focus their ire upon Trump, writing: “Day after day, the salesman turned president has encouraged coronavirus patients to try hydroxychloroquine with all of the enthusiasm of a real estate developer.” The Times article then goes on to observe that if hydroxychloroquine becomes an accepted treatment, then even Trump himself will stand to profit because he has “a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.” But let’s not forget that Trump is not the only profiteer in this vile game, and the Gates Foundation likewise maintains financial investments in Sanofi, but his foundation goes further still and disperses philanthropic grants to the company too!

Blatant personal profiteering – whether large or small — however is not the worst aspect of capitalisms varying reactions to this pandemic. And another disastrous but entirely foreseen consequence of Trump’s talk about the “strong” healing potential of anti-malarial drugs is that those who can afford to buy them have literally been “vacuuming up supplies” which has led to global shortages and sent the prices of the drug “skyrocketing” out of the reach of many who need them. To make matters worse, at the same time Trump has been busily lobbying the Indian government – a country where malarial drugs are a matter of life and death to millions of people — to promise India will be prioritising America for future deliveries of chloroquine, Trump’s so-called miracle drug.

War and Healthcare

Here, once again, the role of military profiteering can help us understand the special relationship that has developed in recent years between Trump and India’s far-right Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Hence Trump’s latest request for stocks of India’s anti-malarial drugs will be considered more seriously as a result of Modi’s latest (February 25) $3 billion purchase of military hardware which included six Boeing-built Apache helicopters. On the evolution of these important warmongering ties, the New York Times has provided some context, explaining in an article published in late November how:

“The Trump administration’s efforts to woo India are in many ways a continuation of a foreign policy pursued by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama aspired to move closer to India strategically, and succeeded measurably in areas like arms sales.

“According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, exports of American weapons to India from 2013 to 2017 increased 557 percent over the previous five-year period. American arms sales to India currently stand around $18 billion, and could climb after the approval of a deal on Wednesday to allow India to buy $1 billion worth of naval guns and ammunition.” (“U.S.-India defense Ties grow closer as shared concerns in Asia loom,” New York Times, November 20, 2019)

Like in the United States itself, the Indian government’s decision to waste money on war at the expense of public healthcare is just one of the vile legacies of capitalism. India currently spends a colossal $67 billion a year on their military (2.4% of their total GDP) which is just a tad short of the $100 billion a year (3.7% of GDP) they spend on public healthcare. The irony here is that while the United States is the biggest military spender in the world (by a huge amount), they actually spend more than five times the amount on public health provision than the $649 billion (3.2% GDP) they spend on their military. Although most of this annual $3.5 trillion (17.1% of GDP) healthcare spend goes straight into private healthcare providers and does little to benefit the tens of millions of Americans who continue to suffer without any form of health insurance.

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So, in India, even without the huge amount of money being spent on their military budget, it is clear that their largely privatised healthcare system is not in a position to cope with the growing pandemic. The depth of these problems is truly shocking as India presently has one of the lowest numbers of Intensive Care Units (ICU) per capita in the entire world with just 2.3 ICU beds per 100,000 of its population. This is very bad, because we already know that Italy’s health care system quickly became overwhelmed when the pandemic struck and Italy had 12.5 ICU beds per 100,000 of its population. Furthermore, after decades of neglect of basic health services, ventilators are a rare commodity too, with the most optimistic estimates suggesting that India might be able to utilize up to 57,000 ventilators – which is only if every ICU bed in the country is able to access a ventilator. (This however is extraordinarily unlikely as other sources suggest that India only has access to 20,000 ventilators.) Contrast these numbers to Britain which has just over 8,175 ventilators, which is already considered far too few, with government plans (admittedly very uncertain ones) to increase capacity to 30,000 ventilators. If India were to have access to an equivalent number, on a per capita basis, they would have 580,000 ventilators not the 20,000 they have at present!

The latest data available from the World Health Organization similarly foreground the dark existential threat facing the Indian working-poor in relation to their countries lack of preparedness to face the pandemic. For instance, 2.7 million Indians suffer from TB, and another 10 million have Malaria. While in a country where economic inequality runs rampant, access to food is a major health issue, with research demonstrating that malnutrition is “the predominant risk factor for death in children younger than 5 years of age in every state of India”.  The contrast between the super-rich minority and ultra-poor super majority in India also shows up in ways that have become normalised under capitalism. Thus “India’s burden of disease is dominated by 2 apparently divergent clusters of disease—on the one hand, cardiovascular conditions that are classically associated with overnutrition and affluence; and on the other, diarrheal disease and lower respiratory tract infections that are classically associated with undernutrition and poverty.” Collectively these poor health indicators, combined with the lack of ICU beds and ventilators, mean that millions of Indians are at risk of dying from the coronavirus pandemic.

Will Philanthropy ‘Help’ Us?

So, considering the dire future facing India and the rest of the world, is philanthropy going to step in to save us from this pandemic? This, of course, is not the type of question that most ordinary people will be asking themselves, especially those in India and America who know from past experiences that elite philanthropy, especially that flowing from Bill Gate’s purse, is often accompanied by more problems than it cures. That said, this is a question that many well-meaning people will be pondering over in the coming weeks, if only because of the relentless propaganda being pumped out by the ruling-class. As a curative to such intellectually debilitating nonsense, one of the most insightful critics of Bill Gates’ global health interventions is Professor Linsey McGoey, author of the 2015 book No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.

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In one of her latest articles, McGoey highlights how the Gates Foundation has “aggressively pursued vaccination campaigns at the expense of initiatives championed by health experts in poor nations, who often call for universal healthcare strengthening, rather than what’s called ‘vertical’ disease targeting (campaigns focused on eradicating single diseases).” Although she acknowledges that not everything his foundation does is bad, and that Gates and other elites have stepped in improve diagnostic testing for coronavirus, McGoey correctly concludes that “billionaires won’t save us”. This is because billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates are the very same people who created and profited from the problems that led us to the current impasse, where global health systems are in crisis, and where 26 billionaires’ control as much as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population. As McGoey writes:

“During the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Gates is not simply ‘stepping in’ to help with government failure; he is also doing a little bit (and compared to his overall fortune, it is only a little bit) to offset his own business failures: the failure to treat his workforce as they deserve to be treated. He’s placing a plaster on the gaping chasm of healthcare support and sick-pay protections for America’s poorest citizens that his own corporate policies played a fundamental role in creating. Sure, it’s good to applaud home-test kits. But today, the US and other wealthy nations are suffering from problems of wide-scale labour precarity fuelled by anti-worker attitudes at places like Microsoft over the 1980s and 1990s. (“Bezos, billionaires and the problem with big philanthropy,” Institute of Art and Ideas, March 16, 2020)

Despite these stark contradictions, the Gates Foundation has still been highly influential in directing the priorities of health bodies like the World Health Organization and the United Nations. That being said we should remember that the foundation’s total annual giving towards health is dwarfed by both the American and Indian governments, which respectively distribute $3.5 trillion and $100 billion a year to their own populations alone, with the Gates Foundation only giving a touch over $1.3 billion a year towards international health projects. Nevertheless, the influence of Bill Gates philanthropy is still important in setting health agendas, whether that be in the United States or further afield.

So, the heavy involvement of Bill Gates and his personal philanthropy in Indian politics is something worth dwelling on, especially considering the looming threat that coronavirus poses to a country which is home to over 1.3 billion people. India representing the one country in which the Gates Foundation has focused the majority of their international health interventions, with the foundation focusing most of their efforts in recent years on ‘aiding’ the state of Bihar — a state which has one of the lowest numbers of government hospital beds in the whole of India (just 11 beds available per 100,000 population).

The Gates Foundations work in Bihar was formally launched ten years ago when, as the foundation put it, they “formed a partnership with the state government called Ananya (Hindi for “unique”) to work with the private sector and community organizations on several health-related issues.” Rather than focusing assistance on supporting the development of a tax-payer funded public healthcare system, it turns out that the foundations emphasis is on involving “business in addressing poverty and inequality,” which, as a recent report produced by one critical non-profit put it, “is far from a neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation.”

While Gates’ dedication to Bihar is related to the state’s extreme poverty, one health expert who has interviewed numerous members of the foundation in India pointed out that the philanthropic organization made the decision “in part because they were impressed by the leadership of the then chief minister Nitish Kumar and his focus on poverty alleviation.” In the world of global politics, billionaires like Bill Gates most assuredly prefer to work with leaders who they are sure they can get along with on a political level. And so, it should come as no surprise that “political opportunist” is a more accurate characterisation of Nitish’s leadership. Nitish’s opportunism is astounding on many levels, as despite being ostensibly on the left side of the political spectrum, he had come to state power (in 2005) as a direct result of a longstanding electoral coalition he had maintained with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He subsequently broke off his alliance with his far-right friends in 2013, apparently because he was opposed Modi’s leadership of the BJP. But with free-market capitalism not the needs of the working-class to the forefront of his mind, in 2017 Nitish chose to re-establish his toxic alliance with Modi and the far-right BJP. This disgusting level of political opportunism represented a fundamental betrayal of the ordinary people who elected him, but does echo the political whims of his philanthropic benefactor. I say this because just two years earlier (in 2015) Bill Gates had received India’s second highest civilian honour (the Padma Bhushan) from the BJP national government. A reward that Gates reciprocated last year when his foundation bestowed a humanitarian award upon Modi during a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

This cosying up to India’s far-right leader led one high-profile Gates Foundation employee to tender his resignation in dismay. The individual in question, who had previously coordinated Microsoft’s propaganda machine across India (in his role as their Lead for Corporate & Citizenship Public Relations), then published a horrified opinion piece in the New York Times. He explained that the foundation “has completely disregarded how [Modi’s] politics have filled the lives of marginalized communities in India and the territories it controls with fear and insecurity, let alone that he has transformed India into a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist state.” In this powerful, albeit naïve statement, he concluded:

“The celebration of Mr. Modi by an organization that stands for the betterment of the most vulnerable simply cannot be justified. If major, powerful nonprofit organizations endorse such polarizing politicians, then who speaks for the vulnerable and the neglected?

“The Gates Foundation has crossed the wide gulf between working with a regime and endorsing it. That is not the pragmatic agnosticism of an organization working with the government of the day, but a choice of siding with power. I will choose to walk a different path.” (“Why I resigned from the Gates Foundation,” New York Times, September 26, 2019)

Siding with power has never been a genuine or sustainable option for the global working class either, and our class now needs to collectively choose to walk a different path than the capitalist one we have been railroaded onto for years. The farcical efforts by capitalist philanthropists like Gates to put a human face on the global violence inflicted upon our lives by capitalism will no longer gain traction, even in the sense of narrow propaganda victories. A looming global recession has been brewing for years, and the coronavirus pandemic has merely brought the day of reckoning forward and the capitalists know it all too well… and they are panicking. As the Financial Times (April 8) stated, some of the more far-sighted corporate CEOs are now even taking voluntary pay cuts in “advance of the pitchforks”.

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Pay cuts or not, this is just window-dressing. We know that nearly every capitalist state across the world made no meaningful preparations to deal with the predictable threat posed by the outbreak of a global pandemic. In fact, the opposite is true, with governments actively pursuing policies of austerity which demonised the poor, making the working class pay the price with their lives for the profit-driven ambitions of economic elites. These elites likewise acted to further exacerbate health inequalities between themselves and the rest of us by a relentless process of privatisation of public services consigning the vast majority of the worlds human population to suffer without functioning health care systems.

The Future Beyond COVID-19

Even in the world’s richest countries, COVID-19 is having devastating effects, but for “many Asian nations, however, the pandemic will be an even more appalling disaster, made worse by the dire state of healthcare and infrastructure.”

“Across India, homeless shelters are struggling with a surge in demand as massive numbers of people have their livelihoods devastated. According to the ILO, over 80% of India’s non-agricultural workers are in informal work, while rural labourers face losses over disruption to supply chains. Informal workers make up 77.6% of Pakistan’s workforce, while the percentage in Nepal is even higher, at 90.7%

“This crisis will also bring the issue of migrant workers’ oppression under capitalism to the fore. The lockdown in India has also meant that massive numbers of migrant workers have lost their jobs and their homes, causing a mass exodus as they try to return home. In the words of one 28-year-old migrant worker: ‘We will die of walking and starving before getting killed by corona.’” (“Covid-19 in Asia: the disaster still to come,” Socialist Alternative, March 30, 2020)

We know that people with hypertension and diabetes are more prone to experience severe COVID-19 and die from it. In India hypertension afflicts about 400 million people, and one in ten adults is diabetic, likewise “high rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia, smoking and poor air quality won’t help when it comes to a respiratory disease.” But Modi’s government has done absolutely nothing to assuage the fears of hundreds of millions of Indians. After imposing a three-week nationwide curfew commencing on March 25, it was not until the following day that the government announced a $22.6 billion economic stimulus plan “to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts to India’s poor.” This was no way near enough money, and by March 29, critics were publicly highlighting the woeful inadequacy of such plans. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 – said that without more aid “the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders”.

Notably states like Kerala, that have a past record of socialist organising amongst the working classes, so far appear to be responding to the pandemic in ways that prioritise the needs of the poor. Kerala can boast, as of March 26, of having “tested the highest number of samples for the coronavirus in India so far.” And compared to most of India, Kerala has a “relatively strong public health system” with twice the national average for number of hospital beds (which means it has ten times more beds per 100,000 people than in Bihar). Indeed, in spite of all the setbacks faced by the Indian working class in recent years, most notably the reactionary rise to power of the BJP, earlier this year over 200 million workers took part in a one-day General Strike. This mass action concretely shows the potential for opposing Modi if there existed the type of socialist leaders within society who were consistent fighters for their class. This leadership however is lacking, being held back in part by Stalinist politicians, many of whom still dominate Kerala’s state apparatus. Illustrating such enormous shortcomings, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M) managed to secure 91 of the 140 Kerala assembly seats in 2016, but the unwillingness of such so-called Marxists to lead the type of social struggle that can upend capitalism, meant that in last year’s national elections Kerala only succeeded in electing one individual to the Indian Parliament. Independent Marxist commentator, Achin Vanaik (author of the 2017 book The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism) surmised the Stalinists shortcomings fairly bluntly in this way:

“Long reduced to primarily an electoral force with a diminishing cadre base that clings to old Stalinist verities when it does think about Marxism, their cadres with a few exceptions in a few places, have lost the capacity and interest in pursuing the politics of popular mobilization around genuine and justified grievances.” (“The Indian catastrophe,” Jacobin, May 30, 2019)

This is a tragedy for 1.3 billion Indians. But, this failure of political will on the part of so-called socialists is one that can be reversed. Now is the time to unite and fight back!

Similarly, in America Donald Trump may momentarily garner a certain level of public support in this moment of national crisis and collective mourning, but his grip on power will quickly unfurl as more and more people die, and as workers fight-back for their lives. The same is true across the world, and in India Modi’s authoritarian curfew instigated to enforce physical distancing has, as Arundhati Roy writes resulted in the opposite — physical compression on an unthinkable scale.” This has created a desperate situation which has seen tens of millions of the urban poor “sealed into cramped quarters in slums and shanties.” But as Roy points out, like with the great influenza of 1918 which took the lives of tens of millions of people — the vast majority of whose deaths were counted amongst India’s impoverished working-class – pandemics have…

“…forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Around the time of the 1918 influenza, millions had been inspired to fight for another better world by the mass movement that had just seized power in Russia. And it was this hope for a socialist future amid so much social turmoil that explained why workers fought back all over the world, with one inspiring American example occurring in Seattle, a city which was brought to a standstill in 1919 by their historic General Strike.

Today Seattle is considered home to many of the world’s richest men, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, but it is also one of the epicentres of global resistance to capitalism, as it is home to Socialist Alternative city councillor Kshama Sawant. She takes heart from the enraged resistance of ordinary workers to the pandemic profiteering of the billionaire-class, and having visited India to support their 2019 General Strike, Kshama intends to support those same types of mass action in the United States. “Workers are facing a double crisis, coronavirus and capitalism,” Kshama recently stated, and it is “very clear that billionaire wealth and profit is more important than the safety, health, and lives” of workers. And in response to Arundhati Roy’s call to action, Kshama posted:

“The operative word is “fight”. The #COVID19 pandemic is thoroughly exposing the logic of global capitalism, of the rich exploiting the working class and the poor even if it literally kills us. The pandemic is forcing billions to think about a different kind of society. But it will take an organized fightback. We need to start with getting organized for massive strike actions on May 1st. Strike actions with social distancing.”

 

Self-Defense in the Civil Rights Movement: The Violent Lessons of Birmingham, 1963

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Hope is the fuel upon which working-class movements for social change draw their core strength. But hope divorced from solid organizing leads no-where. So, if we are to continue to propel our class forward it is vital that we learn the full lessons of how our sweetest victories are seized from the hands of our oppressors. Birmingham, 1963, represents one such success story, an inspiring tale that pitched Martin Luther King’s determined civil rights activists against the steel town’s white supremacists who, as folk singer Phil Ochs tells it, literally fed their dogs on civil rights. A pivotal struggle against the evils of segregation that achieved its crowning glory shortly after thousands of children peacefully stood-up to the seething racist violence of Bull Connor. But while Connor became world-famous for allowing his police dogs to tear flesh off the bodies of peaceful protestors, what is often overlooked in sanitized narratives of this story of good versus evil is the full context in which King’s nonviolent victory was obtained. Digging beneath this peaceful patina is however critical if we are to comprehend the important role that violent self-defense fulfilled within Birmingham’s black community in opposing the horrors of segregation.

Striking for Justice, and the Corporate Resistance

To begin with we should recall how we arrived at the tragic situation where, in 1963, white supremacy reigned supreme in America. And here it should be emphasized that this state of affairs had never gone unchallenged by ordinary people in Birmingham, as the city’s working-class residents had a long tradition of leading militant struggles against inequality. An early example of such resistance is provided by the 1919 steel strike which united some 365,000 trade unionists against America’s most powerful corporate concern, the steel industry. This monumental class battle stretched out over three hard months; and while the strike ultimately proved unsuccessful, it was not because steel workers of all ethnicities were not prepared to struggle together. Instead the strikes failure can be largely rooted in the conservative and racist leadership of the broader trade union movement that had actively sought to sabotage the organizing of this rank-and-file uprising. Facing-off against enemies within their own ranks was hard enough, but the bosses of U.S. Steel made matters much worse by using their immense wealth and power to further divide the working-class by driving forward America’s first Red Scare. As part and parcel of this anti-democratic scare, the bosses attempted to smear all trade unionists with being secret communists’ who aimed to subvert the American Dream: a powerful line of propaganda that was carefully melded with anti-Semitism and relentlessly propagated by Birmingham’s most powerful elites well into the 1960s through groups like the Constitutional Educational League.

But propaganda wasn’t the only weapon deployed by the U.S. Steel bosses in the service of prejudice, and violence had always been a mainstay of strike-breaking strategies. This meant that by necessity workers were forced to arm themselves in self-defense against their employers. A stunning example of such working-class resistance against deadly violence was famously seen in the victory achieved during one of the greatest labor revolts in U.S. history: the strikes of the Minneapolis Teamsters in 1934. In this case, workers remained united after the police had murdered two strikers and shot scores of others; and despite being confronted by all manner of oppressive forces — including the conservative tops of their own trade union movement — the defiant and militant Teamsters union (with the support of many other workers) eventually secured a stunning success in Minneapolis. This historic win in-turn inspired many other working-class victories which, in 1937, led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a fighting counterpart to the conservative trade unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). So, as one might expect, it was to the inspiring and militant actions of the CIO that the hate-spewing propaganda mill of the Constitutional Educational League was turned with a vengeance.

Formed in the heat of the U.S. Steel dispute in 1919 one of the most significant secret benefactors to the Constitutional Educational League was Birmingham’s king mule, Charles DeBardeleben, whose company happened to be the largest commercial producer of coal in Alabama. DeBardeleben’s central and longstanding involvement with supporting this League, which is very much connected to his commitment to racial segregation, is taken-up within the pages of Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winning book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Herein McWhorter describes how in the mid-1930s:

“The [Constitutional Educational] league, whose southern headquarters was in DeBardeleben’s office building [in Birmingham], was a clearinghouse of propaganda for the interlocking anti-Roosevelt action groups. But it was also part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists centered in Germany, where Adolf Hitler (who had been sponsored by the steel tycoon Fritz Thyssen) was red-baiting any progressive impulse, making liberals synonymous not simply with Communists but with Jews. The Constitutional Educational League had identified the demon-agent of Jewish-Communist internationalism in America. He was, of course, the CIO’s John L. Lewis. The league’s hero, the recipient of its 1938 ‘Americanism Award,’ was Martin Dies.” (Carry Me Home, pp.53-4)

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Segregated shopping in downtown Birmingham

During these dark days it was common for trade unionists to be picked-up off the streets by corporate-backed private militias and never seen again. One such individual who helped organize such “fishing trips” for working-class militants, and who received the protection of the local ruling-class during this period was Walter Hanna, a man who sat at “the hub” of Birmingham’s anti-union machinery. McWhorter explains how Hanna…

“…had proven himself by crushing the 1934 ore strike as a captain of the National Guard and had since moved on to the U.S. Steel payroll—with his own secret phone number—under the job description of ‘security.’ His duties included funneling the Corporation’s money into anti-red ‘Americanization’ efforts and coordinating ‘fishing trips’ for radicals with the Birmingham police’s Red Squad.” (Carry Me Home, p.44)

But by the end of thirties, the era of such blatant “payroll vigilantism” was coming to an end, most specifically because of the ongoing efforts of the working-class to resist such egregious examples of institutionalized violence.

“Now, instead of trying to crush the union with force, the Big Mules would wield a nonviolent club: the racism they had fomented whenever the have-nots threatened to organize across racial lines. Rather than give specific orders to the vigilantes, they would delegate political intermediaries to oversee strategic racial violence.

“That was where Bull Connor, Birmingham’s new commissioner of public safety, came into the picture. To prepare for his assignment, he would have to claim the issue of race as his personal badge.” (Carry Me Home, p.45)

Connor hence rose to challenge of defending big businesses vested interest in maintaining segregation in Birmingham, and the Ku Klux Klan, working in close association with Connor, “were the vigilantes to whom the industrialists would now assign the hands-on anti-union fight”. Moreover, as McWhorter pointed out, one of Connor’s first significant acts as public safety commissioner “would be to make Robert Chambliss his functionary within the Klan, bringing him purpose as well as material support, and a place in history.”[1] Chambliss, then known as Dynamite Bob to his friends in city hall, is now most infamous for belatedly being found guilty (in 1977) of murdering four little girls during the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Bigot was too soft a word to describe Chambliss, and angered at the supposed softness of the Klan, he had played a leading role in the North Alabama Citizens Council during the 1950s — a movement which “had a fairly simple goal: to devastate organized labor.” This Citizens Council movement of institutionalized hate was fully backed by Birmingham’s business elite, such that in 1955, Sid Smyer, who was Birmingham’s most powerful real estate mogul, happily recruited the well-established anti-Semitic demagogue Asa Carter to head-up the then newly formed North Alabama Citizens Council.

As an important aside, years later Asa Carter’s fascist-inspired literary screeds would form the basis for Clint Eastwood’s blockbusting western, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a film whose “underlying message is that decent southerners were not fighting to save slavery, but to defend themselves and their families from marauding, murderous Union soldiers.”[2] Around the same time Carter also reinvented himself as a Cherokee Indian (using the alias “Forrest Carter”), publishing a highly problematic New Age bestseller The Education of Little Tree (1976).[3] Of course, despite these twists in his profitable undertakings, there were no signs that Carter had dropped his racism. Thus, just a couple of years after joining the leadership of the industrialists’ North Alabama Citizens Council in the 1950s, Carter went on to create an even more extreme version of the Klan: the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. This (more) extreme faction of Klan being best remembered for its involvement in a vile attack carried out on Labor Day, 1957, when six of their members kidnapped a black man from the street (at random), castrated him, and then left him to die by the side of a road. In what represented a rare act of justice (for the time), the six Klansman involved in this disgusting act were quickly captured and imprisoned. But it turned out that this justice was only temporary, and the Klansman were pardoned just a few years later when George Wallace — whose speechwriter was now Asa Carter — became the new governor of Alabama in 1963.

Opposing White Supremacy in Diverse Ways

To say that the black working poor of the Southern American states had to face violence is a massive understatement. Instead, the black population faced daily threats on their very ability to live, which is precisely why a commitment to armed self-defense was such a normal part of everyday life in many parts of America. This however did not stop some determined activists — often men of God — from continuing to insist that the only moral way to oppose white supremacy was through undertaking acts of non-violent civil disobedience. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was one such individual, a courageous man of action who from his pulpit in Birmingham did more than most to end to segregation. Never being one to be put off by state repression, when the actions of local politicians resulted in the forced closure of Shuttleworth’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Reverend immediately launched a new group (in 1956) called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. It was this group which would go on to provide the bulk of the disciplined civil rights activists that served as the backbone of Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 campaign in Birmingham.

On Christmas Eve in 1956, Shuttlesworth’s house had then been flattened by a bomb attack – which according to FBI sources was likely the work of Dynamite Bob – and miraculously the Reverend emerged from the rubble unscathed.[4] Uncowed by such violence, just a few weeks later Shuttlesworth then joined forces with Reverend Martin Luther King (amongst many others) as a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But despite Shuttleworth’s deep commitment to nonviolence, when the police refused to protect the Reverend’s house from future Klan attacks, he consented to allowing armed members of his church to guard his parsonage. Such a life-sustaining embrace of self-defense was a common (if not commonly acknowledged) part of the non-violent strategies deployed within the civil rights movement.[5] In fact in the same year that the SCLC was founded, the former head of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, Robert Williams — a one-time soldier who was not so enamoured by the emancipatory potential of pacificism – formally created a locally-based self-defense organization to repel Klan violence in his neighbourhood. However, what made the gun-toting Williams’s most controversial, was not his commitment to self-defense per se, but it his vocal advocacy about the need for “armed self-reliance” within the violently segregated towns of the South. Unsurprisingly it was his active and very vocal opposition to the pacifist doctrine of the mainstream civil rights leaders that contributed to his notoriety. As Raymond Arsenault highlights in his insightful history of this period:

“In July 1959 [Williams] began to disseminate his views in a weekly newspaper called The Crusader, attracting the attention of everyone from an admiring Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam to Martin Luther King, who felt compelled to speak out against him. In September the pacifist magazine Liberation featured a debate between King and Williams, in which Williams expressed ‘great respect’ for pacifists but insisted that nonviolence was something ‘that most of my people’ cannot embrace. ‘Negroes must be willing to defend themselves, their women, their children and their homes,’ he declared. ‘Nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone.’ King countered with an eloquent distillation of nonviolent philosophy but acknowledged that even Gandhi recognized the moral validity of self-defense. The exchange, later reprinted in the Southern Patriot, left editor Anne Braden and many other nonviolent activists with the uneasy feeling that Williams spoke for a broad cross-section of the black South. As [Anne] Braden conceded, Williams’s views on armed self-reliance were not only common, they were likely to spread ‘unless change comes rapidly.’ The dim prospects for such change in the absence of direct action on a mass scale underscored the dilemma that all civil rights activists faced in the late 1950s. As the decade drew to a close, no one seemed to have a firm grasp on how to turn social philosophy into mass action, or how to awaken the black South without risking mass violence.” (Freedom Riders, pp.81-2)[6]

But inspiration for how such mass action might force the hand of the ruling-class was not far away, and in July 1959, 500,000 steelworkers refused to kow-tow to the dictates of the steel industry by launching a strike that was finally won after a mammoth 116 days – making it one of the biggest industrial actions in U.S. history. Yet although the striking workers succeeded in beating back their bosses, the steel union was still crippled by a right-wing leadership that, bolstered by the conservative heads of the AFL, proved “only too willing to exploit any [racial] divisions among the Steelworkers.” This meant that despite the heroic efforts of socialist organizers who had strived to unite both black and white steel workers, when the historic 1959 strike took place the union tragically only really represented the full interests of white workers.[7] Over time this regressive racial dynamic would change as the rank-and-file successfully exerted itself over their backwards looking leadership.

Martin Luther King, for one, was always conscious of how the eternal fight against racism was umbilically-linked to that of the labor movement, and speaking in December 1961 at a major trade union event King expounded a few eternal socialist truths:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

The only slight criticism that can be made regarding King’s statement is that he chose to deliver his speech at the annual Convention of George Meany’s AFL-CIO — the very same organization whose right-leaning executive council would, in 1963, decline to support the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This outreach on King’s part to the upper echelons of the trade union movement was of course entirely in keeping with the close working relationship that the nonviolent preacher maintained with liberals of all types during this period of struggle (something that changed near the end of his life).

We might also say that King’s speech about twin-headed creatures spewing hate might well have been a description of Bull Connor and his steel industry financiers, whose determined backing of segregation were clearly exposed to the American public when CBS aired their one-hour special “Who speaks for Birmingham?” in 1961. This broadcast included shocking revelations about the violent attacks inflicted on the Freedom Riders that the CBS reporter, Howard K. Smith, had witnessed taking place in Birmingham. [8] The CBS broadcast also included an interview with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth allowing him to speak out about the common-day brutality of living under white supremacist rule in Birmingham.[9] And in many ways, it was the widespread revulsion at the release of this controversial television program that encouraged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to acquiesce to Shuttleworth’s persistent calls for King to come to Birmingham to assist the city’s residents in their battle against Bull Connor.

The Birmingham Campaign

So it came to pass that in early 1963 King and his fellow SCLC activists embarked upon their now famous nonviolent campaign for civil rights in Birmingham: a successful campaign whose outcome has been recounted many times before, but perhaps never in more detail than that provided in Glenn Eskew’s outstanding book, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).[10] Most notably the triumphant conclusion of Birmingham Campaign proved critical to the consolidation of King’s influence over the civil rights movement because, as Eskew reminds his readers, prior to 1963 the SCLC still “had little to show for six years of protest work.”[11] Either way, the Birmingham Campaign was a success and King is correctly remembered for leading it, and Eskew correctly sets the scene for King’s intervention by highlighting the continuity that existed between Bull Connor’s violent opposition to trade unions and his longstanding commitment to racism.

“Before Connor earned a reputation for racial brutality maintaining segregation, he was known for violently preventing the unionization of Birmingham’s heavy industries. The two issues were related. Popular front liberals Virginia and Clifford Durr recalled that Connor had directed the ‘steel police’ at TCI. It was here that he took lessons in law and order before his election to the city commission. During the organizational drives of the 1930s, Connor routinely held unionists ‘in jail incommunicado for months at a time. A lot of them just disappeared. Nobody knows where they went, just died or killed or thrown in the river, or something,’ the Durrs charged.” (But for Birmingham, p.91)

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Bull Connor

Yet in spite of all this violence, civil rights protests remained a persistent feature of life in Birmingham. Students played a particularly prominent role in this ever-evolving movement, and throughout the summer of 1961 they organized sit-ins, which eventually led to their forming their own independent organization in January 1962. Therefore, just a few months after the students had formed their Anti-Injustice Committee, Shuttlesworth and the dedicated members of his own group (the ACMHR) helped them launch a “selective buying campaign” in Birmingham. A boycott which gathered steam throughout the summer and was given a welcome helping-hand when Shuttlesworth managed to persuade the SCLC to hold their annual convention in the city at the tail end of the year. This brief visit from civil rights leaders led to limited concessions being granted from some elements of the city’s white power structure, including changes that were backed by Sid Smyer — who in the face of growing resistance from civil rights activists was beginning to realize that his chances for future profiteering were being negatively impacted upon by the most brutal elements of segregation. Connor, however, was having none of it, and those concessions that had been granted to Birmingham’s black population were immediately retracted when the SCLC dignitaries left town.

Never being one to shy from a righteous battle, Shuttlesworth continued trying to persuade King to lead his next campaign against segregation in his home town, and as we all know, King finally relented in early 1963. But in order to placate the traditional black leadership class of Birmingham — who were generally opposed to Shuttlesworth’s confrontational approach to challenging white supremacy — King and the SCLC agreed that they would only launch their fight against segregation after the local population had the chance to remove Connor by the ballot box. In course of these elections it eventuated that Connor was officially defeated, but Connor was adamant that he wasn’t going to be forced out by a democratic plebiscite. This meant that with Connor still in charge, the first day of the integrationist demonstrations took place on April 4, 1963, with the commencement of an all-out boycott of downtown stores, which was combined with sit-ins at a variety of lunch counters. And at the end of this important first day of peaceful action, twenty campaigners found themselves in prison — nearly all of whom were ACMHR members. Then in the evening King and his entourage arrived in town whereupon further volunteers were sought to participate in ongoing acts of civil disobedience.

“Reflecting the desire of the integrationists for equal access as consumers and equal job opportunities, the ACMHR-SCLC announced campaign objectives were as follows: first, the ‘desegregation of lunch counters and all public facilities in all downtown stores’; second, the ‘immediate establishment of fair hiring practices in those stores, including employment of qualified Negroes for white collar jobs’; third, ‘the dropping of all charges against those who have been arrested during sit-ins’; fourth, the ‘establishment of fair hiring practices in all city departments’; fifth, the ‘reopening of city parks and playgrounds, all of which now are closed to avoid desegregation’; and sixth, the ‘establishment of a biracial group to work out a timetable for desegregation of all Birmingham public schools.’ The white elite were to comply with all the conditions set forth by the movement before it would agree to call off the demonstrations.” (But for Birmingham, p.222)

Violence in the Movement

Connor was never going to back down without a fight and in the ensuing days, protests and arrests continued, and Palm Sunday (April 7) marked the day that twenty determined integrationists led by Martin Luther King’s brother A.D. King were promptly loaded into paddy wagons. But here for the first time, a glimpse of the local communities’ commitment to self-defense was revealed.

“The black spectators disapproved of the interruption of the march, and Connor called out the police dogs for crowd control. Leroy Allen, a non-movement nineteen-year-old black male, wrestled with one dog. ‘Get him, get him, get him!’ shouted black observers, who encouraged Allen to resist the dog. As the young man stood up, he reached into his pocket, but then policemen unleashed two more dogs on him. As a knife flashed, a German shepherd tore his arm and police knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Suddenly onlookers, officers, and other dogs rushed over the fallen man. More policemen moved in, swinging billy clubs to clear out the bystanders. Over the next fifteen minutes, snarling dogs dispersed the crowd. Police arrested seven spectators for disorderly conduct and loitering in addition to the nineteen activists already going to jail.” (But for Birmingham, p.226)[12]

At this stage it was becoming clear to the experienced SCLC cadre that the mass local participation they had envisaged for their nonviolent campaign was not materialising, with the vast majority of the volunteers willing to be arrested coming from the ranks of Shuttlesworth’s ACMHR. Eskew explained this apparent lack of support (or volunteers for arrest) in the following way: “Outside of the traditional Negro leadership class, which expressed opposition to the movement, and the unorganized onlookers who demonstrated their support by cheering as the marchers passed, the black community appeared too alienated and disinterested to get involved.”[13] Yet an alternative explanation for the lack of involvement of local onlookers may simply have to do with their not being sold on the power of pacificism to impact upon the behaviour of their racist oppressors. Nevertheless, Connor was keen to avoid inflaming national opinion by exposing the violent modus operandi of his dictatorial regime, and so for the rest of the month Connor deliberately kept his police dogs (and Klan supporters) well away from the protests.

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Onlookers

An ongoing game of cat-and-mouse politics played out between the authorities and the movement, and with the SCLC running low on funds through having to bail out so many protestors, Martin Luther King allowed himself to be arrested on Good Friday with the hope that more money would tumble from heaven (or at least from the wallets of his many well-to-do donors). The following Sunday then proved to be another significant day for King’s campaign when a march of 500 nonviolent demonstrators set off on a march only to be held up on route, resulting in the arrest of two dozen activists. Yet once again the crowd of ostensibly disinterested black onlookers (now around 2,000 strong) became disgruntled and once again “hurled rocks at the patrolmen” with the angry crowd only dispersing when the police arrested another three people.[14]

The following Saturday, King was bailed out of prison, but his campaign of nonviolent resistance was stalling somewhat; the only ray of light being provided by the fact that Saturday also marked the day when increasing numbers of students were beginning to join Shuttlesworth’s faithful in courting arrest. All the same, as Eskew puts it, “Demonstrations continued but seemed to lose their punch”: such that over the next week the number of volunteers prepared to go to jail remained just a “trickle, despite the best efforts of King and other movement leaders.”[15] Making matters worse, the traditional black leadership class of the city continued to publicly criticize the oppositional tactics employed by King and Shuttleworth’s joint campaign.

Children Take to the Streets and More Violence Ensues

It was at this low-point that, largely in desperation, King’s movement turned towards children as a largely untapped source of volunteers in the ongoing war against segregation. Plans were thus laid to launch ‘D-Day’ on Thursday 2nd May with children providing the willing prison fodder for the movement. On this first day of major juvenile civil disobedience, students eagerly congregated in churches, where they received training in nonviolence, with groups of ten to fifty students setting out at noon to pre-designated targets all over town. ‘D-Day’ as we now know proved a tremendous success, and by the day’s end the number of arrests had topped one thousand, and the nonviolent movement had received a new injection of both volunteers and hope.

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By day two of the children’s revolution, the number of students involved had swelled beyond anyone’s imagination, and with the jails already near capacity, “Connor decided to forcibly end the demonstrations rather than arrest the activists.” This Connor did by turning the fire brigades high pressure water hoses upon the children; and for “the next two hours the fire hoses repulsed nonviolent protesters and angry black bystanders.”[16] “The unorganized African American spectators” once again…

“…participated in other [violent] ways that expressed the rebellion of black Birmingham. When the firemen increased the pressure to one hundred pounds so that the water sent students spinning down the street, dreadfully skinning exposed flesh, the heretofore cheering observers changed into a wrathful mob. A barrage of bricks and bottles descended on the firemen. As glass shattered nearby, Bull Connor deployed his squad of six German shepherds for crowd control.” (But for Birmingham, p.268)

By early afternoon, the civil rights movement leaders decided to call off the second day of renewed demonstrations amid warnings from the police that the mob had become dangerous.

Protests then resumed on Saturday morning with the police clearly struggling to keep pace with the student’s diversifying tactics. Not knowing what else he could to take the momentum out of this growing movement Connor now sought to contain the students within their churches, and once again the day ended in violence when “people on nearby rooftops rained down bricks and bottles” upon Connors violent discriminators. And once again, the nonviolent leaders were forced, with the aid of a policeman’s megaphone, to ask the riotous demonstrators to “please go home”.[17]

With a victory now within sight, on Monday the students turned-out on the streets in even bigger numbers, such that by the end of the day city “officials had lost count” of the arrests “but they estimated the number to be around 2,425.” Then on Tuesday the protests grew larger still, with students literally engulfing the city and running rings around the police in the process. Resting from the day’s ferment, children crammed into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the leaders of the movement prepared to lead the students on another mass march into the business district. This decision to lead the students into another direct confrontation with Connor’s troops proved controversial and had been opposed by prominent civil rights activist, James Foreman, who to no avail “appealed to the ACMHR-SCLC leaders not to send the schoolchildren out to face the brutal repression prepared by Bull Connor.”[18] Thus:

“By the time schoolchildren marched out of the sanctuary late Tuesday afternoon, skirmishes had broken out between municipal authorities and African American spectators. Water ‘skeeted’ over the heads of the crowd as black members hurled rocks and brickbats at the white men in uniform.” (But for Birmingham, p.280)

Later:

“State troopers arrived and squads of officers began to brutally beat back the riotous mob [of spectators]. Fifteen patrolmen scattered a group of stone throwers maneuvering near a row of tenements. Similar assaults would disperse the crowd by dusk.” (But for Birmingham, pp.281-2)

A Call for Peace from Upon High (and Victory)

By Wednesday, the increasingly unmanageable nature of the situation in Birmingham led to the nonviolent leaders – under immense pressure from both local black elites and from the Kennedy administration — to call for a moratorium on further protests. As we now know, not everyone was happy with this de-escalation, and:

“James Forman recognized the decision as ‘merely an agreement to negotiate with the city.’ He understood that ‘Burke Marshall [the government’s chief negotiator] and Bobby Kennedy had influenced Dr. King to call off the demonstrations because of the violent resistance actions. People had become too militant for the government’s liking and Dr. King’s image.’” (But for Birmingham, p.286)

Foreman’s anger was matched by that of Shuttlesworth, who, it turns out, had been unable to participate in the decision to call a moratorium because he had been hospitalized during the previous days protest. This bad mood was similarly matched by the unorganized blacks who had gathered to watch the ongoing actions that had now been postponed, and “a ‘sullen’ crowd of more than a thousand onlookers milled about the park.” One of King’s SCLC aides, Andrew Young, “referred to the near 90-degree temperature, the heated emotions of the African American spectators, and the cancellation of protests: ‘It’s too hot. We couldn’t have controlled this crowd.’”[19]

With protests now called off, the next day King announced that a settlement had been negotiated with Birmingham’s white power structure. Eskew observes:

“During the press conference, King appeared ready to end the campaign by compromising further on the demands of the movement. He announced that the black community would accept desegregation of lunch counters and other public facilities at an unspecified ‘certain time’ in the future as well as the ‘gradual’ upgrading of Negro employees. On the arrested schoolchildren, King said: ‘The only thing that we can ask of the merchants is that they recommend in a very strong manner that the charges be dropped.’ On the catchall point of a biracial committee to discuss long- standing grievances in the black community, he said that the white power structure need only appoint the group but not concern itself with additional timetables for the implementation of school, park, and cinema desegregation, voter registration, the hiring of Negro policemen, and other demands.” (But for Birmingham, p.292)

In hindsight what is evident here is that while it was certainly true that the “local movement had failed to achieve a single one of its original objectives”;[20] nationally-speaking, King and the SCLC were still able to use this ‘victory’ to help build national support for their movement for nonviolent civil disobedience.

More Violence in Birmingham

But the battle wasn’t over yet, and on the night of King’s negotiated settlement thousands of Klansmen gathered on the outskirts of Birmingham to pledge vengeance upon all who had questioned the need for segregation. Dynamite was their weapon of choice and on the night of May 10 bombing season was relaunched, with two bomb attacks focusing on taking Martin Luther King’s life. The furious and righteous response from the enraged local black community was immediate and the “first urban riot of the 1960s” ripped through streets that night — a riot which at its height included the participation of some 2,500 black people. Hundreds of state highway patrolmen were ordered onto the streets by Governor George Wallace and authorized “to shoot in self-defense”, and Bull Connor, roaming the streets in his white tank, was once again in his element.[21]

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Aftermath of the riot following the two bomb attacks

President Kennedy, who was shocked by the “negative international press and the new black threat to white-owned property” that followed the black riot, was now even more determined to engineer a meaningful resolution to Birmingham’s unrest.[22] Commenting on this sudden leap into action on the part of the government, Malcolm X correctly reminded America that:

“President Kennedy did not send troops to Alabama when dogs were biting black babies. He waited three weeks until the situation exploded. He then sent troops after the Negroes had demonstrated their ability to defend themselves.”[23]

 

But despite the Kennedy administrations best efforts to lobby Birmingham’s Big Mules to cede ground to the civil rights movement, many members of the local elite still repudiated the first settlement with King. Arthur Wiebel, the president of U.S. Steel subsidiary TCI was one such mule who refused to back away the white supremist power structure that had served him so well.[24] Other local political leaders and the police were of a similar mind and following the so-called victory for the nonviolent movement they stepped-up their repression of the black community.

“For black people in Birmingham this force often meant ‘justifiable homicide.’ On June 28, a policeman killed Blaine Gordon Jr., a seventeen-year-old black male. On July 6, a detective shot, but did not kill, thirty-three-year-old Johnny Patterson, also black. On August 4, an officer killed James Scott Jr., age thirty-five, another black male. The ease with which policemen shot and killed black men reflected a pathology within Birmingham’s law enforcement that contributed to future racial crises. It also demonstrated how police brutality addressed the ambiguities of the negotiated accord. While indigenous black leaders renewed local demands for Negro policemen in an effort to gain civil service jobs and lessen legal violence, the national movement spent the summer absorbing the popular response to and recuperating from the spring demonstrations.” (But for Birmingham, p.314)

As one might have expected, the increase in white violence and resumption of dynamiting was followed by further black riots; and on September 15, Dynamite Bob upped the ante again when he murdered four young black girls by bombing Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.[25] This latest act of cold blooded murder triggered yet another riot on the part of the local black community, which led to further retaliations from the white community, with the police responding by shooting a sixteen-year-old black boy in the back, and a white teenager taking his own revenge by murdering a thirteen-year-old black child. “The police brutality and senseless murder by young racial extremists reflected a sick desire within the white community to defend racial norms by any means necessary.”[26] Under these dire circumstances black self-defense now became systematized as “terrorized black families living on Dynamite Hill… formed an extralegal security force to protect themselves.”[27]

With such violence being reasserted over the black population of Birmingham it didn’t take long for Martin Luther King to return, whereupon he threatened further protests if the police force did not begin to integrate. But, in this instance King’s bark proved worse than his bite and he quickly backed down from these initial demands, partly because everyone realized that “Renewed protests would entail an admission that the spring campaign had been less than successful.”[28] Clearly events in Birmingham were a lot more complicated that the simplistic and moralistic success story that was (and still is) being told to the world.

Sadly, the repressive actions of local elites meant that meaningful change occurred very slowly in Birmingham during the 1960s. This is despite the fact that the campaign’s much-vaunted victory had helped to catalyse further nonviolent movements across the country. What however was clear to anyone who paid the slightest attention to what had happened in Birmingham was the critical role that violent disobedience had fulfilled in helping push the slow wheels of justice along. This point was recognized by Eskew who concluded his study of the Birmingham Campaign by noting that: “Not until rioting provoked by an egregious example of police brutality in 1969 did the white power structure consciously create a biracial forum that worked: the Community Affairs Committee of Operation New Birmingham.”[29] As he emphasized:

“The shooting of a robbery suspect in July 1967 triggered a riot. The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 saw Birmingham once more in flames. The violent beating of a black man and two black women during an arrest in March 1969 led to riots and demonstrations that resulted in the first genuine effort at biracial communication.” (But for Birmingham, p.328)

The Language of the Unheard

To his immense credit, Martin Luther King, unlike many other political leaders of his era, actively sought to understand the political causes of the black riots that became increasingly common as the sixties progressed. In a television interview aired by CBS in September 1966 King made the case that “a riot is the language of the unheard”; explaining that “the cry of Black Power is at bottom a reaction to the reluctance of White Power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.”[30]

As an example of the dialectics of social change, it appears that King’s continual exposure to the everyday actions of ordinary people’s ongoing fight for justice, served to push him ever leftwards towards working-class politics. These changes in his outlook and political orientation accordingly brought King into direct confrontation with the accommodationist tactics favoured by many of his liberal peers. An evolving conflict that was particularly evident in August 1965, when at the SCLC’s national convention King tried and failed to convince other leaders of the SCLC that their organization should oppose the Vietnam War.[31]

Facing stifling internal resistance to his evolving socialist consciousness from within the leadership ranks of the civil rights movement, in February 1967 King finally broke with the pro-Democrat, pro-War consensus of the SCLC when he made his first public speech against the War. The following month King then found himself in the position of leading an anti-war demonstration in Chicago; and most memorably, on April 4 King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech to a rapt audience at the Riverside Church in New York wherein he called for the end of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism”. As Michael Honey highlighted in his book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2008):

“In delivering this sharp critique, King sacrificed his ties to the American political establishment and to the most powerful leader in American government. Two weeks after his Riverside Church speech, he told the press: ‘We seek to defeat Lyndon Johnson and his war.’ Johnson, for his part, raged at King, and [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover told him that King had a ‘propaganda line’ similar to the Communist Party. When King spoke at a mass antiwar rally on April 15 in New York, Hoover stepped up his efforts to connect King to ‘Communist Influence in Racial Matters,’ with total support from the president.” (p.94)

Fighting for Working-Class Unity

In 1967 King knew what he was doing when he broke with the Democratic Establishment on the issue of the Vietnam War, but ultimately, as he felt that he had no other alternative if the civil rights movement was serious about ending black oppression. In fact, in taking this bold stance King was now far more in tune with the tempo of working-class struggle than many of his so-called left-wing advisors. For instance, one of King’s closest friends on the left, Stanley Levison, had warned King against opposing the war precisely because it would endanger the SCLC’s liberal donor base; [32] while King’s pacifist advisor, Bayard Rustin, went so far as publicly rebuking King in the press for having the audacity to oppose the imperial bloodbath in Vietnam.

Vocal opposition to the Vietnam War likewise brought King into direct confrontation with the pro-war leadership of the AFL-CIO, and in November 1967 King’s ongoing peace activism led to him addressing the National Labor Assembly for Peace (which was a national conference of trade unionists opposed to the war). Here fellow conference speaker, UAW leader Victor Reuther, laid bare what was at stake in the trade union movement when he “angrily denounced the AFL-CIO position on the war” and “used the occasion to rail against the labor-CIA nexus and blast what he termed the ‘fascist corporate unions’ sponsored worldwide by the AFL-CIO.”[33] Nevertheless, despite the reactionary leadership of the AFL-CIO, pacifists like Rustin continued to insist that King should steer clear of conflict with the union bureaucracy and should avoid militant actions like those incorporated within King’s Poor People’s Campaign: Rustin’s accommodationist preference being that King must simply come to peace with conservative trade union leaders at the AFL-CIO.[34]

King however was a principled activist who, now more than ever, was determined to work in a genuine alliance with the working poor. Thus, in a speech to the Hospital Workers Union Local 1199 that he delivered in New York City on March 10, 1968, King spoke of how there was “socialism for the rich” but only “rugged individualism for the poor”. With the AFL-CIO misleadership weighing heavily on his mind King said:

“There are times, and I must confess it very honestly as many of us have to confess it as we look at contemporary developments, that I’m often disenchanted with some segments of the power structure of the labor movement. But in these moments of disenchantment, I begin to think of unions like Local 1199 and it gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on … and the feeling that there are some unions left that will always maintain the radiant and vibrant idealism that brought the labor movement into being. And I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.”[35]

As part of his growing socialist alignment with the working-class, King was soon to find himself in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting 1,300 striking sanitation workers. The wildcat strike by bin workers had been launched on February 11, shortly after two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Needless to say, the strike was viciously opposed by the city’s racist elite.[36] And on March 18, thirty-four days into the strike, King was busy addressing a 15,000 strong crowd at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple wherein, to rapturous applause, he called for “general work stoppage in the city of Memphis!”

Sadly, King’s proposed general strike never came to pass, and even more tragically, King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Thus in lieu of a potential general strike, in the wake of King’s slaughter violent black riots rocked the nation. And yet despite all this chaos, the Memphis City Mayor (a member of the Democratic Party) was adamant that he had a mandate to crush the striking sanitation workers and their union. President Johnson however recognized the dangers posed by the Mayor’s arrogance and took matters into his own hands when – in the interest of quelling the national uprisings, not promoting justice – the President forced the deluded City Mayor to quickly settle the dispute. But even then, the Mayor still managed to ensure that the settlement would be born on the backs of Memphis’ poor (both black and white), which he did through the introduction of a new garbage tax.[37]

So, in the present day, what should we as anti-racist activists make of Martin Luther King’s legacy of fighting segregation? King may now be long departed, and racism and inequality may still be rife in America, but just as King continually learned from the movements that he was involved in during his short life, it is critical that we too learn the lessons from King’s political strategizing. This means approaching this issue with a degree of candid honesty that will never be found in any beatified corporate-sanctioned histories of the civil rights movement.

First, it is important to acknowledge that a strictly nonviolent civil rights movement never existed: black self-defense had always played a critical part in the long battle against white supremacy, and its role must be recognized. Second, we must celebrate the fact that King came to understand that it is the organized working-class itself that is the determinant factor in leading successful fights against injustice. And last, but not least, we must appreciate that there are no limits to the violence that capitalism will inflict upon the working-class in order to keep us divided. Hence this is why we must continue to fight all forms of injustice where-ever they may rear their ugly head, so that we might be able to build the type of mass struggles that can inaugurate a new socialist society that places the needs of all humans before the needs of profit. As King eloquently put it: “as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” Capitalism is the problem we all face, which is why we must continue to fight to end all recurrences of violence and riots by uprooting the institutionalization of capitalist injustice by fighting to replace it with a real socialist alternative.

 

NOTES

[1] McWhorter, Carry Me Home, p.37. “Fred Marvin, the Minnesota native who headed the league’s Birmingham office, was the granddaddy of America’s right-wing pamphleteers, a newspaperman who had been a professional union-baiter on the payrolls of the Rockefellers and their brethren since developing an antipathy for the union while covering the Western Federation of Miners’ systematic bombing of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene mines in 1899. At sixty-eight, he was now a sort of chairman emeritus of the anti–New Deal hard core, spending his spare time accompanying ‘Uncle Charlie’ to his anti-union coalfields and jotting down impressions of the beautifully landscaped mine entrances and the neat yards and homes of the employees (‘no sign of slovenliness’). With almost a lover’s tenderness, he described ‘Uncle Charley’s ingratiating smile’ and ‘indomitable energy’ in the ‘history’ DeBardeleben had commissioned him to write of the last great coal company in America: ‘A Story of a Visit to Happy Communities.’” (p.54)

[2] “This story of an unreconstructed rebel in the postwar West hounded by the government presented Carter’s fantasy of his own past and the defeated republican virtues he championed.” Glenn Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p.116.

[3] Laura Browder, “The curious case of Asa Carter and The Education of Little Tree,” in Elizabeth DeLaney Hoffman (ed.), American Indians and Popular Culture (Praeger, 2012). For more on this watch the PBS documentary The Reconstruction of Asa Carter. “As speechwriter, Carter penned Wallace’s most famous words: ‘Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.’ Breaking with Wallace in 1970 over what he perceived to be the governor’s growing liberalism, Carter ran against his former boss in that year, only to suffer a humiliating defeat.” Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.116.

[4] McWhorter, Carry Me Home, p.96.

[5] Simon Wendt, “‘We were going to fight fire with fire’: Black Power in the South,” in: Peniel Joseph (ed.), Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level (Palgrave, 2010), p.132.

[6] Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History) (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.81-2. At the NAACP’s annual convention, held in July 1959, Robert Williams was suspended from their membership role because of his militant approach to organising. As Charles Cobb notes: “whatever the basis of the NAACP’s objection to Williams, it does not seem to have had anything to do with his use of guns. In 1959, at the very convention that suspended Williams from the NAACP, the organization passed a resolution affirming the right of self-defense.” Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement (Basic Books, 2014), p.113.

[7] Robert Norrell, “Labor at the ballot box: Alabama politics from the New Deal to the Dixiecrat Movement,” The Journal of Southern History, 57 (2), May 1991, p.226. For more on the history of radical organizing within the steel industry, see Staughton Lynd, A History of the Steelworkers Union (New England Free Press, 1973); Philip Taft, Organizing Dixie: Alabama Workers in the Industrial Era (Greenwood Press, 1981); Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (Temple University Press, 2000); Nell Irvin Painter and Hosea Hudson, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South  (Harvard University Press, 1979).

[8] Bull Connor “deliberately kept police away from the Trailways station and personally encouraged Klan violence against the Freedom Riders. Years later an FBI teletype message from the Birmingham office to Director Hoover quoted Connor as saying he wanted the Freedom Riders beaten until ‘it looked like a bulldog got a hold of them.’ The message also indicated that the police department promised the Klan fifteen unimpeded minutes during which to get the job done.” Andrew Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (University of Alabama Press, 1999), p.265.

[9] Interview with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth broadcast on May 18, 1961, on CBS Reports: Who Speaks for Birmingham? “Shuttlesworth and the local movement he led in Birmingham, the ACMHR, never attracted the support of the traditional Negro leadership class. Instead, he pitched the movement to the responsible members of the black masses who saw desegregation as the ticket to a better world. As a board member of the SCLC, Shuttlesworth encouraged the organization to adopt a more activist approach to race reform. As an indigenous leader, Shuttlesworth promoted the interests of the local movement over those of the conference.” Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.32.

[10] Glenn Eskew’s book was written with the support of two fellowships from the Albert Einstein Institution, the first in 1991-92 and the second in 1992-93.

[11] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.20.

[12] The “national media had inaccurately recorded a large gathering of activists, not the actual nineteen in the march, and an attack dog pinning down a civil rights worker, not the actual angered bystander.” Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.227.

[13] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.228.

[14] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.229.

[15] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.251,p.255.

[16] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.267, p.268.

[17] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.271.

[18] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.275, p.280.

[19] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.289. The classic film The Children’s March (viewable on You Tube below) foregrounds the role of nonviolent civil disobedience, but unlike some portrayals of this history does not neglect the role of black riots.

[20] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.294.

[21] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.302, p.301.

[22] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.304.

[23] Nick Bryant supports this argument in The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (Basic Books, 2006), a book which is based on transcripts of the Kennedy brothers’ conversations in the White House vis-à-vis the developments in Birmingham. Some of these issues are covered in August Nimtz’s article “Violence and/or nonviolence in the success of the Civil Rights Movement: the Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. nexus,” New Political Science, 38(1), 2016. For a critical discussion of the liberal elite’s fixation upon voter registration drives, see Evan Faulkenbury’s Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[24] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.307. “The influence of U.S. Steel hindered the formation of a new consensus on race, yet the defection of the service-consumer economy spokesmen [led by people like Sid Smyer] from the Big Mules demonstrated a split in the white power structure.” (p.307)

[25] See Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls (1997) :

[26] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.321.

[27] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.322.

[28] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.325.

[29] Eskew, But for Birmingham, p.326.

[30] CBS Reports with Mike Wallace, September 27, 1966.

[31] Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon, 45(1), 1984, pp.24-5.

[32] Toby Terrar, “Stanley Levison’s financial role in the Civil Rights and Communist Movements in the 1940s to 1960s: a rank-and-file perspective,” International Critical Thought, 6(3), 2016, p.465. This important article sheds light on how elite funding relationships can help turn organizations and individuals away from working-class struggle. Terrar highlights how the US ruling class were happy that during these momentous times that the American Communist Party had become reliant on large donors (most particularly subsidies from the Soviet Union) as it meant that the Party failed to organize at a rank-and-file level to secure support for their ideas. “From the FBI’s perspective, the easy money kept the leadership on a leash, making it lazy and less threatening.” (p.45)

[33] Edmund Wehrle, Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War (University of Michigan Press, 2005), p.123.

[34] Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph were also the leading proponents of the 1966 “Freedom Budget” which was devised with the support of the AFL-CIO’s ‘socialist’ advisors, like Max Shachtman. “Its leaders for the most part — with the important exception of Martin Luther King — wanted to shift the Freedom Movement to mainstream tactics and away from mass street protests.” Uncritical support for the Freedom Budget also came from the Communist Party. For a example of the type of uncritical engagement with the political objectives of the Freedom Budget, see Paul Le Blanc’s “Martin Luther King: Christian Core, Socialist Bedrock,” Against the Current, 16, 2002.

[35]

[36] On March 28, AFL-CIO President George Meany had been persuaded to support the strike by making a $20,000 donation from the AFL-CIO coffers, but more importantly “he sent out a letter to unions across the country asking them also to donate.” Meany’s donation however remained a private affair until King’s assassination, whereupon Meany felt able to publicly promote his backing of the Memphis strike. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road, p.391, p.465.

[37] “To sustain the wage increases, the city would propose a garbage tax that most affected poorer whites and blacks, and it would cause residents to blame the union rather than the mayor for the costs of a settlement.” For an overview of the Memphis strike, watch the 1994 documentary film At the River I Stand.