Truth and Struggle

The subheader of this blog reads “if you didn’t have to struggle for it, it’s not the truth”. This is not simply a slogan aimed to provoke curiosity, but rather an observation about a much more complex question – the way in which class struggle is carried out in the press and, in second place, in the costruction of historical memory and how this must shape our learning processes.

A problem that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the manner in which truth and knowledge can be attained in spite of the reality of contradictions in class interests and “information warfare”. While my intention here is not to present a collection of fabricated or distorted stories spread by mainstream media, I will first review several examples, past and present, to justify engaging with this question.

Setting the record straight

Everybody today should be familiar with the scandalous made-up accusations involving “weapons of mass destructions” in Iraq that were presented as justification for the criminal war waged against the country and its people [1]. Yet fewer will know that a fabricated story was also spread in the Western press to justify the escalation of the U.S. assualt on the Vietnamese people in 1964 [2]. More recently, the BBC circulated a fabricated video which it presented as evidence of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against civilian populations and children in particular [3]. This last example represents a particularly vicious form of disinformation known as “atrocity propaganda” (note that this is an unfortunate and imprecise use of the word “propaganda” in opposition to “truth”; for the technical definition, see reference [4]).

Amnesty International advert presenting NATO as furthering women’s rights in Afghanistan

A textbook example of atrocity propaganda is the Nayirah Testimony, in which a young girl (who later turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S.) falsely testified in front of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that Iraqi soldiers were “throwing hundreds of babies out of incubators in hospitals” and was backed by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The testimony was used as a pretext for U.S. military intervention in the 90s [5].

The practice of Washington-based “human rights” organizations funding and platforming young men and women to produce such testimonies is most notable in relation to north Korea. The stories of these celebrity defectors have been exposed for containing serious inconsistencies [6]. Shin Dong-Hyuk is one such defector who, among other things, fabricated his father’s death. Before Shin was exposed, the author of the famous book recounting his story had already admitted himself:

He misled me in our first interview about his role in the death of his mother, and he continued to do so in more than a dozen interviews. When he changed his story, I became worried about what else he might have made up […] Defectors remain the primary sources of information, and their motives and credibility are not spotless […] In South Korea and elsewhere, they are often desperate to make a living, willing to confirm the preconceptions of human rights activists, anticommunist missionaries, and right-wing ideologues. Some camp survivors refuse to talk unless they are paid cash upfront. Others repeated juicy anecdotes they had heard but not personally witnessed.

Blaine Harden [7]

Crucially, these stories are then used to justify the imposition of sanctions, which we do know cause far greater indiscriminate harm than any real or fabricated instance of human right violations, especially among vulnerable populations such as children, women and the sick and elderly [8] [9]. In my previous blog post, I also referenced testimonies from ordinary north Korean citizens in Seoul [10].

Often, only half-truths are presented. Such is the case with headlines reading “China Rebuked by 22 Nations Over Xinjiang Repression” (The New York Times, July 2019), while omitting the fact that a majority of now more than 50 countries have signed a joint letter in opposition to such condemnation. Importantly, all accusing countries are either NATO members or NATO allies and not one has a muslim majority, while many of the 54 supporting countries are members of the Organization for Islamic Co-operation.

54 countries signed the joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China’s “remarkable achievements in Xinjiang”.
23 countries signed a joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council condemning China’s Xinjiang policies.

The use of “doublespeak” is another important element. Mainstream media will use terms like “re-education camps” or “concentration camps” to refer to the vocational centers that allow radicalized elements to be reintroduced in society through literacy and employment. Even the Washington-based World Bank denied the accusations involving the vocational centers following its own independent investigation [11]. Media outlets also report the assertions of individuals in a way that leads the readers to interpret these as established facts. For example, in 2018 the BBC reported that that 1 million Uyghurs are in “re-education camps”, citing a U.S. representative to the UN. Such articles occasionally mention off-handedly that these are “unverified” claims from “unidentified” sources, unless they choose to cite secondary sources instead. In fact, investigating the primary sources quickly shows the claims to be most likely false [12] [13]. In this specifc case, simply knowing that there are only about 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang makes the latest rumor of 2 million inmates very perplexing, since this would amount to almost every adult male. Moreover, the prison population of China is a remarkably low 1.6 million for 1.4 billion citizens [14]. This would mean that a secret network of “camps” larger than the whole actual penal system is in place.

Protest stories in the New York Times and CNN through November 22, 2019.
Image from FAIRNESS & ACCURACY IN REPORTING [15].

Finally, another tactic is simply repetition. While working class protests with material demands (such as those in Haiti and Chile) are dissmissed as “violent unrests” or “riots” and only mentioned sporadically despite the serious loss of protesters’ lives, the right-wing protests in Hong Kong are branded as “pro-democracy” and constantly fill the media streams (at the time of writing, the only casualties of the Hong Kong protests were a 70-year old street cleaner, hit in the head with a brick by a protester, and a 64-year old man whose head was pushed against concrete by a protester [16]). While the media campaigns against Xinjiang and Hong Kong are ongoing, one can understand their motivation if one is familiar with the Wester imperialist history of fomenting religious and ethnic tensions for the longer-term goal of balkanization, and as a short-term pretext for imposing sanctions.

Where do correct ideas come from?

We would like to discuss, with the workers especially, the importance and seriousness of this apparently innocent act, which consists in choosing the newspaper you subscribe to […] Always remember that the bourgeois newspaper (whatever its hue) is an instrument of struggle motivated by ideas and interests that are contrary to [the worker’s]. Everything that is published is influenced by one idea: that of serving the dominant class […] Has a strike broken out? The workers are always wrong as far as the bourgeois newspapers are concerned […] And we aren’t even talking about all the facts that the bourgeois newspapers either keep quiet about, or travesty, or falsify in order to mislead, delude or maintain in ignorance the laboring public.

Antonio Gramsci [17]

In north Korea, I had a conversation with a British pilot who was on strike. I was discussing how the Western press could publish any rumor about Korea and rely on a completely passive audience. Agreeing, he told me that he used to read The Times, but he stopped after realizing how distorted the coverage of the strike was, in particular how the strikers’ demands had been misrepresented to make them appear absurd and unreasonable. He was not otherwise politically conscious and certainly not a socialist. Nonetheless, through his own material conditions and through social engagement in struggle, he was unable to ignore the contradiction between his interests as a wage-laborer and those of Rupert Murdoch. He could then also see how similar antagonistic relations shaped the reporting on Korea.

Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking.

Mao Tse-tung [18]

Because we naturally tend to take the path of least resistance, we are bound to adopt ideas that are handed to us by our media, ready-made and fully formed, like Minerva born from the head of Jove, and we will only feel more confident in the correctness of these ideas as we hear them repeated from every direction. However, a correct idea is one that is constantly tested and beaten like a rock in the sea. Only then can an idea evolve and become sharper. Most importanty, this testing and sharpening cannot take place without the ability to correctly assess the class character of an idea. Without this ability, all ideas appear atomized and unrelated, in other words, the contradictions among them are concealed. Without contradictions there is no struggle, without struggle there is no progress. However, once we acquire this ability, we can contextualize information presented to us in the correct ideological framework. Suddenly, we become active agents in the consumption of information.

Kwame Ture, prominent Black Panther Party member and then chairman of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, touches on these same points in his 1992 speech, offering some brilliant and entertaining examples in his usual vigorous oratory style.

Excerpts from Kwame Ture speaking at Florida International University in Miami in 1992.
“Anybody who knows anything about Dr. King knows that one of his most mediocre speeches is I Have a Dream”

Of particular interest is the point he makes about Martin Luther King. It brings to mind the observation Lenin made regarding one particular way in which the historical memory of revolutionary figures is distorted (although King was a reformist):

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labor movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie. All the social-chauvinists are now “Marxists” (don’t laugh!). And more and more frequently German bourgeois scholars, only yesterday specialists in the annihilation of Marxism, are speaking of the “national-German” Marx, who, they claim, educated the labor unions which are so splendidly organized for the purpose of waging a predatory war!

Vladimir Lenin [19]

It should be pointed out that this blunting and co-optation of revolutionary figures is reserved for the “martyrs”, of which King was certainly one, as were Che Guevara, Gramsci, etc. and for intellectuals such as Frida Kahlo, Pablo Neruda, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. For actually existing socialism, for revolutionaries holding real power and having to confront themselves with the irreconcilible contradictions of their material conditions, blunting and co-optation have to be replaced by demonization. This black-and-white dichotomy, which even affects some socialist circles, must be struggled against, as Losurdo puts it:

The customary liquidation of the actual history of socialism in the name of utopia or of the “authentic” thought of Marx and Engels leads to the celebration of the great intellectuals, of the politicians that remained excluded or at the margins of power, in contrast to those who actually held such responsibilities of governance. This black-and-white picture is in no way persuasive […] it sets up a comparison between incommensurable values: intentions on the one hand, actions on the other […] The process of learning requires de-demonization on the one hand, and de-canonization on the other.

Domenico Losurdo [20]

In particular, Losurdo’s “black-and-white picture” is similar to the “one-sidedness” that Kwame Ture mentions in the speech above, in the sense that both prevent learning by dismissing or concealing one aspect of a contradiction. The method of dialectical materialism requires that we identify both elements of a contradiction and arrive to their synthesis, and that we undestand the nature of the relation between ideas, on the one hand, and actions, on the other.

To summarize, we must always be conscious of the class character and ideology behind any historiography or media outlet, since none can be free from the material reality in which they exist. Once we have such consciousness, we can then understand whether or not we are being told both sides of a story, and, to quote Kwame Ture, “when we see the other side, the other one falls”. In this sense we can also interpret Gramsci’s assertion that “truth is revolutionary”.

For an in-depth philosophical discussion of the Marxist theory of knowledge, which I just touched upon here, I recommend the blog post Truth and Practice: The Marxist Theory of Knowledge by Alyson Escalante, as well as the readings listed below.

References

[1] Andrew Cockburn, Iraq’s WMD Myth, 2007
[2] Janine Jackson, Remembering the Gulf of Tonkin, and the consequences of wanting to believe, 2017
[3] Liu Xin, What lesson should be learned from the staged BBC story on Syria?, 2019
[4] Vladimir Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, 1902 “the propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, say, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and, utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”, e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice, leaving a more complete explanation of this contradiction to the propagandist.
[5] Mitchel Cohen, How Bush Sr. Sold the Gulf War, 2002
[6] Mary Ann Jolley, The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park, high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?, 2014
[7] Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 2012
[8] Karen Conner, Report Finds US Sanctions on Venezuela Are Responsible for Tens of Thousands of Deaths, 2019
[9] Marie O’Reilly, Sanctions Against North Korea Hurt Women, 2019
[10] Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in Seoul (서울의 평양 시민들), 2018
[11] World Bank Statement on Review of Project in Xinjiang, China, 2019
[12] Ben Norton & Ajit Singh, No, the UN did not report China has ‘massive internment camps’ for Uighur Muslims, 2018
[13] Ajit Singh & Max Blumenthal, China detaining millions of Uyghurs? Serious problems with claims by US-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing, 2019
[14] World Prison Brief data, China
[15] Alan Macleod, With People in the Streets Worldwide, Media Focus Uniquely on Hong Kong, 2019
[16] Public archive of information on Hong Kong protests and riots, 2019
[17] Antonio Gramsci, Newspapers and the Workers, 1916
[18] Mao Tse-Tung, Where do correct ideas come from?, 1963
[19] Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917
[20] Domenico Losurdo, Flight from History? The Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution Today, 2005

Recommended readings

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