Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

A review of E. Tani and Kaé Sera, False Nationalism False Internationalism: Class Contradictions in the Armed Struggle (Kersplebedeb, 2021 [new ed.]).

During a trip many years ago, I stayed with a friend involved in antiimperialist politics in some European capital. Before going to bed, I asked, out of habit, if I could go through the bookshelf. I found a number of titles I expected, and flipped through some I hadn’t seen before. Then my eyes caught a spiral-bound publication that stuck out (literally). I pulled it out of the shelf, sat down on my makeshift bed and started reading. Three hours later, I was still sitting on the same spot, still reading, soaking up the contents as if there was no tomorrow (which, in a sense there wasn’t, as I had an early train to catch and couldn’t possibly ask my friend to take with me what clearly was a rarity in our part of the world). The book was … just very different. I had never heard anything about the authors, they were discussing many things I had never heard about either, but they were addressing a question haunting any First World antiimperialist: what, if anything, can we actually do to help the struggle?

This was my first encounter with False Nationalism False Internationalism, authored by E. Tani and Kaé Sera. The first edition, published by Seeds Beneath the Snow, appeared in 1985. When Kersplebedeb announced a new edition in 2020, I was excited.

The Kersplebedeb edition impresses with a slick layout and powerful images. I was disappointed, however, that it doesn’t include any preface or new introduction that would reveal more about the text’s background. The identity of the authors is irrelevant, but it would have been interesting to know more about their political affiliations, their relation to the subject matter, why they wrote the text, who the intended audience was, and so on. Especially younger readers might also have benefited from someone outlining the historical context. I assume there are reasons for why none of this has been included, and they are probably very valid, but if you, like me, were expecting or hoping for any such thing – it ain’t there.

This doesn’t diminish the effort to make the text available to a broader contemporary audience. Nor does it diminish the value we ascribe (or not) to the original text.

False Nationalism False Internationalism is divided into nine chapters. The first four address the early history of imperialism and antiimperialist resistance, focusing both on places you would expect (China) and places you would not expect (Finland). Personally, I was probably most intrigued by the writing about Ethiopia, because the country – which I’ve visited twice and also got to know through exiled Marxist revolutionaries living in neighboring Sudan – rarely appears in this context. (On a side note, there is still an enormous lack of documentation about the history of African socialism. Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth is regarded a classic, of course; a fair amount of international attention has been paid to the socialist parties and trade unions of South Africa; and Thomas Sankara has made a bit of a comeback as of late. But there is still very little on Guinea under Sékou Touré, the Ujamaa villages of Tanzania, even the remarkable Amílcar Cabral and the revolutionary movements of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.)

The five chapters on the antiimperialist movements of the 1960s and 70s focus, again, both on organizations you would expect (Black Panther Party, Weather Underground) and organizations you might have heard very little about, if anything (Revolutionary Action Movement, Revolutionary Armed Task Force). Of particular interest to me was one of the most profound presentations and critiques I have read of the Liberation Support Movement, a Canada-based organization of First World antiimperialists with close ties to the Danish Blekingegade Group, whose story is told in the Kersplebedeb/PM Press release Turning Money into Rebellion: The Unlikely Story of Denmark’s Revolutionary Bank Robbers.

On the back cover of the new edition of False Nationalism False Internationalism, it says about the book that “if its language is harsh, and the analysis blunt and unsparing in its anger, they reflect a time when revs were dealing with deaths and fugitive lives and mass incarceration and the smashing of organizations and communities”.

The harshness of the language is certainly a striking feature of the book. There are “phony M-L’ers”, “pseudo-nationalists”, all sorts of “petty-bourgeois” leftists prone to “defeatism”, “political backwardness”, “lumpen class politics”, “settleristic thinking”, “moral corruption”, and, my favorite, “ideological slavishness”.

At times, the critique of comrades who have sacrificed much for their involvement in revolutionary struggle is so brutal that it makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter what you think of their actions. The argument that such a tone is inevitable in the middle of a life-and-death struggle is not an uncommon one – yet, if it is true, it can make you wonder whether all of this revolutionary business is really worth it. After all, you end up pretty far away from any kind of social interaction that you would hope for in a liberated society. Then again, this might really be an ideological question. It is mainly anarchists who are concerned about “prefigurative politics”, “a new world in the shell of the old”, that sort of thing. Marxist-Leninists (and it is no doubt that the authors are adherents of this “revolutionary science of a specific class, the world proletariat”) do not usually care as much about such sentiments.

“False internationalism” is defined by the authors as “a class alliance between petty-bourgeois and lumpen opportunist elements from both oppressor and oppressed nations”. The contradiction of oppressor and oppressed nations is central for their revolutionary analysis. (Should anyone care, I wrote something about this contradiction a few years ago, also published by Kersplebedeb.) A main feature of false internationalism is the “neo-colonial” and “Eurocentric” belief that “white people are the answer to the problems of the oppressed nations”.

False Nationalism False Internationalism is an unsettling book. Yet, it remains immensely intriguing. Even if you’re provoked, outraged, or hurt by it, it strikes right at the heart of antiimperialist politics, revolutionary struggle, and cross-community alliances, and if you have any interest in these matters, it will get you thinking, and thinking, and thinking some more.

Speaking of cross-community alliances (my words, not the authors’): underneath the harsh tone and the bashing of the white left and First World antiimperialists, there remains a sense that, despite all contradictions and often insurmountable barriers, we’re all in this together – or, to put it bluntly, everyone is at least worthy a heavy dose of critique. It is different from an era in which people seem to believe that you solve the messiness of different communities joining in struggle by skipping the joining altogether. It might make things easier in many ways, sure, but it might also be a preemptive version of divide and conquer that saves the man plenty of work. One of them things to think about.

Gabriel Kuhn

(May 29, 2021)