May 24, 2007

Tron Øgrim, Bang A Basin!

I first titled this Tron Øgrim, RIP, but that's really the Latin phrase "Requiescat In Pace" (Rest in Peace). Tron was neither a big personal fan of resting, nor, as a pretty hard-boiled materialist, did he believe in an afterlife, even one resembling a deep, quiet nap.

Instead, I will cite in his honor the 1964 Talk On Questions Of Philosophy by Mao Zedong, the Chinese revolutionary leader and thinker whom Tron met in Beijing once:

If there were no such thing as death, that would be unbearable. If we could still see Confucius alive today, the earth wouldn’t be able to hold so many people. I approve of Chuang-tzu’s approach. When his wife died, he banged on a basin and sang. When people die there should be parties to celebrate the victory of dialectics, to celebrate the destruction of the old.

So who was this guy? Tron Øgrim was a Norwegian revolutionary and Communist. Born into a family which had taken an active part in Norway's resistance struggle against Nazi occupation, he became active in the global upsurge of students and youth in the 1960s. He was a leader and theoretician who helped bring into being the Arbeidernes Kommunistparti (Workers Communist Party) of Norway. The AKP was one of the most successful of the anti-revisionist parties that sprang up in advanced industrial countries in the 1970s. It merged only this year with the Red Electoral Alliance (itself a AKP spinoff where Tron had made his political home since the 1990s) into a new party called Rødt, meaning Red.

(From left, Tron, Pål Steigan (of the AKP) and some Chinese dudes...)

There's much more I could say about Tron, and I may try in a future post, but right now I want to point directly to a profound class on the theory and practice of revolution he was in the process of teaching, a class that I and, I hope, hundreds of other people were taking at the time of his death. Tron was one of the very first listmembers when another Norwegian, Magnus Bernhardsen, started an invaluable internet resource, the Leftist Trainspotters e-mail list. The 'spotters list, as members call it, tracks developments in left organizations around the world, with a generally observed "no polemics" rule that keeps a bunch of participants with dramatically diverse politics in line.

A couple of years ago, Tron sensed that the revolution in Nepal, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was a development of world historic significance. He began tracking it with a fierce intensity. Soon the Leftist Trainspotters list would get posts almost every day, sometimes more than a dozen at a time, on the Maobadi (the Maoists) and other political and social forces in Nepal. Usually these would just be articles from the English language press, mainly Nepalese and Indian, often with a brief comment attached to highlight a particular point or development. Some listmembers complained and more just hit the delete button, but many of us read with fascination.

One lesson in Tron's "course" had to do with epistemology, the study of how we come to know things. Tron practiced in a thoroughgoing way some basic Marxist principles about knowledge. First, he sought truth from facts. I am hardly alone on the US left in being inspired by the success of the comrades of the Maobadi in their struggle to free their country from feudalism and imperialism, but for too many of us, things stop at "Boy, is that ever cool! Too bad there's nothing like this happening here." In particular, Tron was careful to reserve judgement and consider the sources of information which suggested problems in CPN (M) theory, strategy, tactics, structure, policies, organizing or ability to respond to changing conditions, but he never dismissed that information out of hand because it made him uncomfortable.

A second point on epistemology. Tron understood, and was showing us, that the general resides in the particular. It was only by steeping himself in the everyday realities and political minutiae of the rapidly changing situation in Nepal that he could develop an overview which could genuinely be used to make sense of developments. Did he use Marxist categories, like class, armed struggle, bourgeois democracy, reformism, etc.? Sure, these were his starting point. But he was able to apply them in a deep way because he schooled himself to the point where he could tell you, for instance, the political history and current role of scores, probably hundreds, of individuals and groupings in the bubbling political life of a tiny Asian country.

The other big lesson I have been learning, or relearning, with Tron as teacher is just what a tricky and complex business making a revolution is, even in a small country that Western experts call "underdeveloped." The CPN (M) launched a classic Maoist people's war in 1996, and in less than a decade controlled a wide swath of Nepal's countryside, and drastically destabilized the old monarchy that ruled the country. Rather than continue fighting, with the attendant toll of damage and death among the people, and the risk of Indian military intervention, the Maobadi, under a truce, entered a complex process of negotiation and election to pursue their goal of creating a New Nepal. It was this more than anything else that drew and held Tron's attention.

Why? Because when a revolutionary situation is present in a country, all kinds of unexpected and overlooked contradictions and social forces suddenly come to the fore. In Nepal, this has included oppressed nationalities, both indigenous and immigrant (like Tibetans), with their own languages and cultures. Suddenly they have pushed their way into the roiling center of political life. Some, like the Magars in the west, have tended to united behind the Maobadi as the force most dedicated to breaking the old feudal system and challenging the privileges enjoyed by the majority (Nepali-speaking) Khas people, while others, based on old contradictions between various nationalities, are being actively courted and organized by reactionaries and Hindu chauvinists to oppose or sabotage the alliance of political forces the CPN (M) has entered to fight for a republic.

And though the national question looms large, which any Maoist would expect, it is far from the only contradiction suddenly becoming more prominent in Nepal. Just last week I exchanged emails with Tron about the Blue Diamond Society, an organization formed to fight for the rights of Nepal's impressive array of sexual minorities. I asked, among other things, what he thought about charges, mainly in the Western media, that the Maoists were puritanical homophobes.

Here's what Tron emailed me in response, accompanying the most useful of the articles he had forwarded to Leftist Trainspotters:

I post some material below.

First, here, my thoughts.

I dunno about the Maobadi, but I'd GUESS

a) That the Maobadi has never had this high on their radar (just like every other party in Nepal).

b) So I'd expect that the party would be chock full of traditional and spontaneous prejudice, just like the western commie and socdem movements 30-40 years ago.

I'd also expect that there are milieus IN and AROUND the M, who are totally opposed, modern, secular and influenced by the modern western gay liberation and left movement.

c) It is very easy for western journalists to come there and describe stupid statements - and even brutal acts against gays, which would not surprise me as the big and undisciplined Maobadi movement has hotheads who have been beating up more or less everybody else, except for tourists! - as results of "the party line"

Not taking into account what I guess may be the case -.

+ This is an expression of general social prejudices in Nepal

+ This is NOT a "line" as the Maobadi (I guess) has very LITTLE line on this.)

(Take this story of the two lesbian lovers alleged to have been held in a Maobadi camp. This may be true (or it may be different: These girls may have been "recruited" and just happened to have been lesbians - which is not very nice either. Or something else. However, even if this story IS true, I'd be very surprised if this has been discussed and decided on a high policy level in the CPN(M).)

Of course, I may be wrong on this.

d) I don't believe in journalism which prettifies "left crimes and errors". Like Mao said: Soviet farts stink, too!

I do, however, believe in nuanced journalism who try to describe it like it is.

If there's two sides on this q (or more!) - to get that clear.

AND, very important: WHICH WAY DOES IT GO? Developments?

To the better or worse?

My 50 øre.

All the best -

That short note, generously knocked out in a few minutes at the request of someone he had only met a few times, shows the value of the comrade we have lost.

I can't say I much feel like banging a basin, but I will go out today and belt a couple of good Norwegian beers to celebrate the victory of dialectics--and to honor one whose everyday political practice taught me some dialectics.

Tron Øgrim, ¡Presente!

UPDATE: Greetings Norwegian Guests!

We are in the midst of a small-scale but spontaneous display of people's globalization. Folks at one of Tron's online "homes"--the Leftist Trainspotters e-mail list--who have never spent time in Norway have been stunned to see the extent of the coverage of his death, as numerous newspaper articles (not just obituaries) are posted to the list by Magnus Bernhardsen and others. Norwegian Wikipedia, where Tron was a valued contributor today has the flag of Norway at half staff on its logo.

At the same Norwegians seem surprised to learn how much respect old Tron had earned around the world. Dozens of messages from across the globe have filled the Leftist Trainspotters list, lamenting Tron Øgrim's death, showing how widely he was respected by revolutionary thinkers everywhere.

This Fire on the Mountain post has had hundreds of hits today. Spurred by a link at a hastily erected website, Tron Øgrim er død, and some kind of instant message propagating on Telenor, Norwegians appear to be eager to see what someone from another country has to say about old Tron. At last check, more than 70% of our visitors today come from Norway! Welcome, and please feel free to drop a further word in the comments section below on how Tron's death is being felt in Norway.


Anonymous said...

Very sad.

As another student in Tron's course (though very recently enrolled), this came as quite a shock to me.

He seemed to be a very knowledgeable -- and funny -- guy. Just reading his 'spotters posts often made me feel lucky to hear things from the perspective of someone with so many years of rich experience. It's a damn shame we won't hear them anymore.

Jimmy Higgins said...

Ah, Jesse, you don't know the half of it. Tron was a bit of a linguist, by which I mean not only a polyglot, which he surely was, but a guy with an intense interest in and fondness for artificial languages like Esperanto, in which he was fluent. I don't know that he would have been able to follow the technical posts at your website right off, but if it interested him, he have taught himself enough in short order to carry on a genuinely serious correspondence with you...

Jimmy Higgins said...

I have been remiss in not citing one other important facet of Tron's contributions. This has been cited repeatedly by the extremely diverse population of the Leftist Trainspotters list--his openness to engaging in discussion with folks from very different political traditions than his.

He did not give up his own stand, and snuck the occasional polemical comment past the ban on such activity on the list, but he also listened and engaged.

Timur, a young New Zealand blogger (whose whole tribute to Tron Øgrim you can find at:
thescourgeofcapitalism (dot) blogspot (dot) com) makes the point more succinctly than I can:

"More than anything else he did and although I never met him, on a personal level I will always have to thank Tron for helping to dispel the prejudices I held several years ago as a young and somewhat doctrinaire follower of Tony Cliff that all Maoists were evil icepick-carrying Stalinist bogeymen."