Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2014

The Lenin Museum

Filed under: art,Gay,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.46.23 PM

 Representing a men’s room stall at the Lenin Museum, where gay men cruised

It would be hard to imagine any art show more topical than “The Lenin Museum” that opened at the James Gallery in the CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street) in New York on November 14th and runs through January 17th. As a statement on the troubled relationship between gay people and the state in Russia, it is not to be missed. The show is the latest in a series by conceptual artist extraordinaire Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian émigré whose work I have been following with keen interest for the past two years.

In conceptual art, the ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic and commercial considerations. Since much of it is one-time installation, it is hardly the sort of thing that you can take home and mount over a mantelpiece. While many of its adherents have taken it up as a challenge to the tyranny of the gallery, someone like Damien Hirst creates conceptual art that caters to the decadent-minded hedge fund speculator with a taste for the transgressive.

Fiks has created his own niche, one that is dedicated to the examination of the Soviet legacy. As someone left-of-center, he is intrigued by the experience of official Communism, both in the USSR and in the USA, the home of this 42-year old artist for the past twenty years.

Fiks is a mischievous sort who in some ways hearkens back to the glory days of Dadaism, when every work of art conveyed a bit of the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. that depicted the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Nothing expresses that more than his “Lenin for your Library?”, a project that involved sending copies of Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism“ to 100 major transnational corporations including the Gap, Inc., Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM as donations to their corporate library. He received 35 response letters with 14 companies accepting the donation.

Fiks’s latest show is more somber. It deals with one of the most troubled legacies of the former Soviet Union that persists until this day, namely homophobia. In 1917 the young Soviet state decriminalized homosexuality. At the time the socialist movement was finally tackling this medieval prejudice, especially in the Weimar Republic where Magnus Hirschfield organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921. In a key article on socialism and homosexuality, Thomas Harrison wrote about the possibilities that were opening up at the time:

In 1923, the Commissar of Health, N.A. Semashko, on a visit to Hirschfeld’s Institute, assured the Germans that Soviet legalization was “a deliberately emancipatory measure, part of the sexual revolution.” Two years later, the Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene Grigorii Batkis, in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, described Soviet policy as “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In 1934, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, a measure that was consistent with the Bonpartist retreat from the early 20s when the heavens were being stormed. Even under the threat of repression, gay men and women were determined to hold on to the gains of 1917. In May 1934, Harry Whyte, the editor of Moscow’s English newspaper, The Moscow News, sent an open letter to Stalin titled “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” that is part of the installation. Whyte stated:

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked.

The title of the show “The Lenin Museum” is a reference to a favorite cruising spot, the men’s room of an institution that housed Lenin memorabilia of the sort that Fiks keeps returning to in his remarkable career. An article on “Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow” in the Moscow News (the only reliable newspaper in Putin’s Russia) will give you a sense of what will await you at this stunning show:

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

“In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s get acquainted,'” Klimov later recalled. The man’s name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

“He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men’s toilet.”

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital’s most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled “Moscow” and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city’s Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks’ photos, they stand empty.

“This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays,” Fiks said.

December 15, 2014

Sony versus North Korea

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

In the hack of the century, Sony Corporation emails were released to the media with shockingly inappropriate statements made by studio executives about their employees and public figures, including President Obama.

Despite Hollywood’s tilt toward the Democratic Party, private communications reveal contempt for the chief executive who is the butt of stupid racial jokes. Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal, two extremely powerful Sony execs, exchanged email on their way to a fundraiser for Obama at Jeffrey Katzanberg’s mansion in November 2013.

Pascal: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?”

Rudin: “Would he like to finance some movies.”

Pascal: “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked Django?”

Rudin: “12 YEARS.” (A reference to “12 Years a Slave”.

This is the same Rudin who bragged about his ”The Manchurian Candidate” being ”a very, very angry movie”, one that is “honestly distressed about a lot of things going on in the country right now” in 2004. In 2013, when Hollywood was coming out with some tame “social” dramas like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Rudin described this as “fantastic news for those of us who love trying to make them and have to fight hard for those opportunities” as if Wall Street would tremble at the prospects of Leonardo Di Caprio crawling across the floor after taking Quaaludes.

Meanwhile, Pascal is a major donor to the Democratic Party who is married to Bernard Weinraub, a former business reporter for the NY Times. One of the hacked emails revealed an exchange between him and Maureen Dowd over the proposed content of an article she was writing about “an old boy’s network” controlling Hollywood. There was agreement between Dowd and Weinraub that the article should not be “too antagonistic”.

One imagines that this would have meant sweeping some revelations, courtesy of the hacked emails, under the rug:

1) Men are paid more than women

Sony’s 17 biggest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a spreadsheet called “Comp Roster by Supervisory Organization 2014-10-21,” Amy Pascal, the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio.

2) It’s not just executives

Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than it paid Christian Bale or Bradley Cooper, her co-stars in last year’s hit movie “American Hustle.” Lawrence was paid 7 percent of the movie’s profit, while Bale and Cooper received 9 percent, according to emails sent to Pascal.

The emails contain unflattering comments about Hollywood superstars like Angela Jolie, who is referred to as “a minimally talented spoiled brat”. I think I’ll offer critical support on this.

The hackers call themselves the Guardians of Peace, a fairly obvious reference to the North Korean government’s likely role in organizing the hack. It was angry over the new film being produced by Sony titled “The Interview”, a “comedy” about a couple of American TV reporters being lined up by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un when they gain access to him under the guise of doing an interview. Ha-ha-ha. Dan Sterling, who wrote jokes for Jon Stewart, was the screenwriter. Ha-ha-ha.

As it turns out, Scott Rudin produced another “comedy” about North Korea, this time demonizing Kim Jon-il, the current dictator’s father. Titled “Team America: World Police”, it was supposedly a satire on American military power. It incorporated the “edgy” style of “South Park”, the cable TV show written and directed by Trey Parker, the film’s director/writer. In my CounterPunch review of a J. Hoberman book, I referred to the long time film critic and scholar’s take on Trey Parker’s film:

In the service of human interest, Team America recruits a replacement commando from the Broadway hit Lease. (He’s first seen singing “Everybody Has AIDS.”) His job is acting, something that intrinsically amuses animators Parker and Stone. Their marionettes vomit, bleed, and explode into organ parts. Indeed, these puppets show more guts than the filmmakers, who direct their fire at very soft targets: French and Egyptian civilians, a Communist dictator, and a bunch of Hollywood showboats. Despite some pre-release Drudge-stoked hysteria regarding an “unconscionable” attack on the administration, no American politicians appear in the movie. (The movie has since garnered Fox News’s seal of approval.) Nor do any media moguls. The filmmakers never satirize anyone who could hurt their career—not even Michael Moore enabler Harvey Weinstein.

When a Sony executive learned that the film concluded with a graphic depiction of Kim Jung-in’s head being blown to bits, he rightly worried that North Korea might be prompted to respond. After he asked the film’s creative team to tone down the conclusion, co-star Seth Rogen blew his stack over the threats to artistic freedom as revealed in a hacked email: “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. That is a very damning story.” This is the same Seth Rogen, by the way, who made headlines defending Israel against the BDS movement a few months ago.

In today’s NY Times, there is little interest in trying to understand why North Korea was moved to hack Sony emails (although I would have been overjoyed to see them under any pretext). Instead, the emphasis is on Japanese fears about the rogue state:

While many Americans seem to see North Korea as too distant to keep them awake at night, many Japanese see it as a very visible threat. Until three decades ago, North Korean agents occasionally snatched people off beaches in neighboring Japan to serve as Japanese-language teachers, and long-range North Korean rockets on test runs still fly ominously over Japan’s main islands.

Now I wouldn’t put it past the North Korean government to commit any number of heinous acts, but I wonder what the real story about “snatched people” is in light of this report from the March 11, 2002 NY Times:

In court, Meguni Yao, the former wife of a Japanese leftist, said that when the couple lived in North Korea during the 1980’s, she tried to lure lonely Japanese students, some of them studying abroad, to North Korea. There they were to either join a government-supported ”Japan Revolutionary Village” or to train North Korean spies for work in Japan.

Is it possible that the “abductees” were simply young Japanese leftists who made the mistake of relocating to North Korea? Who knows?

What I do know is that North Korea has ample reasons to be afraid of and angry at both Japan and the USA. Keep in mind that Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and imposed a vicious regime that even the anti-Communist south regards as a stain on the country’s history. Korea was a source of raw materials and cheap labor, corresponding to the model identified in Lenin’s essay on imperialism. During WWII up to 200,000 Korean women were forced to become prostitutes to serve the Japanese army, euphemistically called “comfort women” while twice that number of men were sent to work in Japanese war plants against their will. Meanwhile, after the fashion of Nazi German’s Dr. Mengele, the Japanese experimented with captive Koreans in Unit 731, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the March 17, 1995 NY Times:

He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down,” recalled the 72-year-old farmer, then a medical assistant in a Japanese Army unit in China in World War II. “But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Whatever other sins he is guilty of, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty in North Korea, deserves historical accolades for driving the Japanese out of Korea. For this transgression, he was punished by the USA that under the fig leaf of UN-sponsored conflict resolution, invaded Korea and killed 290,000 North Korean soldiers and was responsible for nearly 3 million civilian casualties in the south and north combined. That is about 10 percent of the total population in 1950. Can you imagine how the USA would react if a country that had invaded and killed 30 million of its citizens would react to a “comedy” that climaxed with the assassination of its president? Of course, that is completely hypothetical question given the fact that the USA has ruled the world for the better part of a century. Eventually that will change under the impact of economic transformations that will render the imperialist monster toothless—the sooner the better.

 

December 14, 2014

Parlez vous Francais?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-14 at 8.22.14 AM

Read full article

 

December 13, 2014

Podemos on the rise

Filed under: North Star,Podemos — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

These are the lead paragraphs of my article “Where Did Podemos Come From? Where is it Going?” that is timed to coincide with the relaunch of North Star,

This article provides some background on Podemos in Spain, a broad-based radical party that has been likened to Syriza in Greece and that like Syriza could very possibly become a ruling party in the not too distant future. It was written for the relaunch of North Star (http://www.thenorthstar.info/), a website that calls for the creation of a non-sectarian, broad-based anticapitalist party—in other words, an American Podemos.

For those of us in the United States who are working to create something equivalent, there are many lessons to be drawn even if there are sizable differences between the USA and Spain. But what they do have in common is key: a two-party system that has effectively maintained hegemonic control over politics.

Since an earlier article announcing the relaunch, progress has been made to put the website on a firm footing. We have an editorial board of four people all committed to the original mission, namely to publicize the need for a broad-based anti-capitalist movement in the terms articulated by Peter Camejo in the original North Star Network of the early 80s. It is a pity that Peter did not live long enough to see Pablo Iglesias in action. This young leader of Podemos shows a grasp of revolutionary politics that would impress anybody.

Podemos has prompted some rich analysis since its formation. I would like to call your attention to some other articles that get it right, as opposed to the standard sectarian dismissal. The first appeared in the December 11, 2014 edition of Open Democracy. Titled “Leaderless no more” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/paolo-gerbaudo/leaderless-no-more) and written by Paolo Gerbaudo, an academic and journalist who looks as young as Pablo Iglesias, it calls attention to the growing realization of young Occupy type activists that some degree of centralized coordination is necessary. He writes:

While many anarchists are no doubt grumbling at seeing many of their comrades supporting Iglesias, Tsipras, and other emerging leaders (is Russell Brand the UK’s farcical equivalent of Iglesias and Tsipras?), those hoping for radical political change in Europe and beyond have many good reasons to celebrate this development. This shift from “leaderlessness” to the rise of new political leaders fighting for the demands raised by the movements of the squares is a demonstration of the “wisdom of the crowd”, of the fact that social movements and their supporters are capable of learning from their mistakes and evolving accordingly. Yet, it is apparent that this return of strong “personalised leadership” within the leftwing also raises some serious political questions for activists.

I would also call your attention to a series of articles on Left Flank, an Australian website, titled “Understanding Podemos”. Luke Stobart, a PhD student based in Spain, is the author. The first two of three has already appeared.

In the first, subtitled “15-M & counter-politics” (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/), Stobart addresses the question of “anti-politics”, a term that resonates with the feeling of most Americans, who like the Spanish, have grown weary of a two-party system that favors the rich. He writes:

“Anti-politics” is not just a counter to the parties but to the institutions and organisations tied to both them and the state (what Gramsci called the “outer fortresses” of “the integral state”). Crucially for those interested in emancipatory politics, this includes the union bureaucracies. The contradiction between representing workers’ interests and containing their demands has always been present in mass trade unionism. However, Humphrys and Tietze have shown using the Australian example that from the beginning of neoliberalism the balance has shifted in the direction of the latter function. Indeed, in Australia the unions maintained an “Accord” with the Labor government while the latter restrained wages and brought in the first big neoliberal reforms. As a consequence, over the last three decades union coverage has decreased from over 50 per cent to just 17 per cent of workers.

As should be obvious from the above, Australia—like Spain and the USA—suffers from a two-party shell game.

In the second article in the series, subtitled “Radical Populism” (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/14/understanding-podemos-23-radical-populism/), Stobart links Podemos to the post-Marxist “radical democracy” theories of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, a couple of academics who in my opinion are given more credit than they deserve, even if Podemos leaders are in the habit of quoting them.

Much of Stobart’s article dwells on the specifics of Spanish politics and the usefulness or lack thereof in Podemos’s strategy and tactics. I am hardly in a position to judge the merits of his analysis but will simply say that Podemos, whatever its failings on this or that, represents a huge step forward for the Spanish left and an inspiration for revolutionaries everywhere trying to transcend the sectarian limitations of the “Leninist” parties.

The fact that Podemos has reached millions of Spaniards while self-declared vanguard formations largely speak to those already “in the know” about Lenin and the Russian questions should tell us that we are on the brink of a new period in the class struggle, one in which the socialist movement will be rebuilt on 21st century realities. It is about time.

 

As Assad and US play two-step bombing Raqqa, Assad demands US bomb more efficiently

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

Originally posted on Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis:

In a recent interview in Paris-Match, Bashar al-Assad was asked whether coalition airstrikes were helping him, to which he replied that …

“there haven’t been any tangible results in the two months of strikes led by the coalition. It isn’t true that the strikes are helpful. They would of course have helped had they been serious and efficient.”

(http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/12/03/assad_airstrikes_aren_t_helping_me_hollande_you_re_as_popular_as_isis)

Assad’s call on the US to bomb his country more seriously and efficiently comes from someone who knows how that’s done. The following account of the US-Assadist bomb-Raqqa two-step dance over the last week or so shows who really knows how to kill all those Sunni wretched of the Earth “efficiently”:

– On Sunday 23 November, US warplanes carried out two strikes against an ISIS-occupied building in the city of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria. No civilian casualties were reported.

– On Tuesday 25 November, Assad’s air force carried out ten…

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December 12, 2014

We are the Giant; Maidan

Filed under: Film,middle east,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Two documentaries open in New York today that provide a close-up look at the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. If you think that these upheavals were plots concocted by the CIA to weaken Iran and Russia, you will benefit from watching both since they present flesh and blood human beings in struggle rather than geopolitical abstractions–chess pieces being moved across a board. For those who identify with the struggles and have offered solidarity in one way or another, the films will help sustain you in these most trying of times when dark reaction rules almost everywhere.

Playing at the Cinema Village, “We are the Giant” focuses on the anti-government protests, both peaceful and violent, in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. While there is little to distinguish the ideals and self-sacrifice of the protagonists in each arena, those from the first two countries are regarded by much of the left as tools of American imperialism while the Bahraini activists get a clean bill of health purely on the basis of not opposing an ally of Putin’s Russia. Such a litmus test of course does not do justice to the human beings risking their lives for the right to express their ideas without being tortured or killed. It is indeed ironic that a left so aroused at the new revelations about CIA torture managed to overlook how Gaddafi and Assad opened their torture chambers for the victims of the CIA extraordinary rendition program.

A Libyan man named Osama living in the USA and enjoying the good life has a 21-year old son named Muhannad who decides to join the armed struggle against Gaddafi. As is the case throughout the film, there is hair-raising footage of protests and street fighting. Muhannad, who has no previous military training, gets a crash course in how to fire an automatic weapon and soon becomes the bravest and most dedicated fighter. Like most young men and women who joined the rebellion, there was a failure to come to terms with both the military odds against them and the daunting tasks of building a new society out of the wreckage left by 40 years of dictatorship. Muhannad was willing to take the risk simply on the basis of knowing what life was like under Gaddafi. Students were tortured or killed for undertaking the most modest steps toward democracy. In risking his life to secure a measure of freedom, he did not ask for a promissory note that the new system would not bring along a new set of ills. While the film makes no comments on post-Gaddafi Libya, it is only people intoxicated by their own ideology who will reduce Muhannad to a symbol of US global domination.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is often held up as a poster child for what might happen in Syria if the “moderate” rebels prevailed as if anything could be worse than the prevailing conditions where barrel bombs are routinely dropped on outdoor markets and working class apartment buildings. Activists Ghassan and Motaz favored peaceful resistance and were key media activists in the early stages of the revolution when the masses took to the streets just as they had throughout the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. The film depicts in graphic detail how peaceful marchers were shot down in the streets. Even as Syria has descended into a hellish war of attrition with jihadists threatening to impose a Salafist regime as evil as Assad’s “secular” nightmare, Ghassan and Motaz continue to support Gandhi-type nonviolent resistance.

For me, the final section of the film that deals with Bahrain was most revelatory. Two sisters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja share their father’s commitment to nonviolent struggle. As soon as the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, he returns from exile and becomes a pivotal figure. Unlike Libya and Syria, Bahrain was an ally of the USA and the film shows John Kerry glad-handing a Bahraini despot while the father is facing 12 years in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship. The two sisters are powerful tribunes for a society trying to live in freedom and security. If you like me have only a sketchy idea of what the struggle in Bahrain has been about, “We are the Giant” will spur you to find out more and to join the solidarity movement to free their father and the rest of a long-suffering population.

“Maidan”, which opens today at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is a strict cinema vérité production that adopts the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Frederick Wiseman. However, unlike Wiseman who tends to pan his camera on rather quotidian locales such as high schools or hospitals, director Sergei Loznitsa—a Ukrainian—and his crew are immersed in the Euromaidan protests and could not portray normalcy even if they intended to. From the opening minutes of the film, you realize that you are in the crucible waiting for sparks to fly.

In some ways, the film has the character of a live feed on the Internet as you simply watch people gathered together in an immense crowd or fighting with the cops. The obvious purpose is to allow you to make up your own mind about what was happening there rather than to impose some kind of ideological framework with facile conclusions such as the kind RT.com is famous for.

Although I have obviously made up my mind about the Euromaidan protests, I will reprise what I gleaned from Loznitza’s footage. To start with, the speakers at the early, peaceful rallies were decidedly non-ideological. The most common themes were redemption of the Ukrainian nation and the need to lead normal lives, with ample appeals to the crowd’s Christian beliefs. When speeches were not being made, folk singers were raising spirits with patriotic tunes that the crowd sang along with. If there were fascists on the stage, the film either made sure to ignore them or—more likely in my opinion—there were none to be found.

Undoubtedly the fascists did play a role in the street fighting as Yanukovych sent the cops out to clear Maidan of protestors, just as his Chinese counterparts are doing now in Hong Kong. But it is unlikely that any ordinary Ukrainian who was there simply to fight for the right to protest cared much who was fighting the cops or what they stood for. Since Svoboda and Privy Sektor were better organized than those who came to Maidan to protest the regime as individuals, they were able to control the facts on the ground. Despite this, Ukrainians continue to vote for centrist politicians no matter the RT.com inspired warnings about an immanent fascist takeover.

While RT.com ratchets up its rhetoric about the fascist threat posed by the Ukrainian government, the French National Front campaigns with funds it borrowed from a Russian bank at the behest of Vladimir Putin, something that the pro-Putin left is indifferent to.

Director Sergei Loznitsa is a skilled documentary filmmaker who has excelled in narrative films as well. If you ever get the opportunity to see his “In the Fog”, grab it since it is a perceptive look at how Byelorussia, another “lesser nation”, fared under Stalinist rule during WWII. Its hero is a railway worker who faces threats from Nazis and Communist partisans as well. Based on a novel of the same name by Byelorussian author Vasil’ Bykaw, it depicts the difficulties of making moral choices in a world where immorality prevails—in other words, a film very relevant to our situation today.

December 11, 2014

Slavery and Capitalism

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

A passage from this extraordinary book:

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote half a century ago and many scholars, such as Harvard’s Sven Beckert and Brown’s Seth Rockman, are today confirming, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” The expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West was still years away, but slavery as it then existed in the southern states was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves’ lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities, and botanical gardens.

The use of slave labor in the North was ending by the time Amasa was building his Perseverance, but throughout New England there were merchant families and port towns—Salem, Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, and New London among them—that thrived on the trade. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts a Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, which were boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Other New Englanders benefited indirectly, building the slave ships, weaving the “negro cloth” and cobbling the shoes to dress slaves, or catching and salting the fish used to feed them in the southern states and Caribbean islands. Haiti’s plantations purchased 63 percent of their dried fish and 80 percent of their pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seamen, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”

 

My list of the 100 greatest films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:18 pm

A while back Jeff St. Clair asked some CounterPunch contributors for a list of what they considered to be the 100 greatest films of all time. I put this together pretty much off the top of my head and not in preferential order. I would say that those that came to mind first probably rate the highest, particularly “Sansho the Bailiff”, which I consider the greatest film ever made. Have you seen it? If not, put it on your bucket list. I saw it in 1961 and it has haunted me ever since. I notice, btw, that there were 101 ilms in my list–I am not sure why. In any case, you can take these to the bank.

  1. Sansho the Bailiff
  2. Weekend
  3. Seven Samurai
  4. Battle of Algiers
  5. Wages of Fear
  6. Dr. Strangelove
  7. Battleship Potemkin
  8. Berlin Alexanderplatz
  9. Jules and Jim
  10. Chinatown
  11. Modern Times
  12. Metropolis
  13. Napoleon
  14. Lola Montes
  15. Lonely are the Brave
  16. Tokyo Story
  17. The Wind Will Carry Us
  18. Godfather, part 2
  19. L’Atalante
  20. Salt of the Earth
  21. On the Waterfront
  22. Los Olvidados
  23. Bad Day at Black Rock
  24. Princess Mononoke
  25. Peppermint Candy
  26. The Shining
  27. Hari Kiri (the original)
  28. The Grapes of Wrath
  29. Nothing But a Man
  30. Sherlock Jr.
  31. Psycho
  32. The Seventh Seal
  33. Annie Hall
  34. Reds
  35. The Leopard
  36. L’Avventura
  37. Winter Sleep
  38. Yol
  39. Camp de Thiaroye
  40. The Sting
  41. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  42. A Walk in the Sun
  43. Not One Less
  44. Pather Panchali
  45. Yojimbo
  46. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
  47. Sunset Boulevard
  48. Sullivan’s Travels
  49. La Dolce Vita
  50. Morgan!
  51. Heaven’s Gate
  52. The Grand Illusion
  53. Zero for Conduct
  54. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
  55. Contempt
  56. Way Out West
  57. Some Like it Hot
  58. Seven Days of the Condor
  59. Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  60. A Night at the Opera
  61. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
  62. One-Eyed Jacks
  63. Nuts in May
  64. Pat and Mike
  65. Tell Them Willie Boy is Here
  66. Gun Crazy
  67. Breathless
  68. Riff-Raff
  69. The Palm Beach Story
  70. The Singing Detective
  71. Bob Le Flambeur
  72. A Better Tomorrow
  73. Johnny Guitar
  74. Rififi
  75. Kanal
  76. The Bicycle Thief
  77. Ikiru
  78. Hearts and Minds
  79. How to Train Your Dragon
  80. Open City
  81. 1900
  82. Crimson Gold
  83. In the Year of the Pig
  84. The Wide Blue Road
  85. Ceddo
  86. The African Queen
  87. Army of Shadows
  88. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
  89. Shoot the Piano Player
  90. Au Hasard Balthazar
  91. The Harder They Come
  92. Strangers on a Train
  93. From Here to Eternity
  94. A Streetcar Named Desire
  95. Memories of Underdevelopment
  96. Z
  97. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  98. A Separation
  99. The White Balloon
  100. Wild Strawberries
  101. Andrei Rublev

December 10, 2014

Winter Sleep

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Most of the action in “Winter Sleep” takes place in the Hotel Othello, one of the Cappadocian dwellings that grow out of a cliff like a mushroom from a tree. Since the film is a meditation on good and evil, the hotel is named appropriately. Aydin, its owner, is a member of the local village’s elite. He inherited the hotel from his father and a number of the rental properties that poor villagers struggle to afford. Despite the reputation of Turkey’s supposedly booming economy and the governing AKP’s charitable beneficence, it had a GINI coefficient in 2012 only 2 points more equitable than El Salvador’s.

In an early scene, Aydin (played by Haluk Bilginer, a veteran of 55 films) is in the front seat of his hotel’s SUV being driven back to the Othello from the nearby village by his driver/desk clerk Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), when out of nowhere a rock crashes into the car’s window nearly forcing it to veer off the road and into a serious accident. The assailant is a young boy who Hidayet pursues and finally captures.

They then take the captive youth back to his meager home, one of Haydin’s rental properties, where they meet his father and uncle and soon learn that the boy threw the rock because the family—5 people crowded into 3 small rooms—has just lost their television to the debt collectors Aydin’s lawyer sicced on them. For the rural poor, a television is one of the few pleasures that they can count on.

Ismail, the boy’s father, is in no position to pay the back rent, let alone the broken window. We will eventually learn that he is an ex-convict who cannot find work. As Aydin and Hidayet are setting down the terms for repairing the broken window, Ismail smashes his fist into his own window and barks at the two men: Now, we are even.

Despite and perhaps because of Aydin’s efforts to remain calm and affect a lofty and patient attitude, Ismail reaches the boiling point and tries to physically attack his landlord and driver until the uncle, a man called Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), separates them. Hamdi is everything that Ismail is not, a perpetually smiling and subservient sort used to bowing before the wealthy and the powerful. A few days after the confrontation, he brings his nephew to the hotel to beg forgiveness and have him kiss Aydin’s right hand, a ritual act in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands. Sick from pneumonia, the boy collapses in the act.

Aydin lives in an aesthetic cocoon as remote from Ismail’s world as the ex-convict is from his. He spends his days in his study writing articles for the local newspaper on the need to “improve” the local village spiritually and ethically. His writings are laced with platitudes and betray a Pecksniffian sense of his own superiority.

There are two women in Aydin’s life, both very much tuned in to his arrogance and sterility. One is his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), just a few years younger than him, and the other is his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who is about half his age and lives in her own quarters at the hotel. In the earliest scenes between Aydin and them, there are signs of friction but barely anticipate the dramatically explosive scenes in which the two confront him over his failings as a human being that are implicitly connected to his class status. Although not a political director/screenwriter in the narrow sense, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as clear as one can be on such matters without descending into propaganda.

In much the same way as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, this is a tale about the futility of the lives of the rich and the poor alike. In its monomaniacal determination to preserve its class status, the Aydins of the world are impoverishing themselves spiritually and ethically.

“Winter Sleep” won the prestigious Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on December 19th. Running at over three hours, it is a throwback to the epic films of the 1960s, especially those Marxist films that depicted the same sort of class divisions such as Bertolucci’s “1900”. Among all the films being made today, it is a testament that the Grand Tradition is still alive, even if the terrain has shifted eastward. Ceylan is a gifted dramatist and cinematographer with a unique vision of the crisis we face today in a world that is divided between Aydins and Ismails. Despite its narrow focus on a small group of people, it is a story that reflects the greater drama involving billions today. It is a masterpiece in my opinion, a word I do not use lightly.

December 9, 2014

Reflections on The New Republic shake-up

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

Martin Peretz in the early 70s, just before he bought The New Republic with his wive’s millions

Back in late 1987 I got a Bard College alumni newsletter informing me that Leon Botstein had added Martin Peretz to the board of trustees. Up until that point I had been a Botstein supporter but this announcement left me feeling betrayed. I wrote Leon a letter calling attention to the New Republic’s support for contra funding. As president of the board of Tecnica, a solidarity organization that recruited volunteers to work in Nicaragua, I pointed out that his editorials had led to the destruction of Nicaraguan schools.

Of course, Botstein made a shrewd decision in recruiting Peretz. His deep pockets would not only help keep the New Republic afloat; they would also help facilitate Botstein’s empire-building ambitions. As is the norm in American society, everything has a price tag—including liberal magazines and colleges. Peretz’s millions allowed him to turn the New Republic into a neoconservative outlet on foreign policy and a neoliberal one on domestic policy. They also gave Botstein the power he needed to help Bard College shake its reputation as “the little Red whorehouse on the Hudson”, as red-baiting gossip columnist Walter Winchell once put it—the very reason I am grateful for the education I received there in the early 60s.

For most of the twentieth century, The New Republic (TNR) and The Nation magazines were the lodestones of American liberalism. I have written about The Nation in the past but virtually nothing about TNR, mostly as a function of so few people having illusions that it spoke for American liberalism after Peretz’s takeover in 1974.

For all those upset with Chris Hughes buying the magazine and turning it into his personal toy, they obviously are not aware that this exactly what happened in 1974 when Peretz fired a bunch of people who were deemed obstacles to his rightwing turn.

When Peretz took over, the editor was Gilbert Harrison, whose politics were much more like those of The Nation. In 1968, Harrison ran editorials backing Eugene McCarthy for president rather than the warmongering Hubert H. Humphrey and even called for the creation of a new political party to be headed by McCarthy. In the early 1970s, there were people like Walter Pincus writing about Watergate and Stanley Karnow on foreign policy. That outlook resonated with an American public fed up with the status quo, so much so that the magazine’s circulation rose to about 100,000. It was a weekly at the time. Now that it is a biweekly, the circulation is only about a half.

That obviously reflects the public’s distaste for a magazine that promotes imperialist war abroad and austerity at home. In order for Peretz to force such an agenda on the magazine, heads had to roll—starting with the illustrious Gilbert Harrison who had refused to publish the articles that Peretz had submitted. He was the first to go. As the wretched Eric Alterman wrote, this caused the same kind of rebellion that Chris Hughes now faces:

Much of the staff, which then included Walter Pincus, Stanley Karnow, and Doris Grumbach, was either fired or chose to resign. The staffers were largely replaced by young men fresh out of Harvard, with plenty of talent but few journalistic credentials and little sense of the magazine’s place in the history of liberalism.

The New Republic’s new editor became notorious after announcing that he intended to “break stuff”. I doubt that he will do anything much different than what Peretz did after taking over. After all, as A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through back issues of TNR, courtesy of my Columbia University paywall privileges, to see the route it has taken since being founded in 1914 by Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann, a principled liberal at the time, projected the magazine as an alternative to the NY Times, which he would view three years hence as writing biased attacks on the USSR. Like Lippmann, Weyl and Croly were public intellectuals associated with the Progressive movement. In order to put their ideas into practice, they needed someone with deep pockets to help launch the new magazine. That came from Willard Straight, the husband of Dorothy Whitney who inherited a fortune from her father William, a scion of the Whitney clan whose wealth came from steel, banking and steamships. This was pretty much how the Nation got started as well, from generous contributions from Henry Villard, a railroad robber baron.

In the very first issue, published on November 7, 2014, there’s a lengthy editorial defining the orientation and goals of TNR. In a sign that not much has changed in the last century, it includes a pitch for the minimum wage:

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.14.28 AM

Skipping ahead a few years to 1920, we discover a critique of NY Times coverage of the civil war in Russia that was very likely written by Walter Lippmann, given his unhappiness with the newspaper’s bias. In terms of things not changing much over a hundred years, this is the same complaint aired today in places like CounterPunch or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.18.53 AM

To its credit, TNR published a number of articles by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. While the magazine was home to Stalin apologists like Walter Duranty and Malcolm Cowley, it was even-handed enough to publish Trotsky, who was persona non grata in New Deal circles.

I suppose that when one hand giveth, the other taketh away. On March 23, 1938 Heywood Broun wrote an attack on Trotsky that was about as slippery and mendacious as they come. Broun, by the way, was a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1930s and close friends with the Marx brothers. Maybe his article was a Roland Boer type joke. Who knows?

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.32.12 AM

Finally, moving ahead to the 1960s, we end on a high note. Among those writing for TNR was Andrew Kopkind, a reporter that Alexander Cockburn once described as “the greatest journalist of his time”. The author of dozens of articles, Kopkind was a sharp critic of American society and a brilliant writer.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 10.55.34 AM

I shared that excerpt from Kopkind’s article on the first antiwar demonstration back in 1965 not so much because I agree with his analysis but because it reflects an outlook widespread on the left, namely that the SWP was not entirely open and transparent about its intervention in a movement that shook America to its foundations. I’d like to think that if someone more amenable to Kopkind’s approach were now in charge of TNR, it would be worth a subscription as Greg Grandin advised Nation magazine readers. Maybe so, I’ll just have to wait and see.

 

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