Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 25, 2014

The “accidental” killing of Akai Gurley was no accident

Filed under: housing,New Deal,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

As the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri was calculating how to avoid bringing killer cop Darren Wilson to trial, another ignominious homicide took place in the Louis H. Pink Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY. The New York Times reported on how a rookie cop named Peter Liang killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley:

Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, invited immediate comparison to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

A follow-up article detailed how such an “accident” might have taken place:

From different corners of Brooklyn, the lives of Mr. Gurley and Officer Liang, two young men separated in age by a single year, collided amid the faint shadows of the stairwell inside 2724 Linden Blvd., one of the buildings in the vast the Louis H. Pink housing project.

For Mr. Gurley, the stairs, even in their sorry state, offered the best alternative to chronically malfunctioning project elevators. For Officer Liang, their darkness presented a threat.

Often the department’s least experienced officers are sent.

“This is a result of poor in-street field training; you literally had the blind leading the blind out there,” said another high-ranking police official.

Both police officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the shooting investigation is still unfolding.

Most of the reporting centers on the cop’s inexperience as if a way to ward off interpretations that he was acting out of a KKK mentality so prevalent in the St. Louis police department. Since Chinese-Americans don’t tend to be seen as vicious racists, it is more difficult to mount Ferguson type protests over the killing. But in a very real sense, Brooklyn = Ferguson. It was the poverty and neglect of East New York that created the conditions for just such an accident.

Furthermore, a look at housing projects in general and the Louis H. Pink project in particular will demonstrate that we are dealing with institutions just barely distinguishable from South African shantytowns, even though they were at one time a staple of New Deal reform.

Louis Heaton Pink was an advocate of public housing in the 1930s who became the director of the New York Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for projects all across the city now in various states of disrepair. He was first appointed to a state housing agency by Al Smith, the governor of New York who despite having a solid record as a reformer got on FDR’s wrong side after running against him in the 1932 presidential primary.

This article from the February 14, 1934 NY Times should give you some idea of how Pink envisioned public housing:

louis pink article

When I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem in 1967, housing projects were considered a step up from slum buildings on the side streets even though they were beginning the steep decline that would eventually lead to the violent crime, broken elevators and darkened stairways that served as Akai Gurley’s death chamber.

The explanation is obvious. Like most public institutions that sprang up as a result of the modern welfare state, NYC public housing was the first to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. The first to go was public housing. Next came hospitals and now it is CUNY that has to tighten its belt.

But austerity is not the end of the story. If the Housing Authority was truly broke, then the broken elevators, etc. might be understandable even if not forgivable. It turns out that there was money available for repairs but the rich white bastards who run the NYCHA had other ideas about what to do with it as the Daily News reported on August 1, 2012:

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 2.18.05 PM

In a New York Magazine article that appeared shortly after the Daily News revelations, the sad state of the Louis H. Pink Houses was detailed in a lengthy article:

That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”

Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.

In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink ­Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.

Not surprisingly, New York Magazine—prime reading material for Manhattan’s upwardly mobile—gave NYCHA head John Rhea an opportunity to defend himself.

The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-­private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.

“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.

You would of course have to conclude that any bureaucrat who thinks in terms of “public-private” and cuts deals with Citibank would be the last person to attend to public housing woes in New York, even if he is African-American (another version of Barack Obama, to be sure.) After four years of getting nothing done, Rhea resigned in December 2013 before Bill de Blasio had a chance to fire him.

I don’t think the Black community expects much from the new “reformer” based on this August 27 article that appeared in the NY Observer.

Bill de Blasio Heckled While Touting NYCHA Safety Gains

Mayor Bill de Blasio today at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. (Jillian Jorgensen)

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to talk about crime reductions and safety upgrades in the city’s public housing stock — but some residents just didn’t want to hear it.

The mayor was heckled by at least two people who gathered to watch his press conference in a sunny courtyard Wednesday, where he stood strategically in front of construction workers removing scaffolding residents have long complained are a blight and a danger.

As the mayor sought to take the microphone after Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke, a man shouted in Spanish at the mayor about needing more security. Mr. de Blasio at first tried to keep talking, but eventually paused and offered: “Thank you, brother.”

Shortly after, NYPD Chief of Housing Carlos Gomez was also met with a skeptical response from a local resident as he spoke.

“July first, the crime in housing was up. It was up for the fifth year in a row. With the additional officers, and resources, the additional work being conducted by other city agencies, I’m proud to say as we stand here today crime in public housing is down, more than 4 percent — that’s higher than the city averages,” Mr. Gomez said.

“Since when?” a woman called out. “Since when it went down?”

“From July 1 until now crime is down double-digits throughout NYCHA in the city, down 13 percent. Murders are down 18 percent, and our shooting incidents are down in NYCHA,” Mr. Gomez said.

But as he spoke, the woman responded “That’s a lie. That’s a lie.”

When asked by a reporter about that response, the mayor said he understood why it seemed to some residents that crime had not truly fallen.

“Because it takes time, first of all, for everyone to feel it. And I don’t blame anyone who is feeling there isn’t enough yet in the way of improvement. We have a lot to do. The numbers that Chief Gomez gave are the numbers, and that clearly means progress,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That means some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been otherwise, some people are safe today who wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Though the city has had 29 fewer murders this year and 1,000 fewer robberies, the mayor said, people won’t believe in change until they see it — comparing it to the focus of his press conference, the removal of the scaffolding or “sheds” that residents argued served as hiding places for guns and illegal activity.

“Until people see the sheds down, they aren’t going to feel the benefits,” he said.

After the press conference, Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a brief and seemingly friendly chat with the man who had shouted at him in Spanish.

Earlier this summer at the same housing development, Mr. de Blasio vowed to remove scaffolding and add cameras, lights, and hundreds more police officers to the city’s public housing earlier this summer to combat rising crime there.

According to Mr. Gomez, crime in public housing is now down: Year-to-date, in the Housing Bureau citywide crime is down 4.2 percent, with murders down 5.9 percent, rapes down 3 percent, and robberies down 5.6 percent.

Still, shootings are still up in NYCHA developments over the course of the entire year — and are up citywide, outside of public housing complexes — though they have fallen in the Housing Bureau since July 1.

November 24, 2014

The crisis over the Temple Mount

Filed under: Jewish question,Palestine,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

The Temple Mount

As someone with a morbid fascination with rightwing Zionism, I generally tune in to the Zev Brenner radio show on WMCA, a Christian AM talk radio station that turns the mike over to the Jews on Saturday night. Brenner is a hard-core Likudnik who provides a platform for Israeli officials, Dov Hikind, Alan Dershowitz and other such scum.

Last Saturday night his guests were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a New Yorker who moved to Israel, and Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon. Riskin made the theological case for usurping Palestinian rights to their portion of the Temple of the Mount and Ayalon made the political case. As you might know, Israeli provocations have led to mounting violence including the attack on a synagogue that left 4 Hasidic rabbis dead.

Since this is a call-in show, I fully expected his regular listeners to voice their approval for the Zionist attempt to gain full control over a site holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Was I shocked to hear the first 5 or 6 callers depart from the script. It went something like this:

Brenner: Shmuley from Borough Park, you’re on the line.

Shmuley: So what did you expect when you went looking for trouble with the Arabs? The torah makes clear that the temple cannot be restored until moshiach returns. None of the rabbunim in Israel support this new policy. Riskin speaks for nobody except himself. It will only make things worse.

Shmuley had this right. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel, made up of ultra-orthodox Hasidim called haredi, are opposed to the expansion of Jewish control. An Israeli news service reported:

Chief Sephardic Rabbi (Rav) Rabbi Shlomo Amar has published a call to believers not to ascend to the Temple Mount. The call appears under the heading “avoid ascending to the Mount and touching its edge,” which was the ruling about Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus before the Ten Commandments.

Rav Amar’s declaration was co-signed by former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron; Rav Shalom Cohen, Head of Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, Old City Rabbi Rav Avigdor Neventzal, and Kotel Rabbi, Rav Shmuel Rabinovich.

It followed in the footsteps of declarations by Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Avraham Elkana Shapira, both Chief Rabbis and heads of the Zionist flagship yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav in Jerusalem, who expressly forbade ascending the Mount. Rav Zalman Melamed, Dean of Beit El Yeshiva, is also against it. All hareidi rabbis forbid it.

“It is a holy obligation to make you aware that it is completely forbidden by halakhah to ascend to the Temple Mount, and this prohibition has always been a simple and clear one, and this thing has been forbidden by all of the Great Ones of Israel.

This is all about politics, not religion. Israel wants to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of all Palestinians and seizing control of the Temple of the Mount is a key tactic toward that end.

It is important to understand that this issue has been around for decades now and was the main trigger of the Second Intifada. On September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon led a Likud delegation accompanied by hundreds of riot cops to the Temple of the Mount. Palestinians reacted with outrage and the uprising lasted for several years until it burned out.

This most recent outbreak began last month when Rabbi Yehuda Glick began leading Israeli groups to the Palestinian section of the Temple of the Mount. Glick is one of the most outspoken proponents of Israeli control of the site, demagogically claiming that he wants to build a multidenominational prayer site. Glick grew up in the USA and as such is typical of the most fanatical Zionists who were born here.

Here is Glick making the case for Jewish hegemony using a forked tongue:

On October 29th a Palestinian named Mutaz Hijazi caught up with Glick after he made a speech at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and pumped four bullets into his chest. Glick survived and the assassin was killed. Afterwards Palestinians nearby Hijazi’s home mounted a violent protest. It is also likely that the automobile assaults on Jews in Jerusalem by Palestinians have also been a response to the Temple on the Mount crisis.

As tensions continued to mount, the attack on the Hasidic rabbis might have been expected. You might be surprised to learn that I have a Facebook friend who was sympathetic to Glick. What might surprise you (and certainly surprised me) was what a Jewish friend (Lungen) said in response to her Timeline post: “KAHANE WAS RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 2.31.20 PM

The woman who invoked Kahane, a fascist who was assassinated by an Egyptian after giving a speech in New York City, is a symbol of where Israel is heading. She grew up in Woodridge, New York, my hometown, and became intensely religious as a teen even though her family was secular. Although I didn’t know her growing up, my mother was fairly close to her. I suspect that she became an orthodox Jew after the fashion of Bob Dylan but unlike Dylan stuck with it. On her Facebook page, there are links to the late Shlomo Carlebach, a Hasidic rabbi who became famous for his folk singing renditions of Hasidic tales in the 1960s. His synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan became a haven for lost souls, those secular Jews who were alienated from American society and who just as easily might have joined the Hare Krishnas instead of becoming religious Jews.

The last thing I want to do is confront this Woodridgeite with my views, who has remained my FB friend despite my daily postings of pro-Palestinian links. If things weren’t so polarized, I’d remind her that Carlebach said things quite contrary to Kahane:

After the Six Days War, I was one of the first people to walk into the Old City of Jerusalem. I walked up to every Arab, our cousins, and kissed them. I went to the top politicians in Israel and said, “We want to live in peace with the Arabs. As much as we need an army to make war, we need an army to make peace. Give me five thousand free plane tickets to bring holy hipp’lach [hippies] from San Francisco to here. We’ll go to every Arab house in the country. We’ll bring them flowers and tell them that we want to be brothers with them.

This was at a time when illusions about Jewish-Arab amity still lingered on. If there’s anything that has become obvious since Netanyahu began running things, it is that Kahane is the guiding philosopher of Israel today, not any “peace now” hippies. The latest sign of that is the announcement that Israel has defined itself as a state in which religious identity trumps democracy, moving it closer to becoming a full-fledged Kahanist entity as the NY Times reported today:

JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved contentious draft legislation that emphasizes Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.

The promotion of a so-called nationality law has long stirred fierce debate inside Israel, where opponents fear that any legislation that gives pre-eminence to Israel’s Jewishness could lead to an internal rift as well as damage Israel’s relations with Jews in other countries and with the country’s international allies.

The vote on Sunday also highlighted political fissures within the governing coalition amid increasing talk of early elections. The bill, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed 14 to 6, with two centrist coalition parties opposing it. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law.

This vote clearly resonates with Sheldon Adelson’s rejection of democracy as a defining trait of the Zionist state (not that the nakba was ever consistent with true democracy). Adelson, an American gambling casino magnate who has given millions to rightwing causes in the USA and Israel, was even too extreme for Abraham Foxman as the Daily Forward reported:

Recipients of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s largesse are dodging questions about his latest salvo against Israeli democracy.

Adelson, a leading Republican donor, has long stood out among American Jews for his conservative views. He may have stepped farther outside of the American Jewish mainstream than ever before, however, in statements at a conference in Washington on November 9 in which he seemed to write off Israel as a democratic state.

“I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state… Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”

While Anti-Defamation League national president Abraham Foxman has slammed Adelson’s remarks, leaders of groups that have taken money from Adelson have not responded to requests to address his statements.

“Mr. Adelson is certainly entitled to his views,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Foundation and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. “The question is whether he seeks to impose those views on the not-for-profits he supports, and whether he seeks to determine their educational message.”

A spokesperson for Birthright Israel, whose group gets $32 million a year from Adelson, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the Israeli American Council, all of which have received major funding from Adelson.

Mort Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, which Adelson also supports, suggested that Adelson’s comments may have been an attempt at humor. “I know Sheldon for maybe 15 years,” Klein said. “This is Sheldon Adleson humor, sarcasm, an attempt at humor… Of course he’s a fervent supporter of democracy.”

It will be interesting to see how Israel will fare over the next decade or so as its ethnic cleansing and fascist-like policies deepen and become more and more obvious to world opinion. When more and more secular-minded Jews in the USA become convinced that supporting Israel is no different than supporting apartheid South Africa, the momentum will shift toward BDS and other actions designed to isolate and punish the Zionists. Sooner or later, Israel will rely on the support of Christian fundamentalists, the arms manufacturers and other sectors with a material interest in seeing America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East survive. I only hope I live long enough to see the ship torpedoed and sunk.

November 23, 2014

Three great animated features

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

Although I will be nominating the three films reviewed in this article for NYFCO’s best animated features of 2014, they could easily be considered the three best—period. I only regret not having nominated “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, a film that far surpassed NYFCO’s choice, “The Social Network”. What, you haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon”? What’s wrong with you?

Even though I am approaching my seventieth birthday, I still get the same pleasure watching “cartoons” that I got when I was ten years old. Back then, this meant Warner Brothers—the gold standard for kiddie fare that adults could love as well. Back in the 1950s, there was always a cartoon before the main feature—as well as a newsreel and a travelogue. Along with Mad Magazine, Borscht Belt standup comedians, and comic books, the Warner Brothers cartoons that were produced by men such as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones shaped my worldview. They never talked down to the juvenile audience but assumed that what made them laugh would also make a 10 year old laugh.

Clampett, in particular, was willing to push the envelope as Wikipedia reports: “Clampett was heavily influenced by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, as is most visible in Porky in Wackyland (1938), wherein the entire short takes place within a Dalí-esque landscape complete with melting objects and abstracted forms. Clampett and his work can even be considered part of the surreal movement, as it incorporated film as well as static media.”

I could never get enough of “Porky in Wackyland”. Here’s a clip:

Brilliant, simply brilliant. You can watch the whole thing here.

Not long after “The Lego Movie” came out, I remembered reviewers describing it as subversive. For example, Jeff Myers of the Detroit Metro Times wrote:

The Lego Movie’s desire to inveigh against social conformity turns into a plea for collectivism. It’s a message that will inevitably send the blood pressures of FOX News pundits through the roof.

You might ask yourself what a movie about a kid’s toy could possibly piss off FOX News. To start with, this is hardly a commercial for Lego, a case of product placement gone wild. In essence, it is a film that uses a toy as a metaphor for the lives we lead today, just as was the case with the Toy Story franchise that—in case you didn’t know it—is some of the most brilliant filmmaking in recent years. The characters are toys but they are also recognizable stand-ins for recognizable types in capitalist society.

The hero of the Lego film is a construction worker named Emmet Brickowoski who builds hi-rises in Lego City. Emmet is the ideal member of a consumer-oriented mass society indoctrinated to love his job, the music he listens to on his car radio, and the TV shows he watches when he gets home—all the products of a conglomerate run by President Business (Will Ferrell). Lego City might be described as a kindler and gentler version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a place where workers are not beaten into submission but instead obey willingly. The closest analogy might be Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

President Business is not satisfied with the warm and fuzzy totalitarian society he presides over. He is determined to destroy the initiatives being taken in other cities where freedom and creativity are treasured as reflected in the novel use of Lego blocks. Think real estate developers in New York City replacing 19th century architecture and gardens with high-rises and CVS pharmacies.

As happens in so many animated features, our hero is unprepossessing. Like the hero of “How to Train Your Dragon” who has an aversion to using violence, Emmet has neither the brains nor the strength to take on President Business. Of course, he rises to the occasion just as one might expect given the hoary tradition of children’s fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as cartoons, their modern counterpart.

If “The Lego Film” were just another underdog defeating an evil demon story, there wouldn’t be that much to recommend it but the big story is how much the film recreates the surrealist imagination and sheer lunatic comedy of Warner Brothers in its heyday. Of more recent vintage, its closest relative was the “Yellow Submarine”, another animated feature that was filled with visual puns and madcap logic.

“The Lego Film” proceeds at a lightning pace and might leave a 10 year old asking you every five minutes what something meant. I only regret not having a child who could have watched the film with me and whose questions I could have answered. The film is a virtual banquet of irreverent pop culture references that only a grownup child like co-director/co-writers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord could have come up with.

“The Lego Film” is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming from Amazon. If you have HBO, you can watch it there on demand. It is simply not to be missed.

“The King and the Mockingbird” opened last Friday night at the Francesca Beale Theater in Lincoln Center. In some ways, it might simply suffice to say that the film was co-written by director Paul Grimault and his long-time associate Jacques Prevert, the man who wrote “Children of Paradise”, voted “Best Film Ever” in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals in 1995.

Based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, the film pits a chimney sweep and a shepherdess who have sprung to life from paintings on the wall of King Charles who is always referred to as Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI. Like President Business, the King is a control freak. Having decided that the shepherdess must become his bride, he sends out his cops to root out the rebels in the same fashion as “The Lego Movie”. Most of the two films involves Keystone Cops chases involving leaps of the imagination as well as leaps off of castle ledges.

Like “The Lego Movie”, “The King and the Mockingbird” is a film that can be enjoyed by kids from six to sixty as the cliché would have it. Despite being a French film, it is distinctly American in many ways, with a Mockingbird who will remind you of the crows in “Dumbo”. Yes, I know, Disney used racial stereotypes but as comic figures they were done brilliantly.

Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the mockingbird is a perfect symbol of rebellion. He refuses to kowtow to the King and does everything in his power to aid the young couple trying to escape from his grip.

Grimault and Prevert were ideally suited for this material. They began work on the film in 1947, the first full-length animated feature in French history, and only completed it in 1980. This is an exceptional opportunity for New Yorkers to take in a film with great historical significance in newly restored version.

Grimault and Prevert first met each other in the October Group, artists committed to agitprop in the early 30s about which Claire Blakeway wrote in “Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema”:

Of all the groups which proliferated in France, the Groupe Octobre was perhaps the most successful example of political theatre to emerge during the 1930s. Performing in factories, parks, at open-air fétes and political rallies (organised by the Federation of Workers’ Theatres of France) and in the working-class banlieues, of Paris (including Asnières, Sesnes, Noisy-le-Grand, and Villejuif) it attracted large proletarian audiences. Bussières recalls that at one performance which took place at Avenue Wagram, the Groupe October played to an audience of some twenty thousand people.

Prevert asserts:

‘The Groupe Octobre (. . .) snow-balled, people who had attended a performance were very impressed, they spread the word, and in this way the audience grew bigger and bigger. I never saw a Groupe Octobre performance take place in front of an empty auditorium, never! It was free, admittedly, but this was not the only reason that people came.’

So, as you can see the same spirit of subversion found to a lesser degree in “The Lego City” (how could it have been otherwise in a Hollywood film?) finds full expression in a French film. As has always been the case, the French workers and artists are in the vanguard.

I received “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” from GKIDS, a distribution company promoting it for awards consideration. Unfortunately, the film, which appeared in theaters last month, it is not available yet as a DVD rental or streaming. But keep your eye out for it since it is simply the most beautiful animated film I have ever seen and beyond that an exploration of deeply spiritual questions that touched even me, a man who tends to sneer at anything remotely “spiritual”.

What the film reminded me of was the importance of such questions before I took a detour on the Marxist road away from the concerns of my late teens, when Alan Watts and Kenneth Rexroth meant much more to me than Karl Marx. If Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” touched you, as it did me in late adolescence or any time in your life for that matter, then it will speak to you. It deals with some of the most basic questions of mortality and its transcendence, giving questions of the meaning of life a palpable reality that they will never get in the standard religious or philosophical tract.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is adapted from a tenth century Japanese folk tale called “The Tale of a Bamboo Cutter”, the nation’s earliest extant literary narrative. One day an elderly bamboo cutter comes across an incandescent bamboo shoot that contains a tiny likeness of a princess. When he brings it home, it comes to life in the form of an infant that he and his wife raise as if it were their own. Unlike other children, the girl other kids call “Little Bamboo” grows by leaps and bounds. As another sign of her powers, the cutter discovers another incandescent bamboo shoot that is filled with precious jewels–riches that will help him raise his daughter in the capital city, where she will marry into aristocracy.

“Little Bamboo” has no interest in wealth or status. She is happier in the countryside playing in the forest or running around with her friends. Her father, however, is intent on her becoming an aristocrat since that will give him entrée into a world he covets. He hires a tutor who instructs “Little Bamboo” on the finer points of becoming a member of high society, which means doing everything she loves to do, including running and laughing.

This is a film that some children might find too slowly paced or dealing with questions remote from their own experience. My recommendation is to get your hands on it when it comes out and let them watch it as an experiment. If they love it, it will show that you have been a good influence on them since it is a work of transcendent beauty.

Isao Takahata, a 79-year-old who decided to become an animator after seeing “The King and the Mockingbird”, directed “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. In 1971, he made an animated version of “Pippi Longstocking”, another tale of a plucky teenager that was the primary inspiration for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Takahata has collaborated with Hayao Miyazaki, another legendary anime director, on several projects.

The highly informative Wikipedia article on Takahata states: “Takahata has been influenced by Italian neorealism, Jacques Prévert, and French New Wave films during the 1960s. Bicycle Thieves has been cited as specifically influencing 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. These influences make Takahata’s work different from most animation, which focus on fantasy. His films, by contrast, are realistic with expressionistic overtones.”

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is his first film in 14 years and likely one that will define anime as a major art form for the foreseeable future. Although I am generally averse to using superlatives, this film is of profound beauty and significance and I urge my readers to keep your eye out for it in the coming months. I will be sure to give you a head’s up when it becomes available.

 

November 22, 2014

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

Filed under: democracy,Iran,Lenin — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Who’s Afraid of Democracy?

A guest post by Reza Fiyouzat

The engineers know better, but the common story about Edison finally finding the one filament that did work suggests that it took more than a thousand tries. The social project of building a socialist society must surely be more complicated than that, and therefore will require many tries. So, let’s not be disheartened. We do know what does not work. That is a good continuing point; not a starting-from-scratch point, but a point of progress.

In the Manifesto, Marx draws a comparison between the transitions from feudalism to capitalism to the epoch of the transition from capitalism to socialism. In other words, for Marx, there would not be one major event that would bring about world socialism, but a series of events and a long period of class struggles that would eventually overthrow capitalism as the dominant mode of production and social relations.

Looking at it as a historical process, we must then assign characteristics to this process, so that we can determine at what stage of the historical process we stand today, and where to go from here. Traditionally, it has come to a few choices; one way to look at the transition to socialism is as a two-stage revolution with two historically distinguishable stages, the first ‘democratic’ and then ‘socialist’, with strict rules to be followed at each stage, in some prescriptions with experts at the helm of a revolutionary command center directing the revolution, deciding all the important decisions. Or, we can see it as a dynamic historical process with ups and downs for both sides of the class struggle, yet a process that can be influenced by the wise tactical and strategic interventions of revolutionaries, yet a process that has to be moved from below. Or, you can just characterize it as an uninterrupted process (as some do), or as the Trotskyist school suggests, a permanent revolution. If I were a Trotskyist, I would propose a reformulation in favor of a permanent revolution/counterrevolution.

All these different formulations point to the same basic historical fact: the fact that class struggle does not take a break. You’re either winning tactically or strategically, or you’re losing tactically/strategically. So perhaps too much energy is expended in some socialist quarters in the debate over ‘how many stages’ we should have. All sides agree that it is a historical process, not a one-step event.

For this reason it is important to take into consideration Gramsci’s insightful concepts of ‘war of maneuvers’ (as in, what we should do during revolutionary periods) as contrasted to ‘war of positions’ (characterized by spontaneous mass struggles that arise in non-revolutionary conditions, and what socialists should do in those fights). This conceptualization is much more productive than the simplistic and ultimately mistaken dichotomy, ‘reform v. revolution’.

For both Marx and Lenin, the transition to socialism was a dynamic historical process with ups and downs. In these ups and downs, the task of the socialists and revolutionaries is to find ways to intervene in spontaneous movements that arise and infuse them with the revolutionary input that would shape and elevate these spontaneous struggles to higher levels of self-consciousness, with wider outlooks, and help turn them into movements that could lead to the popularization of socialist answers to capitalist contradictions, thus creating the conditions to take a revolutionary leap as a society.

That is why for Lenin it had become clear that the most conscious and committed communists and socialist workers and intellectuals needed to organize themselves in a political party exactly because they are supposed to intervene in every struggle caused by the never-ending contradictions that capitalism throws up periodically. Your intervention is likely to be a lot more effective when you have an organizational capability for analyzing, planning and acting when you need to do so. This is just elementary politics.

Now, a political party based on ideas of Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries, at a particular time and in a particular place, should not be reduced to an organizational fetishism, attempting to replicate the Bolshevik party. The principle we need to take into account is far more basic, and is the antithesis of fetishistic. The basic principle is simple: Be Organized! For the obvious reasons that the other side is highly organized and a very violent and effective fighter.

The organizational form itself cannot be the main problematic; the form can and does vary and nobody can eliminate the possibility that, besides the old forms that have proven effective, newer forms of organization are possible and even necessary. Some will work, and some will not work, like the Occupy Movement’s ‘lack of structure’ structure. But the reason Occupy Movement fizzled out quickly had less to do with a ‘lack of organized structure’. ‘Lack of structure’ went along with a more fundamental lack. There actually was a structure, I went to regular peoples assemblies: the hand gestures and the people’s mike, as you remember, even came in handy for the late night comedians to get easy laughs. The structure, however, did not allow for a clear articulation of what concretely it was fighting for. It became the hallmark of the movement to declare even (and proudly so) that they must not explicitly state demands! Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of a movement, in a way.

So, the main problematic is not lack of ‘proper organization’. Our most real concerns should be to engage with and intervene in reality, and while doing so let’s not forget to pay attention to how we’re doing it, ergo, the need for being organized and self-critical, always learning from our own practices and mistakes, always looking for more effective means of achieving political goals that actually have an effect in the real world.

That is where we can win the battle of democracy. Not just in struggles that come out with declared socialist aims. No such mass movements ever happen anywhere spontaneously. People come out onto the streets for very concrete demands. They don’t come out shouting, “We Want Socialism!” Most people come out shouting, “We Want Water! We Want Bread! We Want No More Wars! We demand equal rights! We demand safety from the random violence of the State! We want water sources that don’t burn up when you light a match to ‘em!”

Democracy is not just some nicety or luxury, as some socialists are prone to think. It is not reducible to elections. Democracy is the essence of pushing capital to its limits and then pushing some more till it cracks wide open. This means that, as socialists, we don’t sit back and grade whatever movement arises in the society, giving it a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ before we decide whether or not it should be supported. Supported, as in, just in words even (not to denigrate the value of verbal support when that is all you can give). Notice the mentality though:  the movement hits the streets; we wait some time to give ourselves enough time to give it a grade; then what we mostly do is announce support or no support. The mentality is that of a reactive mode, not a proactive mode; not a mentality that tries to shape and change reality, but one that takes directions from social reality.

This mentality does nothing to intervene and affect the movements that arise spontaneously; to find, in the array of forces present, close allies and build them up and change the internal dynamics of the movement; to infuse good ideas into those movements, to facilitate their organizing, to bring them resources, etc. To intervene in all struggles thrown up by capitalism’s never-ending crisis-inducing nature, that is the duty of the socialists. Sometimes we get defeated, and sometimes we win and elevate the social discussion around particular issues, and make clear the universal elements in those localized struggles. And by so doing, we elevate the conditions to our benefit for the next struggle that is sure to come up. And only by doing all that can we shorten the timeline for creating conditions that would support a revolutionary leap. Revolutionary conditions don’t just materialize out of the blue all by themselves. They must be brought about.

Aside: This is why one can easily find fault with some socialists and Marxists who denigrate environmental issues as ‘liberal’ or ‘middle class’. Such arguments are erroneous on two counts because environmental issues negatively impact the working classes doubly. On one level, environmental degradations that lead to loss of quality of life are invariably targeted at working class and poor communities. Are socialists and Marxists justified in ridiculing as ‘liberal’, for example, the Appalachian poor working class residents, whose mountaintops are being obliterated, for demanding that their tap water should not be a fuel source as well?

On another level, environmental damages brought about by industrial capital must be looked at in terms of externalization of costs for particular capitalists (and capital is always concrete, not an abstract economic category), and therefore about maximization of profit margins. To externalize the environmental costs to the society (again, always targeted carefully) is an indication of the inherently anti-democratic nature of capital, something that should be exposed by socialists as such, and used to draw attention to the inability of capital to protect the environment, which belongs to all. On the flip side, by forcing environmental regulations on polluting industries, we reduce their profit margins, and place limitations on how freely they can exploit resources. For socialists to consider environmental issues as something to be denigrated as subsidiary, unworthy, below-me-so-blow-me, is to abdicate responsibility as socialists. End of aside.

Looked at in this framework, for Marx and Lenin (see his State and Revolution as well as his debates regarding the necessity for the independence of the labor unions from both party and state structures in post-revolutionary Russia, particularly debates starting in 1918 and continuing to early 1920s, before his death) the battle for democracy means exactly to push into the cracks (contradictions) in capitalist social contract and to force them wide open. As well, capitalist accumulation, by nature, will present us with an infinite reserve of spontaneous social movements sure to arise as capital develops, expands and consumes more spheres of social life globally.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents the now-well-known formulation, “winning the battle of democracy”. Elsewhere, Marx explains in detail how bourgeoisie presents an appearance of fairness when it presents the market as a place where equals meet and agree on a contract. According to the bourgeois ideologues, the market creates an equal playing field in which the two sides (labor and capital) come to a mutually agreed upon price for the labor hours to be purchased by the capitalist and provided by the laborer.

In the first and the second volumes of Capital, however, Marx clarifies how this ‘fair’ contract is in fact based on a history of forced expropriation of means of independent production for the workers, a historical process that stripped an entire class of the society, a vast majority, of all means of making an independent living, forcing that class to the position of having to sell itself, its labor power, in order to survive.

“The capitalist system pre-supposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property and the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually expanding scale” (Capital, Vol. 1, Part 8, Chapter 26).

Part eight of the first volume of Capital then goes on to chronicle a short history of that process of expropriations: forced land expropriations driving peasants off their lands, through to anti-vagabondage laws, maximum wage laws, “forcing down of wages by acts of parliament”, as Marx describes it. Further, the original accumulation of capital was infused plentifully with the wealth stolen from the colonies, explicitly enumerated by Marx in part eight of the first volume. In the second volume, Marx reminds the reader that money should not be mistaken for capital since money cannot become capital unless under social relations in which the complete expropriation of all independent means of living has already stricken the vast majority; just as money can only be exchanged for slaves under social relations that allow slavery.

However, exactly because there is a gigantic historical theft hidden behind bourgeois presentation of the marketplace contract as fair, Marx could call the historical bluff. More specifically, throughout his seminal work, Capital, he shows the workers the exact mechanisms through which the employer extracts surplus value from them, and how capital enriches itself while spreading misery among the workers and property-less classes.

This fundamental contradiction in the social contract presented by bourgeoisie opens a crack in the system. By exposing the mechanisms through which surplus value is created and extracted by capital, Marx in effect shows the workers how to fight back, how to intervene in the cycle of capitalist production and accumulation, how to minimize (to start with) the surplus extracted from them; and how through a protracted struggle in a historical process, working classes will eventually be able to expropriate back all the surplus value.

So, to answer the question in the title, it is clear that capital is definitely afraid of real democracy. That is why it has had to distort and twist the concept beyond recognition, reducing it to mere elections, and it has had to work hard and tirelessly at this task, with the aid of millions of organic intellectuals it trains and retains in its educational institutions, mass media, the culture industry, its think thanks, industrial associations, financial cartels, etc.

But even while distorting the meaning of democracy in the public mind, selling it as cyclical elections of representatives, capital never forgets to fight back against, and attempt to repeal and reverse, all the real democratic gains of previous fights by the working classes. Why else the 30-some-year long attack by the right wing in the U.S. on women’s rights such as reproductive rights, or attacks on laws protecting collective bargaining by unions, attacks on public education? The list can go on.

This brings us back to the false dichotomy opposing reform to revolution, and to some others who are afraid of democracy, in very unexpected quarters: some socialists. In this unfortunately posed dichotomy, reform is the all-negative, as contrasted to revolution. I believe that the error arises from the assumption that we are always in revolutionary conditions. Under revolutionary conditions, of course, it would be folly to advocate reforms, when in fact the ground is well suited for a revolutionary leap. However, revolutionary conditions do not persist at all times. They are rare. So, what do we do when conditions are not revolutionary? Pack it in and wait?

Socialists who truly believe that reforms are bad, to be consistent, must join the Republican politicians and fight for the repeal of all laws protecting the environment, all child labor laws, maximum hours-in-a-workday laws, workplace health and safety laws, equal rights legislations banning racial and other discriminations, women’s rights legislations, and so on.

Of course, no socialist would do such a thing. Why then hold such dichotomies as if they were true?

Any past democratic gain by our side is a limitation we have been able to force on capital, a limitation on how freely capital can act, and is therefore a positive. It is a platform from which we can deploy a more effective fight, something to be cherished and appreciated and not denigrated. For capital will not rest until it has snatched back every single one of those platforms.

However, there are other indications that some Western socialists do not really understand the importance of democracy and democratic movements that arise spontaneously all over the world, all of which movements are pooh-poohed by these kind comrades, who are adept at missing opportunity after opportunity to be actually effective for the right side of the battle.

A case in point is the massive popular movement that filled the Iranian streets by the millions, in the aftermath of the too-obviously stolen elections of June 2009. Now, let me clarify that normally everybody in Iran knows the elections are a farce as a matter of routine. But in 2009, people came out agreeing to go along with the farce, and asked only that state functionaries at least follow the script they themselves had written; as in, allow the real votes for the two candidates to be counted fairly, since the state had allowed the two to run., So, when the functionaries suddenly did switch scripts in mid-process, then people had every right to take to peaceful massive protests to declare they were pissed off.

Let’s look at that historical moment, just for two more seconds. In Tehran alone, in a matter of three days after the hasty announcement of the results in favor of Ahmadinejad, in a highly irregular manner, more than three million people occupied the streets of the capital city. By contrast, if any political organization in the U.S. could bring three million people onto the streets (less than one percent of the U.S. population), they would announce it as a revolution in itself. Now, when that happened in Iran (a country of 70 million at the time), in just one city (and there were massive street protests in many major cities), some leftist writers and activists in the west argued that the whole thing was an imperialist conspiracy, the work of CIA. These socialists concluded that the movement as a whole was engineered in the west to destabilize the Iranian regime, and therefore the movement had to be condemned.

The enormous absurdities in that explanation are so numerous that will go way beyond the scope of this piece. Still. That is quite a conclusion coming from socialists, but believe it or not some were actually publishing articles arguing exactly that. Iranian socialists, of course, were shocked and awed, not so much by the sheer ignorance of such statements, in themselves enough to cause extreme alarm, but mostly because it sounded exactly like the propaganda by the theocracy that was busy shooting at peaceful demonstrators, imprisoning them by the thousands, torturing them at will, raping them, or threatening them with rape in their dungeons. So, yes, we were truly shocked by the depth of antipathy toward just plain human decency displayed by socialists.

How can CIA have such superpowers as to bring people onto the streets of Iran, in millions, at will? Really? I am sure CIA analysts get a good laugh when they hear of these superpowers they are supposed to have. It seems amazing that all the enormous and very real internal social contradictions, the suffocating puritanical social rules dictated by a theocracy of a minority, the massive economic pressures of mass unemployment and huge inflationary rates, all these obvious sociological factors figure not at all in the political explanations of these socialists. One would have hoped that socialists would have, by now, left the bizarro land of conspiracies and returned to the firm terrain of scientific historical materialism.

All kinds of social demands started percolating up to the surface as a result of that mass movement in Iran, a movement that initially took to the streets asking merely: “Where is my vote?” That movement very rapidly graduated onto more general demands regarding governmental accountability, political rights of free speech, free association and free assembly rights, just to name the obvious ones. Even the legitimacy of the theocratic state apparatuses came under open and loudly expressed social questioning. This was a huge move forward, and if it had been helped and supported, it could have led to better places and could have provided some breathing space for the Iranian working classes. Which section of the working classes would not benefit form the advantage of being able to organize freely and protected by law? Who would gain the most from legal equality between men and women? And who would lose the most? Who would gain the most from limitations put on state security forces so that they are not able to torture political prisoners at will?

How a big segment of the western left behaved toward the massive spontaneous movement of the Iranian people in June-December 2009 is indicative of a fundamental malaise that runs deep and far too widely in the global left: misunderstanding the importance and the meaning of democracy.

It is time for socialists, and leftists in general, to stop being afraid of democratic movements that arise spontaneously. It is time to expose capitalist development as inherently anti-democratic and to fight to win the battle of democracy anywhere we can.

Reza Fiyouzat may be contacted at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com

November 21, 2014

The Poverty of Political Marxism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

The poverty of Political Marxism

The debate regarding the potential merits and limits of Political Marxism initiated by Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch in the pages of the International Socialist Review (ISR #90, July 2013) and the responses it has provoked from Neil Davidson (ISR #91, Winter 2013–14) and Charlie Post (ISR #92, Spring 2014) are very welcome developments. The relationship between Marxist theory and historical analysis is, of course, an incredibly important issue—one that goes far beyond the more limited question of explaining the transition from feudalism to capitalism to which Political Marxist or Capital-centric scholars have, so to speak, staked their claim to fame. Indeed, despite his very critical analysis of the pitfalls of Political Marxist theory, Neil Davidson points out the many significant works Political Marxists have produced, which stand as invaluable studies irrespective of one’s opinion as to the broader merits of Political Marxist theory. From Brenner’s own Merchants and Revolutions to Charlie Post’s The American Road to Capitalism to John Eric Marot’s The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect to Hannes Lacher and Benno Teschke’s recent interventions into International Relations theory, one finds an array of impressive and historically rich works of immense value.1

Yet, as we examine below, such works have proven invaluable in spite of—not because of—their adherence to the Brenner thesis in particular and the theoretical and methodological precepts of Political Marxism more generally. Indeed, as our title suggests, despite the significant works produced from within the Political Marxist camp, the perspective is replete with what we see as crippling theoretical weaknesses resulting in a persistent, gnawing gap between theory and history. In demonstrating these problems, we shall begin by detailing and then critiquing the infamous Brenner Thesis, before turning to a critical examination of Political Marxist approaches to the contemporary issues of war and imperialism. We must state at the outset, however, that notwithstanding our very strong criticisms of Political Marxism we do not believe the theory is as inimical to the International Socialist tradition as Davidson makes it out nor, even if it were, that this would necessarily be a problem. For the great merit of any thriving theoretical tradition is its ability to critically reflect upon its own assumptions and, when appropriate, to draw upon and absorb significant elements from other theoretical traditions.

read full article

The Business of “Art vs. Commerce” in Hollywood

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm
Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up, Philip”

The Business of “Art vs. Commerce” in Hollywood

by LOUIS PROYECT

Starting around this time each year I try to catch up with the American narrative films that I anticipate my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online will be considering for awards at our yearly meeting in early December. Unlike those who get paid to review junk like “Horrible Bosses 2”, I write about films that my colleagues tend to ignore. As one fellow pointed out a couple of years ago, he never reviews documentaries because his readers do not go to see them.

For the most part, the films that I put on my list are those that are likely to make the final cut at the NYFCO meeting. These tend to be those that the New Yorker Magazine and other arbiters of middlebrow taste deem “intelligent” and “daring”. Inured as I am to such judgments, I see watching them more as a chore than anything else. All in all, it reminds me of the cramming I did in for high school geometry finals.

This week I made time in my busy schedule for “Birdman” and “Listen Up, Paul”, films that have main characters involved with making art. In “Birdman”, Michael Keaton plays the former star of the Birdman movies now in his sixties who is directing a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The eponymous antihero of “Listen Up, Paul” is a young novelist who develops a friendship with an older novelist clearly based on Philip Roth. With allusions to Raymond Carver and Phillip Roth, what could go wrong? Clearly we are miles ahead of “The Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” but when you start a thousand miles behind the marker set by a Stanley Kubrick or an Alfred Hitchcock, the prospects are guarded at best.

read full article

Trailers for films under review:

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?

Filed under: Russia,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:42 pm

(This appeared originally on http://therussianreader.wordpress.com/, an invaluable source of analysis on Russian society and politics.)

Ilya Budraitskis: The Perpetual “Trotskyist” Conspiracy

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?
Ilya Budraitskis
November 21, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

Speaking at a meeting of his United People’s Front a couple days ago, Vladimir Putin said, “Trotsky had this [saying]: the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing. We need an ultimate aim.” Eduard Bernstein’s proposition, misquoted and attributed for some reason to Leon Trotsky, is probably the Russian president’s most common rhetorical standby. He has repeated it for many years to audiences of journalists and functionaries while discussing social policy, construction delays at Olympics sites or the dissatisfaction of the so-called creative class. “Democracy is not anarchism and not Trotskyism,” Putin warnedalmost two years ago.

Putin’s anti-Trotskyist invectives do not depend on the context nor are they influenced by his audience, and much less are they veiled threats to the small political groups in Russia today who claim to be heirs of the Fourth International. Putin’s Trotskyism is of a different kind. Its causes are found not in the present but in the past, buried deep in the political unconscious of the last generation of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The strange myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy, which emerged decades ago, in another age and a different country, has experienced a rebirth throughout Putin’s rule. Sensing, apparently, the president’s personal weakness for “Trotskyism,” obliging media and corrupted experts have turned this Trotskyism into an integral part of the grand propaganda style. Until he died, the indefatigable “Trotskyist” Boris Berezovsky spun his nasty web from London. Until he turned into a conservative patriot, the incendiary “Trotskyist” Eduard Limonov seduced young people with extremism. Camouflaged “Trotskyists” from the Bush and, later, the Obama administrations have continued to sow war and color revolutions. Unmasking “Trotskyists” has become such an important ritual that for good luck, as it were, the famous Dmitry Kiselyov decided to launch a new media resource by invoking it. So what is the history of this conspiracy? And what do Trotskyists have to do with it?

Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature. They do not offer an alternative assessment of events but, constantly tardy, chase behind them, inscribing them after the fact into their own pessimistic reading of history. Thus, in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797), the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, a pioneer of modern conspiracy theory, situated the French Revolution, which had already taken place, in the catastrophic finale of a grand conspiracy of the Knights Templar against the Church and the Capetian dynasty. Masonic conspiracy theories became truly powerful in the late nineteenth century, when the peak of the Masons’ power had already passed. Finally, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy acquired its final shape in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated by the tsarist secret police at the turn of the twentieth century, when the power of Jewish finance capital had already been undermined by the rising power of industrial capital. Conspiracy theories have always drawn energy from this distorted link with reality, because the fewer conspirators one could observe in the real world, the more boldly one could endow them with incredible magical powers in the imaginary world.

In keeping with the reactive, belated nature of conspiracy theories, the myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy emerged in the Soviet Union when the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s actual supporters, had long ago been destroyed. Unlike, however, the conspiracies of the past, generated by secret agents and mad men of letters, the foundations of the Trotskyist conspiracy were tidily laid by NKVD investigators. The distorting mirror logic of the Great Terror dictated that, although the “Trotskyists” skillfully concealed themselves, and any person could prove to be one, the conspiracy must necessarily be exposed. An unwritten law of Stalinist socialism was that the truth will out, and this, of course, deprived the conspiracy theory of its telltale aura of mystery.

After Stalin’s death, when the Purges were a thing of the past, and Soviet society had begun to become inhibited and conservative, the conspiracy myth took on more familiar features. The stagnation period, with its general apathy, distrust, and societal depression, was an ideal breeding ground for the conspiracy theory. No one had seen any live Trotskyists long ago, and it was seemingly silly to denounce them, but everyone was well informed about the dangers of Trotskyism.

10486371_10205372588653614_1077162896_nDuring meaningless classes on “Party history,” millions of Soviet university students learned about the enemies of socialism, the Trotskyists, who had been vanquished long ago in a showdown. Millions of copies of anti-Trotskyist books were published; by the 1970s, this literature had become a distinct genre with its own canon. Its distinguishing feature was a free-form Trotskyism completely emancipated from any connection with actual, historical Trotskyism.

In fact, the Trotskyism of Soviet propaganda was structurelessness incarnate, a misunderstanding. It was“lifeless schema, sophistry and metaphysics, unprincipled eclecticism, […] crude subjectivism, exaggerated individualism and voluntarism.” Unlike the classic monsters of conspiracy theory, the Masons and the Elders of Zion, the Trotskyists did not run the world. They were failed conspirators: they were always exposed, unless, through their own haste and impulsiveness, they did not manage to expose themselves. In keeping with Stalinist socialist realism, their inept evil deeds caused seizures of Homeric laughter among the people and the Party. And yet, recovering from each shameful defeat, they kept on trying. The Trotskyists had no clear plan for establishing global domination, but without a clear purpose, they were dangerous in their passionate desire to instill chaos in places where harmony, predictability, and order reigned.

In their work, these Trotskyists were guided by the crazed “theory of permanent revolution” (which had nothing in common, substantially, with Trotsky’s theory except the name). Its essence is that the revolution should not have any geographical or time constraints. It has no aims, no end, and no meaning. It raises questions where all questions have long been solved. It instills doubt where all doubts have been resolved long ago. A normal person would never be able to understand anything about this theory except one thing: it was invented to ruin his life.

Mikhail Basmanov, author of the cult book In the Train of Reaction: Trotskyism from the 1930s to the 1970s, quoted above, noted, “Unlike many other political movements that had the opportunity to confirm their ideological and political doctrines through the practice of state-building, Trotskyism has not put forward a positive program of action in any country in all the years of its existence.” It is so destructive, that “with its cosmopolitanism, carried to the point of absurdity, which excludes the possibility of developing national programs, Trotskyism undermines the stances even of its own ‘parties’ in certain countries. […] Trotskyism is entangled in the nets of its own theories.”

It is important that the idea of the Trotskyist conspiracy against practical reason, reality, and stability was never popular in late-Soviet society: it did not grow, like the “blood libel,” from the dark superstitions of the mob. It remained a nightmare for only one segment, the ruling bureaucracy, which transmitted the myth of the senseless and merciless “permanent revolution” to future generations in Party training courses and KGB schools.

The Soviet theory of the Trotskyist conspiracy reflected the subconscious fear of ungovernability on the part of the governing class.  Devoid of any personalities, the legend of Trotskyism was something like the “black swan” of “actually existing socialism.”

10811961_10205372572053199_1830736835_n

This, by the way, is its fundamental difference from the version of the Trotskyist conspiracy popular among some American conservatives. In America, it is merely one of many varieties of the “minority conspiracy,” a small group of people who have, allegedly, seized power and are implementing their anti-Christian, globalist ideas from the top down. The fact that the anti-Trotskyist conspiracy theory of the so-called paleoconservatives has become popular in recent years among Kremlin experts and political scientists only goes to show that the old Soviet “Trotskyist conspiracy” has suffered a deficit in terms of its reproduction.

When he confuses Bernstein and Bronstein, Vladimir Putin, however, is not unfaithful to the Soviet anti-Trotskyist legend. Yes, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The chaos generated by the movement is inevitable, as inevitable as time itself. It moves inexorably toward “permanent revolution,” which cannot be completed and with which one cannot negotiate.

In a recent interview, former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, while skillfully avoiding the issue of “Trotskyism,” nevertheless had this to say about Putin:

“He has frightened himself. Where should go next? What next? This is a terrible problem in politics, the problem of the second step. He stepped beyond what he was ready for and got lost: where to go now?  […] The gap between [the annexation of] Crimea and subsequent actions is quite noticeable. It is obvious that everything afterwards was an improvisation or reaction to other people’s actions. People who are afraid of the future forbid themselves to think about which path to choose. When you have not set achievable goals, you begin to oscillate between two poles: either you do nothing or you get sucked into a colossal conflict.”

The worst thing is that the specter of Trotskyism, as has happened with many other specters in history, is quite capable of materializing. The post-Soviet system has entered a period of crisis, in which the ruling elite has fewer and fewer chances to manage processes “manually.” For the Trotskyist nightmare of the elites to become a reality, there is no need for live Trotskyists. The need for them arises only when hitherto silent and long-suffering forces come to their senses and raise the question of their own aims. But that is a different story.

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, researcher, and writer.

November 19, 2014

Steven Salaita speaks at the New School

Filed under: Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

2014-11-19 12.57.20

 

After following the Steven Salaita affair with intense interest ever since news of his firing broke, I finally heard him speak in person at the New School this afternoon. I was pleased to shake his hand and to be warmly greeted by Nidhi Srinivas, a New School professor and Facebook friend who helped organize the meeting. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to meet Nikhil Singh, an NYU professor and another Facebook friend who was on the panel alongside yet another FB friend Steven Salaita. Interesting how a capitalist vulture like Mark Zuckerberg can create the technology that connects radicals. For all the scare talk from Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, I’ll take my chances with the Internet just as I do with the telephone.

Claire Potter, a history professor at the New School (my alma mater) who blogs as “The Tenured Radical” at Chronicle of Higher Education chaired the meeting. I confess never having read her blog since it is linked in my mind with Cary Nelson’s “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical”, a book that once graced my bookshelf. As most of you know, Nelson has pretty much functioned as Police Inspector Javert to Salaita’s Jean Valjean so my reaction has been to put a minus where he puts a plus. Maybe Claire should rename her blog “Not Cary Nelson”—that would increase her readership by tenfold at least. In the meantime I will keep up with her blog from now on since she was an excellent chairperson, informing the audience of perhaps 75 people about the background on the case.

Steven Salaita was the first to speak. He took the opportunity to address points that have not received that much attention to the media coverage that was obsessed over his tweets.

Most revolved around the racism that is both implicit and explicit at the University of Illinois. To start with, the assault on the right of an indigenous studies department to hire a professor is tied to the ongoing racism there that is reflected in a number of ways. No matter how many times the department and activists who sympathize with its goals have raised the issue of Chief Illini, a racist mascot that used to be featured prominently at football games and that was as much of an affront to native peoples as the Washington Redskins moniker, his presence is still pervasive at the school.

It is not just native peoples who get the shitty end of the stick at this university with its multicultural pretensions. It is also Black and Latino professors and students. Salaita pointed out that the school has been losing people of color from the faculty for a number of years now, a reaction to the prevailing racism. With a student body of 43,000, there are only 332 Black students in the freshman class. There are also social gatherings on campus that Latino students would find most “uncivil” as the student paper reported in 2006:

A recent exchange between the University chapters of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity has sparked a controversy because it played on ethnic stereotypes of Latinos. The exchange, which happened Oct. 5, had a “fiesta” theme, said Cassie Arner, alumnae adviser of the sorority.

A Tri Delta official said one of the women at the party made herself look pregnant, and that some of the women who attended unofficially dubbed the exchange “Tacos and Tequila.”

Ashanti Barber, member of Iskra, a social justice organization, and junior in LAS, said that the men at the party wore sombreros and ponchos and claimed to be illegal aliens or farmers.

Speaking of civility, Salaita reminded the audience that the term has the same root as civilization, a word that was consciously used to draw a distinction with “savagery” when the New World was being conquered. As Nikhil Singh would remind the audience during his remarks, Gandhi had the right take on this when he was asked for his opinion on Western civilization. His reply: “I think it would be a very good idea”.

Next to speak was Ibrahim Shikaki, a Palestinian economics major at the New School who has been active in the struggle around BDS. He gave a shocking (maybe not so shocking at this point) report on how the U. Cal Berkeley student senate voted 16 to 4 for divestment in 2008 when he was a student there. To their dismay, the president of the student senate vetoed the measure after consulting with powerful Zionist organizations.

There was a lot riding on this vote apparently. Students who voted for the measure were contacted by Zionists who warned them that their names would be displayed prominently in a Google search linking them to anti-Semitism, making it impossible for them to get into a good graduate school.

He also reported on trying to enter Jerusalem. He was stopped a crossing and told that he was invited to meet with an Israeli cop to have coffee. The meeting turned into an interrogation over the many Youtube clips that featured Shakaki conducting himself “uncivilly”, in other words protesting Israeli aggression.

Nikhil Singh spoke next. Much of his talk consisted of glowing remarks on a book that Salaita had written, titled “The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism And the Quest for Canaan (Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms)”. It turned out that they were extracted from a letter that Singh wrote on behalf of Salaita on his application for the U. of Illinois position. Singh stated that he only writes such letters of recommendations when he is convinced that the applicant is a strong candidate. Furthermore, nobody that he has ever recommended has been rejected. The callous and duplicitous rejection of Salaita was not only an affront to him but to Singh as well, in fact an affront to academic standards universally.

The last speaker was Ann Snitow, who is the director of Gender studies at the New School and a long time feminist activist. The axis of her talk was on the need to see past platitudes of “civility” and to understand that such calls emanate from the white and powerful figures in academia who regard people of color, women and gays a rude and unwanted presence in campuses where the status quo is rigged against them.

She talked about the Matsunaga incident at the New School when Sekou Sundiata, an African-American poet and professor at the New School, defaced a placard at an art show that he regarded as racist.

Snitow, a feminist who had fought against tendencies in the movement to “protect” women against porn even when made by women for their own pleasure, was expected to argue for the right of the artist to express himself without an intervention from Sundiata who was seen by some as tantamount to Rudolph Giuliani assailing art he regarded as anti-Catholic.

Snitow told people at the New School that the institution has protected the right of free speech for decades but not so much the right of Blacks to feel like they are part of the community. As such, she stood by Sundiata.

November 17, 2014

Tomas Young, Army Veteran, Dies at 34; Critic of Iraq War in Film

Filed under: antiwar,Iraq,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Photo

Tomas Young, who was paralyzed in the Iraq War, with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013. Credit: Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press

Paralyzed from the chest down, the Iraq War veteran is seen in a 2007 documentary film taking dozens of pills for spasms, pain and depression. He speaks agonizingly about his sexual problems. Viewers watch him marry and, eight months later, divorce.

In the film, “Body of War,” Tomas Young is the body. Co-directed and underwritten by the television personality Phil Donahue, the film sought to show, through Mr. Young, the devastating human cost of a war that the filmmakers argued should have never been fought.

Mr. Young died at 34 on Nov. 10 at his home in Seattle. When asked the cause, his mother, Cathy Smith, said, “His body just wore out.”

“Body of War” received the National Board of Review award for best documentary. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it strong consideration for an Oscar nomination. Reviews were mixed, but almost all said it was hard hitting. Mr. Young spoke of his ordeal on “60 Minutes,” “Nightline” and “Bill Moyers Journal.”

But the film, though applauded at film festivals, was not released theatrically; its producers could not find a distributor. (It can be found, however, on Internet streaming services.) In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Donahue suggested one possible reason distributors shied from it. “It’s not a take-your-girl-to-the-movies movie,” he said.

Another reason may have been its polemic tone. Images of Mr. Young’s agony are interspersed with shots of the congressional debate over the resolution giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq in March 2003. The film shows Mr. Young in the forefront of demonstrations against the war by veterans and lobbying members of Congress to stop it.

Six years after the film came out, Mr. Young drew news media coverage when he announced that pain and depression had pushed him to decide to commit suicide. He wrote an open letter to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of “the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.”

The movie had its roots in Mr. Donahue’s antiwar commentary on his MSNBC talk show in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the channel canceled his show, citing low ratings, particularly compared with its direct competitor on Fox News, “The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host, Bill O’Reilly, was a strong supporter of the war.

The seeds of “Body of War” were planted in the spring of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where Mr. Young had been taken after sniper fire severed his spine on his fifth day in Iraq. By her account, Ms. Smith asked her son, who had long been interested in politics, inspired by her liberal views, if there was anybody he wanted to meet in Washington. “Ralph Nader,” he said.

She called Mr. Nader’s office, and he agreed to meet Mr. Young. He asked Mr. Donahue to accompany him. The two had met on Mr. Nader’s presidential campaign bus in 2000. Mr. Donahue said he was “blown away” by Mr. Young’s wounds and came to see the young man as a potential vehicle for showing the sacrifices the troops were making in Iraq, which he thought had been deliberately hidden from the public.

Mr. Donahue said he had considered writing a book but was persuaded that a movie would be better. He teamed with Ellen Spiro, an experienced filmmaker, who shared producing and directing duties with him. Another veteran of Mr. Nader’s presidential races, Eddie Vedder of the rock group Pearl Jam, volunteered to write and perform two songs for the film.

In the movie, Mr. Young recalls enthusiastically enlisting in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he became disillusioned, he says, beginning when he was sent to Iraq rather than Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had masterminded the attacks.

“If I had been shot and hurt in Afghanistan, I’d have been upset about what I have to go through, but there would be no ‘Body of War’ film,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008. “I’d take my government check and sit home. I would not have felt my wounds were received in an invalid war.”

Tomas Vincent Young was born in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 30, 1979, and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. His mother and father, Thomas Young, divorced when he was a boy. Tomas enlisted in the Army at 17 but was discharged because of a shoulder problem. Returning to Kansas City, he took a succession of minimum-wage jobs. Then came Sept. 11.

“I called my recruiter after hearing Bush say he was going to smoke the evildoers out of their caves,” he told the Kansas newspaper The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2007. His shoulder passed muster in February 2002, and after basic training he landed at Fort Hood, Tex., as a private in the First Cavalry Division.

He was shot in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, while lying in an open truck as it rolled through the Sadr City neighborhood. He had emergency surgery in Germany before being flown to Walter Reed.

The documentary shows Mr. Young at one point saying goodbye to his younger brother, Nathan, as his brother deploys for the first of two combat tours in Iraq. It shows him marrying his high school sweetheart, Brie Townsend, who says she can handle the challenges they will face. And it shows them divorcing eight months later.

While Mr. Young was in a rehab center in Chicago, he met Claudia Cuellar, who had volunteered to visit hospitalized veterans to cheer them up. Though his condition had deteriorated, they wed on April 20, 2012. He decided against suicide.

The couple moved to Portland, Ore., because medical marijuana was available there. They then moved to Seattle, partly because Mr. Young had come to regard Mr. Vedder, who lives there, as a friend.

Besides his mother, Mr. Young is survived by his wife, his father and his brother Nathan; his sister, Lisa Harper; another brother, Tim Weaver; and two grandmothers.

November 16, 2014

Rubén Blades in performance at Lincoln Center

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Thanks to the kindness of an old friend and comrade, I was able to attend a concert that was one for the ages. Both in terms of the participants and the program, it was one that had special resonance for me.

It was the first time I ever saw Rubén Blades perform. For anybody involved in Central America solidarity in the 1980s, Blades was an iconic figure. Track one of Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos (Songs From The Tenements Of The Bored), the 1981 album featuring Willie Colon and Blades, was a song called “Tiburón” (Shark) that was a wake-up call to Latin Americans and solidarity activists alike. The shark was obviously American imperialism.

Like the abortive Sandinista revolution, Blades was part of my past through no fault of his own. He continued to make records over the past twenty years but I had not kept up with them except for “Caminando” (walking), the 1991 album that was a mixture of songs about personal experience and politics. “¡Prohibido olvidar!” left no doubt about his outrage over injustice in his own country and other dictatorships:

Prohibieron ir a la escuela e ir a la universidad.
Prohibieron las garantías y el fin constitucional.
Prohibieron todas las ciencias, excepto la militar.
Prohibiendo el derecho a queja, prohibieron el preguntar.
Hoy te sugiero, mi hermano, pa’ que no vuelva a pasar,
¡Prohibido olvidar!

Forbidden to go to school and go to college.
Forbidden the guarantees and constitutional rights.
Forbidden all sciences except the military.
Forbidden the right to complain, and to ask questions.
Today I suggest, my brother , so that does not happen again,
Forbidden to forget!

Listening to the still powerful voice of this 66-year old singer reminded me to look into the Blades recordings on Amazon.com, a reservoir of art and politics perfectly matched to each other.

Blades was backed by the house band of Jazz at Lincoln Center that is led by Wynton Marsalis. I was not only richly rewarded by hearing one of the most important salsa singers of recent decades but accompanying musicians who hearkened back to the golden age of Afro-Cuban jazz. Blades mentioned some of the more memorable practitioners, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito and Chano Pozo. In a very real sense, Afro-Cuban jazz united two disparate strands of the African diaspora both rooted in the mother country’s culture kept alive by slaves. In Cuba they bequeathed the distinctive clave (rhythm) that formed the basis for modern salsa and in the Deep South the blues and spirituals that found their way into New Orleans jazz.

Wynton Marsalis, a native son of New Orleans and a musician very much committed to the grand traditions, demonstrated a real affinity for the Afro-Cuban trumpet style, sounding very much like the legendary Chocolate Armenteros in his blistering solo on the opening number “Apoyete en Mi Alma”.

The concert was roughly divided into salsa tunes written by Blades for the most part and American standards that he learned at an early stage from the records that came along with the gargantuan record player his father won in a card game, including a Frank Sinatra album. Drawing laughter from the audience, Blades said that he did pitch-perfect renditions of such songs without having any idea what the lyrics meant. People who came by the house and heard the 11-year old breaking into something like “Begin the Beguine” thought he was out of his mind.

Weaving personal recollections such as these with thoughts about the need for continuing solidarity with movements for social justice in Latin America, Blades ended the concert on a fitting note—an encore called “Patria” that can be seen below (go to Youtube and search for “Rubén Blades” and Marsalis for other performancs):

 

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,035 other followers