Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2014

Tony Blair joins “axis of good”

Filed under: Islamophobia — louisproyect @ 1:32 am

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/tony-blair/10781481/West-and-Russia-must-unite-to-tackle-radical-Islam-says-Tony-Blair.html

West and Russia must unite to tackle radical Islam, says Tony Blair

The former prime minister says that the danger from religious extremism is ‘growing’ and is more important than differences over Ukraine

By Hayley Dixon, and agencies

Highlighting the ”growing” danger from religious extremism, the former prime minister is to call for it to be put at the ”top of the agenda”.

Failing to ”take sides” with moderates in the Middle East and North Africa could mean the 21st century is dominated by conflict rather than peaceful coexistence, he will say.

Mr Blair is due to make the intervention in a speech at Bloomberg in London on Wednesday morning.

It comes with tensions still running high in eastern Ukraine, and after Russia was jettisoned from the G8 group of nations over Vladimir Putin’s decision to annexe the Crimea.

But Mr Blair will describe a wider crisis with its roots in ”a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message”.

”The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world.

”It is destabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful coexistence in an era of globalisation.

”And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.”

Mr Blair – Middle East envoy for the quartet of the United Nations, EU, US, and Russia – will say there needs to be a new policy of ”engagement” in the region and beyond.

”We have to elevate the issue of religious extremism to the top of the agenda,” he will say.

”All over the world the challenge of defeating this ideology requires active and sustained engagement.

”Consider this absurdity: that we spend billions of dollars on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships.

”Some of those countries of course wish to escape from the grip of this ideology.

”But often it is hard for them to do so within their own political constraints. They need to have this issue out in the open where it then becomes harder for the promotion of this ideology to happen underneath the radar.

”In other words they need us to make this a core part of the international dialogue in order to force the necessary change within their own societies.

”This struggle between what we may call the open-minded and the closed-minded is at the heart of whether the 21st century turns in the direction of peaceful coexistence or conflict between people of different cultures.”

Conceding that recent conflicts such as Iraq had eroded the willingness of Western nations to act, Mr Blair will say it is nonetheless necessary to ”take sides”.

”The important point for Western opinion is that this is a struggle with two sides. So when we look at the Middle East and beyond it to Pakistan or Iran and elsewhere, it isn’t just a vast unfathomable mess with no end in sight and no one worthy of our support,” he will say.

”It is in fact a struggle in which our own strategic interests are intimately involved; where there are indeed people we should support and who, ironically, are probably in the majority if only that majority were mobilised, organised and helped.

”But what is absolutely necessary is that we first liberate ourselves from our own attitude. We have to take sides. We have to stop treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time. We have to have an approach to the region that is coherent and sees it as a whole. And above all, we have to commit. We have to engage.”

Mr Blair will argue that ”on this issue, whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China”.

He will repeat his defence of the popular coup that overthrew Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi last year.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been ”systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country”.

”The revolt of 30 June 2013 was not an ordinary protest. It was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation. We should support the new government and help,” he will say.

Aides to the former premier insisted it was too ”blunt” to suggest Mr Blair is simply advocating more military action.

He is trying to make clear the issue has to be addressed in its ”religious as well as its political context”, they said.

April 23, 2014

A couple of great dance scenes in New Wave films

Filed under: dance,Film — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

At some level what makes films great defies analysis, especially the sort of bullshit you are going to hear from a Film School “expert”. While watching the scene below from Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket”, I was both reminded of another iconic dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders”, made a year before Bellocchio’s, but struck by the difference. Although both dance scenes reflect the pure joy of dancing, there is a world of difference socially. Godard’s dancers are bohemians, while Bellocchio’s are petty-bourgeois, the very people he was skewering in this debut film.

The two men seen at the beginning are brothers. The dark haired guy is Augusto, a self-employed and completely no-nonsense guy anxious to move out of his mother’s villa and the company of his siblings—two brothers and a sister—who are epileptics, unemployed (unemployable is more like it) and constantly getting into trouble. The clip comes from a full version of the film that is available only with Spanish subtitles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5emT2n0HMY).

The blonde guy is Alessandro, a ne’er-do-well and the real anti-hero of the film. Augusto warns him to stay out of trouble at the party being thrown for his fiancé, particularly to lay off the booze.

The couples are doing a cha-cha-cha, a dance very popular in the late 50s and early 60s. I learned to do it at a boy scouts dancing lesson. The key scene comes toward the end as Alessandro sits by himself, wondering what he is doing there. The dancers come in and out of view. It is pure magic.

Immediately below is the scene from “Band of Outsiders”. Rather than try to “explain” it, as if it needed an explanation, I will allow New Yorker film critic Richard Brody to do so. It’s not so much that he is wrong; it is that he overdoes it after the fashion of all film school professors.

New Yorker, April 5, 2013

Behind the Scenes of an Iconic Godard Scene

Posted by Richard Brody

It’s one of the iconic scenes of the modern cinema, part of a movie that its director has called one of his worst and to which he soon responded with a work of analytical and politicized modernism. But the scene itself is, in its way, a surprising work of modernism—I’m referring, of course, to the line dance done in a café by Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders”—and this clip, of its production (that my colleague John Bennet sent along), suggests a practical basis for its most original fillip of invention.

First, the substance of the clip itself (the commentary and interview are in French, unsubtitled). The commentator says that the cast and crew have gathered to shoot the scene “in a bar at Vincennes, at the busiest hour,” which explains why a crowd of onlookers is pressing close to the rail that separates the rest of the café from the part, right nearby, where the shoot is taking place. Godard himself hosts the television report like a sort of puckish master of ceremonies, doing the clap himself and calling the second take (“the sound was bad, it’s for television”). The interviewer asks Godard about the title of the film: “Why do your characters form a band of outsiders—in other words, how do they distinguish themselves from others?” Godard answers, “I’d say rather that they are normal people; people distinguish themselves from them.” He says that the movie is based on a “fait divers” (“news in brief” or “crime blotter”), and adds, “I wanted to call it—it could as easily be called ‘Fait Divers.’ ”

The dance starts two minutes in; it’s fascinating to note that the café patrons press so close to it and all the more remarkable to hear the music on the jukebox to which they’re dancing—John Lee Hooker’s “Shake It Baby” (thanks to Shazam, as John let me know). Compare the sequence as seen in the finished film (which isn’t the same take—it features more patrons and a busy waiter in the background). The music that’s heard on the soundtrack is composed by Michel Legrand and is conspicuously dubbed in—and the dance doesn’t catch its beat perfectly, or, rather, vice versa. I wonder whether the question was one of rights—whether the production (and the movie has an American producer, Columbia Pictures) was unable or unwilling to get rights to the song, or whether Godard himself (who was administering the hundred-thousand-dollar budget through his own production company) had little interest in doing so.

I can’t help wondering whether, since the music is dubbed in, so are the claps, foot-stamps, and finger-snaps (because, of course, if another piece of music was playing in the café, there would be no way to remove it from the soundtrack while keeping the other ambient sounds)—or whether, for the take used in the film, there was no music playing at all, and the trio did their dance to the time of music playing in their minds. It would be all the more remarkable, inasmuch as none of the three actors—they’re now all in their seventies—is a trained dancer (they rehearsed that scene every day for a month before filming it).

In any case, the greatest flourish in the sequence is one involving the soundtrack. The music cuts out, and Godard speaks, in voice-over: “Now it’s time to open a second parenthesis, and to describe the emotions of the characters.” It cuts out three more times, and here’s what Godard says about each of the characters. First, Brasseur’s: “Arthur [Brasseur] keeps looking at his feet but he thinks about Odile’s mouth, about her [or, maybe, his] romantic desires.” Then, Karina’s: “Odile is wondering whether the two boys noticed her two breasts, which move beneath her sweater with every step.” Finally, Frey’s: “Franz is thinking of everything and nothing. He doesn’t know whether the world is becoming a dream or the dream, a world.” And that’s what distinguishes this notable sequence from its imitators and tributaries, whether scenes by Quentin Tarantino or by Hal Hartley or this one, from a movie I’ve never seen, “The Go-Getter,” by Martin Hynes.

For that matter, it distinguishes the scene from so many scenes in so many films where so many filmmakers are so concerned with bringing out their characters’ emotions solely by means of action. The fussily naturalistic framework of most movies by most filmmakers is more or less rendered obsolete in advance by this little scene. Filmmakers unwilling to break the sacrosanct continuity of action compel themselves to reveal character through action—and little is more tiresome in movies than scenes showing action that is supposed to reveal some aspect of character. That’s why many movies—and many wrongly hailed—give a sense of being constructed as illustrations of script elements, the connections of dots planted in just the right place to yield a particular portrait. Godard’s example is as much a lesson in substance as in style—in composition through fragmentation, in expression through directness and audacity, of artistic impulse combining with necessity as a means to enduring innovation. Whatever an experimental film might be, this sequence is one—it’s an experiment the discoveries of which have yet to be fully assimilated by the world of filmmakers, almost half a century later.

 

Bellocchio Versus the Barbarians

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

One of the Left’s Greatest Film Directors

Bellocchio Versus the Barbarians

by LOUIS PROYECT

From April sixteenth to May seventh, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting a retrospective of the work of Italian director Marco Bellocchio, one of the great film directors of the Italian left. As with Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti and Pontecorvo, Bellocchio’s films are intensely political as well as artistic triumphs. Born in 1939, Bellochio, a friend of Pasolini, joined the Maoist Union of Italian Communists (Marxist–Leninist) in 1968, a sect whose newspaper bore the title popular in those circles: “Serve the People”. His motto would ultimately be “Serve the Audience”.

Bellocchio was always far more interested in human drama than propaganda. Made one year before he joined the Maoists, the narrative film “China is Near” is anything but propaganda if you take Pauline Kael at her word (and who wouldn’t?). She describes the film’s Maoist anti-hero Camillo, who is committed to sabotaging his older brother’s campaign for municipal office on the Socialist Party ticket, as a “prissy, sneering despot” and “a seventeen-year-old seminary student turned Maoist who looks the way Edward Albee might look in a drawing by David Levine.” The film derives its title from graffiti scrawled by Camillo on the walls near his brother’s campaign HQ.

If you have access to Hulu Plus, I recommend a look at “Fists in the Pocket”, Bellocchio’s debut film. Made in 1965 when he was only 26, it is deeply influenced by Godard and Buñuel. Like “China is Near”, the film is about a family at war but the story has only a tangential relationship to Italian society. Living in a decrepit villa in the Italian Alps, a blind matriarch has four grown children living under the same roof with her. A good Catholic, she tries to maintain her sanity in the face of nonstop quarrels, often turning violent, and tearful reconciliations among her troubled brood. The oldest son is the only one gainfully employed, while his younger sister and two younger brothers spend their days alternating between juvenile pranks and coping with the epileptic seizures that run in the family. Alessandro, one of the younger brothers, has the devilish soul and self-loathing of a Karamazov brother. He plots to kill his mother, himself and his two other epileptic siblings in order to allow the oldest brother to live a normal life. I should add that this is a comedy and a very good one at that.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/23/bellocchio-versus-the-barbarians/

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Friends of the Imaginary People

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

louisproyect:

Essential reading…

Originally posted on The Russian Reader:

anticapitalist.ru

Friends of the Imaginary People

There is one point on which there is striking agreement among liberals, Putinists, and the “populist” segment of the Russian left. This is the idea that the majority of the Russian population adheres to leftist values, as opposed to the narrow strata of the middle class and intelligentsia in the big cities.

This simplified representation of societal processes, typical of both semi-official and opposition propaganda, is based on a juxtaposition of the so-called creative class with the notional workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank and railway car manufacturing plant, supposed wearers of quilted jackets with alleged hipsters. Discussion of such complicated topics as the Bolotnaya Square protests, Maidan, and Anti-Maidan revolves around this juxtaposition. The various ideological camps differ only in terms of where their likes and dislikes are directed.

Leaving aside left-nationalist figures like Sergei Kurginyan and Eduard Limonov, the most prominent proponent of…

View original 1,819 more words

April 20, 2014

Lenin’s party, Great Russian chauvinism, and the betrayal of Ukrainian national aspirations

Filed under: Lenin,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm


Nestor Makhno, anarchist leader of Ukrainian peasants
Lenin more than once considered the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

Thanks to Andrew Pollack, we were able to scan in and reproduce an article that appeared in the Autumn 1989 International Marxist Review by Zbigniew Kowalewski titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” that details the tragic failure of the Bolsheviks to understand the need for Ukrainian self-determination. To give you an idea of how Great Russian chauvinism persists in the Kremlin and among those self-proclaimed Marxists who repeat Putin’s talking points, the article states:

The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

That’s from 1919. Nothing has changed evidently. What is all the more difficult to understand is the tendency to view Ukrainian national aspirations as reactionary given the openly Romanovist inclinations of the Russian government today. At least when Christian Rakovsky, the Bolshevik colonial administrator of Ukraine, pushed for russification, he did so in the name of the socialist revolution. Those who now back Russian domination of an historically oppressed nation do so in the name of Gazprom and the pro-Russian oligarchy.

The article refers to the same kinds of stupidities committed in the name of Marxism against Poland, another country that had suffered from Czarist bullying. I strongly recommend a look at Paul Kellogg’s article titled Substitutionism versus Self-emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921 that covers the Kremlin’s bungling to the north of the Ukraine. It is an important contribution to the necessary critical re-examination of the early Comintern’s history.

For the independence of Soviet Ukraine

By Zbigniew Kowalewski

DESPITE the giant step forward taken by the October Revolution in the domain of national relations, the isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country proved incapable of solving the national question, especially the Ukrainian question which is, in its very essence, international in character. The Thermidorean reaction, crowned by Bonapartist bureaucracy, has thrown the toiling masses far back in the national sphere as well. The great masses of the Ukrainian people are dissatisfied with their national fate and with to change it drastically. It is this fact that the revolutionary politician must, in contrast to the bureaucrat and the sectarian, take as his point of departure.

If our critic were capable of thinking politically, he would have surmised without much difficulty the arguments of the Stalinists against the slogan of an independent Ukraine: ‘it negates the position of the defence of the Soviet Union’, ‘disrupts the unity of the revolutionary masses.; ‘serves not the interests of revolution but those of imperialism’. In other words, the Stalinists would repeat all the three arguments of our author. They will unfailingly, do so on the morrow.

The sectarian as so often happens, finds himself siding with the police, covering up the status quo, that is, police violence, by sterile speculation on the superiority of the socialist unification of nations as against their remaining divided. Assuredly, the separation of the Ukraine is a liability as compared with a voluntary and equalitarian socialist federation: tan it will be an unquestionable asset as compared with the bureaucratic strangulation of the Ukrainian people. In order to draw together more closely and honestly, it is sometimes necessary first to separate.’

The quoted article by Trotsky “The Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads” (July 1939), is, in a number of ways, much more important than the article of April the same year, “The Ukrainian Question”. First of all, it unmasks and disarms the pseudo-Marxist sectarians who, in the name of defending proletarian internationalism transform it into a sterile abstraction, and reject the slogan of national independence of a people oppressed by the Kremlin bureaucracy. In this article Trotsky places himself in the continuity of the ideological struggle waged by Lenin against the “tendency to imperialist economism”, a tendency which was active in the ranks of Bolshevik Party as well as in the faux left of international social democracy. It should be clear that the adjective “imperialist” that Lenin attributes to this form of economism in the revolutionary movement in relation to the national question is justified by the theoretical reasons evoked by the author of the term. A sociological examination would show that this tendency is mainly based among revolutionary socialists belonging to the dominant and imperialist nations. The sectarians denounced by Trotsky, are only a new version of the same tendency that Lenin fought against at the time of the discussion on the right of nations to self-determination in the context of an anti-capitalist revolution.

Second, Trotsky’s article contains theoretical and political considerations which are indispensable for understanding the correctness and the need for a slogan such as that of independence for the Soviet Ukraine as well as for a national revolution of an oppressed people as a factor and component of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. To fully appreciate the richness of this contribution, readers are invited to study the article themselves.

Third, Trotsky explains that in a case like that of the Ukraine, real internationalism and a real search for the international unity of the working class are impossible without clear and resolute support for national “separatism”.

To make possible a genuine brotherhood of the peoples in the future, the advanced workers of Great Russia must even now understand the causes of Ukrainian separatism as well as the latent power and historical lawfulness behind it, and they must without any reservation declare to the Ukrainian people that they are ready to support with all their might the slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine in a joint straggle against the autocratic bureaucracy and against imperialism.

It goes without saying that this task is the responsibility of the vanguard of the international workers’ movement even before being that of the Russian proletariat. The defence of the slogan of Ukrainian independence adopted by the World Congresses of the Fourth International in 1957 and 1979 is a task of enormous political importance today. The rise of national mass movements of the oppressed peoples of the USSR demands that the slogan of national independence should be a part of our general propaganda and agitation. if this is not done, the socialist opposition in the USSR will leave the field open to the bureaucracy, which hopes to isolate the anti-bureaucratic struggles waged in the non-Russian republics from the fight of the workers in Great Russia. They thus omit one of the basic transitional tasks of the anti-bureaucratic struggle.

Fourthly, Trotsky contributes an essential clarification to the historical dis-cussion on the right of nations to self-determination while eliminating from this Leninist slogan its abstract and politically redundant features. Trotsky explains that, if the oppression of a people is an objective fact, we do not need this people to be in struggle and to demand independence in order to advance the slogan of independence. At the time when Trotsky raised this slogan, nobody in the Soviet Ukraine could demand such a thing without having to face execution or becoming a prisoner in the Gulag. A wait-and-see policy would only lead to the political and programmatic disarming of revolutionaries. An oppressed people needs independence because it is oppressed. Independence, states Trotsky, is the indispensable democratic framework in which an oppressed people becomes free to determine itself. in other words, there is no self-determination outside the context of national independence.

In order to freely determine her relations with other Soviet republics, in order to possess the right to say yes or no, the Ukraine must return to herself complete freedom of action, at least for the duration of this constituent period. There is no other name for this than state independence.

In order to exercise self-determination — and every oppressed people needs and must have the greatest freedom of action in this field — there has to be a constituent congress of the nation.

But a “constituent” congress signifies nothing else but the congress of an independent state which prepares anew to determine its own domestic regime as well as its international position.

Faced with the implacable rigour of this explanation any other discourse on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination can only be sustained by sleight-of-hand. This right cannot be defended without fighting for the oppressed people to have the means of exercising it that is to say without demanding the state independence necessary for the convocation of a free constituent assembly or congress.

Finally, and this is a question of signal importance, Trotsky recognized that the October revolution did not resolve the national question inherited from the Russian empire. Isolated in a backward country, it could only bring it to resolution with great difficulty. But was it equipped for that? In the perspective of a new, anti-bureaucratic, revolution we have to decide whether the same means can be reused or if a totally new approach is necessary. I think that Trotsky was convinced that the second option was correct. This is a question of the first importance that seems never to have been taken up by the Trotskyist movement, although it is a necessary starting point for any discussion on the relevance of Trotsky’s slogan of 1939.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — formally (and fictively like Byelorussia) a member of the United Nations — is the most important of the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union. It is also the biggest country in Europe after Russia in surface (603,700 square kilometres), and one of the biggest in population (more than 50 million, 74% of whom are Ukrainian). The Ukrainian people form the largest oppressed nation in the USSR and Europe. The urban working class constitutes more than 50% of the total population and more than 75% of the Ukrainian population of the republic. The liberation of the enormous potential that this class represents from the dual burden of bureaucratic dictatorship and national oppression is a fundamental task and a condition for the development of the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as for the social revolution on the entire continent it is impossible to imagine any advance in building socialism in the USSR and in Europe without the victory of the Ukrainian national revolution which has, as Trotsky explained, an international strategic dimension. What the sectarians ignore in taking up this question is the fact that the national revolution, one of the most important and most complex forms of the class struggle, cannot be avoided by simple references to the anti-bureaucratic revolution in the USSR as a whole or the future European and world revolution.

Bolshevism faced with an unexpected national revolution.

Considered by many people — including Marx and Engels at one time — as a “people without history”, the Ukrainian people constituted itself as a nation in a “historical” manner par excellence, that is heroically. In 1648, the community of freemen and of military democracy, known as the Cossacks, formed a people’s liberation army, and launched a huge peasant uprising against the Polish state, its ruling class and its church. The nation state established during this rising did not manage to stabilize but the Cossack and peasant revolution crystallized a historical nation even before the shaping of the modern nations through the expansion of capitalism. Since the end of the 18th century, the bulk of Ukrainian territory had been transformed into a province of the Tsarist empire, known as “Little Russia”. On the eve of the Russian revolution, it was a “European”-type colony? Compared to the general level of socio-economic development in this empire this region was one of the most industrialized and characterized by a strong penetration of capitalism in agriculture. Ukrainian was synonymous with peasant because around 90% of the population lived in the countryside. Among the 3.6 million proletarians (12% of the population), 0.9 million worked in industry and 1.2 million in agriculture. As a product of a very uneven development of capitalism, half of the industrial proletariat was concentrated in the mining and steel enclave of the Donbas, Because of the colonial development and the Tsarist “solution” to the Jewish question, only 43% of the proletariat was of Ukrainian nationality, the rest being Russian, Russified and Jewish. The Ukrainians constituted less than a third of the urban population. The western part of Ukraine, Galicia, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The two central demands of the renascent national movement were the independence and unity (‘samostiinist’ i sobornist’) of the Ukraine.

The 1917 revolution opened the road to the Ukrainian national revolution. It was the most powerful, the most massive and the most violent of the all the revolutions of the oppressed nations of the empire. The masses demanded a radical agrarian reform, independence, the constitution of a Ukrainian government and independence. The opportunist petty bourgeois and workers’ parties of the Central Rada (council) which led the national movement opposed the demand for independence. They only proclaimed it after the October revolution to which they were hostile. By authorizing the passage of counter-revolutionary military units, the Central Rada provoked a declaration of war by Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Bolsheviks were very badly prepared to deal with the Ukrainian national revolution.

The right to national self-determination put forward by Lenin was a slogan that had not been very well assimilated by the party, It was even challenged by a sizeable current, characterized by Lenin as “imperialist economism”. This challenge was particularly dangerous as it appeared within a proletarian party of a nation that was traditionally an oppressor and had become imperialist, in an empire characterized by Lenin as an enormous prison of peoples. Apart from Lenin’s writings, the only overall work on the national question at the disposal of the Bolshevik Party was the confused, indeed largely wrong study by Stalin. Written in 1913, it did not even take up the national question in the framework of imperialism. Lenin himself expressed confused and ill-thought out positions such as the excessive inspiration that he drew from the example of the American melting-pot and a categorical rejection of a federalist solution. He condemned this as contradicting his idea of a centralized state and demanded that each nationality choose between complete separation and national-territorial autonomy within a centralized multi-national state, He educated the party in this spirit for more than ten years. After the revolution, and without giving any explanation for his turnaround, he proclaimed the federation of nations as the correct solution and compatible with state centralism — a shift that many Bolshevik leaders did not take seriously. Over and above the democratic slogan of the right to self-determination, Bolshevism had neither a programme nor a strategy of national and social permanent revolution for the oppressed peoples of the empire.

In Ukraine, apart from a few exceptions, the Bolshevik Party (like the Menshevik Party) was only active within the most concentrated and modern section of the proletariat, which was not of Ukrainian nationality. The spread of communism within the proletariat followed the dynamic of the development of a colonial industrial capitalism. Political action within the national proletariat was the domain of Ukrainian social-democracy which placed itself outside the Bolshevik/Menshevik split and was accused by the former of capitulating to Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalism”. The “national” bourgeoisie hardly existed. At this period, the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed was already present in Lenin’s writings but both were considered bourgeois. The notion of revolutionary nationalism had not yet appeared. Social Revolutionary populism, which was becoming national and autonomous from its Russian equivalent, represented another active political force within the Ukrainian masses. The Bolshevik Party in the Ukraine used only Russian in its press and propaganda. It ignored the national question and did not even have a leadership centre in the territory. It is not surprising that when the national revolution broke out it was caught unarmed.

In the Ukraine, the Bolshevik Party only tried to organize as a separate entity after the Brest-Litovsk treaty, that is during the first Bolshevik retreat and at the beginning of the occupation of the country by the imperialist German army. At the ad hoc conference in Tahanrih in April 1918, there were several tendencies present. On the right, the “Katerynoslavians” with Emmanuil Kviring. On the left, the “Kievans” with lurii Piatakov, but also the “Poltavans” or “nationals” with Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhrai, strengthened by the support of a group from the extreme left of Ukrainian social-democracy. The right, basing itself on the Russian industrial proletariat pro-posed to form the Russian CP(B) in Ukraine. The “Poltavans” and the “Kievans” wanted an entirely independent Bolshevik party. A section of the “Poltavans” wanted to settle the national question in a radical way through the foundation of an independent Soviet Ukraine. Shakhrai, the most radical, even wanted the party to be called the Ukrainian CP(B). The “Kievans” were for an independent party (and perhaps a state) while denying the existence of the national question and considering the right to national self-determination an opportunist slogan. With Piatakov they represented the most extreme proponents of “imperialist economism”. However, at the same time, they identified with Bukharinist “left communism” and were hostile to the Brest-Litovsk peace and to Leninist centralism. In order to assert themselves in opposition to Lenin they needed an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine. Moreover, they considered that a particular strategy was necessary in Ukraine directed towards the peasant masses and based in their insurrectional potential. It was for this reason that the “Kievans” allied with the “Poltavans”. And it was Skrypnyk’s position that won out. Rejecting Kviring’s approach on the one hand and Shakhrai’s on the other, the conference proclaimed the Communist Party(B) in Ukraine as the Ukrainian section, independent of the Russian CP(B), of the Communist International.

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

The first congress of the CP(B) of the Ukraine took place in Moscow. For Lenin and the leadership of the Russian CP(B) the decision of Tahanrih had the flavour of a nationalist deviation. They were not ready to accept an independent Bolshevik party in the Ukraine or a Ukrainian section of the Komintern. The CP(B) of the Ukraine could only be a regional organization of the pan-Russian CP(B), according to the thesis “one country, one party”. Is the Ukraine not a country?

Skrypnyk, considered responsible for the deviation, was eliminated from the party leadership. In this situation, Shakhrai, the most intransigent of the “Poltavans” went over to open dissidence. In two books of inflammatory content, written with his Ukrainian Jewish comrade Serhii Mazlakh, they laid the foundations of a pro-independence Ukrainian communism. For them, the Ukrainian national revolution was an act of enormous importance for the world revolution. The natural and legitimate tendency of this revolution and its growing over into a social revolution could only lead to the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ Soviet Ukraine as an independent state. The slogan of independence was thus crucial to ensure this growing over, for forming the workers-peasants alliance, to make it possible for the revolutionary proletariat to take power and to establish a real and sincere unity with the Russian proletariat. It was only in this way that the Ukraine could become a stronghold of the international proletarian revolution. The contrary policy would lead to disaster. This was the message of the Shakhrai current.” And it was indeed a disaster.

The reasons for the failure of the second Bolshevik government

In November 1918, under the impact of the collapse of the central powers in the imperialist war and the outbreak of revolution in Germany, a generalized national insurrection overthrew the Hetmanate, a fake state established in the Ukraine by German imperialism. The opportunist leaders of the former Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic who, a short while before, had made a compromise with German imperialism, took the head of the insurrection to restore the Republic and its government, this time called the Directory. Symon Petliura, a former social-democrat who had become a rightwinger swearing ferocious hatred of Bolshevism, became the de facto military dictator. But this unprecedented rise of a national revolution of the masses was also the rise of a social revolution. Just as they had previously done faced with the Central Rada, the masses rapidly lost their illusions in Petliura’s Directory, and turned again to the social programme of the Bolsheviks. The far left of the Ukrainian Social Revolutionary Party, called the Borotbists, which was increasingly pro-Communist, affirmed its ideological influence among the masses.

In a situation favourable to the possibility of a convergence between the Russian revolution and the Ukrainian revolution, the Red Army again entered the country, chased out the Directory, and established the second Bolshevik government. Piatakov was at the head of this government before being rapidly recalled to Moscow.

Although continuing to ignore the national question — for him the Ukrainian revolution was not a national but a peasant revolution — the Piatokov government, sensitive to the social reality of the Ukraine, wanted to be an independent state power. It considered such power indispensable in order to ensure the growing over of the peasant revolution into the proletarian revolution and to give proletarian leadership to the people’s revolutionary war. Moscow appointed Christian Rakovsky to take Piatakov’s place. Recently arrived from the Balkans, where the national question was particularly complicated and acute, he declared himself a specialist on the Ukrainian question and was recognized as such in Moscow, including by Lenin. In reality, although he was a very talented militant and completely devoted to the cause of the world revolution, he was completely ignorant and dangerous in his so-called speciality. In lzvestia, the Soviet government newspaper, he announced the following theses: the ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians are insignificant, the Ukrainian peasants do not have a national consciousness, they even send petitions to the Bolsheviks to demand to be Russian subjects; they refuse to read revolutionary proclamations in Ukrainian while devouring the same thing in Russian. The national consciousness of the masses has been submerged by their social class consciousness. The word “Ukrainian” is practically an insult for them. The working class is purely of Russian origin. The industrial bourgeoisie and the majority of the big land-owners are Russian, Polish or Jewish. In conclusion Rakovsky did not even recognize a national entity in the Ukraine and for him the Ukrainian national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia that supported Petliura, who were using it in order to hoist themselves into power.

Rakovsky understood perfectly that the Bolshevik revolution in the Ukraine was the “strategic knot” and the “decisive factor” in the extension of the socialist revolution in Europe. However, unable to place his vision within the context of the Ukrainian national revolution or recognize that this latter was an unavoidable and indispensable active force, Rakovsky condemned his own strategy to shipwreck on the rocks of the Ukrainian question. A tragic but relative error if compared with that of Lenin eighteen months later, which plunged the European revolution into the quagmire of the Polish national question by giving orders to invade Poland.

In opposition to the demands of Piatakov, Rakovsky’s government — which was on paper that of an “independent republic” — considered itself a simple regional delegation of power from the Russian workers’ state. But objective reality is implacable. Faced with Rakovsky’s attempt to impose a Greater Russian communist centralism, the national reality, already explained by Bolsheviks like Shakhrai, and also in their own way by Bolsheviks like Piatakov, made itself felt. This centralism unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. The proletarian revolution did not lead the national revolution; nor did a proletarian military leadership impose itself at the head of the armed national and social insurrection of the masses. In order to achieve class consciousness, the masses of an oppressed people have first to pass through the stage of achieving a national consciousness. Having alienated and even repressed the bearers of this consciousness, recruitment to the administration was restricted to the often reactionary Russian petty bourgeoisie, who were accustomed to serving under whoever was in power in Moscow. Things were the same for the army; recruitment took place amongst people with a very low level of consciousness, not to say lumpen elements. The result was a conglomerate of disparate armed forces, with commanders ranging from Nestor Makhno (presented by the central press in glowing terms as a natural revolutionary leader of the poor peasants in revolt, over-looking entirely his anarcho-communist beliefs, totally at odds with Bolshevism) and straightforward adventurers such as Matvii Hryhoryiv. This latter was promoted to the rank of plenipotentiary Red commander of a vast region by Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The leftist agrarian policy, that of the commune, transplanted into the Ukraine from Russia on the principle of a single country and a single agrarian policy, inevitably alienated the middle peasants. It drove them into the arms of the rich peasants and ensured their hostility to the Rakovsky government while isolating and dividing the poor peasants. Power was exercised by the Bolshevik Party, the revolutionary committees and the poor peasants’ committees, imposed from above by the party. Soviets were only permitted in some of the large towns and even then had only an advisory role. The most widely-supported popular demand was that of all power to democratically-elected Soviets — a demand of Bolshevik origin that now struck at the present Bolshevik policy. On the national issue, the policy was one of linguistic russification, the “dictatorship of Russian culture” proclaimed by Rakov-sky and the repression of the militants of the national renaissance. The Great Russian philistine was able to wrap himself in the red flag in order to repress everything that smacked of Ukrainian nationalism and defend the historical “one and indivisible” Russia. Afterwards, Skrypnyk drew up a list of some 200 decrees “forbidding the use of the Ukrainian language” drawn up under Rakovsky’s rule by “a variety of pseudo-specialists, Soviet bureaucrats and pseudo-communists.” In a letter to Lenin, the Borotbists were to describe the policy of this government as that of “the expansion of a ‘red’ imperialism (Russian nationalism)”, giving the impression that “Soviet power in the Ukraine had fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter-revolution”.

In the course of a military escapade, the rebel army of Hryhoryiv captured Odessa and proclaimed that they had thrown the Entente expeditionary corps (in fact in the process of evacuating the town) into the sea. This fictional exploit was backed up by Bolshevik propaganda. Sensing a shift in the wind, the “victor over the Entente”, Hryhoryiv, rebelled against the power of “the commune, the Cheka and the commissars” sent from Moscow and from the land “where they have crucified Jesus Christ”. He gave the signal for a wave of insurrections to throw out the Rakovsky government. Aware of the mood of the masses, he called on them to establish Soviets from below everywhere, and for their delegates to come together to elect a new government. Some months later, Hryhoryiv was shot by Makhno in the presence of their respective armies, accused of responsibility for anti-semitic pogroms. Even the pro-communist extreme left of the social democracy took up arms against the “Russian government of occupation”. Whole chunks of the Red Army deserted and joined the insurrection. The elite troops of “Red Cossacks” disintegrated politically, tempted by banditry, plunder and pogroms.

These uprisings opened the way for Denikin and isolated the Hungarian Revolution. From Budapest, a desperate Bela Kun demanded a radical change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine. The commander of the Red Army’s Ukrainian front, Antonov-Ovseyenko, did the same. Among the Ukrainian Bolsheviks, the “federalist” current, in effective agreement with the ideas of Shaldirai and Borotbism, started factional activity. The Borotbists, protective of their autonomy, although still in alliance with the Bolsheviks, formed the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbist) and demanded recognition as a national section of the Comintern. With large influence amongst the poor peasantry and the Ukrainian working-class in the countryside and the towns, this party looked towards an independent Soviet Ukraine. They even envisaged armed confrontation with the fraternal Bolshevik Party on this question, but only after victory over Denikin, on the other fronts of the civil war and imperialist intervention.

Both the Hungarian and Bavarian revolutions, deprived of Bolshevik military support were crushed. The Russian revolution itself was in mortal danger from Denikin’s offensive.

“One and indivisible” Russia or independence of the Ukraine?

It was under these conditions that Trotsky, in the course of a new and decisive turn in the civil war — as the Red Army went over to the offensive against Denikin — took a political initiative of fundamental importance. On November 30 1919, in his order to the Red troops as they entered the Ukraine, he stated:

The Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in the Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it.— Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer the Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin’s bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia. We are all sure, and we know, that the working people of the Ukraine will declare for the closest fraternal union with us…. Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine.

After two years of civil war in the Ukraine, this was the first initiative by the. Bolshevik regime aimed at drawing the social and political forces of the Ukrainian national revolution – that is the Ukrainian workers and peasants – into the ranks of the proletarian revolution. Trotsky was also concerned to counteract the increasingly centrifugal dynamic of Ukrainian communism whether inside or outside the Bolshevik party.

Trotsky’s search for a political solution to the Ukrainian national question was supported. by Rakovsky, who had become aware of his errors, and closely coordinated with Lenin, who was also now conscious of the disastrous consequences of policies that he had himself often supported, or even promoted. At the Bolshevik Central Committee Lenin called for a vote for a resolution that made it:

incumbent on all party members to use every means to help remove all harriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture…, suppressed for centuries by Russian Tsarism and the exploiting classes.

The resolution announced that in the future all employees of Soviet institutions in the Ukraine would have to be able to express themselves in the national language. But Lenin went much further. In a letter-manifesto addressed to the workers and peasants of Ukraine, he recognized for the first time some basic facts.

We Great Russian Communists (have) differences with the Ukrainian Bolshevik Communists and Borotbists and these differences concern the state independence of the Ukraine, the forms of her alliance with Russia and the national question in general,… There must be no differences over these questions. They will be decided by the All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets.

In the same open letter, Lenin stated for the first time that it was possible to be both a militant of the Bolshevik Party and a partisan of complete independence for the Ukraine. This was a reply to one of the key questions posed a year earlier by Shakhrai, who was expelled from the party before his assassination by the Whites. Lenin furthermore affirmed:

One of the things distinguishing the Borotbists from the Bolsheviks is that they insist upon the unconditional independence of the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks will not…. regard this as an obstacle to concerted proletarian effort.

The effect was spectacular and had a strategic significance. The insurrections of the Ukrainian masses contributed to the defeat of Denikin. In March 1920 the Borotbist congress decided on the dissolution of the organization and the entry of its militants into the Bolshevik Party. The Borotbist leadership took the following position: they would unite with the Bolsheviks to contribute to the international extension of the proletarian revolution. The prospects for an independent Soviet Ukraine would be a lot more promising in the framework of the world revolution that on a pan-Russian level. With great relief Lenin declared:

Instead of a revolt of the Borotbists, which seemed inevitable, we find that, thanks to the correct policy of the Central Committee, which was carried out so splendidly by comrade Rakovsky, all the best elements among the Borotbists have joined our party under our control…This victory was worth a couple of good tussles.

In 1923 a communist historian remarked: it was largely under the influence of the Borotbists that Bolshevism underwent the evolution from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to becoming the “Communist Party of the Ukraine”. Even so, it remained a regional organization of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and did not have the right to be a section of the Comintern.

The fusion of the Borotbists with the Bolsheviks took place just before a new political crisis – the invasion of the Ukraine by the Polish bourgeois army accompanied by Ukrainian troops under the command of Petluira, and the resulting Soviet-Polish war. This time the Great Russian chauvinism of the masses was unleashed on a scale and with an aggression that escaped all restraint by the Bolsheviks.

To the conservative elements in Russia this was a war against a hereditary enemy, with whose re-emergence as an independent nation they could not reconcile themselves — a truly Russian war, although waged by Bolshevik internationalists. To the Greek Orthodox this was a fight against the people incorrigible in its loyalty to Roman Catholicism, a Christian crusade even though led by godless communists. (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pp 459-460)

The masses were moved by the defence of the “one and indivisible” Russia, a mood fanned by propaganda. Izvestia published an almost unbelievably reactionary poem glorifying the Russian state. Its message was that

just as long ago, the Tsar Ivan Kalita gathered in all the lands of Russia, one by one— now all the dialects, and all the lands, all the multinational world will be reunited in a now faith” in order to “bring their power and their riches to the palaces of the Kremlin.” (M. Kozyrev, Izvestia, 1920)

The Ukraine was the first victim of the chauvinist explosion. A Ukrainian left social democrat, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had been the leader of the Central Rada and who had broken with Petluira’s Directory to negotiate alongside Bela Kun a change in Bolshevik policy in the Ukraine, found himself in Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government at the time when many white officers were responding to the appeal of the former commander in chief of the Tsarist army to “defend the Russian motherland” and were joining the Red Army, Georgii Chicherin, at that time Commissar of Foreign Affairs, explained to Vynnychenko that his government could not go to Canossa over the Ukrainian question. In his journal, Vynnychenko writes: “The orientation towards Russian patriotism of the ‘one and indivisible’ variety excludes any concession to the Ukrainians. When one is going to Canossa in front of the white guards…. it is clearly impossible to have an orientation towards federation, self-determination or anything else that might upset ‘one and indivisible’ Russia.” Furthermore, under the influence of the Great Russian chauvinist tide that was flowing through the corridors of Soviet power, Chicherin resuscitated the idea that Russia could directly annex the Donbas region of the Ukraine. In the Ukrainian countryside, Soviet officials asked the peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?”

In the face of this Great Russian chauvinist regression, those Borotbists who had become Bolsheviks, continued the fight. One of their main leaders, Vasyl Ellan Blakytny, wrote at the time:

Basing themselves on the ethnic links of the majority of the Ukrainian proletariat with the proletariat, semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie of Russia and using the argument of the weakness of the industrial proletariat of the Ukraine, a tendency that we describe as colonialist is calling for the construction of an economic system in the framework of the Russian Republic, which is that of the old Empire to which the Ukraine belonged. This tendency wants the total subordination of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the Ukraine to the Russian party and in general envisages the dissolution of all the young proletarian forces of the “nations without history” into the Russian section of the Comintern…. In Ukraine, the natural leading force of such a tendency is a section of the urban and industrial proletariat that has not come to terms with Ukrainian reality. But beyond that, and above all, it is the Russified urban petty bourgeoisie that was always the principle support for the domination of the Russian bourgeoisie in the Ukraine.

And the Bolsheviks of Borotbist origin concluded:

The great power colonialist project that is prevailing today in the Ukraine is profoundly harmful to the communist revolution. In ignoring the natural and legitimate national aspirations of the previously oppressed Ukrainian toiling masses, it is wholly reactionary and counter-revolutionary and is the expression of an old, but still living Great Russian imperialist chauvinism.

Meanwhile the far left of the social democrats formed a new party, called the Ukapist Party, in order to continue to demand national independence and to take in those elements of the Borotbists who had not joined the Bolsheviks. Coming out of the theoretical tradition of German social democracy, this new party was far stronger at the theoretical level than Borotbism, which had populist origins and where the art of poetry was better understood than the science of political economy. But its links with the masses were weaker. The masses were, in any case, growing increasingly weary of this revolution that was permanent in both a mundane and theoretical sense. Trotsky’s theoretical conception of permanent revolution was not, however, matched in reality by a growing over, but by a permanent split between a national revolution and a social revolution. One of the worst results of this was the inability to achieve a united Ukraine (the demand for sobornist’). Lenin’s fatal error in invading Poland exacerbated the Polish national question in an anti-Bolshevik direction and blocked the extension of the revolution. It resulted in a defeat for the Red Army and the cession to the Polish state of more than a fifth of national Ukrainian territory on top of the areas absorbed by Romania and Czechoslovakia.

Every honest historian, and all the more every revolutionary Marxist, must recognize that the promise made by the Bolsheviks during the offensive against Denikin — to convoke a constituent congress of soviets in the Ukraine able to take a position on the three options (complete independence, more or less close federal ties with Russia or complete fusion with the latter) put forward by Lenin in his letter of December 1919, was not kept. According to Trotsky, during the civil war, the Bolshevik leadership considered putting forward a bold project for workers’ democracy to resolve the anarchist question in the region under the control of Makhno’s insurrectional army. Trotsky himself:

discussed with Lenin more than once the possibility of allotting to the anarchists certain territories where, with the consent of the local population, they would carry out their stateless experiment. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-1937, Pathfinder, pp. 426-427)

But there is no record of any similar discussions on the vastly more important question of Ukrainian independence.

It was only after bitter struggles led at the end of his life by Lenin himself as well as by Bolsheviks like Skrypnyk and Rakovsky, by former Borotbists such as Blakytny and Oleksandr Shumsky, and by many of the leading communists from the various oppressed nationalities of the old Russian empire, that the 12th congress of the Bolshevik Party in 1923 formally recognized the existence in the party and in the Soviet regime of a very dangerous “tendency towards Great Russian imperialist chauvinism”. Although this victory was very partial and fragile, it offered the Ukrainian masses the possibility of accomplishing certain tasks of the national revolution and experiencing an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920s. But this victory did not prevent the degeneration of the Russian revolution and a chauvinist and bureaucratic counter-revolution that, in the 1930s, was marked by a national holocaust in the Ukraine. Millions of peasants died during a famine provoked by the Stalinist policy of pillaging the country, the national intelligentsia was almost completely physically wiped put, while the party and state apparatuses of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic were destroyed by police terror. The suicide of Mykola Skrypnyk in 1933, an old Bolshevik who tried to reconcile the national revolution with allegiance to Stalinism, sounded the death knell for that revolution for a whole historical period.

Tragic errors that should not be repeated

The Russian revolution had two contradictory effects on the Ukrainian national revolution. On the one side the Russian revolution was an essential factor for the overthrow of bourgeois power in the Ukraine. On the other, it held back the process of class differentiation amongst the social and political forces of the national revolution. The reason for this was the lack of understanding of the national question. The experience of the 1917-1920 revolution posed in a dramatic fashion the question of the relations between the social revolution of the proletariat of a dominant nation and a national revolution of the toiling masses of the oppressed nation. As Skrypnyk wrote in July 1920:

Our tragedy in the Ukraine is that in order to win the peasantry and the rural proletariat, a population of Ukrainian nationality, we have to rely on the support and on the forces of a Russian or Russified working class that was antagonistic towards even the smallest expression of Ukrainian language and culture.

In the same period, the Ukrainian Communist Party (Ukapist) tried to explain to the leadership of the Comintern:

The fact that the leaders of the proletarian revolution in the Ukraine draw their support from the Russian and Russified upper layers of the proletariat and know nothing of the dynamic of the Ukrainian revolution, means that they are not obliged to rid themselves of the prejudice of the “one and indivisible” Russia that pervades the whole of Soviet Russia. This attitude has led to the crisis of the Ukrainian revolution, cuts Soviet power off from the masses, aggravates the national struggle, pushes a large section of the workers into the arms of the Ukrainian petty bourgeois nationalists and holds back the differentiation of the proletariat from the petty-bourgeoisie.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? The answer is yes if the Bolsheviks had had at their disposal an adequate strategy before the outbreak of the revolution. In the first place, if instead of being a Russian party in the Ukraine, they had resolved the question of the construction of a revolutionary party of the proletariat of the oppressed nation. Secondly, if they had integrated the struggle for national liberation of the Ukraine into their programme. Thirdly, if they had recognized the political necessity and historical legitimacy of the national revolution in the Ukraine and of the slogan of Ukrainian independence. Fourthly, if they had educated the Russian proletariat (in Russia and in the Ukraine) and the ranks of their own party in the spirit of total support for this slogan, and thereby fought against the chauvinism of the dominant nation and the reactionary ideal of the “gathering together of the Russian lands”. Nothing here would have stood in the way of the Bolsheviks conducting propaganda amongst the Ukraine workers in favour of the closest unity with the Russian proletariat and, during the revolution, between the Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia. On the contrary, only under these conditions could such propaganda be politically coherent and effective.

There had been an occasion when Lenin tried to develop such a strategy. This is revealed by his “separatist speech” delivered in October 1914 in Zurich. Then he said:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots. We Muscovites, are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because out passivity allows others to be oppressed, which is not in our interests.

Later however, Lenin did not stick to these radical theses. They re-appear, however, in the political thinking of pro-independence Ukrainian communism, in Shakhrai, the Bolshevik “federalists”, the Borotbists and the Ukapists.

We should not, however, be surprised that the Bolsheviks had no strategy for the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire. The strategic questions of the revolution were in general the Achilles heel of Lenin himself, as is shown by his theory of revolution by stages. As for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, implicitly adopted by Lenin after the February revolution, it was only worked out in relation to Russia, an underdeveloped capitalist country and not for the proletariat of the peoples oppressed by Russia, which was also an imperialist state and a prison house of nations. The theoretical bases of the strategy of permanent revolution for the proletariat of an oppressed nation appeared during the revolutionary years amongst the pro-independence currents of Ukrainian communism. The Ukapists were probably the only communist party — even if they were never recognized as a section by the Comintern — that openly made reference to the theory of permanent revolution.

The basic idea, first outlined by Shakhrai and Mazlakh, then taken up by the Borotbists before being elaborated by the Ukapists, was simple. In the imperialist epoch, capitalism is, of course, marked by the process of the internationalization of the productive forces, but this is only one side of the coin. Torn by its contradictions, the imperialist epoch does not produce one tendency without also producing a counter-tendency. The opposite tendency in this case is that of the nationalization of the productive forces manifested in particular by the formation of new economic organisms, those of the colonial and dependent countries, a tendency which leads to movements of national liberation.

The world proletarian revolution is the effect of only one of the contradictory tendencies of modern capitalism, imperialism, even if it is the dominant effect. The other, inseparable from the first, are the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples. This is why the international revolution is inseparable from a wave of national revolutions and must base itself on these revolutions if it is to spread. The task of the national revolutions of the oppressed peoples is to liberate the development of the productive forces constricted and deformed by imperialism. Such liberation is impossible without the establishment of independent national states ruled by the proletariat. The national workers’ states of the oppressed peoples are an essential resource for the international working class if it is to resolve the contradictions of capitalism and establish workers’ management of the world economy. If the proletariat attempts to build its power on the basis of only one of these two contradictory tendencies in the development of the productive forces, it will be divided against itself.

In a memorandum to the 2nd congress of the Communist International in the summer of 1920, the Ukapists summed up their approach in the following terms:

The task of the international proletariat is to draw towards the communist revolution and the construction of a new society not only the advanced capitalist countries but also the backward peoples of the colonies, taking advantage of their national revolutions. To fulfill this task, it must take part in these revolutions and play the leading role in the perspective of the permanent revolution. It is necessary to prevent the national bourgeoisie from limiting the national revolutions at the level of national liberation. h is necessary to continue the straggle through to the seizure of power and the installation of the dictatorship of the proletariat and to lead the bourgeois democratic revolution to the end through the establishment of national states destined to join the international network of the emerging union of Soviet republics.

These states must rest on:

the forces of the national proletariat and toiling masses as well as on the mutual aid of all the detachments of the world revolution.

In the light of the experience of the first proletarian revolution, it is precisely this strategy of permanent revolution that needs to be adopted, to resolve the question of the oppressed nations in the framework of the anti-bureaucratic political revolution in the USSR. As Mykola Khvylovy, Ukrainian communist militant and great writer, put it in 1926, the Ukraine must be independent

because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine. If any nation (as has already been stated a long time ago and repeated on more than one occasion) over the centuries demonstrates the will to manifest itself, its organism, as a state entity, then all attempts in one way or another to hold back such a natural process block the formation of class forces on the one hand and, on the other, introduce an element of chaos into the general historical process at work in the world.

April 19, 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

NY Times, April 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Cheo Feliciano, a leading salsa singer renowned for both his love songs and his upbeat improvisations, died in an automobile accident on Thursday in San Juan, P.R. He was 78.

He was killed when the car in which he was driving alone ran into a light post, the police told The Associated Press. He was not wearing a seatbelt, they said.

A handsome and debonair baritone, Mr. Feliciano overcame drug addiction and became a celebrity in Puerto Rico and in the larger community of Latin music. He was equally impressive as a sonero — a singer who can improvise rhymes and melodies over Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms — and a romantic crooner, delivering suave, smoldering boleros.

During the 1970s he became a major star of salsa (the name was used by American marketers as a catchall for various Latin rhythms) when he recorded for the New York label Fania. His first solo album, “Cheo,” included songs that became his signatures: “Anacaona” and “Mi Triste Problema.”

“He was an icon, beloved by the females,” Joe Conzo Sr., a music historian and a longtime friend of Mr. Feliciano, said in an interview on Thursday. “His boleros, they had the women swooning.”

Mr. Feliciano spent several years in the late ’50s and early ’60s singing, in both Spanish and English, with the Joe Cuba Sextet, a popular ensemble that helped introduce Latin music to a mainstream American audience.  He also recorded with top Latin bandleaders including Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and he was a longtime member of the Fania All-Stars, the group organized by Fania Records that included virtually all the major figures of salsa’s ’70s heyday.

In 1973, Mr. Feliciano was with the Fania All-Stars when they performed at Yankee Stadium. A 1975 album of that concert, “Live at Yankee Stadium,” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s national registry of recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”

In 2008, at the Latin Grammy Awards, Mr. Feliciano was honored for lifetime achievement. The same year, he celebrated 50 years in music with a concert at Madison Square Garden, a performance reviewed by Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic for The Times.

“Mr. Feliciano, who turns 73 on July 3, is still a formidable singer at any speed,” Mr. Pareles wrote. “His baritone voice sounds richly assured, even when he sings, as he often does, about the pains of love. Backed with the rumbas and guaguancós of salsa dura (hard salsa), he is a sonero who volleys percussive syllables and improvised rhymes over the beat. Easing the tempo back to bolero, he is an equally skillful romantic crooner steeped in Latin ballads, with a touch of Sinatra, who’s suave yet still rhythmically unpredictable. Guests joined Mr. Feliciano for duets, some improvising their own rhymes of praise for him. None outsang him.”

 Cheo Feliciano was born José Luis Feliciano Vega in Ponce, P.R., on July 3, 1935. His father was a carpenter, and the family was poor but musical. Young Cheo (a common nickname for José), who received some rudimentary musical education in a government-sponsored school, was initially a percussionist and established his first group before he was 10, calling it El Combo Las Latas — the Can Combo — because they made their instruments out of tin cans.

“Everything happening around us had to do in some way with music,” Mr. Feliciano said in an interview in 2000 with the website descarga.com. El Combo Las Latas, he added, “was all kids, but at that very early age we understood about percussion, melody and singing.”

When Cheo was a teenager his family moved to New York City, where he played congas and would sing when a group needed a vocalist. He met well-known musicians after he registered as a percussionist at the musician’s union, and he served as a band boy — a kind of errand boy and valet — to several of them, including the bandleader Tito Rodríguez, who gave young Cheo his first chance to perform in public.

Mr. Feliciano became addicted to heroin in the ’60s and by the end of the decade was forced to suspend his singing career. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he entered a program, known as Hogar CREA, to treat his drug dependency.

He spent three years in self-imposed retirement, and when he felt he was ready he initiated his comeback, signing with Fania. Over the next decades he made dozens of recordings, for Fania and other companies, and toured throughout Latin America and Europe.

Mr. Feliciano is survived by his wife, Socorro Prieto De Feliciano, known as Coco, whom he married on Oct. 5, 1957, the same day he made his debut with the Joe Cuba Sextet. The Associated Press reported that he is also survived by four sons.

In the 2000 interview, Mr. Feliciano remembered the youthful hubris that led him to take the stage as a singer for the first time. Someone, he said, had told Tito Rodríguez that a young man named Cheo could sing a little bit.

“Tito knew me as Cheo but he didn’t know they were talking about me,” Mr. Feliciano recalled. “ ‘What Cheo?’ ‘Cheo, Cheo, your valet, your band boy.’ He said, ‘Cheo, you sing?’ And I had the nerve to say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest singer.’ And he laughed. He said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove it now.’ ”

One night shortly thereafter, onstage with his big band at the Palladium in New York, Mr. Rodríguez introduced him to the crowd.

“He gave me the maracas and said: ‘Sing. Show me you’re the greatest,’ ” Mr. Feliciano said. “And I sang.”

What does state ownership have to do with socialism?

Filed under: economics,socialism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

The other day I received an inquiry by email:

Hello, I am a young Marxist, and I have a question regarding production. In a Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels stated:

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers – proletarians. The capitalist relationship is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” –Engels.

From what I take from this, State Ownership was only advocated to further develop productive forces to make way for socialism. But in the Manifesto, it called for Nationalization of productive forces. However, this is now redundant because production is already built up.

So my question is this: if state ownership of industry is not socialist; what is? Would it be a decentralized planned economy run by the workers through worker councils? If so; how would this operate and how would planning go about? Without planning, we slip back into the chaotic production of capitalism; only this time it’s worker owned. Would the state own land and workers exercise workplace democracy on it?

As for communism (which obviously has no state to direct planning), can you also describe the economic system it would operate on?

I am very confused about this subject, and I’d like to understand it better.

Since many other people might have the same kinds of questions, I am going to reply publicly.

Essentially Engels is writing about trusts, joint-stock companies—the monopoly capitalism that Lenin wrote about in his “latest stage” pamphlet, prompted by the outbreak of WWI. One can imagine that it was possible to see only the plus side of monopolies in 1880, when Engels wrote Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. They were “transitional forms” that would lend themselves to socialist planning. In fact you can see the same kinds of enthusiasm in Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”, written in 1889 and inspired by the early development of large-scale department stores and technological breakthroughs made possible by monopoly production. He even writes of “the nation” being “the sole employer and capitalist”.

I am not quite sure what exactly is the nature of the “state ownership” that Engels is referring to, however. To my knowledge, most of the big trusts were privately owned—such as Standard Oil or Carnegie steel works. There is a good chance that Engels was referring to developments in the future.

Later on the term “state capitalism” became more familiar in the lexicon of the Russian Communist Party. In Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism, the term does not mean that the state has taken ownership of production but that the monopoly capitalists have taken over ownership of the government. They write:

Thus in the end we arrive at the following picture. The industry of the whole country is united into syndicates, trusts, and combined enterprises. All these are united by banks. At the head of the whole economic life there is a small group of great bankers who administer industry in its entirety. The governmental authority simply fulfils the will of these bankers and trust magnates.

In other words, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan never lost ownership of their empires. Instead they took over ownership of the state.

You also find a reference to state capitalism in Lenin’s writings on the NEP, where the Soviet government allowed a certain amount of market relations to help revive a war-ravaged economy. In 1922 you can find a section of an article on the NEP titled

State Capitalism In The Proletarian State And The Trade Unions that states:

The proletarian state may, without changing its own nature, permit freedom to trade and the development of capitalism only within certain bounds, and only on the condition that the state regulates (supervises, controls, determines the forms and methods of, etc.) private trade and private capitalism. The success of such regulation will depend not only on the state authorities but also, and to a larger extent, on the degree of maturity of the proletariat and of the masses of the working people generally, on their cultural level, etc. But even if this regulation is completely successful, the antagonism of class interests between labour and capital will certainly remain.

What Lenin was describing might be compared to the experiments that Cuba has been making with foreign-owned hotels, privately owned restaurants, etc. They can best be described as pockets of production for profit in a society that has broken with profit as the ruling principle of the economy. On the other hand, it has little to do with China where capitalism is so widespread that even the state-owned enterprises operate on the same basis as the factories owned by Apple, et al. For profit and only for profit.

Perhaps the best example of state-owned enterprises in the more recent past in the capitalist world are those that flourished under fascism. For example, Volkswagen was formed in 1937 by the Nazi trade union. You also have state ownership in a capitalist country when it is critical to the capitalist economy as a whole. Airlines and other transportations systems fall within this rubric. Finally, you see plenty of it in third world countries that have just liberated themselves from imperialism but have not had a chance to develop a native bourgeoisie. My Turkish professor at Columbia University once quipped that the state owned more companies under Mustafa Kemal than were owned in Stalin’s Russia. He was exaggerating but not by much.

You referred to the call for nationalization in the Communist Manifesto. I am not exactly sure what that is a reference to. By and large, Marx tended not to lay down rules for how socialism would be built. In chapter two of the CM, there are demands put forward, including one that calls for “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.” That’s really about it. Keeping in mind that the CM was written in 1848, the main political concerns of Marx and Engels was how to rid Europe of the feudal restraints on production and to create the conditions for the emergence of working class power in a democratic framework—in other words, pretty much the same goals as Lenin in 1905 or so.

This leads me to the big questions you raise:

So my question is this: if state ownership of industry is not socialist; what is? Would it be a decentralized planned economy run by the workers through worker councils? If so; how would this operate and how would planning go about? Without planning, we slip back into the chaotic production of capitalism; only this time it’s worker owned. Would the state own land and workers exercise workplace democracy on it?

As for communism (which obviously has no state to direct planning), can you also describe the economic system it would operate on?

To get to the last question first, I don’t see any difference between socialism and communism. In fact, Marx and Engels used the terms interchangeably. Years later, and especially under the influence of Stalin, socialism became an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism but there is no basis for that in Marx’s writings.

As to how socialism would operate, I confess that I have not written much about that over the years. My emphasis is on how given post-capitalist societies function, with a particular emphasis on Cuba. I recommend this piece in particular: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/cuba.htm. It was written primarily to answer a member of the British SWP, a group that believes that the USSR was “state capitalist” but not even in the sense of what Lenin wrote above. It saw no particular connection between the Soviet economy and the Marxist project despite the lack of a profit motive in production.

I do strongly recommend that you look at the writings of Michael Lebowitz, an economist living in Venezuela, who has written many articles and a number of books on exactly the questions you posed. It was he, in fact, who convinced me that the distinction between socialism and communism was a bogus one. I have reviewed a couple of his books that you might find useful. Here’s an excerpt from my review of his “The Socialist Alternative”:

Although The Socialist Alternative is very much about conceiving how a future socialist system might function, it wisely avoids the neo-utopian parecon of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. As Marx said in an 1873 afterword to volume one of Capital, he was not interested in writing recipes for the cookbooks of the future. Given the catastrophic tendencies of global capitalism, however, a socialist alternative is clearly on the agenda.

For Lebowitz, the goal is what he has dubbed the “socialist triangle,” consisting of:

1. Social ownership of the means of production. It is, of course, not the same thing as state ownership since that has led to a kind of class differentiation exploited by bureaucrats in the Soviet model.

2. Social production organized by workers. This is an attempt to eradicate the distinction between intellectual and manual labor in the plants and offices of the capitalist system, a social relationship that tends to breed apathy and resentment.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs. This breaks with the paradigm of the individualist consumer and stresses the need for a collective definition of social needs. Without democracy, of course, this would be impossible.

In breaking with Leninist orthodoxy, Lebowitz rejects the distinction between socialism and communism. Lenin conceived of socialism as the first stage of communism, but Lebowitz finds no support for this in Marx. He also makes what I think is an essential point:

The term communism communicated something different when Marx wrote in the nineteenth century. Communism was the name Marx used to describe the society of free and associated producers — “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” But very few people think of communism that way now. In fact, people hardly think of communism as an economic system, as a way in which producers organize to produce for the needs of all! Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system — in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people.

Finally, I recommend googling “Michael Lebowitz” and “socialism”. This will give you plenty of food for thought, including those gathered at the Monthly Review website: https://monthlyreview.org/author/michaelalebowitz. Here’s an excerpt from a 2011 interview titled “The Unifying Element in All Struggles Against Capital Is the Right of Everyone to Full Human Development”.

First of all, Capital is written from the perspective of an alternative society, the inverse situation in which the products of society serve what Marx called “the worker’s own need for development.” I think the struggle for human needs, for the satisfaction of needs is not simply giving people gifts, but it is a whole process of people having the power to work together in the communities to produce for communal needs and communal purposes. That is the revolutionary demand and struggle. For those people who say “well, that’s communism (a utopian society), but socialism has a different principle—to each according to their contribution,” I say that’s a distortion of Marx. Marx didn’t have two stages: socialism and communism. Marx had one society which comes on to the scene defective initially because it inherits all these defects from the old society. But developing that new society cannot be carried on by building on those defects. That argument goes back to Lenin, who argued that until people are highly developed, we have to have the state control where they work, how much they get, and the “socialist principle” is to each according to his contribution. But the tendency to want an equivalent for everything you do is the defect inherited from the old world. That’s what you have to struggle against, not build upon. And it obviously can’t happen overnight. Because people culturally don’t immediately accept it. But you have to say “this is the goal.” How will we proceed to build that goal? And you can’t put off this ideological and practical struggle until a distant stage. We have to build socialist human beings while developing new productive forces—a point that Che made so eloquently.

They didn’t do that in the Soviet Union. They had a focus there on self-interest (bonuses in that case), and the same was true in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the same pattern is emerging in Cuba—a growing emphasis on how “we can’t have distribution of subsidized food, we can’t have cheap electricity, we can’t have all this inefficiency, it’s waste, etc.” These are things that have been part of the revolution which are now being rejected. The perspective reflects in general the idea that these are things for a higher stage (and it is not the only thing put off to a later stage—e.g., there’s worker management). I think that is a very unfortunate tendency which is going along with a re-emphasis upon distribution according to contribution. However, the whole concept of a separate stage of socialism and a separate stage of communism has been the way in which a principle alien to Marxism was introduced. Building on selfishness which is what distribution in accordance with contribution is (“I will give you this only if you give me that”) is not building anything except building the basis of return to capitalism.

 

April 17, 2014

Vanishing Pearls; Bad Hair

Filed under: energy,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

At the risk of stretching a point until it breaks, both films under review bear on the relationship between race and petroleum. “Vanishing Pearls”, a documentary opening on April 18th at the Imagenation in New York and Downtown Independent in LA (nationwide screening info is at http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/), looks at the plight of the largely African-American oyster fisherman of Louisiana who have been screwed royally by BP and their henchmen—witting or unwitting.

Since “Bad Hair” (Pelo Malo) is a Venezuelan narrative film about a 9-year-old biracial boy living in Caracas with his mestizo mother and since the Tribeca Film Festival where it is being shown is a platform for films from a left perspective, one might assume that it would be full of positive references to the benefits accrued from petro-development. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The protagonists of Mariana Rondón’s very accomplished film appear totally untouched by the Bolivarian revolution. Despite my commitment to the goals of the Venezuelan government, I could not help but be troubled by the reality depicted in Rondón’s film. Notwithstanding the doubts it raised in my mind, I strongly recommend it as a neorealist examination of the lives of poor people in Caracas, and particularly as a study of the challenges that Junior, its 9-year-old hero, faces in a society where homophobia still looms strong.

If you’ve grown sick of those BP commercials about how the Gulf coast has “returned”, generally shown to the point of saturation on Sunday morning news shows, as well as those full-page ads in the NY Times about how poor BP is being robbed by unscrupulous lawyers, “Vanishing Pearls” is a film that that will provide some satisfaction since it nails the criminal corporation to the wall. Written, directed, and produced by Nailah Jefferson, a young African-American female from New Orleans in her debut production, it profiles a group of oyster fishermen from Pointe a la Hache taking the lead of Byron Encalade, a sixtyish boat owner whose family, neighbors and friends have been ruined by BP’s greed and neglect.

The film is both a fascinating history of an important element of the Black struggle in the Deep South and a study of the environmental impact of unregulated oil drilling in a state where criminal outfits like BP run the state government like a puppet on a string.

Alcalade’s ancestors started out as sharecroppers on sugar and cotton plantations. When Black Louisianans first broke into the oyster fishing business, it was also as sharecroppers. A wealthy white man would pay for the boat and the gear and hire Black crews to operate them. Based on the haul, they would earn a percentage of the profits, just as if the oysters were cotton. Eventually, however, they were able to put away enough money to buy their own boats and become independent small entrepreneurs.

Oyster fishing was one of the prime casualties of the chemical dispersants BP sprayed into the Gulf waters to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In a very real sense the cure was more harmful than the disease since the oil was simply broken down into smaller droplets and floated to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it could destroy the habitat not only for oysters but other marine life.

Jefferson did not manage to get interviews with the openly nefarious BP corporate heads and the politicians they own but did get plenty of time with two men who were supposedly on the side of the fishermen. One is Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who is supervising payments from BP and who has an alarming tendency to sound and look like a bald Donald Rumsfeld. Feinberg was also the lawyer who managed payouts to the victims of Bernie Madoff. After seeing his double-dealing with the oyster fishermen, you pray that he would end up in a cell next to Madoff. Essentially, most of the fishermen took one-time payments of $25,000 from BP in exchange for agreeing that they would make no further claim. Since all were out of business for months after the BP spill and economically distressed, the payoff was effectively a form of blackmail. Feinberg made no effort to force BP to look after their long-term interests. Feinberg’s firm was paid $850,00 per month for its services. After a couple of months showing its pro-corporate bias, BP rewarded it with a raise to $1,250,000.

The other unwilling villain is a scientist named Wes Tunnell who wrote a report in three days effectively underscoring BP’s claim that things would return to normal by now. At one point he tells Nailah Jefferson that the spill amounted to a cup of coffee being spilled into the New Orleans Superdome, seen from an aerial mounted video camera.

The press notes for “Vanishing Pearls” reveals how Feinberg and Tunnell worked as a tag-team:

By December, many of the fishermen were in dire and desperate straights. Suddenly, Feinberg and GCCS decided to issue “emergency funds” as Christmas neared. This move was not without one small caveat – getting the funds required waiving all rights to bring a suit against the BP oil company. The gravity of the struggling that many of the fishermen had to deal with led many to take the settlement offered in the hopes that they would be able to save their homes and businesses.

Amidst this mess, in 2013, the documentarian decided to contact Feinberg to try and get some answers. Strangely and without hesitation, he agreed to meet with her. It was revealed that BP had begun to urge Feinberg to halt claims payouts all together. They had paid for a “scientific study” and based on the resulting report, BP felt “the areas affected by the spill had recovered and the economy was improving.” The biased report had been commissioned by GCCS and was the sole instrument used to stifle claims. The reality of the situation was quite different, it had been over the stated two years and the oyster beds had not regenerated themselves, the fishermen were still out of work, and recovery claims were still not being paid. Feinberg remained ambivalent. He offered no apology and simply stuck to his ludicrous story that “everything would come back.”

Ms. Jefferson has made a very compelling documentary on a shoestring budget. Considering the fact that Barack Obama has given BP a green light to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this film arrives at a time when it is most needed. My recommendation is to check this film out and to tell your friends about it.

Marta has her hands filled raising her son Junior and another baby son in a Caracas high-rise that has seen better days. She has just lost her job as a security guard and is scraping by as a maid. In an early scene, she asks Junior to scrub the walls of a Jacuzzi in a middle-class apartment. Yielding to temptation, he fills the tub, strips down to his underwear, and reclines beneath the soothing waters until the matron of the house spots him. Chagrined by her son’s fecklessness, Marta returns home where the conflict between mother and son continues.

Like the women in Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, very likely a partial inspiration for Rondón’s film, Junior is obsessed with his “bad hair”, the curly legacy of his Black father who was killed by gang members in their typically lawless neighborhood. While fleeing from his Black identity, Junior seems equally gravitating toward some early form of Gay identity, or at least that is Marta’s fear based on his love of singing. What can be more gay, after all, then a 9 year old loving to sing?

Marta’s mother-in-law is okay with his gay tendencies since that would protect him from gangsters. Who would find a reason to shoot a gay man? When Marta leaves the boy with his grandmother while she is out job-hunting, the stay is always crowned by her tending to his hair with a blow dryer. When he all set to get a photo id for school, she gets the bright idea to adorn him in a costume she is sewing together that is similar to the one worn by a popular singer. It goes one step further than Elvis’s costumes in Las Vegas. It is a gold lamé dress that Junior rejects with the words: “I am not a girl”. If the film is influenced by Rock’s documentary, it also bows in the direction of “Billy Elliot”, a British narrative film about a young boy who prefers ballet to boxing, defying his coal miner father’s homophobia.

The film depicts a daily life that is not only untouched by socialism, but by any of the social safety nets of a welfare state except for the local clinic that is free. Marta keeps bringing Junior in the hopes that the doctor can figure out what is making her son “queer”.

There is little doubt that Rondón takes the Bolivarian revolution with a grain of salt. The film is set in the final months of Hugo Chavez’s illness and she includes footage from Venezuelan television of that time when people were praying for the president or shaving their heads in solidarity. She leaves the impression that the people view him as a semi-divine benefactor.

As might be expected, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy in Venezuela. Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavista website, has taken the director’s side. While keeping her distance from the violent street protesters, she blames the country’s polarization for the way that her film has been used as ammunition against the government.

Wikipedia reports that “In 2007 she directed and produced Postales de Leningrado (Postcards from Leningrad), an autobiographical film (her parents were members of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN).”

It is a little hard for me to glean her politics from this film other than to say that it is best seen as a study of sexual and racial paradoxes in a country trying to move forward as best it can under very difficult circumstances. As film, it is deeply involving and worth seeing whatever its political orientation, especially for the performance of Samuel Lange Zambrano as Junior, about as fine as one from a child actor as can be imagined.

 

April 15, 2014

In response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Screen shot 2014-04-15 at 1.39.35 PM

On The Nation magazine website there’s a 9500 word article by Timothy Shenk titled Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality  that will require far fewer words to dismantle. As Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit and all the more so when it comes to Marxist polemics.

Shenk’s article is a survey of Jacobin Magazine and three books. One is Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, ordered from Amazon two weeks ago. Apparently it is back-ordered, a propitious sign given its sweeping indictment of the capitalist system. I know vanishingly little about Piketty’s analysis except that he does not care much for Marx, according to Doug Henwood whose word on such matters I trust implicitly. The other two books are written by N+1 editors, Nikil Saval’s “A Secret History of the Workplace”, a work that examines cubicles and the like, and Benjamin Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”.

Shenk is a doctoral student at Columbia University who somehow managed to write a biography of Maurice Dobb in his spare time, no mean feat. For those of you unfamiliar with Dobb, a word or two should suffice. He was a British CP’er who wrote a book on the history of capitalism titled “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” that I highly recommend. Dobb took part in a debate with Paul Sweezy in the 1950s defending a somewhat Anglocentric analysis that put the emphasis on primitive accumulation in the countryside as opposed to the expansion of global trade—Sweezy’s perspective. But unlike Robert Brenner, who took up the cudgel against Sweezy later on, Dobb stated that colonization and slavery was also essential.

It is rather unusual for The Nation to publish such a long article so focused on Marxist theory. The standard fare there is something about the nefarious Koch brothers or the need to hold Obama to his promises, etc. In the back of my mind I wondered if The Nation ever got over Jacobin editor’s Bhaskar Sunkara’s Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical, a piece that can best be described as biting the hand that feeds it.

Shenk starts off with an observation that probably looms more importantly in his own mind than in the general left public, namely that Karl Marx preferred to use the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than capitalism. This distinction strikes me as more semantic than theoretical but if it is important to the author, why quibble?

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

After another thousand words or so on the history of the use of the term capitalism, a word that had lost its sting in the prosperous 50s and 60s except among the hard-core Marxist left, Shenk zeroes in on the ostensible purpose of his review, which is to evaluate the magazines and books under consideration.

For Shenk, the new generation of Marxists such as the Jacobin and N+1 editors made the transition from college to the revolutionary cause rather seamlessly, aided by social media:

Many had just left college, carrying with them fresh memories of an academic world that doubles as Marxism’s heartiest stronghold…The commitment was lighter, but easier to share, maybe with a post on Facebook.

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Yes, I quite understand. Most of my Marxist FB friends will regale me with a singing dog Youtube clip one day and a status post the next about a David Harvey lecture the next. This is not exactly the sort of thing that will get you an FBI file but neither will this, I suppose.

After some more excursions (was The Nation paying him by the word?), Shenk finally gets down to brass tacks:

Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.

When Shenk had earlier referred to Marx as a descendant of rabbis who never fancied himself the leader of a religion, the subtle implication was that this was exactly had transpired—socialism as a secular religion. Given that line of thought, it of course logically leads to the conclusion that “cloaked in moral authority” is a jab at the people under consideration who Shenk wants to cut down to size as bible-thumpers–the holy book being Capital:

Combine all this with some fondness for navel gazing and with the fortunes of geography—politics aside, New York writers are New York writers, and they like to talk about each other—and the pieces are in place for the articles declaring the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.

As an example of the puffer fish inflating itself, Shenk refers to a Jacobin editorial in 2011 that blasted the Obama administration for seeking to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, a claim he felt was “clear to almost nobody anywhere.” Hmm. Now I am beginning to understand why The Nation would put down the red carpet for him. Melissa Harris-Perry could not have been more scornful of such puffer fish impudence.

Turning to the books under review, Shenk dismisses Saval’s work as breaking little new intellectual ground. Since I only know Saval’s analysis from an excerpt in “Harpers”, I will defer commenting on whether it does or doesn’t.

Shenk is more generous to Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”, a book that he describes as “playful and unfailingly lucid”. When one hand giveth, the other taketh away, however:

Precisely because of its clarity, however, Utopia or Bust reveals some of the more peculiar aspects of a group that can seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it.

Shenk regards Kunkel’s reference to a “near unchallenged global capitalism” as a “fixation”, something I suppose that’s akin to a neurotic obsession. Since Shenk regards “investments gushing in from China today” as an exception to global capitalism, I suppose I’ll have to count myself among the neurotically obsessed.

As I stated earlier, I have not yet read Piketty’s book so I am no position to weigh his Shenk’s critique. That being said, I do have to wonder about his characterization:

Though not a Marxist, Piketty is firmly of the left. A supporter of France’s Socialist Party, he has said that he “dream[s] of a rational and peaceful overcoming of capitalism.”

I am not sure what I am going to make of Piketty’s book but the notion that France’s SP will play any role in the “peaceful overcoming of capitalism” strikes me as absurd, and almost equally absurd is Shenk’s taking this claim seriously. Hadn’t he read the NY Times article dated April 11th on the party’s new leader?

On Tuesday, Mr. Valls offered the most detailed summary yet of how the government intends to meet its promise to enact $69 billion in spending cuts by 2017. He called for $26 billion in cuts to the central government bureaucracy, $13.8 billion to the national health care system and $13.8 billion to local governments — an element at which many legislators on the right booed loudly, having just won control of a number of local governments. He did not specify how the remaining $15.4 billion in cuts would be made.

One hopes that there was an equivalent of Jacobin in France raising hell about the country’s version of Obama no matter Shenk’s credulous take on the Socialist Party.

Finally, after a tsunami of words, Shenk gets to his real point in the concluding sentences:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with some grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

Call me grasping reflexively at the language of the past, but history does not suggest a much richer set of possibilities to me. Instead I see a deepening of class conflict with the eventual renaissance of Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement. I have been committed to that project for 47 years now and see nothing to change my mind at this point. With a nod to Piketty’s book, one that rejects socialism in favor of neo-Keynesian half-measures (I don’t have to read it to know that this is his outlook), Shenk makes clear why he is so fed up with those who live in the past. In my view, you have to live in the past to some degree if you want to live in the future. Capitalism, or whatever word you want to use, is destroying the planet no matter what The Nation and its hired guns would have you believe.

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