Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 5, 2015

Baathist secularism? In response to Gary Leupp

Filed under: Islamophobia,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:44 pm

Gary Leupp

Dr. Gary Leupp,

Ordinarily I don’t pay attention to Baathist propagandists but your CounterPunch article today was so over the top and so screaming out for a rebuttal that I decided to take a few minutes to respond. I can only say that as a tenured professor at Tufts University, you show a blatant disregard for serious and thoughtful analysis based on the facts–probably a function of a hangover from your youthful Maoist past.

Your article relies heavily on the word of one Brad Hoff, an ex-Marine who is the editor of something called LevantReport.org that tells its readers that the “Arab Spring” was a myth and that it was really a secret plot by Washington to foster al-Qaeda type groups in the Middle East. Well, well.

Hoff’s article is an unabashed defense of the “good old days” in Syria when he was able to see “mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup — many of them wearing blue jeans and tight fitting clothes that would be commonplace in American shopping malls on a summer day.” He also was impressed with the “number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares” and his ability to “get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease.” Frankly, this sounds like the sort of item one would read in the Sunday NY Times Travel section but let’s leave it at that.

Once you get past the babes and booze nostalgia, you offer up the Leupp history of the Middle East that is basically a sort of mish-mosh of Bill Maher and vulgar Marxism with repeated denunciations of Washington’s opposition to “secularist” governments in Iraq and Syria. It can all be reduced to your “what if” question: “What if a series of U.S. administrations (influenced to say the least by Israel and its powerful Lobby) hadn’t come to view Baathism as a greater enemy than Islamic fanaticism?”

What you don’t seem to grasp is that both Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad were not quite the secularists you make them out to be. In 1993 Iraq embarked on something called “The Return to Faith Campaign” that promoted Islamic fundamentalism–this was long before George W. Bush’s invasion. As wikipedia reports, “The selling and consumption of alcohol was curtailed by the state” and “Prostitution was deemed illegal and punishable by death.” The Fedayeen Saddam, Iraq’s morality police, were infamous for beheading prostitutes.

So much for the babes and booze in the good old days.

Syria was about the same. Statistically speaking, Hafez al-Assad and his homicidal ophthalmologist son built more mosques than cultural centers, cinemas, and theaters. This is not to speak of the homicidal son releasing the men from prison who would go on to form the backbone of the jihadist militias that are terrorizing Christians and anybody else with a fondness for babes and booze.

I hope that this helps clarify your understanding.

May 4, 2015

Marlon Brando and Gillo Pontecorvo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

(In another chapter in Marlin Brando’s “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”, he says that if he hadn’t become an actor, he would have made a good conman because he is such a convincing liar. There are many details in this account that do not ring true but they remain fascinating as tokens of Brando’s psychological/political makeup.)

ASIDE FROM ELIA KAZAN and Bernardo Bertolucci, the best director I worked with was Gillo Pontecorvo, even though we nearly killed each other. He directed me in a 1968 film that practically no one saw. Originally called Queimada!, it was released as Burn! I played an English spy, Sir William Walker, who symbolized all the evils perpetrated by the European powers on their colonies during the nineteenth century. There were a lot of parallels to Vietnam, and the movie portrayed the universal theme of the strong exploiting the weak. I think I did the best acting I’ve ever done in that picture, but few people came to see it.

Gillo had made a film I liked, The Battle of Algiers, and was one of the few great filmmakers I knew. He is an extraordinarily talented, gifted man, but during most of our time together we were at each other’s throats. We spent six months in Colombia, mostly in Cartagena, a humid, tropical city about 11 degrees from the equator and not far, I thought, from the gateway to Hades. Most days the temperature was over 111 degrees, and the humidity made the set a Turkish bath. Gillo’s first shot was from the window of a tiny cubicle, supposedly a prison cell in an old fort, with the camera looking down on a courtyard where a prisoner was being garroted. When I saw that Gillo was wearing a heavy winter overcoat, I couldn’t believe it. With the movie lights blazing, it must have been over 130 degrees in the room. But he filmed take after take and never removed his overcoat.

“Gillo,” I finally asked, “why are you wearing that heavy coat?” He was drenched in sweat. “Gillo, why don’t you take off?” He shrugged, pulled his collar up, looked around and said in French, “I feel a little chilly, I don’t know why. I’m afraid I might get a cold.”

“That coat’s not going to help you. If you’re ill there’s no sense in weakening yourself more by losing all that fluid.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said and turned away.

I walked over to one of the members of the crew and said, “Unless he’s getting the flu, he’s doing something very strange, He’ll exhaust himself and pass out from the loss of so much perspiration.” During the next break, Gillo came outside and I noticed that he was wearing a pair of brief blue trunks underneath the over coat. An odd combination, I thought, swimming trunks and an overcoat in this heat? While I was watching him, he pulled a handful of small objects from one pocket of the coat and shifted them to the other. I went over and asked him, “What are those?”

“Do you believe in luck?” Gillo asked.

“You mean fate?”

“Luck, fortuna.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess so. Some days you feel lucky, some days you don’t.” He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of plastic that looked like a curly red chile pepper. “What is that?” I asked.

“A little something for good luck. Touch it,” he said, adding that it would bring good luck to the picture.

I did, and asked where his good luck charm came from.


“What do charms like that cost?” “Nothing.” He reached into his pocket again, brought out dozens of little chile peppers and gave me one. He seemed happy that I’d accepted it, and said I’d helped assure that the picture would be a success.

I’ve since met other Italians who won’t go anywhere without a charm in their pockets, but Gillo took superstition to cosmic heights. One of his friends told me that he always wore that overcoat whenever he directed the first shot of a new movie, and insisted that the same prop man be in the shot wearing the same pair of tennis shoes. He was the man who was strangled in the first scene, and the tennis shoes had been painted to look like boots. On Thursdays, I was told, you must never ask Gillo for anything because if he refused you it would bring him bad luck. He also never allowed the color purple to appear in his pictures, or for that matter anywhere in sight, because he considered it bad luck. His obsession over the color was limitless; if he could, he would have obliterated it from a summer sunset.

Gillo was a handsome man with dark hair and beautiful blue eyes who came from a family of diverse accomplishments; one brother, he told me, had won the Stalin Peace Prize, another was a Nobel laureate, and his sister was a missionary in Africa.

Despite his warehouse of superstitions, Gillo knew how to direct actors. Because I didn’t speak Italian and he spoke little English, we communicated mostly in French, though a lot of it was nonverbal; when I was in a scene, he’d come over and with a small gesture signal “A little less,” or “A little more.” He was always right, though he wasn’t always clever about knowing how to stimulate me to achieve the right pitch. He was a good filmmaker, but he was also a martinet who constantly tried to manipulate me into playing the part exactly as he saw it, and often I wouldn’t go along with what he wanted. He approached everything from a Marxist point of view; most of the people who worked for him thought this dogma was the answer to all the world’s problems, and some of them were sinister. They were helpful to Gillo, but I didn’t much care for them. Some of the lines he wanted me to say were straight out of the Communist Manifesto, and I refused to utter them. He was full of tricks. If we disagreed, he sometimes gave in, then kept the camera running after saying “Cut,” hoping to get me to do something I’d refused to do. In one scene I was supposed to toast Evaristo Marquez, the actor playing a revolutionary leader who was my foil and the hero of the picture, but Gillo didn’t want me to sip from my drink after the toast; I was to spill my wine onto the ground as a snub while Evaristo sipped his. At that moment in the picture this gesture did not seem to me to be consistent with my character, and so I refused to do it; I wanted to really toast him. Gillo let me do it my way, then kept the camera turning after the take was over and got a shot of me throwing my drink on the ground because I thought we had finished the shot. When I saw the picture, this was the shot he used.

In another scene on a very hot day, when I was wearing only shorts and a jacket for a shot above the waist, Gillo wanted me to say something I didn’t want to say and made me repeat the scene over and over, thinking that he would finally exhaust me and I’d do what he wanted. But after about the tenth take I realized what was going on and asked the makeup man to get me a stool. I strapped it to my rear end and continued doing the scene my way, then after each take lowered myself onto the seat and pretended to be reading The Wall Street Journal, which Gillo detested as the symbol of everything evil. After scores of takes, he finally gave up; I’d worn him out.

Most of our fights were over the interpretation of my character and the story, but we fought over other things, too. Gillo had hired a lot of black Colombian extras as slaves and revolutionaries, and I noticed that they were being served different food from the Europeans and Americans. It looked inedible to me and I mentioned this to him.

“That’s what they like,” Gillo said. “That’s what they always eat.”

But the real reason, a member of the crew told me, was that Gillo was trying to save money; the food he was giving the black extras cost less. Then I learned that he wasn’t paying the black extras as much as the white extras, and when I confronted him about it, he said that if he did the white extras would rebel.

“Wait a minute, Gillo; this picture is about how whites exploited the blacks.”

Gillo said that he agreed with me, but he couldn’t back down; in his mind the end justified the means.

“Okay,” I said, “then I’m going home. I won’t be a part of this.” I went to the airport at Barranquilla and was about to get on a plane for Los Angeles when Gillo sent a messenger with a promise to equalize the pay and food.

Making that movie was wild. Everybody smoked a strong variety of marijuana called Colombian Red, and the crew was stoned most of the time. For some reason making a movie in Cartagena attracted a lot of women from Brazil. Dozens of them showed up, mostly upper-class women from good families, and they wanted to sleep with everybody. After they went home, some told me, they intended to see a doctor who would sew up their hymens so that when they got married their husbands would think they were virgins. The doctors in Rio must have made a lot of money from that movie.

My truce with Gillo didn’t last long. Although he raised the pay for the black extras and briefly gave them better food, I discovered after a few days that they were still not being fed the same meals as Europeans working on the picture. We were shooting scenes in a poor black village; the houses had mud floors and stick walls, and the children had distended bellies. It was a good place to shoot because it was what the picture was about, but heartbreaking to be there.

“You can’t feed these people that kind of crap,” I told Gillo. This time he ignored me, so I got everybody on the crew to pile their lunches against the camera in a pyramid and refuse to work.

Gillo came up to me angrily with his team of thugs and said, “I understand you’re dissatisfied with lunch.”


“What would you like to have for lunch?”

“Champagne,” I said, “and caviar. I’d like to have some decent food, and I’d like it served to me properly.”

Somewhere Gillo found a restaurant that sent my meal to the set, along with four waiters in red jackets with dickeys on their chests and napkins over their arms. When they set up a table with linen and silver and candles, I said, “No, the candles shouldn’t go there; they should go here, and the forks should go on the other side of the plates.” Then I touched the bottle of champagne and said it wasn’t chilled enough. “You’d better put it on ice a little longer.”

I fussed with the table setting while the crew and people from the village gathered around to watch with their arms folded. In their eyes I must have been the epitome of the self-indulgent capitalist who wanted everything. Gillo sent a publicity photographer to take a picture of the event, and herded some black people into the background. After everything was arranged perfectly, I searched the crowd for the poorest, sickest, unhappiest-looking children I could find, invited them to sit at the table, and then served them the meal. The people cheered, but as far as my relationship with Gillo was concerned, the episode made the situation worse.

We continued to fight while other problems came up: a key member of the crew had a heart attack and died; the cameraman developed a sty and couldn’t do any filming; the temperature got even hotter, with all of us working long hours and flirting with sunstroke. The few union rules in effect were much more lenient than they were in the United States and every-body’s temper was short. I also found it increasingly amusing that a man so dedicated to Marxism found it so easy to exploit his workers. Meanwhile, Gillo’s superstitions knew no bounds. If somebody spilled salt, Gillo had to run around the table and throw more salt on the ground in a certain pattern dictated by him; if wine was spilled, he made the guilty party dip a finger in the wine and daub it behind each ear of everyone at the table. It was sad but hilarious. I began doing things to irritate Gillo, asking him for favors on Thursdays, wearing purple and walking under ladders; once I opened the door of my caravan, shone a mirror on him and yelled, “Hey, Gillo, buon giorno,” and then smashed the mirror. In Gillo’s eyes breaking a mirror was a direct invitation to the devil to enter your life. Once he raised his glass at lunch in a toast and said, “Salute.” I raised my glass while everybody drank, then spilled my wine with a flourish on the ground, which to Gillo was the supreme insult. He got a gun and stuck it in his belt, and I started carrying a knife. Years before, I’d practiced knife-throwing and was fairly accurate at distances up to about eighteen feet, so sometimes I took out my knife and hurled it at a wall or post a few feet from him. He shuddered slightly, put his hand on his waist, rested it on the butt of his gun and then eyed me sternly, letting me know that he was ready for battle, too.

One day when we were having one of our arguments over how the movie should be played, I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You’re eating me like ants . . . you’re eating me like ants.” I didn’t even know it was coming out of me. It made him jump nine feet in the air. Another day, we came close to a fist-fight over a scene showing four half-naked black children pushing and pulling the headless body of their father—the man garroted in the first scene—home to be buried. Gillo shot part of the take in the morning, then adjourned for lunch. When I returned to the set afterward, he wasn’t back yet and the wardrobe lady was holding one of the children in her lap.

“What’s the matter with the boy?” I asked.

“He’s sick.”

“What is it?”

“He vomited a worm at lunch, and he has a very high temperature.”

“What’s he doing here then?” I said. “Where’s the doctor?”

She said Gillo wanted the boy to finish the scene because if he didn’t he would have to find another child to play the part and lose part of a day’s shooting.

“Does he know he’s sick?”


I called a doctor and told him to get to the set as fast as he could. When he arrived I said, “Take my car and get this kid to the hospital right now.”

When Gillo returned from lunch, I was steaming and so was he because I had sent the boy away. We came within inches of mixing it up; only the fact that he was shorter than me kept me from punching him. Several days later I couldn’t take Gillo or the heat anymore. I needed a vacation. People were dropping like flies from illness and exhaustion. I drove to Barranquilla and left for Los Angeles at four A.M. A day or two later, I got a stinging letter from the producers saying that I was in breach of my contract, and that unless I returned to Colombia immediately, they would sue me. I wrote back demanding an immediate apology for their preposterous accusations—all of which were true—and said I couldn’t possibly think of returning after being so excoriated; my professional reputation was at stake. I knew the producers’ threats were empty because I had learned long ago that once filming starts, the actor has the edge; too much money had been spent to abandon the project; and even if they could win a lawsuit it would take years to adjudicate, by which time all the money they’d invested on the project would be gone. If he knows what to do, the actor can get away with almost anything under these circumstances. Most of them are too intimidated to do anything, but I wasn’t.

After a five-day vacation and a letter of apology, I told the producers I would finish the picture, but only in North Africa, where the climate was more pleasant and the terrain and set-tings similar. They agreed, if I would just return to Colombia for a few more shots. I didn’t want to see the country again, but I agreed to go. They booked me on a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans and a connecting flight from there to Barranquilla. When I walked onto the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, I asked a flight attendant, “Are you sure this is the flight to Havana?” She opened the cockpit door and told the captain, “We’ve got a guy out here who wants to know if we’re going to Havana.”

The captain said, “Get him off the plane, and if he doesn’t leave tell him we’ll have the FBI here in two minutes.”

“Oh, please,” I said, “I’m awfully tired.”

The flight hostess, who didn’t recognize me, said, “Get off the plane, buddy.”

I was delighted because I was in no hurry to go back to Colombia, so I ran down the ramp at full speed to the con-course. As I sprinted past the check-in desk one of the agents said, “Is there anything wrong, Mr. Brando?”

“No,” I said, out of breath, “they just seemed a little nervous, and I don’t want to have any extra trouble and worry on the flight.” Then I ran like a gazelle, expecting the agent to telephone the pilot and say, “You just kicked a movie star off the plane.” Sure enough, an agent was waiting for me as I tried to sprint past the ticket counter.

“Mr. Brando, we’re awfully sorry,” he said. “We didn’t know it was you; please accept our apologies and go back to the plane. They’re holding it for you.”

“No,” I said. “Not now. I’m terribly upset. I’m usually nervous about flying anyway, and if that pilot is so nervous I don’t think I’d feel safe flying with him . . .” The story made the papers and the airline apologized, but did give me a longer vacation because there wouldn’t he another plane out of New Orleans for Barranquilla for three days. Unfortunately, they chartered a special plane to meet me New Orleans and I had to return to Colombia after only two days.

All of the above to the contrary, however, Gillo was one of the most sensitive and meticulous directors I ever worked for, that’s what kept me on that picture because, despite the grief and strife, I had the deepest respect for him. Later, when I anted to make a movie about the Battle of Wounded Knee, he was the first director I thought of to do it.



May 3, 2015

Negri, Graeber, Holloway, the cult of Abdullah Ocalan and the Rojava Revolution

Filed under: Kurd,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm


Street scenes, ‘democratic’ assemblies, militia fighters and colleges in Rojava – all overshadowed by the leader of one party, the PKK’s Abdullah

(This article was send to me anonymously by “Anti War”. I am forwarding it to my readers not because I necessarily agree with it but because it seems worthy of crossposting. I have not made up my mind about the issues under analysis but expect that this article will provide food for thought.)

In April 2015, a conference was held in Hamburg ‘to introduce the thoughts of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to the international community.’ Silvia Federici was supposed to send a ‘message of greeting’ – just as Toni Negri and Immanuel Wallerstein had at a similar previous conference.† Federici then dropped out. However David Harvey, David Graeber and John Holloway did attend and all three spoke on a stage with a large portrait of Ocalan in the background.†

During the event, held on Ocalan’s birthday, Harvey claimed that Ocalan ‘is waging a struggle for the freedom of all women.’† While Graeber said: ‘He has written the sociology of freedom. … I have some questions and criticisms in the technical dimension, but I agree and appreciate his views.’†

This all raises several questions, such as who exactly is Ocalan and is his political project really as radical as these well-known intellectuals seem to believe?


Abdullah Ocalan is the ideological leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, whose offshoot, the PYD, is the main political force in the Kurdish areas of Syria known as Rojava. Many PYD activists in Rojava have what one eye-witness calls ‘total faith’ in Ocalan and consider him to be, to a certain extent, ‘sacred’.† Indeed, the leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, has openly admitted that: ‘We apply [Ocalan’s] philosophy and ideology to Syria.’†

This semi-religious attitude to Ocalan goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, well before his imprisonment in Turkey. PKK fighters from these earlier decades say things like: ‘The PKK is in a certain sense identical with its founder, Abdullah Ocalan’ or ‘[Ocalan] doesn’t so much represent the party, as he is the party.’†

When ISIS began threatening Rojava in 2014, the PKK/PYD introduced compulsory military conscription. All PKK/PYD fighters are still ‘trained in political thought’† and, consequently, they still say things like: ‘our ideas are based on the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan’† or ‘these are the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, this is our ideology’†. This deeply Stalinist way of thinking would be a problem even if Ocalan’s ideas were genuinely revolutionary but, like most Stalinists, he has little enthusiasm for social revolution.

To his credit, Ocalan does acknowledge not only the appalling brutality of the Turkish military but also the brutality of the PKK during its war of national liberation against Turkey. For example, he admits that there was ‘unfeeling violence … escalating to the point where we killed the best of our own comrades’† and that ‘young fighters were summarily executed in the mountains.’ He even says that ‘the whole party is guilty; nobody can deny his responsibility.’†

But Ocalan’s admissions now just make it easier to believe long-standing claims that he authorised the execution of many hundreds of people including civilians and dissident PKK members.† To give just one example, an ex-PKK leader has said that ‘there were between 50 and 60 executions just after the 1986 PKK congress. In the end, there was no more room to bury them.’† Ocalan’s admissions are also seriously marred by his repeated attempts to shift the blame for any atrocities away from himself and onto what he describes as ‘gangs within our organisation’†.

This blame-shifting raises even more questions when one reads Ocalan’s claim that ‘young women fighters … [were] forced into the most primitive patriarchal relationships.’† This is a statement that begs to be compared with that of another PKK leader who claimed that it was Ocalan himself who ‘forced dozens of our female comrades to immoral relations’ and that he went so far as to ‘order the murder’ of women who refused to have ‘relations’ with him.† *

Ocalan had his accuser killed so we may never know if there was any truth to these allegations.† We may also never know how genuine Ocalan’s regrets are concerning wars of national liberation. This is especially the case if we consider his assertions that these wars ‘were valid at the time’, that the war against Turkey ‘could have been won’ and that when ‘nationalism [was] flourishing, it was almost treason not to agree with the principles of national liberation.’† But we do know that the failure of the PKK’s war – combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union – led Ocalan to reject not only any continuation of the war but also any sort of violent revolution.

In his Prison Writings he warns that ‘socialist society must not attempt to overcome old structures of state and society by means of violence and force.’ He goes on to say that: ‘It would be a gross contradiction of the nature of the new ideology if force were to be accepted as a means of overthrowing the state – even the most brutal one.’† He also claims that ‘revolutions and violence… cannot abolish [social phenomena]’ (vol.1 p224) and that ‘revolutionary overthrow … does not create sustainable change. In the long run, freedom and justice can only be accomplished within a democratic-confederate dynamic process.’†

These statements are more than just understandable criticisms of violence, they seem to be rejections of any need for social revolution once a Western-style democratic system has been instituted.

Ocalan does claim that such a system will eventually be superseded by ‘a more adaptable administration which will allow even more freedom’. But he also claims that ‘the Western democratic system contains everything needed for solving social problems.’ He even says that, eventually, ‘the right and the left … will come together in the system of democratic civilisation.’†


Like so many other neo-Stalinists, from Gorbachev to the Eurocommunists, Ocalan combines his enthusiasm for Western-style democracy with a dismissal of Marxism.†

He also rejects anarchism, saying: ‘Anarchism is a capitalist tendency. It is an extreme form of individualism which rejects the state itself.’† He is quite clear that he ‘does not reject nor deny the state’.† Instead, he advocates ‘a lean state as a political institution, which only observes functions in the fields of internal and external security and in the provision of social security.’† **

Few liberals would have too much disagreement with this approach to the state or, indeed, with Ocalan’s approach to feminism. Just like any liberal, he is also quite clear that women’s liberation ‘should have priority over the liberation of … labour.’†

Ocalan does make bold, if somewhat hypocritical, statements about male domination in contemporary society such as: ‘To kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism.’† And women’s participation in the Rojava revolution is a striking example of how women will be central to any social change in the 21st Century. But a genuine women’s revolution would surely require a proletarian women’s movement outside the control of either middle-class activists or the PKK/PYD.

Such a revolution would also require the transcendence of the family. According to one Rojavan human rights worker: ‘Society here is very masculine and very feudal, … there still needs to be a change in the classic family structure if we are ever going to see [women’s role] expand.’† However, despite his criticism of the family, Ocalan still insists that the ‘family is not a social institution that should be overthrown’. Indeed, he even argues that a reformed family is both the ‘most important element’ and ‘the most robust assurance of democratic civilisation.’†

As regards capitalism, Ocalan does argue for a ‘progressive transition from a production based on profit to a production based on sharing.’† But he appears to believe that capitalists ‘never number more than one or two percent of society’† and he even claims that the class war ‘has come to an end’.† He also proposes that the new ‘social order … will allow for individual and collective property’ and that ‘work [will be] remunerated according to its contribution to the entire product.’†

In the programme for the Hamburg conference, John Holloway claims that the Kurdish movement in Rojava is one of ‘the most outstanding examples’ of anti-capitalism.† But these statements by Ocalan instead show a movement whose ideological leader has a very limited understanding of capitalism and no real desire to end the misery of private property and wage labour. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the economics ministers in Rojava has openly stated that he wants any cooperatives to compete with private capital.† Meanwhile, the head of Internal Security even said that Rojava is ‘a new market, and everyone can play a role, including the Americans.’†

Ocalan’s solution to every social problem really does seem to be, not anti-capitalist revolution, but democracy. Democracy is certainly preferable to dictatorship. But it makes little sense to say that democracy, even a radical form of direct democracy, is itself a ‘corrective for extreme class divisions’.†

It is, of course, just such extreme class divisions and inequalities, exacerbated by capitalism’s chronic crises and wars, that have led to today’s situation in which so many people have turned to the seemingly revolutionary alternative of ISIS. But from Egypt to Turkey to Iraq, democracy has done little to empower proletarians to push for the radical sharing of wealth that is so urgently needed to end all class divisions and so end the appeal of ISIS.

The PKK say they want to transform the Middle East ‘without the utopian perspective of a world revolution’.† But it is surely only the prospect of an anti-capitalist world revolution that could ever inspire people both to overthrow ISIS and to spread the Rojava revolution across the Middle East.

Such a world revolution would require a political movement that was far more internationalist than the PKK/PYD could ever be, burdened as it is by its deep attachment to Kurdish identity. The PKK/PYD is also burdened by its initial decision to be relatively neutral in the Syrian civil war and by its later decision to ally with the US. No matter how understandable these decisions were, they have discredited the Rojava revolution across the Arab world and made it even more difficult for it to become a starting point for international revolution.

Any talk of international revolution may seem utopian. But the Arab Spring and Occupy movements showed that potentially revolutionary movements are now able to emerge and spread internationally like never before. And a global revolution is still a more realistic prospect than any hope that Rojava’s alliance with Western imperialism will somehow lead to the spread of socialism across the Middle East.

After the victory at Kobane, the PKK/PYD leader, Salih Muslim, visited government officials in London and spoke passionately in favour of an even stronger alliance with the West. He said:

‘We insist on establishing good relations with the US. … We had a martyr who was English. He died in the same trenches as us. … Our martyrs are the most glorious treasure we have. We see them as the crowns, they are crowns and they are light that show our way to peace and freedom. … We want to establish stronger relations with the English, Australians, Germans and Americans. That relation will be nourished by our martyrs’ sacrifice. … Rojava is taking the lead in giving an example of democracy in all of Syria. And our people are proud of that. And you know it is true when you see a British man next to you in the same trench and he becomes a martyr. … [Our] resistance is becoming an example to the world.’†

Despite obvious differences, this overblown rhetoric sounds very much like that of politicians a century ago who extolled ‘English, Australians, Germans and Americans’ to sacrifice themselves for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in the trenches of the 1914-18 war.

The revolutionaries of the last century made two great errors: one was to support the descent into the imperialist bloodbath of 1914, the other was to support Stalinism. Developing a 21st Century revolutionary politics that avoids any repetition of these disasters will not be easy. Radical intellectuals like Negri, Graeber and Holloway have made important theoretical contributions that can aid this development. But their apparent support for the PKK suggests serious limitations in their political outlook.

Fortunately, younger Kurdish activists are increasingly questioning the authoritarianism of the PKK. If radical intellectuals have any constructive role it is to encourage such attitudes and to avoid giving any credibility to the totalitarian cult around Ocalan.

Capitalism’s present crisis will, sooner or later, compel people to question the entire system more deeply than they are presently doing in Rojava – or, indeed, in other countries where various types of neo-Stalinist have taken power such as South Africa, Venezuela and Greece. Until then, we surely need to keep trying to find ways to support grassroots’ struggles without giving any support to neo-Stalinist politicians – or to imperialism.

All sources can be found by clicking on the † next to the quote or see the version at libcom.org

* Some critics of Ocalan have claimed that his response to such abuse accusations was to say: ‘These girls mentioned. I don’t know, I have relations with thousands of them. … [They] say ‘‘this was attempted to be done to me here’’ or ‘‘this was done to me there’’! These shameless women. … I try to turn every girl into a lover. … If you find me dangerous, don’t get close!’† However, unlike the other Ocalan quotes in this article, I have been unable to find a verifiable version of this quote. I have also been unable to find a second source to confirm claims that the Rojavan authorities ‘prohibit the display of flags and photos of political figures’ other than those of Ocalan and other PKK symbols.†

** The revolutionary hopes engendered by the Arab Spring coincided with a fall in support for Islamist terrorism. Once those hopes were dashed, such terrorism revived and, inevitably, the Rojavan police have now set up an elite anti-terrorist unit just like those of any other capitalist state. (See their Hollywood-style video here.) This development is in some contrast to Graeber’s hopes that the Rojavan police were on the way to, one day, abolishing themselves.†



May 1, 2015

Cattle and neo-Malthusianism

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Cliven Bundy: reactionary rancher

Going through back issues of Harper’s, I ran into a February 2015 article by Christopher Ketcham titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West” triggered some thoughts about the role of cattle in our environmental crisis. As a food source whose resource intakes (water and land) are disproportional to its nutritional value and that is increasingly in demand as globalization allows easy access to beef everywhere, it must be assessed with a cool and exacting view even if that risks being tarred as a “neo-Malthusian”.

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a piece titled “Cattle and Capitalism” that quoted an Alexander Cockburn from the April 22, 1996 Nation:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

The Harper’s article, which unfortunately is behind a paywall, is valuable for uncovering the damage that Cliven Bundy’s herds were doing to pristine land that was under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Essentially Bundy and local rightwing bands have terrorized the BLM into submission. The article also details how ALEC, an industry lobbying group with the Koch Brothers in the saddle, has been pushing for legislation that would essentially allow Bundy and his fellow ranchers to accomplish legally what they have been attempting to do criminally. Christopher Ketcham writes:

In western Utah, a few county commissioners announced that they planned to violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by illegally rounding up herds of wild mustangs that were competing for cattle forage on public land. In June and July, the BLM responded to that threat by rounding up the mustangs for them. On June 14, a California man, who had been posting favorably on Facebook about Bundy’s revolt, shot and wounded a BLM ranger in the Sierra Nevada mountains after he was asked to move from his illegal campsite. On July 1, a group of gold miners descended onto a BLM-managed stretch of the Salmon River in Idaho to dredge the riverbed with industrial suction equipment. The action most likely violated the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the ecological health of parts of the Salmon River in partnership with the BLM. The miners were not looking for gold. A spokesman for the Southwest Idaho Mining Association, in Boise, told the Associated Press that the illegal dredging had a single purpose: to drive the EPA from the state.

Ketcham refers to articles by Bernard DeVoto on the rancher’s assault on public lands from decades ago. This has been a problem for over a hundred years at least. I should add that if there is any reason to subscribe to Harper’s, it is to be able to access their archives and read an author such as DeVoto. This is from a January 1947 article titled “The West Against Itself”. If ranchers were capable of such an onslaught nearly 70 years ago, when the conservation-minded New Deal was still continuing although weakened by Truman, can you imagine what would be happening under the neoliberal regime backed by both parties today?

Screen shot 2015-05-01 at 1.38.56 PM

As an ancillary to Ketcham’s article, there’s a piece by Edward Abbey following his that appeared originally in the January 1986 issue. Abbey, like DeVoto, was a regular contributor to Harper’s and one committed to preserving the ecology of the American west. He writes:

Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.

Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.

In addition to the assault on nature, cattle ranching is often an assault on the agrarian poor whose subsistence farming is regarded as an obstacle to “development” just as it was in the Johnson County wars dramatized in Michael Cimino’s unjustly lambasted “Heaven’s Gate”. One scholar argues that the Sandinista revolution was triggered by seizure of peasant land on behalf of ranchers seeking to meet the demands of fast food restaurants in the 1970s:

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

From the point of view of what I regard as “productivist” Marxism, there is a belief that by posing the question of ecological limits you are adapting to neo-Malthusianism. This is a socialism that assumes that once the profit motive is eliminated, we can finally begin to live a rational and bounteous existence.

However, can we really ignore the ecological threat posed by cattle? Does socialism have a magic wand that can make a steer use less water and require more grazing acreage than under capitalism?

To produce one pound of beef, it requires 1,799 gallons of water while a pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons. Perhaps in the future socialist world beef, like a spin in an automobile or a plane ride, will be a luxury that is carefully rationed out on an equal basis. That might not square with anti-catastrophist Eddie Yuen’s citation of the 1970s Italian revolutionary graffiti “Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti” (After the revolution, caviar for everyone) but it certainly squares with common sense and historical materialism.


Trial by Fire in Syria

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm
Returning to Homs

Trial-by-Fire in Syria


Recently published by Verso Press, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” is welcome both as an important document of Syria’s trial by fire as well as an indication of this august publisher’s willingness to break with the pro-Assad consensus that prevails on the left. Although Littell’s chronicle is hardly the work of an FSA partisan, he at least puts a human face on a movement that so many were willing to reduce to one fighter’s shocking act–eating the heart of a fallen Baathist soldier.

Written between January 16 and February 2, 2012, Littell’s notebooks are literally that, a day by day diary of what he saw and what he did in Homs, a city that was a citadel of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the working-class neighborhood of Baba ‘Amr, where Littell spent most of his time.

read full article

April 30, 2015

Facebook blocks posting of NYT article about American Psychological Association collaborating with the CIA

Filed under: CIA,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

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Trying to post this on my FB timeline resulted in this:

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The article is here.

April 27, 2015

Capitalism, slavery and primitive accumulation

Filed under: slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

The inspiration for Political Marxism?

On Saturday morning I attended a panel discussion on Mike Zmolek’s newly published “Rethinking the Industrial Revolution” at the Historical Materialism conference held at NYU. This is a 1000-page work based on his dissertation that he began 20 years ago on the suggestion of his adviser George Comninel that the Brenner thesis should be extended forward historically to account for the industrial revolution. While I am sure that the book has a lot of interesting research based on a cursory glance at the dissertation in Proquest, my reaction is to wonder why the Political Marxism tendency, to which Comninel and Zmolek belong, has so little interest in another kind of extension, namely geographical. How in the world can you continue to ignore economic and social developments in the colonial world in the period of early modernity? In some ways it reminds me of that famous New Yorker cartoon where you see a map of the USA in which all the states recede in size increasingly as you move westward from Manhattan with California finally the size of a postage stamp. Substitute the British Isles for Manhattan and you get the Political Marxism perspective.

In the Q&A, Jim Creegan, a Marxmail subscriber and occasional contributor to Weekly Worker, raised a question about merchant capital. He thought that the role of state monopolies such as the East India Company was a major factor in the transition to capitalism in England and wondered why it was given short shrift in Political Marxism scholarship.

Charles Post, who is a Political Marxist and was a discussant in this panel, gave a reply to Creegan that I found quite startling. He informed him that this was an interpretation based on an understanding of “primitive accumulation” that belonged to Early Marx, before he became a full-fledged Marxist. It was the one that could be found in the German Ideology and Communist Manifesto and that was still in the shadow of Adam Smith—a Smithian Marxism so to speak. It was only after Marx had become “clear”, to use the Scientology term, in his later years of the Grundrisse and Capital that the real “primitive accumulation” emerged, one in which social property relations was the lynchpin rather than errant notions of buckets of booty from the colonies, slavery and all that other stuff got mixed in. In this interpretation, it was the enclosure acts, etc. that define primitive accumulation rather than the overseas accumulation of silver, etc.

While I thought I was pretty familiar with Marx’s writings, I had no idea that he wrote about primitive accumulation in German Ideology or the Communist Manifesto, even errantly, so as soon as I got home from the conference I checked it out. Now the last thing on earth that I could possibly be accused of is reading Charles Post’s mind but I have a feeling that he might have been referring to Marx’s emphasis on the role of commerce and the town in the late middle ages. For example, he writes in the German Ideology: “The immediate consequence of the division of labour between the various towns was the rise of manufactures, branches of production which had outgrown the guild-system. Manufactures first flourished, in Italy and later in Flanders, under the historical premise of commerce with foreign nations.” But this, of course, has no connection to Creegan’s question.

Probably the definitive take on primitive accumulation comes from Ellen Meiksins Wood, a leading doyen of the Political Marxism tendency. She limits it strictly to changes in the British countryside and regards any loot wrested from Latin America, Africa or Asia simply as fuel to the fire that was burning in Merrie Olde England:

The essence of Marx’s critique of “the so-called primitive accumulation” (and people too often miss the significance of the phrase “so-called”) is that no amount of accumulation, whether from outright theft, from imperialism, from commercial profit, or even from the exploitation of labour for commercial profit, by itself constitutes capital, nor will it produce capitalism. The specific precondition of capitalism is a transformation of social property relations that generates capitalist “laws of motion”: the imperatives of competition and profit-maximization, a compulsion to reinvest surpluses, and a systematic and relentless need to improve labour-productivity and develop the forces of production.

The critical transformation of social property relations, in Marx’s account, took place in the English countryside, with the expropriation of the direct producers. In the new agrarian relations, landlords increasingly derived rents from the commercial profits of capitalist tenants, while many small producers were dispossessed and became wage labourers. Marx regards this rural transformation as the real “primitive accumulation” not because it created a critical mass of wealth but because these social property relations generated new economic imperatives, especially the compulsions of competition, a systematic need to develop the productive forces, leading to new laws of motion such as the world had never seen before.

“Origins of Capitalism”, pp. 36-37

Furthermore, if Wood had been in attendance at this panel, she would have sharply rebuked Creegan for giving any credence to the idea that merchant capital was an important precursor to the full development of capitalist property relations. In “Empire of Capital”, she described the East India Company as “non-capitalist” and an impediment to economic growth even though in its early stages it helped the British textile industry grow by suppressing India’s advantage.

Unfortunately, by reducing the East India Company’s role in this matter to a sentence or two, Wood succumbs to the New Yorker Magazine cartoon version of history. It would behoove her or any other Political Marxist to pay heed to what R. Palme Dutt wrote in “India Today” back in 1949:

Immediately after, the great series of inventions, such as spinning-jenny and the steam engine, began in Europe which initiated the Industrial Revolution. The development of the age of inventions depended, not simply on “some special and unaccountable burst of inventive genius,” as the leading authority on English industrial history, W. Cunningham, writes in his Growth of English Industry and Commerce in Modern Times, but on the accumulation of a sufficient body of capital as the indispensable condition to make possible the large-scale outlay for their utilisation. Previous inventions of Kay’s fly-shuttle in 1733 and Wyatt’s roller-spinning machine in 1738 came to naught because they couldn’t be used for lack of capital. It was the plunder of India that thus set into motion one of the greatest revolutions of history – the Industrial Revolution. In his Law of Civilization and Decay, the American writer, Brooke Adams describes how it happened:

The influx of the Indian treasure, by adding considerably to the nation’s cash capital, not only increased its stock of energy, but added much to its flexibility and the rapidity of its movement. Very soon after Plassey, the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous; for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution,’ the event which has divided the nineteenth century from all antecedent time, began with the year 1760. Prior to 1760, according to Bains, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was almost as simple as in India; while about 1750 the English iron industry was in full decline because of the destruction of forests for fuel. At that time four-fifths of the iron used in the kingdom came from Sweden.

Plassey was fought in 1757, and probably nothing has ever equalled in rapidity of the change which followed. In 1760 the flying shuttle appeared, and coal began to replace wood in smelting. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, in 1776 Crompton contrived the mule, in 1785 Cartwright patented the powerloom, and, chief of all, in 1768 Watt matured the steam engine, the most perfect of all vents of centralising energy. But though these machines served as outlets for the accelerating movement of the time, they did not cause that acceleration. In themselves inventions are passive, many of the most important having lain dormant for centuries, waiting for a sufficient store of force to have accumulated to set them working. That store must always take the shape of money, and money not hoarded, but in motion. Before the influx of the Indian treasure, and the expansion of credit which followed, no force sufficient for this purpose existed; and had Watt lived fifty years earlier, he and his invention must have perished together. Possibly since the world began, no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder…

The spoliation of India was thus the hidden source of capital accumulation which played an all-important role in helping to make possible the industrial revolution in England. Once the industrial capital was established in England, it needed markets to sells its products to. It was again India which was forced, to absorb these goods to enable the industrial revolution in England to sustain itself. India had to be de-industrialized in order to achieve this. After the victory of English industrial capital over its mercantile capital, India’s textile industry was destroyed leading to the destruction of its urban economy and the subsequent overcrowding in the villages and pushing India hundreds of years behind in its economic development.

Of course, Dutt was a leader of the Communist Party of India and as such might be susceptible to the sort of errant thinking that left the early Karl Marx beneath Charles Post’s exacting standards but surely we can accept the word of the Master himself in his mature phase. While the entire chapter 20 of V.3 of Capital (“Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital”) would be edifying, it is essential to see how Marx viewed it in terms of the “transition” debate:

There is no doubt — and it is precisely this fact which has led to wholly erroneous conceptions — that in the 16th and 17th centuries the great revolutions, which took place in commerce with the geographical discoveries and speeded the development of merchant’s capital, constitute one of the principal elements in furthering the transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production. The sudden expansion of the world-market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competitive zeal of the European nations to possess themselves of the products of Asia and the treasures of America, and the colonial system — all contributed materially toward destroying the feudal fetters on production.

In other words, James Creegan was saying exactly the same thing that Karl Marx was saying, something that the Political Marxists can’t get into their thick skulls. In fact, in the chapter on the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist in V. 1 of Capital, he doesn’t mention the enclosure acts at all. Instead he cites the East India Company, the slave trade, the extermination of the American Indian and all those other things that recede from the Anglocentric perspective of Post, Wood, Brenner, incorporated:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In a very real sense, the debate that the Political Marxists have begun is not so much with people like the late James Blaut, Henry Heller, or Neil Davidson. It is with Karl Marx himself. As long as people have access to Capital, the last word on these questions according to his gatekeeper Charles Post, they will consider these words and realize that they are at odds with those who speak in his name as paragons of orthodoxy. A little less “orthodoxy” and a bit more modesty is in order.

On Sunday morning I heard presentations by John Clegg and Robin Blackburn in a panel on “Slavery in the Age of Capital” that were also important contributions to the ongoing debate over the “transition” question.

For those of you who have been keeping up with this debate, you are probably aware that Charles Post tried to apply the Brenner thesis to the American Civil War viewing slavery as a “precapitalist” institution that the northern bourgeoisie sought to destroy in order to carry out a bourgeois revolution, even if that concept is strictly verboten in Political Marxism circles. Once again, Karl Marx had a completely different take on the relationship of slavery to capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

John Clegg not only would agree with this assessment. He goes even further and uses Karl Marx’s categories to defend the proposition that slaves produced surplus value. In other words, the chief difference between a wageworker and a slave was that the class relationship was based in the first instance on a contract between the buyer and seller of labor power but not in the second. Aside from that, there is really no difference since both types of labor is being exploited in order to produce commodities for sale on the capitalist marketplace for a profit.

Clegg has co-authored an article with Duncan Foley, the chair of the economics department at the New School Graduate Faculty and a highly respected Marxist scholar, which has been submitted to the Cambridge Economic History Review and that his talk was drawn from. I will not try to recapitulate it since it is quite complex but will instead refer you to a presentation he has given on it in the past: http://wearemany.org/a/2013/04/slavery-and-capitalism

What I can offer as well is Duncan Foley’s views on slavery and capitalism as they appeared on Gerry Levy’s OPE-List back in 2000:

It always seemed to me that slaves in the New World were very closely tied to the commodity-producing system. Certainly in the U.S. the main motive for holding slaves was to produce export crops like tobacco and cotton. The labor of the slaves added value to the inputs, like wage labor, and presumably more value than the value equivalent of their subsistence. (I suspect quite a bit of the subsistence was produced on the plantations.) Thus there was a potential surplus value in the employment of slaves.

Full: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/archive/0004/0110.html

Blackburn’s talk was focused on a discussion of some of the new research on slavery and capitalism that is found in books by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson that he generally agreed with despite his concerns that they err on the side of drawing too much of an equation between wage labor and slavery.

Although I had tended to associate him largely with the Brenner thesis in the past, he made it clear that he was critical of Political Marxism and described Robert Brenner as having a long term problem with primitive accumulation, no doubt of the kind that involves the East India and company.

He was also very much in agreement with the basic thesis of Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”, namely that this commodity was instrumental to the growth of capitalism in Britain and, moreover, its colonial aspirations. When the British textile industry began to take off, it fueled the slave trade in the United States. As he put it, there can be different interpretations of whether slavery led to capitalism but no one could possibly disagree with the idea that the growth of capitalism led to the growth of slavery in the 19th century, a clear rebuttal of the idea that the two mode of production were inimical to each other. It may be the case that they would eventually come to blows but in the early stages, they were joined at the hip. Just as was the case in India, “extra-economic” coercion can often serve as a handmaiden to market relations even if some Marxists don’t get it.

April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion


Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

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April 23, 2015

Que maravillosa!

Filed under: cuba,dance,music — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm


One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

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