Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 19, 2014

A response to Owen Jones and James Bloodworth on Cuba

Filed under: anti-Communism,cuba,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Owen Jones

James Bloodworth

Vexingly but not unexpectedly, Owen Jones and James Bloodworth used their Guardian and Independent columns as bully pulpits against the Cuban government. Despite their impeccable left-liberal credentials, their commentary left a bad taste in my mouth not unlike the one I experienced when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews weighed in: “I just don`t think they are going to change their stripes. I think they’re commies. I think they’re communists.” Commies. Nice.

I have more respect for Jones, who was on Marxmail briefly when he was 16 years old or so, a most precocious lad. Back then he repeated the talking points heard across the British left: “If the working class wield no political power, then who does? A privileged layer of officials, i.e. bureaucrats. It is they who legislate and enforce law, not the working class.” Nothing has changed in the 14 years when he wrote this except maybe a softening on bureaucracy, something understandable given his loyalty to the British Labour Party—a far cry from the heaven-storming sensibility of his adolescence.

Yesterday Owen Jones weighed in at the Guardian on the Cuban “dictatorship” that he hoped would disappear with the blockade. Like a comparison test for detergents, Brand X—Cuba—fails miserably next to those “progressive governments that promote social justice as well as democracy.” He adds: “They have lifted 56 million people out of poverty this millennium, and have done so without imposing a dictatorship.” (The 56 million figure was arrived at by the United Nations Development Programme and formed the basis of a BBC article Jones linked to.)

Apparently Peru was one of the countries Jones held up against Cuba since its poverty rate was reduced by 26.3 percent and had lots of freedom—hurrah, hurrah.

But I would urge some caution on taking the United Nations Development Programme report at face value, the source of the BBC article’s poverty reduction claims. If, as is likely, Peru’s National Statistics and Information Institute (INEI) is feeding data to the UN, the numbers are not to be trusted.

The INEI recently announced a sizeable 5.2 reduction in poverty in 2007. However, many have questioned the validity of these numbers, including Farid Matuk, an ex-president of INEI, who guesses that such numbers might be forged. They suggest a poverty reduction rate of 0.6 percent per each point of GDP growth, which is three times higher than the average of previous years. At this rate, Peru would eliminate poverty completely in about 10 years, which strains credulity.

I suppose that if having parliamentary democracy is ipso facto a sign that a nation is freer, then Peru—Brand A—is superior to Brand X. But if you are an Indian, Peru does not seem all that free. Between 2006 and 2011 after protests were mounted against mining on indigenous lands, the government declared martial law and gave the green light to the military to kill 200 activists.

For an incisive report on the reality behind Peruvian president Ollanta Humala’s faux populism, I recommend Deborah Poole and Gerardo Rénique’s NACLA report from May 2012:

Within weeks of Humala’s inauguration, major mobilizations were staged in the departments of Ancash, Apurímac, and Cajamarca—which are characterized by extreme poverty, long traditions of subaltern politics, and some of Peru’s largest mining projects. The protesters’ demands included an end to all mining in headwaters, a ban on the use of cyanide and mercury, a national ecological zoning code elaborated with citizen participation, and implementation of the national Law of Consultation. Led by Valdés, at the time minister of the interior, the Humala government moved quickly to repress the popular mobilizations. In November, during a strike in Apurímac, Valdés’s heavy-handed approach clashed with the more conciliatory politics of then prime minister Lerner and other left-wing cabinet members who favored negotiation and reform. It also, however, drove home the widening political and cultural divide pitting Humala’s right-wing functionaries against the popular organizations that had helped to bring his government to power.

I guess that if Humala came to power through multiparty elections, he had the right to “repress the popular mobilizations”. That’s how democracy works, right? In Brazil as well, right? Another Brand-A success story.

Let me repeat. Except for this sort of article and his membership in the Labour Party, I really respect Owen Jones especially when he backed out of a Stop the War Coalition’s meeting on Syria that was featuring Assad apologist Mother Agnes. James Bloodworth, on the other hand, is a sniveling little rat.

Bloodworth’s column opens with the obligatory “god that failed” confession that is so necessary for those pursuing a career as a lapdog for the ruling class:

One small claim to fame of mine is that I was present during Fidel Castro’s final public speech as Cuban President back in 2006. Stood at a lectern about 50 yards from me, El Maximo Lider harangued the relatively small crowd for over two hours, littering his speech with the usual denunciations of ‘Yankee imperialism’, ‘capitalist monopolies’ and – I particularly enjoyed this part – ‘Bush and Blair’.

For a young revolutionary tourist like myself the spectacle of the bearded ideologue in full flow was subversively exciting: I hated all of those things too, or at least I thought I did. Like so many who pretend to despise the boring machinations of liberal democracy I was passionately rooting for the romanticism of Che Guevara over the banal compromises of the capitalist system. And so beards, green fatigues and tropical exuberance were in and Starbucks and McDonalds were most definitely out.

Did you catch the business about getting over denunciations of ‘Bush and Blair’? Oh no, we can’t have such dogmatic notions cropping up in the writings of a 31-year old journalist angling to be the next Christopher Hitchens. How so yesterday, railing against Bush and Blair. Why the next thing you know, people will be playing Billy Bragg CD’s. So embarrassing.

But our latter-day Arthur Koestler came to see the light:

But in reality the ‘plucky Caribbean island’ was no tropical Shoreditch and what I witnessed was the stage-set Cuba rather than the grim and Spartan reality. I was a Useful Idiot, in other words; a person who would valorise the 95 per cent literacy rate on the island without telling you that it was the Cuban Government which decided what a person was allowed to read. Like many a pampered comrade, I rallied against the ‘superficiality’ of McDonald’s and Burger King while forgetting that plastic food is incomparably better than no food at all.

What is there to say in reply to a claim that fast food is better than “no food at all”. This is the sort of shit-flinging rhetoric you get on the Sean Hannity show and hardly worth bothering to answer.

Now it is true that Cuban media is state-owned. Presumably it would be better for Cuba to have the sort of free press we have in the USA where those with the money have the freedom to own one, to paraphrase AJ Liebling.

But it is not enough to be able to buy and sell a newspaper or television station. Bloodworth raises the bar even higher. If you buy a newspaper or TV station and then use it to editorialize on behalf of a government that was voted into power but that does not live up to your lily-white liberal standards, then watch out.

On February 19, 2014 Bloodworth repeated his god that failed shtick, this time about Venezuela:

There was a time when the so-called Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela appeared to hold great promise. I remember watching The Revolution Will Not Be Televised back in 2003 and being mesmerised by what I saw: here was a government spending the country’s oil wealth on social programmes for the poor and giving the rich a kicking in one of the most unequal societies in the Western Hemisphere.

But unlike 2003, Venezuelan television no longer plots against the government, a function of private enterprise apparently:  “In 2013 the last remaining independent television station in Venezuela was sold to an ally of the president.” Maybe there’s something I’m missing but isn’t that the way bourgeois democracy operates? Last week the New Republic editors and writers that Martin Peretz had hired resigned because they objected to the new owner’s intentions to make the magazine more like the Huffingto Post or the Daily Beast. And that’s not much different from when Peretz bought the magazine in 1974. He fired the liberal editor and a bunch of people then resigned.

That’s how capitalism operates as far as I know. Newspapers are profit-making enterprises. You buy one and then you have the right to order people to write things that reflect your POV. That’s how the Independent operates, doesn’t it? If Rupert Murdoch bought it tomorrow, heads like Patrick Cockburn would roll. I do suspect that James Bloodworth would still have a job. Murdoch would smile ever so benignly on such a bright young anti-Communist thing.

 

June 27, 2014

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh behind the curve

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Said Sayrafiezadeh, right, on his wedding day in 2005 along with his father, Mahmoud (Karen Mainenti, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The latest issue of Book Forum has a section titled “War All the Time” that has reviews of books about war as well as essays by various people, including Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the 46 year old Iranian-American who enjoyed 5 minutes of fame in 2009 as the author of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, a Trotskyist red diaper baby memoir that got rave reviews in the NY Times and Washington Post. My reaction was less enthusiastic:

The best thing that can be said about this memoir is that it is well written. Clearly, the author knows how to sustain a reader’s interest even if his story either stretches reality or in some cases breaks with it entirely. One doubts that this rather modest work of literature would have commanded the attention of the two most important papers in the United States if it had been about an unhappy childhood spent with Seventh Day Adventist or vegetarian parents imposing their beliefs on the author. There is something about the excesses of Marxist revolutionaries that gets the blood of a New York Times book review editor flowing.

He seems to be in a sophomore slump since his latest book “Brief Encounters with the Enemy”, a collection of stories that according to Amazon.com “chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war”, is ranked only 227,506 on Amazon.com, hardly enough to support the consumerist lifestyle the aging author enjoys or—more accurately—aspires to enjoy. In my review of “When Skateboards Will be Free”, I could not help but notice that his appetites were more that of the vulgarian than the artiste. From a 2009 interview in New York Magazine:

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

My review looked askance at his claim that the SWP refused to take action against a babysitter member of the sect who molested him at his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn. The incidents would have occurred 40 years or so ago when the party was still relatively normal. But even if they did, I wonder why Sayrafiezadeh never bothered to report them to the police. Supposedly his mother protected the molester because she was anxious not to challenge the party leadership that wanted to protect him but what was Sayrafiezadeh’s excuse? Catholics have no trouble naming names, why doesn’t he? Is it possible that this incident was fictionalized to make the SWP look even worse than it was? We’ll never know, I guess.

“When Skateboards Will be Free” came out in early 2009. Since he probably began writing the book in 2007, or even earlier, there was no reason for him to acknowledge that a financial crisis would rob millions of Americans not only the opportunity to have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV but also a roof over their head.  Talk about being behind the curve.

Like an East German running across the demolished Berlin wall to buy bananas and porn, he assumed that American capitalism would go onward and upward forever. His memoir draws a contrast between his own desires to live a normal consumerist existence and his ridiculous parents’ utopian dreams about socialist revolution. His father, who surely risked his life arguing for socialism in the Islamic Republic, comes off particularly bad–ordering the wrong wine at a restaurant.

Maybe hoping to mine a few shekels from the anti-Communist industry,  Sayrafiezadeh’s article titled “Blood on the Tracts” returns once again to the sad, self-deluding world of his sectarian parents. Our writer begins:

THE BOOKS THAT LINED THE SHELVES in my mother’s home, and that, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, helped to shape my worldview, were almost entirely about war and written almost entirely by communists. There were Marx and Engels, of course, and Trotsky (not Stalin), but there were also quite a few other authors, hovering on the margins of the canon, such as Farrell Dobbs and George Breitman, less talented and lesser known, who would have been read, and published, by the truly initiated, namely members of the Socialist Workers Party.

What “war” could he possibly be writing about, unless he is referring to the class war in which case every single Marxist work would qualify? In terms of Dobbs and Breitman, the “less talented and lesser known”, this put down would have hardly mattered to them since their goal was to influence history rather than be interviewed in New York Magazine, the venue for articles on the very best chocolate and bargain rentals in the Hamptons.

He continues:

And because my mother was herself an avid reader, a former student of English literature who as a young woman had once dreamed of becoming a novelist—before being thwarted by a failed marriage, three children, and clinical depression—there could be found, occasionally, an anomaly wedged in between these other books. Steinbeck’s The Red Pony comes to mind. How it made its way onto our bookshelf, and, more to the point, how it remained, I have no idea. If there were other examples, and I’m sure there must have been, I cannot now specifically recall them. The reading of fiction, discouraged by the Socialist Workers Party, as most pursuits of pleasure were discouraged, was something that my mother undertook with considerable guilt and shame.

What an absurd statement. The reading of fiction was not “discouraged”. Nobody cared particularly what you did in your free time. I read everything by Charles Bukowski I could get my hands on. Most people did not read fiction for the same reason ordinary Americans do not read it. It is a dying art. People watch television or go to the movies. Who can blame them? I have 3 or 4 novels sitting on my bookshelves that I plan to read in the next year or so, mainly because they deal with political issues of some importance to me—like Jonathan Lethem’s novel about a Communist family. But I get more “pleasure” out of reading history or political analysis. If people were still writing like Steinbeck, I’d probably read that.

In terms of “most pursuits of pleasure” being discouraged, what an asinine remark. In the 1970s, SWP members went out to dinner, drank wine, fucked, played basketball or went to the beach just like other normal people did. The only difference between us and the rest of society is that we had less time to do such things because we were always at meetings.

After some more what a bunch of hairshirt assholes from Sayrafiezadeh, he gets into the question of Commies and warfare:

The literature taught well to expect the unhappy sequence of a second Great Depression, followed by a third world war that will dwarf the wars that have preceded it, followed by, if we were truly unlucky, fascism, followed, finally, by the rising up of the working class. These horrors to come dovetailed nicely with what had already arrived, i.e., the various military engagements that the United States was involved in during the years of my childhood, including those in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and the long stalemate with the Soviet Union. It would be hard to disprove at least some of the dire predictions of those books when all around us it seemed we were heading in that direction. In the spirit of other, more playful literary genres, like satire or science fiction, the literature of our household was not only exaggerating but also reflecting something that was already very real. It was also reflecting the state of our own broken family, with missing father and unhappy mother. Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war. The fiction, as nightmarish as it might have been, provided me with solace: If war was what we had to go through in order to finally achieve a splendid life, then the faster we could begin the better. So, for instance, when the United States invaded Grenada and overthrew the Socialist government, the sadness that my mother and I shared was tempered by the understanding that of course things would be playing out this way, since Marx taught well that capitalism can only do what is in its nature to do. The years of my childhood brought more of the same, which is to say, more war, economic crisis, but no workers’ revolt, and eventually my mother, exhausted and disillusioned, resigned from the Socialist Workers Party and purged our household of its communist literature. Our best-laid plans had not come close to being borne out. But it’s not so easy to abandon one’s fantasies, and even as the years passed, and my mother tried, and failed, to become a writer, and I engaged in some decidedly capitalist behavior, like owning my own home, we occasionally found ourselves, at the beginning of yet another war, entertaining thoughts that the gravediggers would soon arrive. Still, we dreamed.

When I read such mind-numbing stupidity, I can understand why Random House published “When Skateboards Will be Free” and torpedoed the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar. The Trotskyists were not obsessed with war. They were for peace, especially in places like Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba where attempts to create an alternative to capitalism had to be nurtured not bombed into submission.

He states: “Therefore, it would have been hard for me as a child not to somehow unconsciously be rooting for the world to hurtle, with even greater speed, toward all-out war.” Yes, I am sure that this is true. Children have confused thoughts. When I was six years old, I used to fantasize about going into outer space in a huge rocket ship that could satisfy all my desires like in “The Forbidden Planet”. At least after I grew up a bit, I realized that childhood fantasies should be left in the past since they are obstacles to coming to terms with life’s challenges. For a shithead like Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, they obviously serve some pecuniary interest since there is a market for red-baiting crap and not memoirs that celebrate a life led as a radical—warts and all.

October 11, 2013

Why the Ruling Class Feared Camp Kinderland

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:31 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 11-13, 2013
Learning the Spirit of Rebellion at Commie Camp
by LOUIS PROYECT

This is a follow-up to the July 1947 PM article about my hometown titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that appeared on the September 30 CounterPunch. Like the PM article, the documentary “Commie Camp“ that showed at the Tribeca Theater in New York last June celebrates the leftist subculture of resort areas within geographical and financial reach of working class Jews in the 30s and 40s—in this instance the children’s summer camps favored typically by those working in the garment district.

Among the powerful trade unions that existed in that period, none had a more openly Communist leadership than the furrier’s union. I have vivid memories of visiting relatives in Flatbush who worked in this trade in the mid-50s when I was 10 years old or so. I innocently tuned in “Amos and Andy” on their television (we did not yet have one of our own at home) and was instructed by the man of the house, a furrier, to turn it off since it was racist. It was the first time in my life that anybody had ever acknowledged that racism existed, let alone spoke against it.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/11/why-the-ruling-class-feared-camp-kinderland/

February 15, 2013

Sean Wilentz: tawdry redbaiter

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Sean Wilentz

Counterpunch Weekend Edition February 15-17, 2013
Sean Wilentz’s Pop-Gun Attack on Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

Post-Modernist Red-Baiting

by LOUIS PROYECT

It was only a matter of time before the N.Y. Review of Books launched an ideological drone strike against Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “Untold History of the United States”. And who better to sit behind the control panel directing the missile than Sean Wilentz, who aspires to be the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. of our generation.

In its early years the NYR featured Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and even ran a famous article by Andrew Kopkind backing Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun”–accompanied by David Levine’s marvelous do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail on its cover.

As the magazine’s editors grew older and more attuned to the needs of the permanent government, it found new causes and new contributors to promote them. Chief among the causes was the superiority of capitalism to socialism and America’s duty to resist any challenges to the global status quo. More and more the NYR began to occupy the ideological niche once held by Encounter, the journal edited by Melvin J. Lasky and funded by the CIA.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/15/post-modernist-red-baiting/

December 15, 2012

The stoning of Oliver Stone

Filed under: anti-Communism,antiwar,media — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 14-16, 2012
The Gatekeepers of American History

The Stoning of Oliver Stone

by LOUIS PROYECT

On November 22nd the New York Times Sunday Magazine showcased a hatchet job by Andrew Goldman on Oliver Stone’s 10-part Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States” that is based on Stone and Peter Kuznick’s 750-page companion volume of the same name.  Goldman tried to hoodwink readers into thinking that both the right and the left disavowed the show and the book. While Ronald Radosh, the author of a recent study arguing that Francisco Franco did more good than harm to Spain, had all the credentials one expected from a rightist, Goldman’s choice of Sean Wilentz as speaking for the left was an exercise in deceit. Goldman cites Wilentz:

Is there a legitimate argument to be made about the origins of our nuclear diplomacy or the decision to build the H-bomb? Of course there is. But it’s so overloaded with ideological distortion that this question doesn’t get raised in an intelligent way. And once a question gets raised in an unintelligent way, then you are off in cloud-cuckoo land.

One imagines that the average NYT magazine reader assumes that Wilentz speaks for the left but a look back at his testimony on “revisionist” histories of the United States reveals that his chief role is that of ideological gatekeeper, warning his readers against “ideological distortion” seeping out of “cloud-cuckoo land”—in other words anything that is outside the bounds of mainstream liberalism.

read full article

 

November 24, 2010

A guest post on Timothy Snyder

Filed under: anti-Communism,Fascism,ussr,war — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

This originally appeared as comments by Dermokrat under my last post titled An American “Revisionist” Historian.  He buttresses his arguments with passages from Jacques Pauwel’s essential Myth of the Good War. Since it a major contribution to the discussion, I wanted to make sure that it received the widest attention.

Hi Louis,

I actually posted Kotz’s article on my facebook a while back, although not because of his refutation of Snyder, but because of his worthy condemnation of fanatic, anti-Soviet Baltic nationalism. Nevertheless, one of my friends took me to task over Katz’s argument vis-a-vis Snyder. I didn’t actually read the response by Snyder before I posted Katz’s commentary. My friend quickly pointed out that Snyder notes in his rebuttal:

I didn’t and don’t equate Hitler and Stalin. Katz puts ‘somewhat equal’ in quotations, but I never use any such phrase. Zuroff says that I ‘posit’ that the Soviet Union was Nazi Germany; I most certainly do no such thing. What I try to do, in the 28 September article and generally, is understand what it means for a vast east European territory and several east European peoples to have been touched by both Nazi and Soviet power. Despite some critical remarks of Bloodlands in an otherwise perceptive and generous (London) Times review of 26 September, which perhaps Zuroff and Katz read, I don’t equate Stalin with Hitler in that book either. Instead, I try to reckon with the crimes that both regimes committed in the lands between Berlin and Moscow, where 14 million people, including more than 5 million Jews, were killed in the 12 years that both Hitler and Stalin were in power.

He then pointed out that Katz undermines his own argument that Snyder fails to distinguish between the two when he writes:

And finally, it is not possible to ignore Snyder’s certainty that ‘Jews could not help but see the return of Soviet power as a liberation. Soviet policy was not especially friendly to Jews, but it was obviously better than a Holocaust.’

Indeed, in his rejoinder, Snyder writes: “I am not saying that [Soviet atrocities] were equivalent to the Holocaust. I am saying that a number of German and Soviet policies meet the standard of genocide.”

I pointed out to my friend that having read Snyder’s original piece and his response, I agreed that both Katz and Zuroff had somewhat exaggerated or misinterpreted Snyder’s arguments in the original article (excerpted from Bloodlands), but nevertheless make valid points re: the kind of historiography to which you refer at the beginning of your article (the kind that Baltic nationalists have adopted wholesale).

All that said, however, Snyder’s arguments about Soviet “genocide” are still unconvincing. To be sure, Stalin was a totalitarian monster who presided over mass slaughter of many innocent people, but it is difficult to claim that he was committing “genocide” as it is conventionally understood; i.e. “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.” While the Ukrainian nationalists and American/British anti-communists have long claimed that Stalin intentionally engineered the famine to punish Ukraine or even exterminate Ukrainians, there is simply no evidence for this. The last most serious inquiry into this question was carried out by Terry Martin in his Affirmative Action Empire. After exhaustively examining the documentary record (including all of Stalin’s correspondence with Kaganovich and Molotov during those years), Martin concluded:

The Poliburo’s development of a national interpretation of their grain requisitions crisis in late 1932 helps explain both the pattern of terror and the role of the national factor during the 1932-1933 famine. The 1932-1933 terror campaign consisted of both a grain requisitions terror, whose primary target was the peasantry, both Russian and non-Russian, and a nationalities terror, whose primary target was Ukraine and subsequently Belorussia. The grain requisitions terror was the final and decisive culmination of a campaign begun in 1927-1928 to extract the maximum possible amount from a hostile peasantry. As such, its primary targets were the grain-producing regions of Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga, though no grain-producing regions escaped the 1932-1933 grain requisitions terror entirely. Nationality was of minimal importance in this campaign. The famine was not an intentional act of genocide specifically targeting the Ukrainian nation (quote on p.305 but see 282-307 for the full explanation).

The famine is still to be blamed on Stalin and his henchmen, since it stemmed from the policy of forced collectivization, which in turn was pursued not out of a kind of Marxist orthodoxy (as anti-communists like to claim), but in order to facilitate grain exports to Europe to acquire the hard currency needed for industrialization (this was inspired by Preobrazhensky’s socialist primitive accumulation – see Kagarlitskii’s Empire of the Periphery for a good summary). In this way, the Ukraine/Kuban famine was very much like what the British did in India as documented so well by Mike Davis in his Late Victorian Holocausts (ironically, this would have been a nice comparative study for Conquest back when he was writing Harvest of Sorrow!). At any rate, the famine caused by collectivization and terror requisitions was indeed a small ‘h’ holocaust of sorts, but it was not genocide.

Moving on, Snyder writes: “It is hard not to see the Soviet “Polish Operation” of 1937-38 as genocidal: Polish fathers were shot, Polish mothers sent to Kazakhstan, and Polish children left in orphanages where they would lose their Polish identity. As more than 100,000 innocent people were killed on the spurious grounds that theirs was a disloyal ethnicity…”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Unfortunately, it was not just the Poles who were subjected to this. Many “diaspora” groups living along Soviet borders were subjected to this kind of treatment – basically any national minority groups that had a “national homeland” outside the USSR, especially those living along the borders, were considered suspect. Like the Polish and Germans, many members of these “alien” communities were forcibly relocated and/or arrested and shot. The Poles and Germans living in the Ukrainian borderlands were particularly targeted because they had been the most prone to insurrection during collectivization and the years that followed. In fact, throughout the early 30s many Polish and German rebels did make appeals to the German and Polish government for aid and hoped they would intervene against the Soviet government on their behalf. Obviously this resistance was blowback from the collectivization campaign, and change in Soviet policy should be compared with what Terry Martin terms “the Piedmont Principle” of 1920s, whereby the Soviets hoped these border communities would become a sort of showcase for their national comrades living across the border.

Unsurprisingly Soviet officialdom’s views changed rapidly in the post-collectivization years – a period that also coincided with a decidedly hostile international relations environment, where the Nazis and Polish governments made no secret of their desire to do the Soviets in (see Affirmative Action, passim and Craig Nation’s Black Earth, Red Star, pp. 74-112; and Hirsch’ Empire of Nations, pp. 273-308 for more details on these things). Ironically, Soviet nationality policy in the Ukrainian borderlands was a victim of its own success, which led to the paradoxical situation where the Soviets officially promoted all the trappings of national life (national education, newspapers, theater, etc), but then accused local officials in charge of these things of promoting nationalism. This situation is not irrelevant to understanding what happened in the region in the runup to the war. While Snyder is right that Poles were increasingly being deported from the borderlands in the mid to late 30s simply for being Poles (and not for “class” reasons), not all the Polish communities living in the border regions were affected. As Kate Brown points out in her study of Soviet nationalities policy in the Ukrainian borderlands:

Some commentators on Soviet history have interpreted the deportation of national minorities as a plan ordered from Moscow and motivated in large part by a growing ethnic xenophobia and Russian chauvinism, led in large part Joseph Stalin (himself, of course, member of a minority far from mainstream Russia). The 1935-36 deportations, however, did not emanate from a racial or biological understanding of the deported population. Despite the order to deport specifically Poles and Germans, security agents did not deport ALL Germans and Poles in the borderlands, but only Germans and Poles with suspicious biographies or personal connections. Instead of an encompassing racial conception of nationality, national categories informed existing political and class categories to determine who should go and who should stay. About half of Soviet Poles and Germans were deemed dangerous for the border zone, but the other half was cleared to stay. In 1936, to be Polish or German was still dependent on one’s actions, biography and personal connections…Border cleansing was not a universal policy. As mentioned above, Poles and Germans were not shipped from Belorussia at this time although its profile was very similar to that of Ukraine: both had mixed populations, a long history of a leading Polish elite, a substantial number of German colonists and other scattered groups. Both bordered on Polish territory and had volatile and rebellious records during the 1930 collectivization campaign. The major difference between the two territories is that Ukraine established its national minority program in 1925, while the Dzerzhinskii Polish Region in Belorussia was formed in 1932. The people in Belorussia had only a few years to live in nationalized space and create national behavior. Rather than a universal plan from Moscow to deport all diaspora borderland populations, this disparity suggests that policy grew out of a more specific connection to how land and populations were configured in various territories of the Soviet Union (A Biography of No Place, p. 147).

This probably explains why there were still roughly 200,000 Poles living in these borderlands in 1959, all still granted certain “national rights” – albeit highly circumscribed by that point, as they were for all national minorities. Yet if we believe Snyder, the Soviets engaged in a campaign with the Nazis to eliminate all educated Polish people in a bid to undermine their continued existence as a people (the Soviets then went on to maintain a Polish state after WWII – thoroughly Stalinized, of course, but that’s not the point).

By the way, it’s worth noting that the United States adopted a similar policy of deportation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Although it did not, to my knowledge, include summary executions, many peoples lives were ruined due to the fact that they were forcibly uprooted and sent to the camps. Does Snyder consider this American policy as genocidal?

Lastly, we should keep in mind that, despite Stalin’s seemingly best attempts to deform the sciences in the USSR, the Soviet Union – in stark contrast to Germany and much of the West at that time – was adamantly opposed to eugenics and race science. In fact they broke all research ties with Germany once such a science took root in German universities. According to Francine Hirsch:

…in 1931 the Soviet regime prevailed on its anthropologists and ethnographers to disprove German race theories. In particular, the Soviet experts were to wage a war against biological determinism: to prove to audiences at home and abroad that ‘all narodnosti can develop and flourish’ and that ‘there is no basis whatsoever for supposing the existence of some sort of racial or biological factors’ that would make it impossible for certain peoples to participate in ‘socialist construction’. Soviet ethnographers and anthropologists, most of whom were themselves troubled about the German turn to ‘Nordic race science’, and none of whom wanted to be accused of anti-Soviet tendencies, set out to refute German claims in scientific terms and prove that the Marxist vision of historical development – grounded in sociohistorical, not sociobiological, laws – was the correct one (empire of nations, p. 232).

These genocide equivalencies, however, were not Snyder’s principle claim. It was that the Soviets enabled Hitler’s Holocaust(s):

We all agree that Hitler had the horrible aspiration to eliminate the Jews from Europe. But how exactly was Hitler to do so in summer 1939, with fewer than 3% of European Jews under his control? Hitler needed war to eliminate the Jews, and it was Stalin who helped him to begin that war. As I said in my original article, we don’t know how the war would have proceeded without the treaty on borders and friendship; what we do know is that the war as it actually happened, with all of its atrocities, began with a German-Soviet alliance. What if the Soviets had simply opted for neutrality in 1939? How exactly would the Germans have overcome the British blockade without Soviet grain? Or bombed London without Soviet oil? Or won their lightening victory in France without security in the rear?

I think we can all agree that this is really cute. As the German historian Bernd Martin pointed out “Hitler’s fundamental political conviction, his self-imposed duty from the moment he had embarked on his political career was the eradication of Bolshevism [which he defined as a Jewish conspiracy].” This was understood by Western elites. As Jacques Pauwels points out:

Everywhere in the industrialized world there were statesmen, corporate leaders, press barons, and other influential personalities who encouraged him openly or discreetly to realize his great anti-Soviet ambition. In the United States, Nazi Germany was praised as a bulwark against communism and Hitler was encouraged to use the might of Germany to destroy the Soviet Union by people such as Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt’s predecessor in the White House (The Myth of the Good War, p. 44).

Pauwels points out, though, that “It was primarily in Europe itself that the social and political elites expected great anti-Soviet achievements of Hitler. In Great Britain, for example, the eastern ambitions of the Fuhrer enjoyed at an early stage the approval of respectable and influential politicians, such as Lloyd George, Lord Halifax, Lord Astor and his circle of friends, the so called “Cliveden Set”…The Duke of Windsor even traveled to Berchtesgardern to have tea with Hitler…and encouraged him in his ambition to attack Russia: ‘[Hitler] made me realize that Red Russia [sic] was the only enemy, and that Great Britain and all of Europe had an interest in encouraging Germany to march against the east and to crush communism once and for all…I thought that we ourselves would be able to watch as the Nazis and the Reds would fight each other (p.45).’”

This explains the so called appeasement strategy. Per Pauwels:

And so it came to the infamous “appeasement” policy, the theme of a brilliant study by two Canadian historians…The quintessence of this policy was as follows: Great Britain and France ignored Stalin’s proposals for international cooperation against Hitler, and sought by means of all kinds of diplomatic contortions and spectacular concessions to stimulate Hitler’s anti-Soviet ambitions and to facilitate their realization. This policy reached its nadir in the Munich Pact of 1938, whereby Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the Fuhrer as a kind of springboard for military aggression in the direction of Moscow. But Hitler ultimately demanded a higher price than the British and the French were prepared to pay, and this led in the summer of 1939 to a crisis over Poland. Stalin, who understood the true objectives of appeasement, took advantage of the opportunity and made a deal of his own with the German dictator in order to gain not only precious time but also glacis – a strategically important space – in Eastern Europe, without which the USSR would almost certainly not have survived the Nazi onslaught in 1941. Hitler himself was prepared to deal with his arch-enemy because he felt cheated by London and Paris, who refused him Poland. And so the appeasement policy of Great Britain and France collapsed in dismal failure, first because the USSR did not disappear from the face of the earth, and second, because after a short blitzkrieg in Poland, Nazi Germany would attack those who had hoped to manipulate in order to rid the earth of communism. The so-called ironies of history can be extremely cruel indeed (pp.45-46).

Even after the debacle in Poland, however, the French and British kept hoping Hitler would turn his guns on Russia. Pauwels writes, “The French and British governments and high commands busily hatched all sorts of plans of attack during the winter of 1939-1940, not against Germany, but against the USSR, for example in the form of an operation from the Middle East against the oil fields of Baku (p. 48). Similarly, “after Germany’s victory in Poland…the American ambassador in Berlin, Hugh R. Wilson, expressed the hope that the British and French would see fit to resolve their inconvenient conflict with Germany, so that the Fuhrer would finally have an opportunity to crush the Bolshevik experiment of the Soviets for the benefit of all ‘Western civilization’ (p.48).

Moreover, Snyder makes a big deal of the Soviet’s assistance to Germany in the form of trade, but this was marginal compared to the assistance the Reich received from America’s business elite (who, by the way, were no friend of the Jew), some of whom were actually receiving medals of honor from the Germany government (such as Mooney of GM, Henry Ford and Watson of IBM). On American business’ invaluable assistance to Hitler, Pauwels writes:

Without trucks, tanks, planes and other equipment supplied by the German subsidiaries of Ford and GM, and without the large quantities of strategic raw materials, notably rubber as well as diesel oil, lubricating oil, and other types of fuel shipped by Texaco and Standard Oil via Spanish ports, the German air and land forces would not have found it so easy to defeat their adversaries in 1939 and 1940. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and wartime armament minister, would later state that without certain kinds of synthetic fuel made by US firms, Hitler ‘would have never considered invading Poland’. The American historian Bradford Snell agrees, alluding to the controversial role played by Swiss banks during the war, he comments that “the Nazis could have attacked Poland and Russia without the Swiss banks, but not without General Motors.’ Hitler’s military successes were based on a new and extremely mobile form of warfare, the blitzkrieg, consisting of extremely swift and highly synchronized attacks by air and by land. But without the aforementioned American support and without state of the art communications and information technology provided by ITT and IBM, the Fuhrer could only have dreamed of blitzkrieg and blitzsiege (p.37).

Oh by the way, re: Churchill, Johann Hari reviewed a new book that examines his unsavory role in maintaining the British Empire:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/books/review/Hari-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill.”

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about.”

After being elected to Parliament in 1900, he demanded a rolling program of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” As war secretary and then colonial secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tans on Ireland’s Catholics, to burn homes and beat civilians. When the Kurds rebelled against British rule in Iraq, he said: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” It “would spread a lively terror.” (Strangely, Toye doesn’t quote this.)

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody in Britain think that way then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as standing at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum. This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Gandhi began his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” He later added: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

This hatred killed. In 1943, to give just one example, a famine broke out in Bengal, caused, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proven, by British mismanagement. To the horror of many of his colleagues, Churchill raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits” and refused to offer any aid for months while hundreds of thousands died.

May 4, 2009

When Skateboards Will be Free

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Sayrafiezadeh, Saïd: When Skateboards Will Be Free, Dial Press, March 2009, ISBN 978-0-385-34068-7, 287 pages, $22.

(Swans – May 4, 2009) When Skateboards Will Be Free is a memoir by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh about growing up with parents who were devoted members of the Socialist Workers Party. The mother is Martha Harris, a Jew who finally leaves the party at the end of the book. The father is an Iranian math professor named Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh, who remained a member and broke with his son over the memoir. Saïd never became a member, a fact that does not stand in the way of him devoting 287 pages to an angry denunciation of the party.

Martha and Mahmoud not only forced their political beliefs on their son but were responsible for him living in poverty. The title of the memoir derives from an incident that took place over the purchase of a skateboard that she deemed too dear at $10.99. She consoled him with the assurance that “Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.” Their poverty was a result of the father abandoning the family when Saïd was 9 months old plus his mother’s refusal to get better jobs, despite her college education.

One can certainly understand why The New York Times and The Washington Post raved about this memoir. For the price, you get two books in one. It is a neo-Dickensian tale of childhood deprivation with the young Saïd begging for a skateboard rather than more gruel. It is also a melodrama inspired by those 1950s Red Scare movies like My Son John but turned upside down. Now it is the son (Saïd) who is the good American and the mom and dad ruthless fanatics.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy54.html

April 1, 2009

Said Sayrafiezadeh: When Skateboards will be Free

Filed under: anti-Communism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.

So says Said Sayrafiezadeh in a New York Magazine interview. His newly published memoir “When Skateboards Will Be Free” recounts his youthful misfortunes as the son of two members of the Socialist Workers Party in Dickensian terms. Like Oliver Twist, he was on the receiving end of Fagin-like parents forcing Marxist politics down his throat while denying him  the constitutional right to own and love consumer goods, including a lowly skateboard.

Said Sayrafiezadeh: David Horowitz wannabe

Now, to my everlasting regret, this is a group that I belonged to for 11 years. As much as I dislike this sect, after reading a longish excerpt from Sayrafiezadeh’s book four years ago I almost felt like rejoining. No matter how much distaste I have for vanguardist posturing, it is dwarfed by men who get erections over a television set.

For reasons having everything to do with this great nation’s ideological insecurities and nothing to do with the book’s literary merits, it has garnered worshipful reviews in two of the most important ruling class newspapers. As befits today’s date, April Fool’s Day, the N.Y. Times review states:

Growing up in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, the author was a good little revolutionary, at least on the outside. When asked by a friend’s father, during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, what he thought of the situation, the author automatically replied (the caps are his): “I SUPPORT THE STRUGGLE OF THE IRANIAN WORKERS AND PEASANTS AGAINST U.S. IMPERIALISM.” This is not how you win friends and influence people in Pittsburgh.

Well, of course. To win friends and influence people, you regurgitate the ruling ideology of society, like how big television sets give you an erection or how illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs. Or, better yet, how the dirty Iranians are working feverishly to build nuclear weapons that they can launch against Israel and the U.S. because they hate Americans and their 32 inch television sets and other freedoms.

Movie inspired by Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir

The Washington Post’s Sunday Book Review was just as giddy over the book, although spending fewer words. Here is the review in its totality:

Said Sayrafiezadeh learned early and often the sacrifices — and conflicting principles — that come with being a revolutionary. His mother, a member of the Socialist Workers Party (and sister of “Bang the Drum Slowly” novelist Mark Harris) inflicted her ideology on her son at a young age. In solidarity with the United Farm Workers, she forbade him to eat grapes, leading the 4-year-old Said to steal the fruit, with his mother’s tacit approval, while sporting his “Don’t Eat Grapes” button. “I would stand leisurely in front of the mounds of grapes as if they were a buffet and I was considering my options,” he recalls in “When Skateboards Were Free.” The lesson, he explains, was ingrained: “desire + yearning = theft.” (For his mother, the calculus was more complex: “desire + yearning + theft = revolution.”)

Sayrafiezadeh looks back with wonder, even humor, at the many difficulties he faced in his childhood, the no-grapes rule being the least of them. In one unnerving scene, his mother leaves him in the care of a man she knows only as a fellow party member, who sexually abuses him. Despite his mother’s strong presence, at the center of Sayrafiezadeh’s story is his father, an Iranian math professor and socialist who left the family when Said was an infant and whose infrequent reappearances are marked by political lessons and tough love. But Sayrafiezadeh maintains a generous spirit throughout this eloquent memoir. Over dinner with his father one evening, Said even banters about his own job with one of America’s most successful capitalists, Martha Stewart.

I first ran into Sayrafiezadeh’s memoir when an excerpt appeared in Granta four years ago. It included the business about being molested. I scanned in the Granta article and posted it to a Yahoo mailing devoted to exploring the rather sick politics and culture of the Socialist Workers Party, which you can read here.

You will discover there how the book got its title:

On one occasion I mustered the courage to ask my mother to buy me a skateboard (they were all the rage at the time) and she took me to Sears to have a look. In the middle of the sports department was a bin filled with skateboards in bright bubblegum colours. A sign read $10.99.

‘Once the revolution comes,’ my mother said to me, ‘everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.’ Then she took me by the hand and led me out of the store. I pictured a world of long rolling grassy hills, where it was always summertime and boys skateboarded up and down the slopes.

Now I didn’t know Martha Harris, but I really find it hard to believe that the conversation between the two occurred in exactly this way. There is just something a bit too robotic about her response, calculated to convince the reader that these socialists lacked human feeling and compassion. This is not to speak of the doubt I have over a $10.99 skateboard being beyond her reach. After all, this is not like asking for a pony. But who knows.

All in all, this memoir is geared to the same market niche as David Horowitz’s “Radical Son”. As was the case with the Sayrafiezadeh’s, for Horowitz “Almost all conversation in our household was political, other than what was necessary to advance the business of daily life.” Horowitz was warned off baseball, “a form of capitalist exploitation,” and especially the Yankees, “the ruling class of baseball”. “To root for the Yankees,” as Horowitz did, “was to betray a lack of social consciousness that was unthinkable for people like us.”

Now I don’t object to somebody writing crude caricatures of Marxists if it helps them to sell a book. After all, we have survived 150 years of this kind of mudslinging hardly the worse for wear. As the New York Magazine is anxious to point out to the celebrity author, people have been “ranting about capitalism’s dying days” lately. When millions of people are losing their jobs and their homes, it does tend to make Marxism a bit more trendy than it was when Mr. Sayrafiezadeh was working for Martha Stewart.

Of greater concern to me is the charge of molestation, to which the N.Y. Times refers:

He is molested by a party member, in a scene he typically underplays. (When his mother reports the molestation, a party functionary shrugs and says, “Under capitalism, everyone has problems.”)

So, here we have it. The SWP not only forces children to go without skateboards, it shrugs it shoulders when they are buggered. What trash.

Whatever the faults of the SWP in this period, it would not tolerate child molestation. Male SWP members of long standing were expelled for using violence against their female companions so sexual abuse of a four year old would not go unpunished. This group might have had its problems, but this was not one of them. It is entirely possible that Said Sayrafiezadeh was abused, but it is impossible that such a crime would have been shrugged off using Marxist jargon. This bit of nonsense might appeal to the anti-Communist prejudices of N.Y. Times reviewers, but it is patent nonsense.

If the SWP was guilty of anything, it was turning into such a suffocating cult that the child of two of its members would turn into such a vengeful fabricator. Let’s hope that in the revolutionary party of the future we can create an environment where parents and children can relate to each other normally. I should qualify that by saying as normal as can be expected in bourgeois society, which the revolutionary party has to operate in.

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