Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2014

A response to the Kellogg-Riddell exchange on the early Comintern

Filed under: Comintern,Germany,national question,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

John Riddell

Paul Kellogg

I strongly recommend that you read two important contributions to understanding the role of the early Comintern. The first is an article by Paul Kellogg titled “Substitutionism versus Self‐emancipation: The Theory of the Offensive, the Russo‐Polish War of 1920 and the German March Action of 1921” that can be downloaded from here. I was particularly interested to read this since I had learned from Paul that it was in the works back in April 2013 at the HM Conference. He related a positively hair-raising narrative of the Red Army invading Poland to extend the Bolshevik revolution at the point of a bayonet led by a former Czarist officer who was a raving anti-Semite. This was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a very capable military man who was among those to face a firing squad opon Stalin’s orders on the eve of WWII.

In the interests of transparency, I must confess a strong identification with Paul Kellogg’s analysis, especially on the importance of Comintern’s role in the German disaster of the early 1920s. He has written a defense of Paul Levi who opposed the bumbling diktats of the Kremlin that relies on the same material I found useful—Pierre Broue’s history of the ill-fated German revolution as well as Werner T. Angress’s “Stillborn Revolution; The Communist Bid For Power In Germany, 1921 1923”. Based on my review of the German events, I came to the conclusion that the Comintern imposed a “Zinovievist” party-building model on the Comintern that led to both Stalinists and Trotskyists turning away from what was truly revolutionary about Lenin’s party—its ability to draw revolutionary-minded workers into struggle without bureaucratic or sectarian limitations. The “Zinovievist” model put a premium on “democratic centralism” and discipline for good reasons. After the German disaster, it became necessary to circle the wagons and protect the leadership in Moscow from the responsibility of defending an indefensible policy. Many years later, I saw the same tendencies at work in the American SWP, a group whose “turn toward industry” was just as disastrous but fortunately limited to a marginal sect on the American left rather than the working class in its millions.

Paul Kellogg’s article was a review of John Riddell’s Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, a book published by Haymarket. Since I think this is a book that belongs on everybody’s bookshelf, it is too bad that the publisher has put a $55 price tag on it. Years ago, when Riddell was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Canada, Pathfinder Press in the USA—the publishing arm of the SWP—came out with a number of books by Riddell on the Comintern. I should add that I have a somewhat different take on where things like the Comintern proceedings belong. They should be on the Marxist Internet Archives along with the rest of the core literature of our movement and not for sale by small propaganda groups or outfits like Lawrence-Wishart. If Haymarket had made such a decision, their political capital would have increased immensely even if their bottom line had decreased. Forget about Pathfinder—they sicced their corporate lawyers on MIA some years ago when the comrades put some of their copyrighted material on the Net.

Riddell has come a long way since his original work on the Comintern for Pathfinder when he (and I) saw its early history after the fashion of Christian fundamentalist understanding of the Garden of Eden myth. Before the snake tempted Eve, there was perfect goodness—afterwards perfect evil so much so that God flooded the Earth and started over. In our theology, it was Stalin rather than the snake that led to perdition.

While only small Trotskyist sects still hold to this view, most serious scholars and activists have a more nuanced view of the early Comintern. A careful study of the pre-Stalin years will reveal disasters of biblical proportions to extend the analogy a bit. There is no disagreement between Riddell and Kellogg on this, only on what Riddell describes as Lenin and his comrades coming to their senses.

Riddell reminds his readers that even if the Comintern’s legacy is mixed, it made many decisions that are relevant to today’s world especially since they might be aimed at those who pursue ultraleft and sectarian positions at odds with its program. For example, Riddell views the position on bourgeois revolutionary struggles as antithetical to the typical ultraleft dismissal of the Bolivarian revolution, including one made by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the British SWP (now deceased:

The Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 agreed, on Lenin’s proposal, to support “bourgeois liberation movements” in colonial and semi-colonial countries provided they are “genuinely revolutionary.” (The term “bourgeois” referred here not to class composition but chiefly to a program that did not go beyond the limits of a bourgeois [capitalist] order.) Hallas dismisses this position on the grounds that a “bourgeois liberation movement” necessarily fears arousing the masses and is therefore not genuinely revolutionary (p. 50–51).

The objection is not small, given the role of national liberation in revolutionary struggles throughout the twentieth century and into the new millennium, as for example in Venezuela. Many Marxist currents share Hallas’s viewpoint, and their aversion to the Comintern’s position on nationalism has a major impact on practical policy.

I would only add that even if Lenin were resurrected today in a Marxist version of Jesus showing up on Easter, it would make no difference to today’s sectarians whose hatred of Venezuela is so visceral that they are beyond hope. At certain point, data and logic make no difference to dead-end sectarians. Just read the Militant newspaper on Venezuela—a group that detested Hugo Chavez while at the same time hailing the Obiang kleptocracy in Equatorial Guinea.

But beyond this there is an additional problem. Even when Comintern resolutions said the right thing, there were times when the words clashed with the action. I am reminded of this now that I am immersed in Ukrainian history of the period demarcated by Riddell’s book, when relationships between the Kremlin were as troubled as the intervention into Germany. Indeed, I would include the policies on the Ukraine as ranking with those in German and Poland in terms of undermining the goal of world revolution as even those responsible for the policies were deeply committed to achieving them.

You would assume, for example, that Lenin was totally for the self-determination of Ukraine when he wrote these words on December 28, 1919:

The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised both by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. (Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic) and by the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It is therefore self-evident and generally recognised that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia.

Yet just three months later Lenin had this to say about the Borotba Party that the Ukrainians had democratically elected:

When we said in the Central Committee that the maximum concessions should be made to the Borotbists, we were laughed at and told that we were not following a straight line. But you can fight in a straight line when the enemy’s line is straight. But when the enemy moves in zigzags, and not in a straight line, we have to follow him and catch him at every turn. We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy. In this way we showed that we are in no way intolerant. And that these concessions were made quite rightly is shown by the fact that all the best elements among the Borotbists have now joined our Party.

In other words, Lenin saw the bloc with the Borotbists as a necessary evil. As long as Denikin was threatening the security of the USSR and using the Ukraine as a launching pad for armed forays, there would be a need for keeping the Ukrainians on your side. But this was just a maneuver. The Borotbists were really an enemy, a group that Lenin had compared to the Right SR’s on occasion, and not genuine allies. But the statement that really hits home is this: We promised the maximum concessions to the Borotbists, but on condition that they pursued a communist policy.

How does this square with the statement of the Comintern that bourgeois liberation movements in colonial or semi-colonial countries should be supported? Apparently, there is an exception clause for those countries that were in the Czarist Empire. The movements had to pass a “communist” litmus test.

It didn’t matter that the Borotbists held the Comintern in high esteem or that they favored a government based on workers and peasant’s councils. They were still not sufficiently “communist”. In early 1920 they applied for membership in the Comintern, not the sort of act one would associate with a party that was similar to the Right SR’s. The Comintern turned down their application as conveyed in a letter found in Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A chapter in the history of the Ukrainian Revolution”. They were told that their agitation against the Red Army was counter-revolutionary, even if the Red Army was backing a Bolshevik like Christian Rakovsky who said that the Ukrainian nation did not exist.

They were also told that they had conducted agitation against Russians living in the Ukraine, an act that was “reminiscent of the darker activities of the Second International”. What brass to tell this to the Ukrainians when Soviet officials were asking Ukrainian peasants: “Do you want to learn Russian or Petliurist at school? What kind of internationalists are you, if you don’t speak Russian?” Such incidents were reported in Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski’s article reproduced here. (“Petliurists” refers to Petliura, a former head of state in the Ukraine far to the right of the Borotbists but arguably within the domain of the “bourgeois” liberation movements endorsed by the Comintern.)

Finally, I want to point out that the “German March Action of 1921” referred to in Paul Kellogg’s title was not the end of Soviet mistakes. Even after the Comintern had adopted the United Front originally proposed by Paul Levi, there was another blunder of biblical proportions as I indicated in my article “The Comintern and German Communism”.

The decision to launch a revolution in Germany in the fall of 1923 was made in Moscow, not in Germany. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation.

The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

The Bolshevik leaders were monitoring the situation carefully. Lenin at this point was bed-ridden with a stroke and virtually incommunicado. Any decisions that were to be made about an “intervention” in Germany would rest on Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky who were the key leaders in Lenin’s absence.

At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.

The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”

There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.

When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.

It was Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, who was most self-deluded by the strength of the German Communist Party. He wrote in October 1923, “in the cities the workers are definitely numerically superior and” and “the forthcoming German revolution will be a proletarian class revolution. The 22 million German workers who make up its army represent the cornerstone of the international proletariat.” What Zinoviev didn’t take into account was that while the working class may be united socially and economically, it was not necessarily united politically. This turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. Brandler was so swept up by the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik leaders that he joined with them in pumping up the numbers. In the end he went so far as to claim that the Communists could count on the active support of 50,000 to 60,000 proletarians in Saxony.

The Bolshevik leaders finally wore Brandler down and he agreed to their plans, which involved the following:

1) The Communists would join Zeigner’s government in Saxony as coalition partners and arm the workers. The state of Saxony would then provide a base for a military and political offensive in the rest of Germany.

2) A date would be set for the seizure of power. Trotsky was the main advocate of setting a date. Over the objections of Brandler, Trotsky insisted that the date be November 9th. This was meant to coincide closely with the Bolshevik revolution of November 7th, 1917. Trotsky said, “Let us take our own October Revolution as an example…From the moment that the Bolsheviks were in the majority in the Petrograd Soviet…our party was faced with the question–not of the struggle for power in general, but of preparing for the seizure of power according to a definite plan, and at a fixed date. The chosen day, as it is well known, was the day upon which the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets was to convene…” Trotsky simply could not perceive that Russian revolutionaries setting a date for themselves is much different than setting a date for revolutionaries in another country. This distinction would have been lost on Trotsky who had gotten in the habit of laying down tactics for other Communist Parties in his capacity as Comintern official. He had the audacity to tell the French Communist Party, for example, what should go on the front page of their newspaper L’Humanite.

The next few weeks witnessed escalating confrontations between the left-wing government in Saxony and the German capitalist class. The Communist newspaper “Red Flag” printed daily calls for arming the workers and preparing for an offensive against the bourgeoisie. A telegram from Zinoviev arrived on September 31 who confirmed that the date for seizure of power would come in the first half of November. The problem, however, is that an enormous gap existed between the feverish proclamations of their newspaper, Zinoviev’s green light and the actual preparations for an armed offensive. In fact, the problem was that very little attention was paid to technical and organizational details up to this point. While the Comintern had stressed the need for an underground apparatus, there was little evidence that the German party had paid any attention to such matters. The dichotomy between ultraleft braggadocio and painstaking preparation proved to be the party’s undoing.

Specifically, their military plan required a 3 to 1 numerical superiority over the army and police. However, the Communists could not rely on such numbers. There were 250, 000 well-trained cops and soldiers while the Communist Party membership was only about 300,000, including many people either too young or too old to be effective fighters.

The bigger problem turned out to be political, however. The German Communist Party had simply overestimated its ability to command the allegiance of the rest of the working class and its parties. While this mass party had some claim to be the “vanguard” of the German working class as compared to the Maoist and Trotskyist sects of today, it still had not won over the masses completely as the Bolsheviks of 1917 had.

The German central government had reacted to the insurrectionary developments in Saxony as one would expect. They assembled a fighting force under the command of General Muller in order to restore order. As soon as the Communists heard about this white guard’s pending attack, they assembled a conference of left-wing and labor leaders in Chemnitz, Saxony on October 21 to put together a united defense against the counter-revolution.

Aside from 66 Communist delegates, there were 140 delegates from factory councils, 122 representatives of labor unions, 79 delegates from control commissions, 15 delegates from action committees, 16 from unemployed committees and 7 from the Socialist Party. Brandler took the floor and called for a general strike. His call was met by stony silence. What he had not counted on was the hostility of the rest of the workers movement. As much as they feared the consequences of General Muller’s offensive, they were not ready to follow the lead of a sectarian Communist Party that had unilaterally made decisions for the mass movement.

On the day of the conference, the German army marched into Saxony and the Communist Party was forced to call of its revolution. Or, to be more accurate, the Communist Party was forced to call off the revolution of Zinoviev, Radek, Stalin and Trotsky.

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:

THE 1948  ELECTION

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

June 23, 2013

Ghadars, Sikhs, M.N. Roy, German imperialism, and Alexander Berkman

Filed under: anarchism,Germany,india — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Har Dayal, founder of the Ghadar movement

When I had occasion to speak by phone with Hari Dillon, the former director of Tecnica, on the occasion of the untimely death of Michael Urmann, the group’s founder, I mentioned the interview I had done with a Sikh activist who I had met at work. Hari reminded me of the conversations we had had long ago about the Ghadar Party that a relative of his had been a member of in California, where it was particularly strong. The Ghadar (Hindi for mutiny) group was a revolutionary nationalist formation spearheaded by Sikhs that was an alternative to Gandhi’s pacifism. After chatting with Hari, I had made a mental note to look into the Ghadars but put them on the front burner after discovering that M.N. Roy worked with them to procure weapons from the Germans during World War One to use against British colonialism.

In the same chapter in Sibnayaran Ray’s biography that described Roy’s sojourn in Mexico City that I posted last week, we discover that he had hooked up with the president of Stanford University who had hired Ghadar founder Lala Har Dayal to teach at the school. You can get a feel for how much American higher education has changed through Ray’s account:

Meantime at Stanford Dhanagopal introduced Roy to the President of the University, Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was an eminent pacifist with a democratic socialist outlook and who had earlier given Har Dayal his appointment as a professor. He not only sympathised with the Indian aspiration for independence, but was also deeply interested in the political developments in neighbouring Mexico where one of his friends, General Savador Alvarado, was at that time engaged on some kind of a socialistic experiment as Governor of the province Yucatan. He gave Roy an introduction to Alvarado and advised him see the experiment himself if he ever went to that country.

One of the best introductions to the Ghadar movement is http://www.sikh-history.com. Here’s their entry on the Ghadars:

Many Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis who tasted freeddom outside colonial India in USA started Ghadr movement to free India from British rule in early 1900′s. These Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus were sent to Canada which was under British rule for labour work. They crossed the border over to USA and settled in Western Coast of USA in cities like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. These Punjabis created Gurdwaras [Sikh temples] and established societies. They were subject to draconian laws like “not allowed to marry to american woman” by many of these states at that time. The word Ghadr can be commonly translated as mutiny, was the name given to the newspaper edited and published for the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast which was founded at Portland, United States of America, in 1912. The movement this Association gave rise to for revolutionary activities in India also came to be known by the designation of Ghadr.

As I stated earlier, M.N. Roy worked assiduously to procure money and guns from Germany during WWI. Back then, when there was inter-imperialist rivalry and Britain ruled the world, it was considered a tactical question as to who you cut deals with. When WWII came along, the same outlook prevailed. Indian revolutionary nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose knocked on Nazi doors while Ho Chi Minh shook hands with the OSS. After WWII, there was no more inter-imperialist rivalry to speak of and it made perfect sense for the left and those fighting against colonialism to align with the USSR. Old habits unfortunately die hard and the pro-Baathist left continues to look at Putin and Assad as if they were Khrushchev and Castro.

Probably the best overall history of the Ghadar movement is Berkeley professor Maia Ramnath’s “Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism “, the first 90 pages of which can be read in Google Books. Most of Chapter three “Enemy of Enemies: the Nationalist Ghadar” can be read there.

I also recommend the 25 page history of the Ghadar movement that can be found on the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin website. It also details the alliance between Germany and Indian nationalists:

The German government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German government and the Gadarites had the British as their common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Berlin Indian Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were Har Dyal, Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician – poetess Sarojani Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Champak Raman Pillai (a young Tamilian) and Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University, New York). The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.

The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged substantial financial aid for the Gadarites from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Several ships were commissioned or chartered to carry arms and ammunitions and batches of Indian revolutionaries to India.

But what makes things even more interesting is how the anarchist movement fits into all these amazing conspiracies. This is from M.N. Roy’s memoir:

Barring Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Har Dyal was the most important member of the Berlin Committee. Intellectually, he was by far the superior, but eccentric in emotion and erratic politically. From an orthodox Hindu he became an anarchist — a close associate of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman in the United States. But anti-British nationalism was still the dominating passion.

After having spent 14 years in prison for a failed assassination attempt against Henry Frick, the steel baron who drowned the Homestead strikers in blood, Berkman once again showed his willingness to put his beliefs on the line as the N.Y. Times of February 24, 1918 made clear. I especially love how Har Dyal was using an assumed name of Israel Aaronson. A novelist could not come up with something more mind-boggling.

berkman

berkman2

May 17, 2013

Heinrich Blücher: street-fighting man

Filed under: Germany,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Heinrich Blücher

It was an eerie experience sitting through the press screening for Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the Film Forum yesterday, a biopic that focuses on her reporting from the Eichmann trial with some flashbacks to her early affair with Heidegger.

Two of the major characters in the film were Heinrich Blücher and Hans Jonas, two professors I knew from Bard College and the New School Graduate Philosophy department respectively. I can’t say that I knew them all that well on a personal level but their teaching had a profound effect on my thinking.

This was especially true of Blücher whose insistence that principle and truth always trumped patriotism and the state, frequently citing the trial of Socrates in his Common Course, a humanities type required class. After discovering from von Trotta’s film notes that Blücher had been in the German CP in the 20s, I decided to stop by the Columbia University library and take out a few books that will help me prepare an in-depth article on the film. As is always the case with me, ideas take priority over tracking shots.

One of the books was Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Hannah Arendt that was written in 1982. I had mixed feelings about her value since I knew her only from her hatchet job on Hugo Chavez.

To my utter amazement, I discovered that Blücher was a major player in the revolutionary struggles that were hobbled by Comintern “advice”. I only wish that I could get my hands on a time machine and travel back to 1963 and talk to him about what he saw and did. Back then I was too apolitical to know where to begin but now understand a lot better why he was so insistent on my writing an analysis of the Communist Manifesto. Fifty years ago my heart was in Camus and cannabis. It took an imperialist war to put me on the same path that Blücher had followed when he was my age.

From Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World”:

Hannah Arendt had been eleven years old when her mother took her to the Konigsberg demonstrations in support of the Spartacists. She was thirty years old when she walked through the streets of Paris to watch the 1936 demonstrations in support of the Front Populaire government under the leadership of the Jewish Socialist, Leon Blum. Most of the political awareness she had developed in the intervening years had come in the context of her relationship with Kurt Blumenfeld and his concern with the Jewish Question. With Heinrich Blücher as her teacher, she added to her preliminary reading of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky a feeling for “revolutionary praxis.” Blücher—not a university man but a proletarian, not a theorist but a man of action, not a Jew but a man for whom thinking was a kind of religion—was Hannah Arendt’s New World. Ten years after they met, she summarized what Blücher had meant to her intellectually, in response to words of praise Jaspers had bestowed on her own cosmopolitan and impartial political vision: “That I learned from my husband’s political thinking and historical observation, and I would not have come to it otherwise, for I was historically and politically oriented toward the Jewish Question.”

During those ten years, from 1936 to 1946, Hannah Arendt continued to concern herself with the Jewish Question, but what she learned from Blücher became, after the Second World War, central to the political philosophizing that animated The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, On Violence, and Crises of the Republic. The learning relationship was not, however, completely one-way. Blücher, an avid reader of Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Bukharin, and a convinced Communist, slowly gave up his Communism and became an incisive critic of doctrinaire Marxism. While Hannah Arendt was being introduced to revolutionary politics in Konigsberg, Heinrich Blücher was twenty years old and fighting as a Spartacist in the streets of Berlin. The stories he told her of his political past shaped her vision, both critical and constructive, her understanding of resistance and revolution, and her theory of republicanism. Blücher’s stories are not easy to reconstruct: he was hesitant to tell them, particularly after he had entered America without admitting on his immigration documents that he had been a Communist, and he was given to exaggerating and embroidering what he did tell. In Heinrich Blücher, the combination of cautiousness and hyperbole was always an astonishment. Those members of the Arendt-Blücher tribe who had known him since his youth understood his storytelling for what it was—a way of finding meaning in a chaotic world. His devotees were unskeptical, and his detractors charged him with mythomania. In truth, had he had a gift for writing equal to his gift for talking, he would have made a fine novelist.

Heinrich Friedrich Ernest Blücher was born on 29 January 1899 in southwest Berlin. His father, who had an equally long and historically weighty name, August Charles Heinrich Blücher, died in a factory accident several months before his only child’s birth. Klara Emilie Wilke Blücher raised her son alone. He attended a Volkeschule and helped his mother, who made her living as a laundress, by acting as delivery boy until he was able to continue his study at a preparatory school for teachers. In 1917, the First World War interrupted his studies, and a period in an army hospital with gas poisoning interrupted his scheduled sojourn in an officer’s training program.

When the October 1918 armistice was signed, Blücher, who was nineteen, returned to Berlin and joined one of the Soldatenräte, the Soldiers’ Councils, which, with the Workers’ Councils, participated in the day of rioting on 9 November 1918 that ended with the proclamation of the German Republic. The German army had surrendered in the Forest of Compiegne and the troops returned to Germany at the beginning of December. Shortly afterward, on December 16, a National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in Berlin and passed a number of startling resolutions designed to create a People’s army from the defeated German troops. In the hectic days that followed, these demands were largely ignored. On Christmas Eve, a battle between the Imperial army and a rebellious naval unit, helped by several thousand Berliners brought to the scene by the Spartacists, ended with the Imperial army in retreat. On Christmas Day, the Spartacists and another huge crowd took over the offices of the Socialists’ paper Vorwarts and used its presses to issue the call “All power to the workers and soldiers!” The Spartacist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, agreed to a merger of their group with various small groups who had repudiated the new Socialist government, and a labor unit called the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. The merger gave birth to a new party in the last week of 1918: the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Blücher, who had joined the Spartacists, joined the party.

The Communist party came into existence in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.  The Allies continued to blockade German ports, and food became scarcer and scarcer. Nonetheless the Communists called daily demonstrations in Berlin and tried to create the unity on the Left that Rosa Luxemburg thought should precede any mass action. Despite her strategy, on 5 January the situation took a new turn: a group of leftist leaders, calling themselves the Revolutionary Committee, proclaimed a general strike. Most of Berlin’s factories and facilities were closed; some 200,000 demonstrators filled the streets and seized the railroad stations and newspapers. Red flags flew, and the rifles the Spartacists had been collecting since November appeared. “Spartacus Week” had begun. But by its end the government’s miscellany of troops and volunteer units, the Freikorps, under the direction of the Socialist government’s minister of war, had gained the upper hand in Berlin, after brutally blasting the Spartacists out of their various strongholds with heavy artillery. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were captured on 15 January and murdered. As Hannah Arendt noted in an essay on Rosa Luxemburg, her death “became the watershed between two eras in Germany; and it became the point of no return for the German Left.” When the election called for 19 January was over, the Social Democrats held a majority of the Reichstag seats, and the revolutionaries were forced to retreat and regroup; but they were unable, without their brilliant leaders, to prevent what Arendt called “the swift moral decline and political disintegration” of the party.

Heinrich Blücher participated, with the Spartacists and then the Communist party, in the unsuccessful battles and strikes of the spring of 1919. He briefly returned to his teacher’s training at a Lehrerseminar during the lull in the party’s activities in the summer of 1919, though he never finished the program. From 1918 through the worst inflation years, 1922 and 1923, he worked occasionally as a reporter for non-Communist and Communist papers, spending what time he could on his own education.

As an adolescent, Blücher had developed a hunger for learning—not for schooling, but for learning. Whenever he had money, he bought books; whenever he could avoid work, he did—and read. His political activity had begun when he was still an adolescent, and it took a very unusual form: he, a Gentile, joined a Zionist youth group, a section of the Blau Weiss. At fifteen, he began to discover German poetry and read Shakespeare’s plays in German translation. During the war he took up what Brecht referred to as the “Classics,” Marx and Engels, and then found in the work of Trotsky the ideas which were later at the center of his own political theories. When the turbulence of the brief revolution had passed, he sporadically attended lectures at various Berlin institutions in an enormous range of subjects. At the University of Berlin he heard the lectures on military history given by Hans Delbrfick, editor of the famous Preussische Jahrbücher and one of the Weimar Republic’s most outspokenly critical supporters. This experience he shared with Kurt Blumenfeld; when they met in 1941 in New York, they both waited impatiently for Delbruck’s famous axiom, “Germany cannot win a war on two fronts,” to be proven a second time.

When the Hochschule fur Politik was founded in 1920, Blücher attended lectures on political theory at that remarkable institution, which was alone among Germany’s institutions of higher learning in accepting students without Gymnasium degrees. At the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, he occasionally heard lectures on art history, one of the great passions of his later, calmer life. Blücher’s haphazard, piecemeal formal education, complemented by extensive reading, was of no help to him in the Communist party. He had remarkable skill as an orator but he was not trusted by the leadership that eventually emerged after the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg’s consort, Leo Jogiches, became the party chairman, but was killed in the spring of 1919. Paul Levi, a lawyer and also a disciple of Luxemburg’s, assumed the KPD leadership, but was forced out early in 1921. Levi’s successors, Heinrich Brandler and Walter Stocker, were also committed to Rosa Luxemburg’s strategies, but they were even less able than Levi to control the increasingly powerful and militant Moscow-backed Left Opposition within the party or to halt the domination of the KPD by the Russians. The party suffered a crucial defeat during the “March Action” of 1921 and then another, while Brandler was at the head of the party, in the “German October” of 1923.

Heinrich Brandler, who was Blücher’s closest friend, had spent some months in prison after the March Action, and then spent a year in Moscow. After he returned to Germany and assumed the party leadership in 1923, Brandler was reluctantly prepared for what his Russian backers hoped would be a “second October” in the fall of 1923. Germany was tom by mounting inflation, by the French occupation of the Ruhr, by increasing hostility between industry and labor, by a series of strikes, and by the resignation of one government, under Cuno, and the accession of another, under Stresemann; it was hoped in Moscow and among the Berlin-based German Left Opposition members that a revolutionary situation could be made out of this chaos. Russian organizers and advisors came to Germany early in the fall of 1923, and some German party members went to Russia for military training. Some of Blücher’s friends, who did not meet him until after this period, were under the impression that he had been sent to Moscow for training; others thought not. But all agreed that his role in the KPD in 1923 was to write and distribute in Germany a series of small pamphlets on armaments and guerrilla-warfare tactics.

The “German October” failed to become a “second October.” A violent uprising in Hamburg was crushed, and the KPD was banned—along with a group called the National Socialists, or Nazis, which had tried to stage an opposition Aktion in Munich. Brandler was severely criticized in Moscow (his star set along with Trotsky’s) and he and his followers were eventually excluded from KPD leadership positions as the Left Opposition, headed by Ruth Fischer, took over; the KPD was bolshevized. It was during this shift that, as Hannah Arendt noted in one of marks, “the gutter opened, and out of it emerged what would have called ‘another zoological species.’”

The decline and fall of the German Communist party, as Blücher recounted it, provided Hannah Arendt with a clear image—one she never failed to refer to—of what any revolution cannot be without: spontaneously organized, locally based councils, or Räte, which are controlled neither by existing party councils—in this case, those of the Social Democratic party—nor by external, foreign organizations, in this case, the Moscow party. The Räte which had been crucial to the early stages of the German revolution were, as the revolution developed, left behind. By the fall of 1923, the central tenet of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of revolutionary change that “the organization of revolutionary action can and must be learnt in revolution itself, as one can only learn swimming in the water” had been completely forgotten. In 1923 the German and Russian leaders of the Communist party tried to “make” a revolution. And, as they did so, they grew more and more removed from their followers. Their power was not rooted, it did not come from below. Throughout her life as a political theorist, Hannah Arendt was harshly critical of any leadership that abandoned its local base, the true source of its power. In Parii afidaUring her early years in America, she focused her criticism of leadership on the Jewish leadership, which she thought lacked awareness of the need for Jewish solidarity; later, she extended her criticism to the leaders of postwar Europe, of Israel, and finally of her adopted country, America.

Heinrich Brandler provided Blücher and Arendt with a paradigmatic case of a revolutionary leader gone astray. A proletarian, born in Austria-Hungary in 1881, the son of a bricklayer, Brandler was an honest, simple man, an experienced local labor-union organizer, but quite unprepared for the national leadership role into which he was thrust after Jogiches’s death and Levi’s expulsion. He lost his connections with his people, the workers, and became a puppet of the Comintern. Returning to Germany after nearly four years of exile in Moscow, he tried to reverse the bolshevizing trend in which he had been caught; but his Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands-(Opposition), founded in 1928, had no influence.

Heinrich Blücher joined Brandler’s opposition group, the KPO, in Germany and then in Paris, where many of “the Brandler Group” went after 1933, but his friendship with Brandler deteriorated. Brandler was surprised, when he returned from Moscow in 1928, to find that his old friend was no longer the same. Blücher tried to tell Brandler about his educational pursuits and the friends he had made during the five intervening years and was greeted with an incredulous “Du spinnst! [You're crazy!].”

February 8, 2013

Lore

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Germany — louisproyect @ 8:22 pm

Opening today at the Lincoln Plaza in New York today is a most unusual film titled “Lore”. The lore in question is not a reference to folk tales but the nickname of Hannelore, a sixteen-year-old German girl who is charged with the responsibility of leading her younger sister, even younger twin brothers, and baby brother from the Black Forest to Hamburg in the months before the end of World War Two where they will be housed by their grandmother until being reunited with their parents.

What makes the film unusual is the openly pro-Nazi sympathies of the parents and of Lore herself. When the film begins, Mutti (German for “mom”) and Vati (“dad” is an SS officer) are gathering up the family’s belongings in their spacious Berlin apartment for a trip in an army truck he has commandeered. Their destination: a farm in the Black Forest where they will try to survive the certain collapse of the Third Reich. The camera pans in to a bookshelf in the apartment where a book with a title like “The Diagnosis of Abnormal Human Specimens” sticks out like a sore thumb. You cannot help but suspect that Mutti was an aide to Josef Mengele. Even more of a fanatic than Vati, she accuses him of cowardice and shrieks that the Nazi army will beat back the barbarians at the gate as if a member of the cast in “Downfall”.

Not long after the family reaches its destination, the war comes to an end and Vati turns himself in to the victorious American army. (He is shrewd enough to stay away from the Russians.) And not long after that Mutti turns herself in as well, assuring her children that she will only be in a camp rather than a prison.

Lore is forced to take over for her parents and lead the children through the hills, back roads, and small farming towns that lie between them and the railway station where they can catch a train to Hamburg. With very little money and only a few family heirlooms to trade for food, they are obviously skating on thin ice. After a week on the road, they look like what they are: poor and hungry people forced to migrate under wartime conditions. No longer the children of the Master Race, they have much more in common with the hundreds of thousands forced to leave Syria. Except that they remain sympathetic to the Third Reich and regard the allies as dangerous scum.

The film is a “road” movie having something in common with “The Road”, a film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel with Viggo Mortenson trying to find a safe haven for himself and his son. You sit on the edge of your seat wondering what’s the next calamity awaiting our plucky heroes and heroines.

But even more it is very much in the tradition of “Gone With the Wind”, another tale of a reactionary class trying to get back on its feet after a war leaves them homeless and poverty-stricken. When Lore picks potatoes from the soil for their infrequent meals, you cannot help but be reminded of Scarlett O’Hara doing the same thing with turnips, vowing: “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again”.

Unlike O’Hara who remained a reactionary until the bitter end, Lore goes through a transformation in the film, largely through her exposure to a character named Tomas who is in his mid-20s and really quite a hunk. Unfortunately he is a Jew and forced to put up with Lore’s tirades. When she first meets up with him in a barn, she demands that he sleep on the other side of the hayloft.

However, Tomas is street wise and mature beyond his years. What’s more he takes an interest in the children and helps them navigate their way out of one rough spot after another. He is also attracted to Lore and takes every opportunity he can get to put his hand up her skirt. With her hormones raging, Lore is torn between letting him have his way and biting his hand off as a way of showing allegiance to the defunct Nazi project. She finally relents when it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that their survival rests on his leadership. The untermensch becomes obermensch.

Cate Shortland, who is absolutely brilliant, directs the film. Don’t believe the hype about “Zero Dark Thirty”. If you want to see a female director working her magic on morally questionable material, Shortland has her beat to hell. This is a film that has striking images throughout, tremendous performances, and a powerful screenplay co-written by the director and Robin Mukherjee, who has mostly worked in British television.

At the press screening, the publicist was handing out copies of “The Dark Room”, a novel written by Rachel Seiffert in 2001 upon which the film is based. While I read very little fiction nowadays, I was curious to see how the two compared. The novel has three parts involving Germans who were touched by World War Two in one way or another. The first part, titled “Helmut”, recounts the misery of a congenitally disabled photographer’s assistant who becomes homeless during the bombing raids on Berlin at the end of the war. The last part is titled “Micha”, which is short for Michael, a schoolteacher whose grandfather was in the Waffen SS and who travels to Byelorussia in 1998 to inquire about the man’s deeds there. Was he a killer?

It was most interesting to see how Shortland transformed Seiffert’s prose. In the middle section, titled “Lore”, Tomas is an older and rather unattractive man who never tries to put the make on Lore. Furthermore, his Jewishness never comes up as an issue with her. Since there is no conflict, the story lacks the drama of the film. More to the point, the film would risk being unpalatable to today’s audiences if Lore did not become “enlightened” about Nazi evil. While this satisfies Aristotelian dictums about the need for catharsis, it is not really faithful to Seiffert’s intentions.

She has little interest in saying mea culpa over Nazi crimes. When Micha finally lands an interview with an elderly man who was in town under Nazi rule, he fully expects the old man to have painful memories of being tortured, losing family members, etc. It turns out that the man was a Nazi collaborator only too happy to shoot Jews whenever asked. His take on killing Jews? An Eichmannesque: “Someone else was responsible”.

Despite being homeless and impoverished, Helmut manages to have salvaged the cameras and film from his workplace and spends his days photographing Berlin during its Götterdämmerung. One day he spots something happening on the street that cries out for preservation, the Nazis are rounding up a bunch of Roma to send to the death camps. What is his interest in filming this scene? Dramatic evidence of Nazi barbarism? Not really.

The gypsies are divided and loaded into the trucks. They shout back at the men in uniform, gold teeth bared. Children cry on their mothers’ hips and hide beneath their wide, bright skirts. Girls bite the soldiers’ hands as they pull the jewels from their ears and hair. Men kick those who kick them and are kicked again. Women push away the hands which push them, and one runs but doesn’t get far and is soon unconscious and in the truck with the rest of her family.

Helmut is afraid, exhilarated. His hands sweat and shake. He clicks and winds and clicks again, photographing as quickly as the camera will allow: not quick enough. He reloads, curses his fingers, feeble and damp, fumbles and struggles with the focus.

In other words, Helmut is looking for a great photograph, not to document genocide. Indeed, one can only wonder if Rachel Seiffert has the same motivation in writing about wartime Germany, to tell a good story.

Of German descent but educated in Britain, Seiffert tried to explain her motivations to the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2001. When asked if she was a fan of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”, a book that condemned all Germans for being responsible for the Judeocide, she replied that she was much more influenced by Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”, a book that argued—correctly, in my view—that ordinary Germans, in this case a bunch of cops, did everything they could to thwart orders from higher-up’s. The Globe and Mail reports:

What impressed her about Browning was that he allowed Nazis to speak through interviews and in the letters they had sent home during the war. “He emphasized that they were very ordinary people who weren’t driven by a particular hatred,” she explains. “He was much more interested in exploring group behaviour and what becomes clear is that killing was part of everyday life, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t find it hard.”

In my view Seiffert is a very good novelist and Shortland is a very good director. What bothers me, however, is how such talented people can devote so much time and energy making art out of the lives of essentially worthless people.

(Lore also opens today in Los Angeles. Check local papers for details.)

October 29, 2012

German composer Hans Werner Henze dies age 86

Filed under: Germany,music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

guardian.co.uk, Saturday 27 October 2012 14.58 BST

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Elegy For Young Lovers

Steven Page in Elegy For Young Lovers, staged by English National Opera at London’s Young Vic theatre in April 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The death of German composer Hans Werner Henze has been announced today.

Schott Music said that Henze, 86, died on Saturday in Dresden; the cause of death has not been disclosed, but Henze’s health has been frail since suffering from a serious illness in his late 70s that left him incapacitated for two months in 2005.

Henze’s work over the decades straddled musical genres.
He composed stage works, symphonies, concertos, chamber works and a requiem. He once said that “many things wander from the concert hall to the stage and vice versa.”

Henze was born July 1, 1926 in Gütersloh in western Germany. After studying and begun his career in Germany, he moved to Italy in 1953. Having lived through fascism, he became a committed communist, and many of his works of the 60s and 70s have an explicitly political inspiration (his Sixth Symphony was composed for Cuba). But the expressive freedom of Henze’s music put him at odds with the post-war avant-garde. In Italy – in Ischia and latterly in a house in the hills outside Rome, he developed a language of searing, abundant poetry that drew on the Austro-German tradition from Beethoven to Berg yet was also infused with Mediterranean lightness and modernist astringency. His many operas, from Boulevard Solitude in 1951 to his final works in the genre, Phaedra, written in 2007 and Gisela, 2010, belong to the most important canon of theatrical works of our time (including We Come To The River, composed for Covent Garden in 1976); his series of 10 symphonies and other large-scale works are among the most significant reinvigorations of the orchestral tradition in the post-war period.

June 6, 2010

How Germany became divided after WWII: Stalin didn’t do it

Filed under: Cold War,Germany,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 1:29 am

(A discussion about the Berlin Wall broke out in the comments section of my blog posting on John Weeks. That inspired me to post an excellent review of Carolyn Eisenberg’s “Drawing the Line” from the Nation Magazine in 1996, when it was still readable. Nothing can substitute for reading Eisenberg’s book, but Kai Bird’s review comes close.)

Nation Magazine
December 16, 1996

Stalin Didn’t Do It
by KAI BIRD

DRAWING THE LINE
The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-1949.
By Carolyn Eisenberg
Cambridge. 522 pp. $59.95.

Nothing is inevitable in the course of human events. Yet every historian finds it difficult to persuade readers that what happened all those many years ago was not preordained, that indeed, choices were made which at the time were not necessarily obvious or at all inevitable. This challenge becomes particularly formidable when the historian’s topic is invested with powerful myths cultivated by the state.

Carolyn Eisenberg shatters the central myth at the heart of the origins of the cold war: that the postwar division of Germany was Stalin’s fault. She demonstrates unequivocally that the partition of Germany was “fundamentally an American decision,” strongly opposed by the Soviets. The implications are enormous. Germany’s division led to the rapid division of Europe, condemning not only East Germans but millions throughout Eastern Europe to a forty-year siege. If the responsibility for this cruel separation of a continent into two armed military camps lies with Washington and not Moscow, then the entire canon of the orthodox history of the cold war is called into question.

Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra, took more than a dozen years to produce this exhaustively researched text. Drawing the Line opens with a moving description of the idealistic hopes evoked by the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945. In the face of a common peril, a Grand Alliance had triumphed over German fascism.

A half-century later, we forget that many Americans had been confident that U.S.-Soviet cooperation could continue in the postwar period despite ideological differences. Even an establishment figure like Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy noted in his diary on April 30, 1945, “It is little wonder that as [the US. and the U.S.S.R.] emerge in their own and in the eyes of everyone else as the two greatest powers that they should walk stiff-legged around the ring a bit.” But McCloy and Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed that with time and hard work a “practical relationship” was possible and desirable. As for Germany, the New Dealers who then prevailed in foreign policy deliberations-Henry Morgenthau Jr., Harry Hopkins, Harry Dexter White, Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes-fully intended to cooperate with the Soviets in administering a “hard peace” in a unified German state. Roosevelt had agreed to a firm program of denazification, deindustrialization and demilitarization. The Soviets would share in the supervision of a jointly occupied German state and be assured a share of reparations.

Then came Harry Truman, who was pretty much an empty vessel when it came to foreign policy. His instincts were erratic, McCloy wrote in his diary after observing him at Potsdam, “He always gives me the impression of too quick judgment.” Roosevelt’s Soviet policies were soon shoved aside. In the judgment of Truman’s influential advisers-Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles, George Marshall and James Forrestal- partition was preferable to the uncertainties of cooperating with a difficult wartime ally in a joint occupation of the defeated enemy.

Acheson and his colleagues did not fear the Soviets-they understood that the Soviet system was economically and militarily weak. And that was precisely why Washington could act unilaterally with little risk of provoking a war. “This judgment,” says Eisenberg, “allowed them to make careless calculations, to disregard the Soviet interests with a sense of impunity, and to sacrifice potentially favorable bargains with the expectation of a complete collapse down the road.” And act they did. In violation of Potsdam and Yalta, the Truman Administration fused the British and U.S. occupation zones economically in December 1946, incorporated western Germany into the Marshall Plan in July 1947, implemented a currency reform in June 1948 and convened a parliamentary body in September 1948 for the purpose of creating a formal West German state. Washington also abruptly ended denazification (leaving approximately 640,000 “highly incriminated persons” un- prosecuted), halted deindustrialization and canceled steps already taken to break up the German economic cartels.

Truman’s men feared not an invasion from the east but that the Soviets in their weakened position would offer a deal that could not be easily rejected in a public forum. As Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith wrote in December 1947 to his old friend Dwight Eisenhower, “The difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position, we really do not want nor intend to accept German unification in any terms that the Russians might agree to; even though they seemed to meet most of our requirements.”

Soviet demands were remarkably consistent. They wanted what they understood the Allies to have promised at Potsdam and Yalta: the $10 billion in reparations; four-power control of the Ruhr Valley; vigorous denazification and permanent demilitarization. In return they’d permit a freely elected German government, modeled along Weimar constitutional lines-a program, Eisenberg observes, that “did not differ appreciably from that previously advanced by liberals in the Roosevelt administration.”

The Soviets began to clamp down on Eastern Europe only in response to the U.S. decision to partition Germany. When they did so, Truman’s men were not at all surprised. When, for instance, Stalin imposed a ground blockade around Berlin after a unilateral American announcement of currency reform in western Germany, veteran diplomat Robert Murphy cabled Washington, “The Berlin blockade, with all its consequences, has had widespread repercussions, most of them favorable.”

Not everyone agreed. The military governor of occupied Germany, Gen. Lucius Clay, opposed partition. So did the author of the containment theory, George Kennan. In 1948-49, Kennan vigorously contested both the division and militarization of Europe. In an attempt to preserve access to Eastern Europe he crafted what became known inside the bureaucracy as “Plan A” or “A Program for Germany” to create a unified German state. Both U.S. and Soviet troops would have been required to withdraw to the borders of Germany. U.N.-supervised elections would have created a new all-German government. This reunified Germany would still have participated in the Marshall Plan, which implied, of course, that the German economy would be revived. Plan A was extraordinarily one-sided. The only thing the Soviets would get would be guaranteed access to German exports-and the right to continued participation in the supervision of the German state through a diminished Allied Control Commission. Presumably, Germany would remain demilitarized.

Kennan very much doubted the Soviets would accept a plan requiring them virtually to surrender exclusive powers in eastern Germany for a limited role in supervising a unified German state. But he thought it imperative that the proposal be put on the table; if the Soviets accepted, the impending division of Europe could be avoided.

Astonishingly, the Soviets were not even given a chance to reject Plan A. Instead, the Truman Administration went ahead with unilateral partition. An appalled Kennan wrote Secretary of State Acheson, condemning the “steady and progressive discarding of all possibilities which might really have led to something like the unification of Germany under allied blessing.” He warned that “some day we may pay bitterly for our present unconcern with the possibility of getting the Russians out of the Eastern zone.”

Thus began the cold war, a forty-year conflict for which we all paid, but none more so than the millions in Eastern Europe who were forced to live in police states.

Drawing the Line was largely researched prior to the opening of some relevant archives in Moscow and Berlin. But none of the documents released in the East to date contradict Eisenberg’s view that the Americans unilaterally opted for partition. Nor is she alone in her assessment of the origins and nature of the cold war. Significantly, her thesis has been endorsed by Melvyn Leffler, whose A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (1992) established him as the preeminent chronicler of the period. Leffler flatly states that Eisenberg has “proven her case,” that her findings “will compel a rethinking of basic assumptions about the origins of the Cold War”—this from a historian who has written with great caution about politically charged questions of assigning responsibility.

Even more startling, however, is an essay Leffler wrote in this past summer’s Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the foreign policy establishment, titled “Inside Enemy Archives: The Cold War Reopened.” Leffler’s survey of the “enemy archives” depicts a paranoid adversary always on the defensive. The Soviets, says Leffler, “did not have pre-conceived plans to make Eastern Europe communist, to support the Chinese communists, or to wage war in Korea.” Stalin had no ‘‘master plan” for Germany, and wished to avoid military conflict with the United States. Indeed, he hoped a policy of Realpolitik would somehow lead to a grudging cooperation between the former wartime allies. Leffler quotes David Holloway-a Stanford professor and author of Stalin and the Bomb (1994)–who studied records of Stalin’s military thinking in the postwar period and concluded, “There is’ no evidence to show that Stalin intended to invade Western Europe, except in the event of a major war.” Certainly, Stalin ran a cruel police state, but Leffler argues that “U.S.words and deeds greatly heightened ambient anxieties and subsequently contributed to the arms race and the expansion of the Cold War into the Third World.” The new archival findings suggest that U.S. policy prolonged the cold war, making it “difficult for potential reformers inside the Kremlin to gain the high ground.” To compound matters, Leffler suggests there were many missed opportunities in the fifties, sixties and seventies when Stalin’s successors might have curtailed the conflict-but the “perceived threat emanating from the United States held them back.” Not surprisingly, Leffler’s article has disconcerted such conservative historians as Richard Pipes and John Lewis Gaddis.

Eisenberg’s book ends in 1949, when the cold war is about to open in earnest. But Leffler’s essay underscores the tragic costs of a conflict that began with the U.S. decision to divide Germany. The most painful consequences, as Eisenberg points out, were “mainly borne by others.” And yet, the tally sheet indirectly includes all those Americans who died in Korea and Vietnam. “In the wreckage of the Cold War,” she concludes, “America has yet to acknowledge responsibility for the structures it has built.”

Kai Bird, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy-The Making of the American Establishment (Simon & Schuster) and co-editor, with Lawrence Lifschulk, of Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History & the Smithsonian Controversy, forthcoming from Pamphleteer’s Press.

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