Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 8, 2015

A reply to cult leader David North on an American “first strike” on Russia

Filed under: conspiracism,cults,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

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David North

UPDATE: Comments have been closed on this article because I simply cannot waste my time replying to people who are not worth replying to. I regard the Socialist Equality Party as detritus left over from the period when sect and cult formations operated in much more fertile soil. Today they are completely irrelevant. I only commented on the WSWS’s laughable article because the website is influential to an extent on people who are not mentally ill. Those who are part of David North’s fan base had their moment to make their case here and they ruined it by evading my repeated demands that they explain the obvious contradiction between Robert Scher’s written statement and the comments he made–at least how they interpreted them–during the Congressional questioning seen on Youtube. That’s all folks. Don’t go away angry. Just go away.

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I don’t want to spend too much time replying to David North, the cult leader of a tiny group called the Socialist Equality Party that is one of the fragments left over from the breakup of sexual predator Gerry Healy’s International Committee of the Fourth International but it is worth pointing out once again why you read WSWS.org at your own risk, like smoking cigarettes or having unprotected sex. If the CP was syphilis in Trotsky’s eyes, this tiny group is not much more than a case of the crabs.

North thinks he has the goods on me because I referred my readers to Robert Scher’s opening statement to Congress. Scher, you will recall, was the source of a quote in AP reporter Robert Burns’s article that the WSWS interpreted as a possible first-strike nuclear attack on Russia after the fashion of Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove”. Burns told his readers that Scher said “we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia.” Taking Burns at his word, WSWS.org posted an article titled “U.S. Officials Consider Nuclear Strike Against Russia”.

North claims that the words do appear but not in the written statement Scher presented to Congress and only in the verbal response to questions posed by members of the committee:

The plain truth is that Robert Scher did make the statement attributed to him by the AP correspondent. However, the critical phrase (“we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia.”) does not appear in the written statement prepared by Scher in advance of the hearing. His opening statement, as is usually the case in congressional hearings, was not actually read by Scher. It was formally accepted and included in the record.

The real work of the subcommittee consisted of a 50-minute hearing at which Scher and several other witnesses answered questions put to them by congressmen. It was during the question and answer period that the statement relating to the Obama administration’s nuclear policy toward Russia was made.

The full video of the hearing is available on the YouTube channel of the House Armed Services Committee. Whether from laziness, dishonesty, or—most likely—a combination of the two, Proyect did not bother to consult the video record of the hearing.

In fact not much more than an hour after my article was posted, an old friend and professional archivist referred me to the Youtube clip in which Scher replies to the Congressmen. I listened to it and concluded that it reinforced my case. North admits that the word “attack” is not audible in the recording but is convinced that this is the only conclusion that makes sense. Sad, really.

Who knows if North read the written statement that I referred my readers to but it is clear that there is no difference between it and the answer he gave, as is obvious from North’s words, even if he did not understand their import: “He reviews three categories of military action (beginning at 17:50) that the US is considering if this does not happen.”

Undoubtedly the “three categories” are a reference to Scher’s Triad strategy outlined in his written statement that I alluded to in my article. As I pointed out, the Triad is not about a first strike but simply a restatement of long-standing Pentagon policy in line with “deterrence”, more accurately described as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This is a policy deeply inimical to world peace but not a throwback to American threats brandished during the Korean War about nuking China, etc. when the USSR was not in a position to provide a nuclear umbrella for itself and its allies.

As it turns out, the word “attack” that North insists was either inaudible or clipped was supposed to be in the second leg of the Triad. Below is the text of Scher’s written statement. If you believe that any of this is a first-strike manifesto, then there’s not much I can say to persuade you otherwise—least of all the people in David North’s cult who maintain that Joseph Hansen, Leon Trotsky’s bodyguard, collaborated with the Kremlin to have Trotsky assassinated. They are beyond help and would probably only benefit from a stiff dose of Thorazine.

Each leg of the Triad contributes unique characteristics to the overall force. Strategic submarines (SSBNs) provide maximal survivability. Current U.S. nuclear posture preserves survivability by maintaining a continuous SSBN at-sea presence.

Land-based ICBMs provide the most rapid response capability, while maximizing Presidential decision making time and preventing accidental launch. Current U.S. nuclear posture preserves that responsiveness and reinforces crisis stability by maintaining most ICBMs on alert. The ICBM force complicates the planning of any adversary contemplating a disarming counterforce strike by vastly increasing the required scale of such an attack. For regional adversaries with smaller nuclear arsenals, the challenge of even targeting our ICBM force is insurmountable.

Nuclear-capable aircraft that can be forward-deployed provide the United States with flexibility and visibility that supports strategic deterrence, extended deterrence of potential adversaries, and assurance of U.S. allies and partners. The air leg represents the full Triad when used by the President to help signal resolve. In this capacity, these aircraft provide the President options for controlling and limiting escalation throughout all stages of a potential conflict.

The combined effect of all three legs is to force any adversary seeking to negate our deterrent to invest in multiple expensive capabilities, including large-scale hard-target kill capability, advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) technology, and extensive, multi-layered air defense.

The scale and complexity of this task protect the long-term survivability and credibility of our deterrent. Sustaining a full Triad also enables the policy objective of maintaining the ability to hedge effectively against failure of any single warhead or platform, and against shifts in the strategic and geopolitical environments.

June 5, 2015

Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?

Filed under: conspiracism,journalism,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

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Any normal person looking in on the latest World Socialist Web Site would pee in their pants. US officials consider nuclear strikes against Russia? Holy shit, this is serious business.

The question, of course, is whether the WSWS.org can be taken at face value. Some radicals of my acquaintance do take it at face value. A FB friend and Marxmail subscriber who is a professor of sociology frequently links to their articles. Another professor who was a houseguest for a few days told me that he prefers checking WSWS every day because it is more reliable than the NY Times. The site is also popular with college students who like to cite it in essays, according to my wife who works in the CUNY system.

It is easy to understand its appeal. Basically it is a press digest that is spiced with radical-sounding interjections. It also appears authoritative since it quotes the mainstream media. Taking the above article on nuclear strikes against Russia as an example, it states:

Most provocatively, a report published by the Associated Press yesterday reports that the Pentagon has been actively considering the use of nuclear missiles against military targets inside Russia, in response to what it alleges are violations of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Unfortunately, these people did not take the trouble to identify the reporter but a minute or two of searching revealed that Robert Burns, the AP specialist on nuclear matters, wrote it.

Furthermore, Burns’s reporting is based totally on the testimony of a Defense Department official named Robert Scher to Congress. Quoting WSWS.org quoting Burns:

Robert Scher, one of Carter’s nuclear policy aides, told Congress in April that the deployment of “counterforce” measures would mean “we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia.”

Now you can actually read Scher’s testimony here. The only reference to a “counterforce” is the following. “The ICBM force complicates the planning of any adversary contemplating a disarming counterforce strike by vastly increasing the required scale of such an attack.” This sentence can be found as part of Scher reviewing American nuclear weapons policy that he describes as a “Triad”, with ICBM’s as the first leg. In other words, all he was doing is recapitulating Washington’s long-standing policy of using a vast arsenal of nuclear missiles so as to make retaliation a complex task.

Reading WSWS.org, you would get the impression that Washington had developed a brand-new (or revival) of a “first strike” strategy that would be used to destroy missiles in Russia that the White House viewed as inimical to its interests—like Bush’s “preemptive” strike against Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD’s. But if you read Scher’s testimony, it is clear that he is simply recapitulating policies that have been around for decades.

Furthermore, Burn’s quote of Scher (“we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia”) cannot be found in his testimony, nor can it be found in Nexis, an authoritative database of newspaper articles I continue to have access to as a Columbia University retiree.

In other words, Burns was making an allegation about what Scher said that is not supported by the Congressional record.

My understanding is that the World Socialist Web Site is staffed by a dozen or so people who do nothing to build the fucking mass movement but see their job as writing this kind of sloppy bullshit that is badly in the need of a fact-checker. My understanding is that their cult leader owns a printing press with non-union labor. You’d think he’d have enough dough to put one on staff.

June 1, 2015

A Saudi neutron bomb attack on Yemen?

Filed under: conspiracism,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 11:36 pm

There’s a Youtube clip about such an event that has gone viral. It has been endorsed or at least taken seriously by all the usual imbeciles like Global Research who posted an article titled “Possible Tactical Nuclear Strike (Neutron Bomb) in Yemen?

Here’s the Youtube clip of the bomb going off:

Pretty impressive, no?

However, it has to be understood that neutron bombs carry the equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT payloads. Here’s a Youtube clip of a 3.5 kiloton nuclear weapon. Does the explosion above look three times as powerful as the one below? How do people on the left end up looking like such cretins? Of course, since Rush Limbaugh has recommended Global Research to his listeners, maybe it doesn’t make sense to group Chossudovsky and company as part of the left.

As another yardstick, here is 100 tons of TNT going off. As you can see, it is roughly equivalent tof the Yemen bomb going off at the top. So the notion that a neutron bomb went off  in Yemen that was 1000 times greater than this is psychotic.

May 10, 2015

Accident at Indian Point

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

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Just by coincidence, I got an email this morning from Michael Meeropol at the very minute I was watching a TV news report on an accident at Indian Point nuclear power plant. His email had nothing to do with the accident but it reminded me that I had planned to say a word or two about his daughter Ivy Meeropol’s documentary on Indian Point that I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.

I should mention that this is not one of my favorite film festivals because a few years ago I was prevented from seeing a documentary about herring—of all things—by the festival staff because I had neglected to register for that showing but one later in the week. Even when the publicist intervened to tell them I was okay, I still could not get past them—as if I had a suicide bomb under my shirt or something.

There’s a certain irony, of course, in Ivy Meeropol making such a film since her grandparents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the subject of her first documentary in 2004. As the “atom spies”, they were charged with giving Russia “the secret” of how to make a nuclear weapon. For the longest time the left upheld the analysis of Walter and Miriam Schneir that they were wrongly accused. When it was revealed that Julius was passing information to the Soviets, the left had a feeling of being had. I always felt that the best tack would have been for them to admit it and defend it as necessary for the survival of the USSR. My strong suspicion is that if the Soviets lacked such a self-defense, WWIII would have taken place in the mid-50s with genocidal results.

As for the accident, a representative from Entergy, the vultures who own the plant, told viewers that the transformer fire took place in a building separate from the reactor and posed no danger (except of course, for the toxins that poured into the air and the water). CNN’s report was par for the course:

A transformer failure at the Indian Point nuclear power plant caused an explosion and fire at the facility Saturday evening, sending billows of black smoke into the air near Buchanan, New York.

The fire broke out on the non-nuclear side of the plant, about 200 yards away from the reactor building, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.

“The fire is out and the plant is safe and stable,” Nappi said. Federal officials said one reactor unit automatically shut down.

Meeropol’s film had unprecedented access. Not only does she take you through a guided tour of the innards of Indian Point, she was also able to take her crew through the Fukushima wreckage in what was obviously a risk to her health and safety. In addition, she managed to gain the confidence of the guy at Indian Point who was responsible for maintaining safety in the same fashion as Jack Lemmon in “China Syndrome”. Since the guy rides a motorcycle to work rather than a Prius, that struck me as less than reassuring.

Gregory Jaczko

Corey Stoll

The star of the movie is Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Corey Stoll who played the Congressman was used as a tool by Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”. While not quite an anti-nuclear convert after the fashion of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jaczko became convinced after Fukushima that tighter safety standards were required in the industry. For this, the NRC decided to dump him but not on the basis of his call for safer procedures but for alleged misconduct as a manager. After he was dismissed, they were able to document that none of the charges such as verbal abuse to underlings had any merit. It was simply the case that the industry, including Entergy, did not want to pony up the extra money to make the plants safer.

There is some question whether any amount of money could make Indian Point safer. By everybody’s admission, the plant was already obsolete in the 1970s so not only were power transformers ready to blow, so was just about everything else in the plant. The New York Daily News, a rightwing tabloid, reported four years ago:

Federal inspectors found “near-miss” accidents at Indian Point on the Hudson and 13 other U.S. nuclear power plants last year, a watchdog group charged on Thursday.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, claimed that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.”

In the inspection of Indian Point about 25 miles from New York City, NRC auditors found that “the liner of a refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at least 1993.”

The USC report charged that “By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.”

In addition to interviewing industry officials and Indian Point personnel, Meeropol put the spotlight on an activist named Marilyn Elie, a retired schoolteacher who lived only a few miles from Indian Point. Understandably, she and other local folk would worry about a potential Chernobyl in their midst. For that matter, given the plant’s proximity to New York City, all of us should get involved with shutting the plant down since a catastrophe just thirty-five miles from Manhattan would be a threat to our lives as well.

As someone with a longstanding concern about saltwater and freshwater life, I was particularly outraged by the plant’s cooling method, which is to suck in water from the Hudson to cool the reactors and then cycle it back out to the river at many degrees higher than is safe for fish. In fact, this is the Achilles Heel of the plant. It has been denied a license renewal because the water cooling technology has been deemed inimical to the river’s health and safety—leaving aside the whole question of a Fukushima type meltdown. Given the likelihood that Entergy will not spend the money to replace the cooling system and that Governor Cuomo is opposed to it in toto, there is a good chance that the reactor will be history after 2015. Let’s hope that Meeropol’s documentary gets shown on PBS, where it will scare the bejeezus out of New Yorkers who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of a Fukushima type meltdown ruining their runs in Central Park and Sunday brunches at outdoor tables.

Speaking of which, the film took us on a tour into the area where spent fuel rods are kept. This, to put it as gingerly as possible, is a disaster waiting to happen. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter of longstanding and hardly a Marxist “catastrophist”, informed his readers of the risk:

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactors has set off calls to close nuclear power plants around the world. But closing reactors alone would do nothing to address what caused the real damage in Japan—the spent fuel rods that are supposed to be cooling in pools. When three of the seven pools were damaged, and in one case entirely drained, by the tsunami, the spent rods began emitting high levels of radiation.

The United States has about 100 such spent fuel pools. I visited one a few years ago at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits up the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point is back in the news because it operates a mere 35 miles outside New York City. More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Getting out in the case of a disaster would be a nightmare.

Getting in wasn’t easy either. But after taking a course called “radiation training,” undergoing a “dose assessment” (to be measured against my readings afterward, which showed less exposure than to an X-ray) and passing a written test on how to handle myself in a confined space, I was finally allowed to enter the facility. Clad in the jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, and booties made famous by Homer Simpson, I expected to be transfixed by the fully operating core of the reactor just a few feet in front of me.

Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.

I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

Dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.

Finally, I recommend that you acquaint yourself with the Riverkeeper website, a group that has been spearheading opposition to Indian Point and whose members are given a platform in the documentary. I especially urge a look at their “Ten Reasons to Close Indian Point” that should gain the widest attention alongside Ivy Meeropol’s documentary.

March 31, 2015

Thermonuclear

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

A week ago I woke up from one of my frequent end of the world nightmares that usually involve themes like space invaders with death rays, blizzards in August, the Hudson River catching fire, etc. This time it was about an H-Bomb being dropped on NYC. The dream did not include a fireball, just the opposite. I was in my apartment and the lights went out, like in a blackout but there was total darkness. In the dream that meant an H-Bomb had hit. In an odd way the blackout was more terrifying than a fireball—don’t ask me to explain.

As someone who was technically born in advance of the baby boomers, nuclear war has been on my mind in one way or another since I was six years old. We used to have “duck and cover” drills in grade school. The teacher would clap his or her hands and then say, “Okay children, get under your desks and cover your eyes.” I distinctly remember seeing this around that time:

So freaked out was I by this that I used to ask my mom when we out driving in the family car if a harmless cloud like this cumulus nimbus was an H-Bomb going off.

I was reminded of the nightmare when an article appeared in the NY Times about the censoring of a book on the bomb written by someone who worked on it:

For all its horrific power, the atom bomb — leveler of Hiroshima and instant killer of some 80,000 people — is but a pale cousin compared to another product of American ingenuity: the hydrogen bomb.

The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas, an unthinkable range of destruction that lay behind the Cold War’s fear of mutual annihilation. It was developed in great secrecy, and Washington for decades has done everything in its power to keep the details of its design out of the public domain.

Now, a physicist who helped devise the weapon more than half a century ago has defied a federal order to cut from his new book material that the government says teems with thermonuclear secrets.

The author, Kenneth W. Ford, 88, spent his career in academia and has not worked on weapons since 1953. His memoir, “Building the H Bomb: A Personal History,” is his 10th book. The others are physics texts, elucidations of popular science and a reminiscence on flying small planes.

He said he included the disputed material because it had already been disclosed elsewhere and helped him paint a fuller picture of an important chapter of American history. But after he volunteered the manuscript for a security review, federal officials told him to remove about 10 percent of the text, or roughly 5,000 words.

“They wanted to eviscerate the book,” Dr. Ford said in an interview at his home here. “My first thought was, ‘This is so ridiculous I won’t even respond.’ ”

While the story of the censorship was what prompted this article, my main interest was in the sentence: “The weapon easily packs the punch of a thousand Hiroshimas.” What kind of scientist would work on such a project? The talk all week long has been about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who was responsible for the death of 150 people including him. How does someone with a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Princeton use his skills to develop such a horrible weapon? Or maybe the answer is in the fact that he went to such places. Maybe a degree from some state college would have brought him closer to reality.

During Reagan’s presidency I joined Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility because it was organizing against Star Wars, a strategic weapons defense program that was based on artificial intelligence. As someone who had been involved with any number of software development projects that crashed and burned, the idea of using software as a shield against nuclear attack seemed insane. Even scarier was the idea that Star Wars might work since it would give the USA an incentive for a first strike. If 95 percent of Soviet missiles could be shot out of the sky, maybe the loss of a 150 million people or so would be worth it. As Reagan put it:

Thur Dec 3 1981: NSC meeting–I approved starting a Civil Defense buildup. Right now in a nuclear war we’d lose 150 million people. The Soviets could hold their losses down to less than were killed in WWII.

It was not reassuring that Reagan had put one T.K. Jones in charge of Civil Defense, who had shocked people in 1982 by stating: “It’s the dirt that does it … if there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” For a disturbing look back at this period, I recommend Alexander Zaitchik’s Salon article “Inescapable, apocalyptic dread: The terrifying nuclear autumn of 1983” where he writes:

T.K. Jones’s breathtakingly idiotic ideas about nuclear war did not stop with civil defense. He also believed America would recover from a nuclear war within a few years. The idea that the U.S. could “bounce back” from a nuclear exchange was actually quite widespread in Reagan’s Washington. Reagan’s FEMA distributed leaflets to municipal governments stating, “With reasonable protective measures, the United States could survive nuclear attack and go on to recovery within a relatively few years.” His appointee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency described nuclear war as “a destructive thing, but still in large part a physics problem, possible for any society to survive.” In the spring of 1982, Reagan personally proposed a $4 billion civil defense plan for evacuating major cities and housing refugees in above-ground rural “shelters.” Local officials across the country from Ed Koch down scoffed at claims the plan would save 80 percent of the U.S. population. It was as if nobody in government knew that modern thermonuclear weapons made the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs look like firecrackers by comparison.

Right now there are 4,000 nuclear weapons ready to fire, the bulk of which are in the USA and Russia. Perhaps the one thing that ironically blocks their usage, despite all the overheated rhetoric about Syria or Ukraine et al sparking WWIII, is the stake that the ruling class has in preventing all-out war. Just put yourself in the shoes of the Koch brothers who probably spend a million dollars a week on personal consumption or a Russian oligarch with a 20,000-foot apartment in London or New York, why would you want to lose all that?

On the other hand, the tragic downing of Germanwings Flight 9525 is a reminder that a deranged individual can take actions that defy the tightest controls.

March 20, 2013

Catastrophism and the left: a response to Sasha Lilley

Sasha Lilley

Although I was aware that West Coast radio host Sasha Lilley, a kind of radical version of Terry Gross, had come out with a book on “Catastrophism”, I had no plans to read it or comment on it until I spied a review in Brooklyn Rail, a free monthly you can find at better bookstores.

Titled “The Bankruptcy of Doom and Gloom”, reviewer Robert S. Eshelman writes:

Lilley observes that while the New Deal did, in fact, originate in response to the Great Depression, the great American strike waves of 1898 to 1904 and 1916 to 1920 occurred during periods of relative economic prosperity.

I found so many things wrong with this that I decided to have a look at more of what comrade Lilley had to say. Fortunately, you can read her entire chapter in “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” on Google books. And I did. To start with, I have no idea which “great American strike wave” of 1898 to 1904 or 1916 to 1920 Lilley can possibly be referring to. I am fairly well versed in American labor history and have no idea what she is talking about.

Workers struck throughout the early 1960s for that matter. This was a time when the UAW, the Teamsters, and the railway unions went out on strike for substantial wage increases all the time. During the brief time I was a public school teacher in the late 60s, Albert Shanker was one of the most “militant” trade unionists in the U.S. if going out on strike is some kind of litmus test. This was the guy after all who resulted in civilization being destroyed after he got his hands on a nuclear weapon, as the Doctor told Woody Allen in “Sleeper” after he awoke. That’s pretty militant but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Lilley had in mind.

But the kinds of strikes that capture our attention as Marxists are not the Samuel Gompers inspired affairs for higher wages. Instead we study what happened in Flint, Michigan in 1936 and 1937 when workers occupied factories and battled the cops and National Guard. This was a strike that began to educate workers about FDR back-stabbing the CIO. Like it and so many other major class battles of the 1930s, it eventually came to naught because the Communist or Social Democratic leadership (Victor and Walter Reuther in the case of the UAW) was determined to back FDR. If the trade union movement had broken with the Democrats and launched a labor party, American politics would look a lot different today. Trust me.

While most of Lilley’s barbs are aimed at the lunatic fringe, from the nuclear-war advocating Juan Posadas of the Fourth International to the Weathermen, she snares Henryk Grossman into her industrial-sized seine. She accuses Grossman of “collapsism” on the basis of his observation:

Despite the periodic interruptions that repeatedly defuse the tendency towards breakdown, the mechanism as a whole tends relentlessly towards its final end with the general process of accumulation… Once these countertendencies are themselves defused or simply cease to operate, the breakdown tendency gains the upper hand and asserts, itself in the absolute form as the final crisis.

Surely anybody with even a smattering of knowledge about Grossman’s theories of capital accumulation would understand that he posited the “escape valve” that the system used to postpone such a final crisis. Chapter 3 of Grossman’s 1929 “Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown” is titled “Modifying Countertendencies”. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out that any chapter with such a title will provide the evidence needed to clear Grossman of the charge of “collapsism”.

At the start of the chapter, Grossman identifies conditions that must be met in order for the “final crisis” to ensue. The first one is “that the capitalist system exists in isolation – that there is no foreign trade”. Fat chance of that, I’d say. As Grossman puts it:

Considering the gigantic increases in productivity and the enormous accumulation of capital of the last several decades the question arises —why has capitalism not already broken down? This is the problem that interests Marx:

the same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard, and partly paralyse this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its effect. Otherwise, it would not be the fall of the general rate of profit, but rather its relative slowness, that would be incomprehensible. Thus, the law acts only as a tendency. And it is only under certain circumstances and only after long periods that its effects become strikingly pronounced. (1959, p. 239)

Once these counteracting influences begin to operate, the valorisation of capital is reestablished and the accumulation of capital can resume on an expanded basis. In this case the breakdown tendency is interrupted and manifests itself in the form of a temporary crisis. Crisis is thus a tendency towards breakdown which has been interrupted and restrained from realising itself completely [emphasis added].

If you stop and think about it, this is not that much different from what David Harvey has said about  “spatial fix” or Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of primitive accumulation that Harvey has endorsed.

Speaking of which, despite accepting Rosa Luxemburg’s proviso that capitalism can forestall collapse through colonization, whether formally or informally, the stern judge Lilley still refuses to excuse her from the charge of “collapsism”. Parenthetically, while one cannot expect Lilley to have offered up a counter-analysis on the current stage of capitalism, isn’t it obligatory to take the collapse of the USSR, the Eastern European states, China, and Vietnam into account when offering blithe reassurances about the vitality of the capitalist system? One would never consider the possibility that capitalism will collapse of its own internal mechanisms, but hasn’t the opening up of huge markets and supplies of cheap labor given the system a new lease on life? Of course, Lilley might respond that this is what she has been talking about all along. That being the case, she owes Grossman and Luxemburg an apology for transforming them into “catastrophists” when her own analysis and theirs differs so little. Oh well, I’ll do it for her. “Henryk and Rosa, Sasha says she’s sorry.”

All this being said, I do agree that catastrophism is a problem in the Marxist movement (as opposed to the freak show on parade in her chapter.) Towards the end of WWII the American Trotskyist movement had a debate over the leadership’s catastrophist notion that the end of WWII would result in economic collapse and proletarian revolution. Felix Morrow challenged that view as I reported in an article I wrote about 17 years ago:

One of the main areas of contention between Morrow and the leaders of the FI was how these differences in policy would play out against the background of German politics. The SWP was convinced that the German working-class would lead the rest of Europe in the fight for socialism. A document states: “the German revolution constitutes the essential base of the European revolution, that it alone can provide the indispensable, genuinely harmonious political and economic organization for the Socialist United States of Europe.”

Morrow disagreed completely with these projections. He stated that the document contains not “a single reference to the fact that the German proletariat would begin its life after Nazi defeat under military occupation and without a revolutionary party.”

What was the source of these false projections? “To put it bluntly: all the phrases in its prediction about the German revolution — that the proletariat would from the first play a decisive role, soldiers’ committees, workers’ and peasants’ soviets, etc. — were copied down once again in January 1945 by the European Secretariat from the 1938 program of the Fourth International. Seven years, and such years, had passed by but the European Secretariat did not change a comma. Exactly the same piece of copying had been done by the SWP majority in its October 1943 Plenum resolution in spite of the criticisms of the minority.” Evidently dogmatism is not a recent trend in the Trotskyist movement.

Morrow stood his ground against all attacks. He appeared as a heretic. One of the charges against him made by Pierre Frank contained an interesting thought. If Morrow was right, what implications would this have for the world Trotskyist movement? Frank seemed to be thinking out loud when he said:

The false perspective of Morrow has a farther implication if it is really drawn to its logical end. If American imperialism has such inexhaustible powers that it can, as he thinks, improve the standard of living in Europe, then of course there exists a certain basis, on however low a foundation, for the establishment of bourgeois-democracy in the immediate period ahead. From that we must assume the softening of class conflicts for a period that the class struggle will be very largely refracted through the parliamentary struggle, that for a time the parliamentary arena will dominate the stage. If that were true, we would have to revise our conception of American imperialism. And of course the Trotskyist movement would have to attune its work to these new conditions — conditions for a while of slow painful growth, propaganda, election campaigns, etc., etc.

Frank’s fears were of course grounded in reality. This would be the fate of the Trotskyist movement and the rest of the left. The 1950s were not even a period of slow, painful growth, however. They were a period of decline. The FI only woke up to new realities when it shifted toward the student movement in the early 1960s. After a period of sustained growth, it returned to its “catastrophist” roots and proclaimed in 1975 that the workers were ready to launch an attack on capitalist power in the United States and the other industrialized countries. SWP leader Jack Barnes not only led this return to Comintern ultraleftism, he did the early communists one better and predicted war, fascism and proletarian revolution nearly every year or so for the last 20.

Contrary to James P. Cannon’s expectations, the post-war period through the early 70s was marked by rapid expansion of American capitalism and a period of relative prosperity for the working class. Lilley does not think that these objective conditions had much to do with the mostly white working class supporting the war in Vietnam, the racial status quo, sexism in the workplace, or the behavior stereotyped in “All in the Family”. I wish it wasn’t so but my memory of construction workers beating up antiwar students is too vivid. It may be vulgar Marxism to assert that worsening economic conditions makes it easier to persuade workers of socialist ideas but as Robert Fitch once put it, “Vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what’s going on in the world.”

Finally, on the question of “catastrophism” and the left. As I am thirty years older than Ms. Lilley, I have a somewhat different take on millenarianism and the left. When I used to drive around with my mom when I was 5 or 6 years old, I’d ask her if a big cumulus nimbus was a mushroom cloud. This was at a time when television was laden with doomsday messages about Russian nukes. A couple of years later I would be taking part in air raid drills at school, “ducking and covering” under my desk. It does not get much more apocalyptic than this. When I got to Bard College in 1961, I joined some upperclassmen in organizing a Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical jab at Governor Rockefeller who was pushing for an expansion of nuclear war shelters.

While I was still too apolitical to do anything about my fears, other students joined he Student Peace Union, a first sign of opposition to Cold War madness. Many of the people who joined the Young Socialist Alliance in the early 60s were SPU activists. They had come to the conclusion that the capitalist system threatened the survival of the human race and acted on that decision.

My turn came 6 years later as I faced being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When a Marxist student at the New School convinced me that such wars were inevitable in the capitalist system, I had no alternative but to join the Trotskyist movement. Does that make me a catastrophist? Guilty as charged, I suppose, and likely to remain one until I die.

March 29, 2012

When it was okay for Iran to have nuclear power

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

March 26, 2012

The Militant newspaper goes nuke

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

Since the Socialist Workers Party of the United States is so small and so wacky, I had misgivings about whether it was worth my time writing about the latest idiocy in the Militant, a newspaper I was thrilled to sell in a previous lifetime. I suppose that having had a chance to browse through the second volume of Barry Sheppard’s memoir about the party helped me make a decision. Given the utter disconnect between the party of my youth and the moribund sect of today, there is always the pathologist’s need for an explanation.

In a lead article titled Fukushima 1 year later: nuke panic vs. real disaster, the erstwhile Trotskyist group of over 1500 members now reduced to just over a hundred makes the case that socialists should support nuclear power, not just in the Third World as they have argued in the past, but everywhere. The lesson they draw from Fukushima is how minimal the threat was and how necessary it is to stay the course:

The basic facts today are well known. The plant used a cheaper containment vessel for fuel rods prone to rupture in the event of a cooling system failure. Tepco’s owners never adequately raised the elevation of the backup generator, despite the potential for tsunamis in the area. Company officials deliberately delayed action to cool down the reactors in order to protect their investment. Surely, if private profit didn’t drive the reactor’s operation, the entire incident would have been avoided.

But we see this approach everyday in every part of the world where capitalist social relations dominate production. It flows from the way the capitalist system always has and always will function: to maximize profits while simultaneously undermining the source of all wealth, the earth and the worker.

Despite all this, zero is the number of people who have reportedly died as a result of nuclear radiation poisoning related to the Fukushima plant. Another striking figure, given the combination of the bosses’ recklessness and the destructive power of earthquakes and tsunamis. The basic facts about what is considered the second worst nuclear disaster in world history actually provides a very strong argument against the assertion that nuclear power presents a special inherent danger to humanity.

The so-called environmentalist opposition to nuclear power—or other forms of energy—is anti-scientific and reactionary. The various “green” forces and their nostrums provide no earthly option for maintaining modern civilization, let alone for advancing industrial development. They stand in opposition to the development of semicolonial nations oppressed by imperialism and are antagonistic to the needs of the great majority of humanity.

In contrast, the communist movement champions the expansion and extension of electrification and industrialization worldwide, and along with it growth of the proletariat and culture. This is essential for closing the gap between the imperialists and semicolonial world and bringing the world’s toilers closer together in common struggle.

These arguments will be familiar to anybody acquainted with Spiked Online, the latest permutation of a group of former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain. Despite the name, this is not the same sect led by Bob Avakian. Instead, it originated as a split from Tony Cliff’s organization led by sociology professor Frank Furedi that went on to publish Living Marxism, a “contrarian” outlet that championed nuclear power, genetically modified crops, massive hydroelectric dams, and other projects that were designed to expand “industrialization worldwide” as the SWP puts it. Eventually, the Furedi-ites dropped all pretensions to Marxism (except for one or two individuals like James Heartfield) and became indistinguishable from the libertarians at Reason Magazine that they have worked closely with in the past.

For comparison’s sake, here is Spiked Online’s Rob Lyons on Fukushima one year later:

[A]ccidents can happen. Not everything that happens is reasonably foreseeable or easily preventable. The important thing is to learn the right lessons when bad events occur. Unfortunately, in all the hype about Fukushima, the wrong lessons are being learned.

Not a single person has died because of exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima accident, though two plant workers did die in a flooded basement room as a direct result of the tsunami. But lesson four is that overreaction to a problem can be worse than the original problem. For example, it was reported that 45 patients died after the botched and hurried evacuation of a hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, and this was not the only such case. One centenarian committed suicide rather than be forced from his home in the exclusion zone…

This is the most important lesson, one year on, from the earthquake and tsunami: it is the crisis of politics that is holding society back. We have the technical capability to move society forward, to cope with natural disasters and to learn from serious accidents. But without a sense of purpose about what society should look like in the future, and how to get there, the uncertainty of society’s elites – and the absence of a capacity for the wider population to give them a genuine democratic kick-up-the-arse – could prove to be the biggest disaster of all.

If there is any difference between this libertarian’s call for moving “society forward” and the SWP’s business about the extension of industrialization, I can’t detect it. Basically this is the same message you are getting from Tepco, the American nuclear industry, and the heavy battalions of the ruling class that are determined to push ahead with nuclear power over the objections of the Japanese people. Popular resistance to nuclear power, as well as elite concerns about their viability, in Japan has resulted in 53 out of 54 nuclear power plants being shut down. Without a doubt, if the SWP had a satellite “Communist League” functioning in Japan, its 5 or 6 members would be agitating to re-open them. Imagine the slogan: “For a communist atom!”

This has not always been the position of the sect. In 1996, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl, the Militant editorialized:

Even if no accident occurs at a nuclear plant, there is no method of safely disposing of the mounting tonnage of nuclear waste. For example, a nuclear waste facility that just opened in Aiken, South Carolina, uses chemicals that have generated large amounts of explosive compounds during the processing of the deadly material.

There is only one way to protect people from catastrophic accidents at nuclear plants, from the cancer and genetic damage caused by nuclear power, and from the growing accumulation of deadly radioactive waste that cannot be stored safely. Shut them down! Workers and farmers must take the lead in dismantling these facilities, as well as demanding the resources be made available to aid those affected by Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters.

I am not sure if Barry gets into this in his memoir, but one of things that characterize the post-sanity SWP is the failure of the Militant newspaper to ever explain why a line changes. The same party members who would have seen the wisdom of the 1996 editorial now support the new tilt toward nuclear power wholeheartedly. Ironically, a party that came into existence as an alternative to the sheep-like obedience to the Kremlin now follows the same pattern, all the more peculiar since the SWP’s version of Stalin has so little clout outside his ranks. Stalin once derisively asked how many battalions the pope had, after the Vatican issued some statement on human rights abuses in the USSR. In the case of the SWP, you are not dealing with battalions but an aging platoon of the politically bereft.

Turning to the substance of the Militant article, there are a couple of points that can be made. It alleges that the Japanese government failure to provide adequate protection against tsunami flooding:

The Japan Meteorological Agency erroneously projected that day that a 10-foot plus tsunami would hit northeastern Japan.

Concrete walls line about 40 percent of Japan’s coastline, many places 33 feet high. But in the region hit by the tsunami, the walls were about 10 feet high. The waves turned out to be 40 feet high on average. The whole warning and protection system had been built for a lesser case—and cost-saving—scenario.

So, would higher flood walls made a difference? Perhaps so, but there is also the possibility that it was the earthquake itself that led to the Fukushima incidents, as the Independent reported:

The suspicion that the earthquake caused severe damage to the reactors is strengthened by reports that radiation leaked from the plant minutes later. The Bloomberg news agency has reported that a radiation alarm went off about a mile from the plant at 3.29pm, before the tsunami hit.

The reason for official reluctance to admit that the earthquake did direct structural damage to reactor one is obvious. Katsunobu Onda, author of Tepco: The Dark Empire, explains it this way: A government or industry admission “raises suspicions about the safety of every reactor they run. They are using a number of antiquated reactors that have the same systematic problems, the same wear and tear on the piping.” Earthquakes, of course, are commonplace in Japan.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear plant designer, describes what occurred on 11 March as a loss-of-coolant accident. “The data that Tepco has made public shows a huge loss of coolant within the first few hours of the earthquake. It can’t be accounted for by the loss of electrical power. There was already so much damage to the cooling system that a meltdown was inevitable long before the tsunami came.”

As might be expected, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) rejected this claim since, as Wikipedia points out, it is virtually an arm of the nuclear industry:

According to a government report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in June 2011, “NISA’s lack of independence from the trade ministry, which promotes the use of atomic power, hampered a quick response to the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant this year”. Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been questions raised about whether the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been fulfilling its function as an industry regulator, and whether it should continue to exist.

More to the point, what kind of “precautions” can be taken to ensure that a nuclear power plant can be isolated from the impact of a powerful earthquake even if it is located inland? While most Americans worry about the impact of a large earthquake on nuclear power plants in California, the real threat appears to be further north in the Cascadia subduction zone (where tectonic plates collide) that straddles Oregon, Washington State and Vancouver, Canada. The always reliable McClatchy press  reported:

The only part of the United States where a 9.0-scale earthquake is expected again (geologists discovered that one occurred there on Jan. 26, 1700) is the 750-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California. A subduction zone — a place where faults in the Earth’s crust are wide enough for plates of rock to “slip” past each other — also produced the March 11 Tohoku earthquake in Japan.

Robert Yeats, a geology professor at Oregon State University, was one of the first to suggest in the 1980s that the Pacific Northwest might be vulnerable to a 9.0 subduction zone earthquake.

Just for comparison’s sake, the earthquake in Japan registered 8.9 on the Richter scale.

The Militant is also full of crap when it refers to “zero” people dying as a result of radiation, especially given its claim to be speaking in the name of science. Cancer does not develop overnight. After you are exposed to radiation, it might take 10 to 15 years for cancer to develop. And, more importantly, cancer is the one disease that lends itself to clashing interpretations of causality based on one’s material interests. For example, it took decades for the tobacco industry to be reined in. Its “experts” were always able to make the specious case that one person who never smoked a cigarette in his or her life might get lung cancer, while a heavy smoker would not.

For example, my mother-in-law, who lives in Istanbul, had thyroid cancer. How can anyone establish whether this was related to Chernobyl, a town in the Ukraine that is located just across the Black Sea from Turkey?

Needless to say, fossil-based energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas have their own problems. This has led some progressives like George Monbiot to embrace nuclear power. My own take on this is that it is a fool’s errand for the left to take up the question of whether nuclear power or greenhouse gases are the “lesser evil” under capitalism. It is entirely possible that some mix of such forms of energy will be combined with solar or wind power under socialism and rendered less threatening with the absence of a profit motive. But in the meantime, it is incumbent upon us to build forms of resistance to the capitalist energy sectors whenever they threaten us in the here and now because of that very profit motive. For example, the resistance of the Japanese people to nuclear power is not only progressive; it might even lead to a departure from the political slumber that has existed there for decades.

In the United States, campaigns against coal company mountaintop removal and unsafe working conditions in the mines are exactly the sort of thing that revolutionaries should get involved with. With respect to natural gas, the fight against “fracking” and the Keystone XL Pipeline are crucial. Frankly, it does not matter whether natural gas is “better” than coal or nuclear power—as some environmentalists like the Sierra Club have argued (likely abetted by donations from the natural gas company owners). The whole point is to resist capitalist abuse, whichever sector of the energy industry has responsibility for. This is even true for the “green” wind-power industry that has been driving people crazy in various small towns around the country with their low-frequency hum and other health hazards.

Our goal is to fight for a society that is not organized around the profit motive. The bourgeoisie will always defend its assaults on our health and safety in the name of the extension of “industrialization” worldwide. But it has its apologists like Thomas Friedman to make its case and has no need for socialist volunteers to pitch in, even though it is doubtful that the wacky cult around Jack Barnes can ever be relied on with its steadily evaporating apparatus and influence.

February 2, 2011

Into Eternity

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, the documentary “Into Eternity” examines the political and philosophical ramifications of nuclear waste, now amounting to over 250,000 tons worldwide. Danish Director Michael Madsen was inspired to make the film after learning about the Onkalo project in Finland, an underground repository that is intended to last for over 100,000 years—twenty times longer than the pyramids.

While Madsen makes no secret about his opposition to nuclear power, the movie is not exactly agitprop. Mostly it is “night thoughts” about the follies of civilization, at least a civilization that revolves around commodity production.

Furthermore, the technicians involved with Onkalo are hardly the Doctor Strangelove types. They come across as thoughtful and ethical even as they are conflicted. When Madsen asks a particularly challenging question, they frequently are at a loss for words and confess that they don’t have the answer.

It is difficult to conceptualize what it means to have nuclear waste under the earth in Finland 100,000 years from now. Try to imagine what the globe will look like 1000 years from now, let alone 100 times that length. One of the major problems foreseen by the development team working on Onkalo is the problem of communication. Will the languages of the future be the same as today? This is not an outlandish question if you consider what problems the general reader of English would have understanding Chaucer, who wrote only about 600 years ago.

Madsen, who is described as a conceptual artist in the press notes, is fairly obsessed with this question. He asks the technicians how they would communicate to future generations about the danger underground. They raise the possibility of using graphics rather than words, including a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, an apt symbol for the nuclear age.

If Onkalo appears problematic, the current day solutions to the disposal of nuclear waste would strike the average person as bordering on insane. As the press notes point out:

Spent nuclear fuel is normally kept in water pools in interim storage facilities. Almost all interim storage facilities are on the ground surface, where they are vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters, and extensive surveillance, security management, and maintenance is required. The water in the pools cools the fuel rods, as the heat emanating from them may otherwise result in radioactive fire, and at the same time, water creates a shield for radioactivity. It takes 40 – 60 years to cool the fuel rods down to a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius. Only below this temperature may the spent fuel be handled or processed further. Most interim storage facilities are situated near nuclear power plants, as the transportation of waste is complicated, and subject to extensive security issues.

Although “Into Eternity” says almost nothing about trends favoring nuclear power, there are signs that the proliferation of new plants will require the building of Onkalos almost everywhere. One of the scientists interviewed by Madsen states that if India and China are to enjoy the same standard of living as the West in the next twenty years, it will be necessary to rapidly expand the number of nuclear power plants. This kind of “progressive” spin on behalf of nuclear power jibes with the statements made by some climate scientists and environmentalists about the advantage nuclear power has over greenhouse-gas emitting carbon-based fuels.

What is needed for the survival of civilization is a thorough going re-examination of the value of the West’s “standard of living”. While nobody would gainsay the need for adequate food, shelter and health care, the rampant materialism of the privileged classes in both the West and the rest of the world are hardly equivalent to “civilization”. In effect, that is what the Egyptian street is saying loud and clear right now.

July 2, 2010

H-Bomb over Hawaii

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm
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