Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 14, 2015

Syrian refugees, Hungary and the “axis of resistance”

Filed under: Hungary,immigration,mechanical anti-imperialism,Soros,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Viktor Orban: member in good standing of the “axis of resistance”

It seems that a week does not go by without some incident in Eastern Europe involving the inhumane treatment of people who have fled Baathist terror in Syria.

For example, in the Czech Republic, cops wrote numbers on the arms of refugees in order to identify them, a chilling reminder of how Nazis tattooed such numbers on the arms of Jews in the death camps.

But it is Hungary that takes the cake apparently.

  • It put a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia to keep refugees out.
  • It put up billboards (in Hungarian no less) warning anybody who made it through the razor-wire fence that “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!”
  • A TV news photographer kicked and tripped refugees running away from the police. The station she worked for was connected to the far-right Jobbik party that lines up with the “axis of resistance” on Syria, opposing “the systematic attempts of the West to find a casus belli for an armed intervention against the Assad government.”
  • At an internment camp for refugees in Hungary, cops threw bags of food to them as if they were hungry animals.

Since the refugees are only interested in making their way to Germany or Britain, the xenophobia is likely a strategy to mollify Hungary’s burgeoning ultraright groups like Jobbik and their voters. Key to success is the ability of President Viktor Orban to exploit simmering discontent over dire economic conditions. In fact this is exactly how German fascism succeeded. When economic disaster ruined Eastern European Jewry, the largely working class and impoverished small proprietors fled to Germany. Hitler then blamed “the Jews” for taking away German jobs.

It must be noted that Viktor Orban has recently joined the “axis of resistance” after the fashion of Jobbik. All across Europe ultraright parties with zero exceptions have showed solidarity with the Kremlin in its ostensibly “anti-imperialist” struggle against NATO, the EU, and Washington. This Red-Brown alliance is a revival of the National Bolshevist tendency of the early 1920s when a faction of the German CP advocated a united front with the incipient fascist movement.

Orban is now Putin’s closest European ally. While the bonds involve mutual economic interests, including Hungarian access to Russian natural gas at bargain prices and a willingness to back Putin’s pipeline project that would bypass Ukraine, there are also ideological affinities. He has nationalist pretensions casting himself as an enemy of neoliberalism. He has also followed Putin in cracking down on NGO’s and pressuring Hungarian media to follow his strong man rule.

For a fascinating account of Orban’s political evolution, I would recommend the Intercept article by Adam LeBor titled “How Hungary’s Prime Minister Turned From Young Liberal Into Refugee-Bashing Autocrat”. It seems that early on he was not kindly disposed to Russian domination, speaking at a Budapest rally in 1989 commemorating the death of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 revolution. In his speech he demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.

You don’t have to understand Hungarian to know that he was lambasting “Communist dictatorship”. Understanding which side of the bread was buttered, Orban hooked up with George Soros just before this speech was made. LeBor reports;

Orban was born in May 1963 in Alcsutdoboz, a small village 31 miles from Budapest. After graduating from high school he moved to Budapest to study law at Eötvös Loránd University. There he co-founded Századvég, a dissident social science journal.

He graduated in 1987 and joined the Central-Eastern Europe Study Group, which was funded by George Soros, the financier who had emigrated from Hungary after World War II. The following year Orban became a founding member of the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in Hungarian as Fidesz. The outspoken radicals quickly became the darlings of the Western media. They were young, smart and scruffily photogenic – Tamas Deutsch, another founding member of Fidesz, was a model for Levi’s jeans. Fidesz in its early years was a broad coalition, from near anarchists to nationalists. They all had one aim: to get rid of the Communists. Once that was achieved, like all revolutionary groups, the party began to fracture.

Having been born and raised in Hungary, Soros took a particular interest in his native land. He spent millions on cultivating a following among ambitious young politicians like Orban, paying for airfare and hotel costs in the USA where they were afforded red carpet treatment at Soros’s Open Society conferences. Soros was also shrewd enough to pay for photocopying machines that anti-Communist activists found crucial in their attempts in the late 80s to create a liberal pole of attraction against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Michael Lewis, by no means a critic of neoliberalism, traced Soros’s steps in a 1994 Guardian article:

IN 1984 Soros opened his first office, in Budapest, and began all manner of subversive activities for which he is temperamentally very well-equipped. “I started by trying to create small cracks in the monolithic structure which goes under the name of communism, in the belief that in a rigid structure even a small crack can have a devastating effect,” he wrote in Opening The Soviet System. “As the cracks grew, so did my efforts until they came to take up most of my time.”

Says Liz Lorant, who worked with Soros from the start: “It was the excitement of what we got away with [that is irreplaceable]. We got away with murder. [For example] at that time Xerox machines were under lock and key. That was the way it was. In Romania you had to register a typewriter with the police. Well, we just flooded the whole damn country with Xerox machines so that the rules became meaningless.” In short, by the time the dust settled over the Berlin Wall – boom! bust! – Soros had accumulated a highly-charged portfolio of gratitude. The Great White Gods of Eastern Europe – Havel, Michnik, Kis, Haraszti – were all in his debt. So were all sorts of lesser-known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office.

For most people on the “anti-imperialist” left, Soros is a kind of archenemy symbolizing globalization, neoliberalism and all the rest. He is also a convenient symbol of liberal ignominy for the far right as the supposed puppet master behind Obama and the secret plans to transform the USA into a European-styled socialist state. Of course that is the paradox of George Soros. Like Fay Dunaway telling Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” that a woman was both her daughter and her sister, Soros is both a neoliberal shark and someone favoring European style socialism, which is in reality nothing but a welfare state and incapable of being realized today.

With Soros’s record of intervening in Hungarian politics through his well-funded NGO’s, it is easy to understand why Orban would have a free hand in cracking down on them. Many Hungarians must have gathered that Karl Popper’s philosophy probably had more to do with a fast buck then it did with promoting civil society and equal opportunity.

Five years ago Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal bank stock transactions in Hungary (a mere slap on the wrist.) It was his exploitation of short sales and other shenanigans from 2007 to 2010 that prompted the billionaire and major donor to my alma mater to confess that he was having “a very good crisis”, referring to the stock market crash that is still impacting countries like Hungary.

Like Greece, Hungary had huge debts when the crisis broke and like Greece has been scrambling to nurse the country back to health—a dubious prospect given the world economic situation. In late 2008 Hungary pleaded with the International Monetary Fund for $25 billion in emergency financing. In 2010 unemployment reached 11.4 percent while the economy shrank by 6.3 percent. It was such suffering that convinced voters to back Orban’s party that promised to wave a magic wand and make things right.

For those who think that a Grexit would solve Greece’s problems, it is worth mentioning that Hungary’s failure to be part of the Eurozone was no silver bullet as the NY Times reported in 2012:

Zoltan Zsoter, an 80-year-old retiree, would seem to be about as far from the world of currency speculation as a person can get. Yet he is an example of how the workings of the global financial system, amplified by the policies of a single political leader, can have a devastating effect on ordinary people.

Mr. Zsoter is one of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who took out home loans that must be repaid in Swiss francs or other foreign currencies like the euro. Such loans offered seductively low interest rates when times were good. But then the Hungarian currency plunged, causing Mr. Zsoter’s monthly payment to almost double.

“I live day to day,” Mr. Zsoter said. After defaulting on his loan, he pays 40,000 forints, or about $163, out of his monthly pension of 51,000 forints to stay in his modest Budapest apartment as a renter. “Sometimes I have to choose between buying either food or medicine,” he said.

Hungary serves as a cautionary tale for those who argue that Greece could regain competitiveness by reintroducing its currency. The drachma would plunge against the euro, the theory goes, and allow Greek products to compete on price with countries like Turkey.

So if Viktor Orban is facing intractable economic problems, why not scapegoat Syrian refugees or the Roma who have been the target of persecution for a number of years now? And meanwhile, the left that admires Putin would have all the reasons to back Orban who after all is sticking it to the EU.

According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, our species homo sapiens has a tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions like life and death or good and evil. This would likely explain the eagerness for so much of the left to divide the world between those forces aligned with the West and those with the East. Like a plot out of a Tolkien novel, the Evil West is always seeking ways to destroy the Good East. Instead of elves with bows and arrow, we have people like Pablo Escobar, Mike Whitney and Eric Draitser rallying around the “axis of resistance” to the fire-breathing dragons of the West. And god help any decent folk in the East who managed to get on the wrong side of an elite in their neck of the woods. Everybody had to understand that it was their half of the world, love it or leave it.

Ironically, Hungary was a symbol of this binary opposition way of thinking in 1956 when the population rose up over Russian domination. In the same way that sections of the left make all sorts of excuses for Assad today, the CP justified the invasion of Hungary in order to “defend socialism”.

But in fact it was Russian tanks that created the animosity in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary that made it possible for George Soros, NATO, the CIA and the US State Department to get a foothold. By reinforcing bureaucratic rule in the name of “socialism”, ordinary people began to think positively of its opposite. In the most extreme example, Ukrainians regarded Stephen Bandera as a hero for opposing Soviet domination even if he was a fascist.

The bottom line is that the encroachment of NATO at the doorstep of Russia is a direct outcome of the encroachment of the Red Army on nations throughout Eastern Europe.

There was one Communist who was able to see through the lies. The Daily Worker, the British CP newspaper with the same name as the American paper, sent Peter Fryer to Hungary in 1956 fully expecting him to write articles that echoed the party line that Russia needed to quell a CIA-inspired plot. In other words, he was expected to write the same kind of crap that Max Ajl, Patrick Higgins and Adam Johnson are writing about Syria today. But Fryer obeyed his conscience rather than party bosses and filed reports that any radical journalist would be proud of. You can read Peter Fryer’s “Hungarian Tragedy” here. This excerpt shows that it doesn’t take much effort to see the similarities between Hungary in 1956 and the Arab Spring in Syria in 2011, no matter how it has been slandered in places like Jacobin, WSWS.org, MRZine and elsewhere:

But the crowds spoke also to me of their lives in this small industrial town, of the long years of grinding poverty, without hope of improvement, of their hatred and fear of the AVH [Hungarian secret police]. ‘I get 700 forints a month,’ said one. ‘I only get 600.’ said another. [1] They were ill-dressed, the women and girls doing their pathetic best to achieve some faint echo of elegance. They spoke to me about the AVH men. ‘They were beasts, brutes, animals who had sold themselves to the Russians.’ ‘They called themselves Hungarians and they mowed our people down without hesitation!’ ‘We shan’t leave a single one of those swine alive – you’ll see.’ They asked me what the West was doing to help, and some asked outright for arms. I for one do not regard these as counterrevolutionaries. If after eleven years the working people, goaded beyond bearing, look to the West for succour, whose fault is that? If the Americans are guilty of seeking to foster counter-revolution with the Mutual Security Act, surely the Rákosis and the Gerös are a hundred times more guilty for providing the soil in which seeds sown by the Americans could grow.

There was a general movement in the direction of the hospital, where an immense crowd had gathered, clamouring more and more insistently with every minute that passed for Stefko to be brought out to them. The German journalist and I were admitted into the hospital, where we met the director’s wife and a French-speaking woman who had volunteered to help with the nursing. It was here that I got for the first time reasonably accurate figures of the number of wounded. There had been about 80 wounded brought here, of whom eleven had died, and about 80 had been taken to the hospital at Györ. The need for plasma and other medicaments was desperate if lives were to be saved and so was the need, said the director’s wife, to end the tumult outside. A deputation from the revolutionary committee was interviewing her husband to demand that Stefko be handed to the people.

A few minutes later the director was forced to give in, and we saw a stretcher carried by four men appear out of a hut in the hospital grounds. On it lay Stefko, wearing a blue shirt. His legs were covered by a blanket. His head was bandaged. He was carried close enough to me for me to have touched him. He was fully conscious, and he knew quite well what was going to happen to him. His head turned wildly from side to side and there was spittle round his mouth. As the crowd saw the stretcher approaching they sent up a howl of derision and anger and hatred. They climbed the wire fence and spat at him and shouted ‘murderer’. They pushed with all their might at the double gates, burst them open and surged in. The stretcher was flung to the ground, and the crowd was upon Stefko, kicking and trampling. Relations of those he had murdered were, they told me, foremost in this lynching. It was soon over. They took the body and hanged it by the ankles for a short time from one of the trees in the Lenin Street. Ten minutes afterwards only a few people were left outside the hospital.

I wrote later in my first, unpublished, dispatch:

After eleven years the incessant mistakes of the Communist leaders, the brutality of the State Security Police, the widespread bureaucracy and mismanagement, the bungling, the arbitrary methods and the lies have led to total collapse. This was no counter-revolution, organised by fascists and reactionaries. It was the upsurge of a whole people, in which rank-and-file Communists took part, against a police dictatorship dressed up as a Socialist society – a police dictatorship backed up by Soviet armed might.

I am the first Communist journalist from abroad to visit Hungary since the revolution started. And I have no hesitation in placing the blame for these terrible events squarely on the shoulders of those who led the Hungarian Communist Party for eleven years – up to and including Ernö Gerö They turned what could have been the outstanding example of people’s democracy in Europe into a grisly caricature of Socialism. They reared and trained a secret police which tortured all – Communists as well as nonCommunists – who dared to open their mouths against injustices. It was a secret police which in these last few dreadful days turned its guns on the people whose defenders it was supposed to be.

I wrote this under the immediate impact of a most disturbing and shattering experience, but I do not withdraw one word of it. Much of the rest of the dispatch was never received in London because the call was cut off after twenty minutes, and the first ten had been taken up by three different people giving me contradictory instructions as to the ‘line’ I should take. Mick Bennett insisted on reading me a long extract from a resolution of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. I had had enough of resolutions. I had seen where eleven years of terror and stupidity had led Hungary, and I wanted to tell the readers of the Daily Worker the plain unvarnished truth, however painful it might be. But the readers of the Daily Worker were not to be told the truth. The day after I had sent this dispatch they were reading only about ‘gangs of reactionaries’ who were ‘beating Communists to death in the streets’ of Budapest. The paper admitted in passing that ‘some reports claimed that only identified representatives of the former security police were being killed’. Next day Hungary disappeared altogether from the Daily Worker’s front page.

August 5, 2015


Filed under: Italy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 1:11 am

Palmiro Togliatti

Jacobin has an article by Stathis Kouvelakis drawing a balance sheet on the recent Greek events. I plan to be writing something on Greece before too long but will limit myself to something Kouvelakis wrote incidental to Greece that I found quite troubling:

The transitional program is also organically linked — this is something we learn from the inheritance of the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International and the subsequent elaboration by Gramsci and Togliatti [link] — to the goal of the united front, the rallying of all the forces of the block of the subordinated classes at a higher political and strategic level. It was this unifying approach implicit in the idea of a “government of the anti-austerity left” that fired the imagination of broad masses in spring 2012, enabling Syriza’s rise.

Togliatti? Transitional program? WTF?

The link in the quote above directs you to another Jacobin article about Togliatti written by Peter D. Thomas who apparently thinks that Perry Anderson was a bit off on Western Marxism, especially by including Gramsci. I don’t think that Anderson was off at all by claiming that the Gramsci industry in academia represents a detour into cultural studies but let’s leave that aside for the time being.

What I don’t get is Thomas and Kouvelakis’s enthusiasm for Togliatti, especially the latter’s linking him to transitional demands unless he is talking about something totally unrelated to Trotsky’s writings.

Meanwhile here’s Thomas on Togliatti:

I also think that Marxist theory in this period needs to be understood integrally and politically, that is, not simply in terms of theoretical productions (essays, books, etc.), but also in terms of the political impact of theoretical work. In that sense, the greatest Western Marxist theorist of the postwar period is not Sartre or Althusser or Colletti or any of the other figures discussed at length by Anderson, but instead, Palmiro Togliatti.

In addition to his own theoretical writings — of much greater value than is often supposed today — Togliatti was also a theoretician of politics engaged in creating a hegemonic apparatus that encouraged a profound and real dialectic and real critique of the politics of his period.

Whatever disagreements I might have with his substantive theoretical and political positions — and there are many — this should not preclude acknowledgment of his real importance as a theorist and politician with a real, mass impact on the politics of his time. The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.

All I can say is that if you are interested in the role of the CP in Italian politics, you are better off reading Paul Ginsborg’s “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” than this balderdash because after all you have to judge socialists on their deeds much more than their “theory”.

Paul Ginsborg:

In another area, the party’s attitude to the Soviet Union, mystification prevailed. In the 1950s the P C I was characterized by its Stalinism. At the most straightforward level this meant a slavish adulation of ‘Baffone’ himself. In Rinascita of 1948, reviewing Stalin’s work on the national question (of all things), Lucio Lombardo Radice had this to say: ‘Creative Marxist that he is, Stalin is not only a scholar of genius who analyses political and historical problems in the light of Marxist principles; he is certainly this, but he is above all the great revolutionary, the great builder who analyses relations in order to transform them, who studies problems in order to resolve them.'” On the occasion of Stalin’s seventieth birthday Togliatti wrote: ‘The role that Stalin has played in the development of human thought is such that he has earned himself a place which until now very few have occupied in the history of humanity.’

When the news reached Italy of Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Communist Party went into mourning. L’Unita’s headline of 6 March read: ‘The man who has done most for the liberation of the human race is dead’ The party’s grief extended to its lowest levels. Natoli has described how in the party sections of the poorest Roman borgate photographs of Stalin were surrounded by flowers and candles and local militants sat around as if commemorating a saint.42

As well as elevating Stalin into a father-figure of superhuman proportions, the party portrayed the Soviet Union as a society where the problems of democracy and social justice had been definitively resolved. In L’ Unitet of 2 February 1952 Mario Alicata wrote from Russia that ‘this is the first country in the history of the world in which all men are finally free’.43 As late as March 1956 we find Luigi Longo insisting that unemployment had been completely abolished in all the socialist countries, that wages and living conditions were constantly improving and that the ordinary working day was being reduced to seven or even six hours.'”

However, the most insidious elements of Stalinism were not the aberrant judgements on Stalin himself or the Soviet Union, but the attitudes that permeated the life and activity of the party at home. The tradition of uncritical adulation of leaders was only too easily transferred to Italy, where Togliatti seemed happy to allow absurd tributes to be paid to him by lesser comrades and exaggerated stories of his role in the early history of the P C I to be published in the party press.45 The habit developed, and even the finest brains in the P C I like Amendola and Ingrao indulged in it, of citing the writings of the historic leaders of the party, Gramsci and Togliatti, as if they were biblical texts to serve as sermons of the day.

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 9, 2015

Monthly Review’s split personality

Filed under: Greece,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:57 am

Monthly Review is one of the most important institutions of the left in the USA dating back to 1949 when two veterans of the Henry Wallace campaign decided that a new magazine was needed. One was Paul Sweezy, who I had the good fortune to meet over “brown bag luncheons” at MR’s offices about 20 years ago; the other was F.O. Matthiessen, the Harvard literary critic.

For a number of years I considered myself quite close to the magazine and its book-publishing wing, writing numerous articles hailing the ecosocialist analysis of John Bellamy Foster who assumed the directorship of MR after Harry Magdoff’s death.

All that came to an end when MR launched a online publication called MRZine and gave the job of editor to Yoshie Furuhashi, a one-time subscriber to Marxmail, PEN-L, and LBO-Talk, arguably the three most well-known mailing lists of the left. At one point or another she unsubbed from the three lists after deciding that the hostility toward her idol Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unbearable. Furuhashi, who was a relative newcomer to the left with a scanty publication record either in scholarly or popular journals, had come to the bizarre conclusion that Iran was “more socialist” than Venezuela. Her reviews were so at odds with both Marxism and common sense that a group of Iranian Marxists wrote an open letter blasting MRZine for publishing apologetics for Ahmadinejad’s dictatorship in 2006. Three years later Barbara Epstein resigned in protest from MR’s editorial board over the same issues.

I blame John Mage for imposing Furuhashi on the left. Mage, whose publication record is as meager as hers, is on the MR editorial board mostly tied to his custodianship of the MR foundation. Before his retirement he was an attorney representing the USSR in the USA and a member of the Lawyer’s Guild. As far as I know he fully supports Furuhashi’s mad ideological agenda. One imagines that Foster probably does not, although he obviously defers to Mage on personnel questions. Considering the fact that MR fired Ellen Meiksins Wood after a brief tenure running the book department and has allowed Furuhashi’s grotesque politics to be disseminated for over a decade, there is obviously poor judgment over these matters.

As opposed to Foster, Mage and Furuhashi, Michael Yates, who runs the book-publishing department, is a paragon of Marxist principle. It is reassuring that many people on the left who have grown disgusted with MRZine are smart enough to figure out that his sure hand keeps the publishing wing moored to the planet earth.

Lately MRZine has gone full-tilt-boogie on behalf of the KKE, the sectarian Stalinist party in Greece that refused to support Syriza after the fashion of the German CP’s disastrous “third period” policy in the 1920s, when it failed to make a distinction between social democracy and Nazism.

On almost a daily basis you can find tweets on MRZine linked to toxic attacks on Syriza, concentrated most frequently on finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Apparently Varoufakis passed muster with Furuhashi before he became part of the Greek government since she had published three of his articles, the latest appearing in 2012. But since Syriza took office, there has been nothing but vitriol.

The book department apparently has a different take on the finance minister based on this press release:

On January 25, 2015, the left-wing party, SYRIZA, won a stunning victory in Greece’s national elections. The new government, which says it intends to end the debilitating austerity measures forced upon Greece by the European Union, announced that the new Finance Minister is Yanis Varoufakis, a noted economist and good friend of Monthly Review (and MR author). We wish him well and trust that, unlike most economists, he will put his superb skills to work on behalf of the long-suffering Greek people and, indeed, all those oppressed by the policies imposed by the ruling classes of the European Union and United States.

MRZine’s ongoing campaign against Syriza mostly takes the form of tweets that reflect the POV of the KKE. Today you can find one linked to the blog In Defense of Greek Workers that makes an amalgam between Syriza and Golden Dawn. The blog is a bit of an oddity since it is written in English even though it is almost exclusively about Greek issues and obviously written by a Greek. The best way to describe it is as a scandal sheet aimed at Syriza. One can conclude that the bloggers behind it are very close to the MRZine’s addled sensibility since they were furious over Syriza’s support for the Syrian uprising against the Baathist goons. Frankly I was pleasantly surprised that despite Syriza’s tendency to support the Kremlin on Ukraine, it had the good sense to refer to the “barbaric regime” in Damascus. Good for Syriza, I’d say.

Let’s take a look at the case against Syriza on the Golden Dawn question. To start with, the In Defense of Greek Workers article includes a formulation that reeks of the German CP’s “third period”:

There is also the directly related question of whether SYRIZA and Golden Dawn really represent a clear, mutually exclusive choice. Is political reality in Greece interpretable in terms of the dilemma “SYRIZA or Golden Dawn” or is it rather that there is no dilemma, that the real formula for how capitalist power exercises itself at present in the country is in fact “SYRIZA and Golden Dawn”?

This is really quite something, not being able to distinguish between Syriza and Golden Dawn.

The main charge specifically is that Syriza has stood up for the right of Golden Dawn to function as a political party, including the right of its elected officials to serve in parliament. Before Syriza took power, the New Democracy had been cracking down on Golden Dawn—something Syriza objected to. The KKE-oriented blog complained:

On May 8 2014, SYRIZA MP Nikos Voutsis, speaking in an interview with the Real-fm radio station, returned to the issue of the imprisonment of Golden Dawn MPs and stated that the evidence the Greek state had collected against them was laughably inadequate and “had no chance” in court.

For a more sensible analysis of Syriza’s stand on such matters, I refer you to David Renton’s “lives; running” blog, where his latest article delves mostly into the bloc Syriza made with ANEL but includes some commentary on the Golden Dawn stance that is markedly more balanced than the one cited by MRZine:

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

Needless to say, this is an attempt to understand Syriza rather than to sling mud at it. Syriza is in a very difficult position in Greece and trying to navigate a path forward against much more powerful forces–no easy matter as Renton reminds us:

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

I can’t recommend Renton’s blog highly enough. This socialist scholar first came to my attention more than a decade ago when I learned that he shared my admiration for Harry Braverman, the co-leader of the Socialist Union with Bert Cochran. Braverman eventually ended up at Monthly Review after the “Cochranites” dissolved their organization in 1959. In an article titled “Against Management: Harry Braverman’s Marxism”, Renton writes:

If the American Socialist Workers’ Party was unable to understand the tensions within the Communist Party, then this was the sign of its sectarianism, which prevented the Trotskyists from becoming a real force on the US left. After the 1953 split, Braverman left the SWP and joined Cochran’s group, the Socialist Union. He worked on their paper, first titled the Educator and later the American Socialist for five years, until the paper was closed down. Later, he allied himself with the magazine, Monthly Review, whose contributors were drawn from a milieu of Maoists and former fellow-travellers of the American CP. It was also at this time that Braverman dropped the pseudonym, Frankel. Braverman remained a supporter of the Monthly Review until his death in 1976, holding to the gut class feeling, but also the political black spots of the orthodox Trotskyist legacy which had helped to shaped him.

When MRZine was first launched, the best hope was that it would have been an outlet for people like David Renton, a serious thinker who was capable of seeing political questions in their full dialectical complexity. It is really most unfortunate that it has become the playpen of Yoshie Furuhashi who like so many sectarians is not only uncomfortable with complexity but is susceptible to the kind of cartoonish reductionism that has tainted Stalinism since its birth in the 1920s.


November 13, 2014

Roland Boer: having his cake and eating it too

Filed under: Academia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

My first reaction to Roland Boer getting the Isaac Deutscher Prize was one of shock, since Boer’s pro-Stalin blogging is antithetical to what Deutscher stood for, even if some Trotskyists—James P. Cannon in particular—viewed him as soft on Stalin.

In his comment on my last post, Boer stated that I am “missing even the slightest sense of humour.” I am not exactly sure what the joke is about but perhaps Boer’s blog is really a big put-on. He does say:

Do I want to rehabilitate Stalin, who was more ambiguous than the popular conception would have it? That is up to the reader to decide, although – in case the quirkiness of Australian humour is not obvious already – one should never take what is written here too seriously. Like Lenin’s jutting chin of history, I suspect that one of Stalin’s greatest achievements was that amazing moustache.

Well, it is up to the reader to decide and I decided long ago that Boer is a Stalinist. Probably the best evidence for that is that when comments appear under his posts cheering him on for defending Stalin, he has never once said anything like “Er, mate, I was only kidding.”

Plus, when Boer writes for other publications the smirk tends to disappear from his face and the Stalinism oozes forth unabashedly. For example, in an article titled “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative” for the Philosophers for Change website, he makes the case for Bulgarian Communism, advising his readers that the dictator Todor Zhivkov was a gentle and permissive leader who did wonders for his people. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be a Turk. Wikipedia, which is generally deferential to Zhivkov, reports:

In December 1984, Todor Zhivkov began a campaign of forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, most notably forcing all Turks to take Bulgarian names. By 1989, resistance to this policy led to riots, which resulted in multiple deaths. In May 1989, Zhivkov suddenly granted permission of all Turks to leave the country, which led to over 300 thousand emigrating to Turkey within three months.

I imagine that this would not perturb an admirer of Stalin and/or his mustache; the tyrant was quite adept at ethnic cleansing and no friend of Muslims.

Getting back to the Deutscher prize, I can only surmise that the judges have no idea that “Stalin’s Moustache” exists. Like many academics, their emphasis is on print rather than the net. Plus, you’d have to assume that Boer’s books on Marxism and theology have zero to say about Stalin. From the little I have seen from Boer on that topic, mostly on MRZine, I found them unobjectionable but not particularly useful in terms of understanding religion from a historical materialist perspective. Boer is mostly interested in how early Christians were communist. But above all, Boer’s focus is on ideas.

Typical is “Religion and Political Thought: Introduction”, an article he wrote for “Political Theology Today”.

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology.

Boer has received five grants from the Australian Research Council, a branch of the Australian government that advises it “on emerging issues and strategic policy challenges.” Well, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? Blogging on behalf of Joseph Stalin and getting handouts from a government think-tank. What a marvelous combination that certainly makes Max Horkheimer’s observation seem quaint by comparison: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”


October 1, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive 2014 Human Rights Documentary Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Last night I saw “Red Father” and “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” at the Institute Cervantes in New York, two of the entries in “Impugning Impunity”, theAbraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA) Human Rights Documentary Film Festival that ends today. Based on the quality of what I saw yesterday, you might want to take advantage of today’s screening of documentaries on the impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouins and on the activist break-in at FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 that led to the exposure of the Cointelpro. Scheduling information is here: http://www.alba-valb.org/programs/human-rights-film-festival/

It is no secret that the  ALBA, like most projects with such a provenance, has a solid base of support in the Communist Party and its periphery. As I gazed about the audience waiting for “Red Father” to begin, I felt young again by comparison. The average age appeared to be about 75 and most probably went through the experience at one time or another of selling the Daily Worker.

Despite this, Tova Beck-Friedman’s film was a searching examination of what it meant to be a life-long Communist and not at all an exercise in feel-good nostalgia like the documentaries “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight” that featured Spanish Civil War veterans like Bill Bailey. As much as I loved those films, I was glad to see the CP rendered accurately, warts and all.

“Red Father”, however, did not demonize the CP. In its portrait of Bernard Ades (pronounced ay-dis), a Jew from a wealthy family who grew up in Baltimore and joined the party shortly after the Great Depression began, was simultaneously the best and the worst of his generation. A man of extraordinary principle and courage, he became an attorney dedicated to defending the African-American poor against a racist judicial system, including its ultimate weapon, the lynch mob.

This article from the November 28, 1931 newsweekly “The African-American” documents the case that is at the heart of “Red Father” and shows him demonstrating the mettle that convinced many Black Americans that the CP was their best friend in the struggle against racism.

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 1.43.52 PM

Seven years later he ended up fighting in Spain against Franco’s counter-revolutionary army, once again showing great courage and dedication to the cause.

Throughout the 1930s, the party was at its height. If you didn’t bother paying close attention to the Trotskyist press, the USSR and its allies could easily be seen as the saviors of humanity. Indeed, it was exactly such a messianic belief that led party members like Bernard Ades to stick with the party until the bitter end, even after it became common knowledge that Jews were victims of discrimination in Russia and that the “socialism” being built had little to do with the democratic aspirations of the communist movement through most of its history.

As a sympathizer of the CP and a member of a youth group in its periphery, Ben Ades’s daughter Janet, who is featured prominently in the film and who spoke during a Q&A after its screening, had the misfortune to get romantically entwined with a comrade who had visited Hungary shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and was shocked to see elementary socialist principles trampled underfoot. When Janet began repeating what she heard from her boyfriend, her father was chagrined enough to enroll her in a study group that was meant to cure her of bad ideas.

In the Q&A, Janet Ades was crystal-clear about her respect for her father’s dedication and for the need for social justice. What she would not accept, however, was the CP’s military like discipline that forced its members to go along with every twist and turn, always accepting the Kremlin’s word as if it were the Vatican. Indeed, like all members of religious sects, the practice of shunning was used to enforce a monolithic culture.

She added that it was not just the CP that had such a suffocating atmosphere. She alluded to a young man she met in a hospital once whose first name was Karl. Out of curiosity, she asked if he was named after Karl Marx. He laughed and said yes, proceeding to tell her his life story. His father was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Utah who had made a mistake like hers taking up the cause of Hungarian workers. She did not mention what got Karl’s father shunned, but eventually he left the movement in disgust. I commented from the floor that I probably knew his father since he was one of hundreds who had to put up with shunning in the SWP, a party that was created as an alternative to the “bad” CP.

I am not sure where or when this eye-opening documentary will be shown again but will make sure to let you know about it in advance. Educational institutions can purchase it from Dark Hollow films for the customarily prohibitive price. http://www.darkhollowfilms.com/our-films

Finally, I recommend Dan La Botz’s article on the film that appeared on New Politics.  Dan concludes and I concur:

This well-done documentary will be of particular interest to those who want to better understand the history of the Communist Party of the United States and international Communism, as well as to those interested in American Jewry. As a teacher of college courses in American History, I would certainly use it in my upper division classes. The film which is being independently distributed will be shown in the fall at the University of Minnesota Law School and to the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and in the week of November 10 at Baruch College of Performing Arts.

Pankaja Brooke’s “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” also deserves the widest viewing. Brooke went to Vietnam and interviewed a group of Vietnam veterans to returned there to atone for their misdeeds by getting involved in various projects that benefit a country still feeling the lingering effects of a genocidal war.

I was shocked to discover that over 100,000 people died as a result of stepping on unexploded landmines and bombs left over from a brutal war, also that over 3 million have suffered birth defects or illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. To her credit, Brooke spent time visiting clinics and orphanages devoted to caring for Agent Orange victims, whose care and treatment costs an economically devastated nation millions of dollars each year. If there was any justice, the USA should have paid reparations for the damage it did to people and to precious resources.

Fortunately, Brooke’s documentary can be seen on Vimeo and I recommend it strongly:


As a group, the Vietnam veterans—all about my age—show America at its best, just as Bernard Ades’s service in the cause of the Spanish Republic did. Next year I will be posting an announcement about the next ALBA film festival. The people who put it together should be commended for fighting the good fight as well. My recommendation is to visit their website (http://www.alba-valb.org/) and stay informed about this excellent resource for human rights and social justice.


September 19, 2014

A Gift to Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

fiks receptionOpening night reception for A Gift to Birobidzhan

fiks photoYevgeniy Fiks

For people who have been following the Unrepentant Marxist for the past few years, you are probably aware that I am a big fan of Yevgeniy Fiks, a post-Soviet Conceptual Artist I interviewed in 2012 and whose last show on the USSR’s mixed encounter on Black people I wrote about earlier this year.

Although Fiks is decidedly left-of-center, his art is not in the socialist realist tradition to say the least. His strategy is much more subversive. By “flanking” his subject, he defies pat interpretations of sexuality, race, imperialism, the former Soviet Union, and other topics that could inspire boring and didactic treatments.

Although I love everything that he does, my favorite “work” by Fiks was his “Lenin for your library”, a sly assault on corporate stupidity and humorlessness that was described on the Winkelman Gallery, where he has exhibited in the past, as follows:

100 copies of “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by V.I. Lenin were sent out to the addresses of World’s major corporations, including Gap, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM among many others. In an enclosed letter, it was stated that the book was a donation to the corporate library. Out of 100 copies, 14 were accepted and “thank you” letters were received. 20 copies were returned together with letters stating various reasons for rejection, including a particular focus of the library or their policy not to accept any gifts or donations from private individuals. The fate of the remaining 66 copies remains unknown.

It was the same spirit of playfulness, which might be described as a David Letterman gag geared to those who have read Tristan Tzara, Fiks conceived of A Gift to Birobidzhan, described in the initial publicity as follows:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

For those outside of New York City, you will be able to take a “virtual tour” of the exhibit here. Here’s a work that I kept coming back to:

VyDaVy, “JEWISH LUCK” (еврейское счастье), two 25”x32” laminated prints. Ink on paper, gold leaf, 2009

Jewish luck is Jewish luck. It is black or white. It comes and goes. But there is always something inside that stays forever

(If you would like to take a “real tour” of the exhibit, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will put you in touch with Yevgeniy.)

Finally, I should state that the show had a particular resonance for me as a Jew and as someone who has become particularly inflamed over ancillary questions. As a firm believer that Ukraine was to Russia as Ireland was to England—as Lenin once put it—I found the Kremlin demagogy about the existential threat to Jews posed by EuroMaidan obscene. Almost as obscene as the increasingly rabid defense of Israel’s war on Gaza and the McCarthyite attacks on pro-Palestinian professors, all in the name of defending “the Jewish homeland”. As I told Yevgeniy at the show, the Jews would have been much better off in the sparsely populated Birobidzhan than in Palestine, where carried out a wholesale expulsion of the indigenous population.

Eleven years ago I reviewed a documentary titled “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin”, long before blogs had been invented. I reproduce my article below along with a trailer for the film that can unfortunately not be seen online in all the usual places like Netflix. My advice is to track down a DVD from a research library. They don’t even have one in the Columbia University library. Good luck!

L’Chayim Comrade Stalin

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on February 3, 2003

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

It was not only Russian Jews who came to this remote, mosquito-infested region that was closer to Korea than to Moscow. IKOR, an international organization of Jewish Communists, actively recruited people in more or less the same manner as people were recruited to construction brigades in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A widow of an US electrician recounts the arduous journey that brought them to the desolate outpost with nothing but their clothes and a generator that her husband intended to bring on-line for the settlement. Like a 1930s version of martyred engineer Ben Linder who died from contra bullets, he understood that in the cold, rainy Siberian wilderness, electricity could dramatically improve the quality of life.

At its peak, Birobidzhan only included about 45,000 Jewish settlers. Most were poorer Jews from rural Byelorussia or the Ukraine, who were trained to cobble shoes (like my mother’s father) or make hats. The Soviet film shows a bearded Jew struggling and finally succeeding to yoke two oxen to a plow. This image evokes a long standing theme that falls under the general rubric of the “Jewish Question”. There is a tendency among early Zionist theorists and Marxists alike to explain Jewish weakness and isolation as a failure to develop the full range of skills and occupations found in society as a whole.

The absence of Jewish farming in particular spurred not only the agrarian colonizing efforts in Birobidzhan, it also led to similar efforts in my own Sullivan County in the 1800s. Farming experiments were an expression of the “Enlightenment” tendency in Judaism that also produced colonies in Argentina, New Jersey and Palestine. The very earliest farmers who settled in Palestine were not Zionists as much as they were agrarian socialists.

After the USSR allowed Jews to emigrate, most of Birobidzhan’s citizens flooded into Israel. Now there are only 17,000 left. Strom’s interviews with those who stayed behind are among the film’s most poignant moments. One elderly woman named Rivkele explains that she only speaks Russian nowadays and has almost forgotten her Yiddish, the official language of the Jewish Autonomous Region. She is also married to a Russian, as are her children. One gets the impression that such Jews are rapidly become assimilated in the same fashion as Jews elsewhere in the world, including the USA. Rather than having to worry about the secret police arresting a man for toasting a baby at a circumcision ritual for coming into the world as a Jew (an event that the documentary details), they have to worry more about the inexorable process of unfavorable demographics and the natural tendency of a secular society to erode particularistic customs and religious beliefs.

Although the economic changes in the post-Communist USSR have been largely negative (one interviewee spits out that “you can’t eat freedom”), they do include a cultural latitude that allows the remaining Jews in Birobidzhan to study their customs, re-familiarize themselves with Judaism and–most intriguingly–to learn Yiddish. Just as I studied Hebrew at the age of 11 and 12, these young Jews now study Yiddish, a dying language. During a Q&A session after the film, Strom hinted at the class/cultural divide between Hebrew and Yiddish. His own father had become an activist of the Hashomer Hatzoir, a left-leaning Zionist group that favored Hebrew, a language that presumably would sever all ties to the ghetto where Yiddish first arose. Meanwhile the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization that disavowed Zionism and linked Jewish emancipation with the emancipation of the working class in general, adopted Yiddish as its official language. They saw this language, with all its underdog associations, as the appropriate medium for a people seeking to abolish the underdog status once and for all.

I would only add that I regret not having learned Yiddish instead of Hebrew growing up. Not only is that language infinitely more expressive, it is rooted in the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than an artificial construct to recreate a Biblical state that some scholars, including many in Israel, believe never existed.

Yiddish, a mongrel language, perhaps expresses best the true cultural legacy of the Jewish people. As a people without their own distinct territory, they mix with and absorb local influences as well as influencing the gentile population that surrounds them. This has always seemed much more attractive to me than the idea of separating oneself from the unbeliever and erecting fences to maintain that purity.

Russian Jews have always embodied this kind of rich dialectical interpenetration. Recently I discovered that despite many flaws in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe,” there is still ongoing research that partially confirms his original thesis, namely that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia descended from the ancient Khazar kingdom in Turkey. Today, the evidence seems to point in the direction of a link not between all Jews in this area but a subgroup called the “Mountain Jews”, about whom I had knew nothing beforehand.

From www.khazaria.com, we learn about the cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews:

Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.

Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called “Khazar” after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.

Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: “As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham’s practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would… lavish on them the finest foods and spirits….” (p. 165-166)

Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were “many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews” (p. 167). Furthermore: “The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers…” (p. 168).

Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were “skilled horsemen and expert marksmen” (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).

Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.

Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a “house of kindness and charity” which helped poor and sick people.


This kind of cross-culturalism is truly inspiring. It is tragic that the holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions of Jews, who lived in a similar kind of cultural gumbo, it also unleashed an experiment in ethnic purity that has brought nothing but misery to the people it displaced and an embrace of militarism and chauvinism that were alien to traditional Jewish society, either secular or fundamentalist.

These, at least, are my reactions to Yale Strom’s first-rate documentary. What others are stirred to think will largely be a function of the beliefs that they bring with them when they see the film. At the very least, his film will act as a catalyst on the mind and on the heart. Highly recommended.

Swarthmore website on the Jewish Autonomous Region: http://birobidzhan.swarthmore.edu/

March 23, 2014

Snapshots of Crimean Tatar history

Filed under: Crimean Tatars,national question,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Katherine the Great, Stalin and Putin: cut from the same cloth as far as the Crimean Tatars are concerned

Back in 1966 I signed up for group therapy with Louise Potts, an “art therapist” in her 70s who a number of Bard graduates had begun to see. I was in the same group as Daniel Pinkwater, an art major who became famous for his witty children’s books and NPR commentaries. Pinkwater lived in a loft next to my building in Hoboken and we used to spend a lot of time hanging out.

I stopped going to see Mrs. Potts after my post-Bard depression had lifted. When they said that the “real world” was different from Bard, they weren’t kidding. Breaking up with my girlfriend and facing the draft made the adjustment to living alone in NYC and studying philosophy at the New School an even bigger challenge.

I have vivid memories of the therapy sessions in which after scribbling something on a big sheet of paper you were expected to fill it in as recognizable drawing. Supposedly this was the equivalent of a waking dream (not that the interpretation of dreams ever made much difference in “curing” a neurotic.)

Daniel’s drawings always made mine look crude by comparison. Eventually he was eclipsed by another art major, a woman in her early 20s named Lily. She was a Crimean Tatar who had suffered the lot of a “displaced person” throughout the 50s after her parents had been expelled from her homeland. Mrs. Potts believed that Lily’s depression had a lot to do with her family situation even though it had stabilized after they moved to the USA.

Two years later I was in the SWP and reading about the suffering of the Tatars in Intercontinental Press, a magazine edited by Joe Hansen that covered the activities of Russian dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko, a decorated WWII hero of Ukrainian descent. As punishment for his advocacy of Crimean Tatar rights, including repatriation into their homeland, he was stripped of his military rank, privileges and pension and then sent to a mental hospital for two years. In 1971, a Jewish psychiatrist Dr. Semyon Gluzman wrote a report finding Grigorenko sane and concluding that his hospitalization was a form of repression. For his efforts, Gluzman was rewarded with seven years in labor camp and then three years in Siberian exile. Unlike Joe Hansen and the SWP, most people on the Maoist left backed the Soviet bureaucrats for the same sorts of reasons so many “anti-imperialists” are backing Putin today. If imperialism was applauding Grigorenko’s efforts, that was reason enough to jail him in a mental hospital and to make any psychiatrist pay dearly for a report that deemed the General sane.

Mostly as a way of familiarizing myself with Tatar history, I speed read Alan Fisher’s “The Crimean Tatars”, one of the few authoritative books on the topic. As it turns out, the Tatars are a Turkic people—something that makes me even more sympathetic to them since I have a great affection for the average Turk as opposed to the problematic leadership they have endured for a hundred years or so.

The Tatars settled into the Crimean peninsula back in the fourteenth century under a so-called khanate. Their first great leader was a man named Haci Giray who created an independent state that relied heavily on Ottoman support. Giray was a descendant of Genghis Khan but was far more similar to the more settled and urban character of the Ottoman rulers than the Mongol Golden Horde of nomad conquerors. For example, Giray lived in a castle that was like a smaller version of the Topkapi rather than a tent.

As was the case in the Ottoman Empire proper, non-Muslims conducted business, trading, shipping, and personal finance under Tatar rule and paid a tax for these privileges. And as was typical as well, the non-Muslim enjoyed a level of freedom and tolerance that was remarkable for the age. Fisher reports that Karaim Jews spoke a Turkic language, lived according to Turkic traditions, and even sang purely Turkic songs.

This was by no means a paradise but life generally went well for the citizens for a couple of hundred years until Russia developed an interest in the region. Katherine the Great, a relatively enlightened Czarina, decided to annex Crimea in the same empire-building spirit that led her to launch incursions into the southern Caucasus territories. You can get an idea of the changes in Crimean demographics from this chart that appears in Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.13.06 PM

The Tatars are green, the Ukrainians yellow and the Russians red. So clearly what has happened from the time of Katherine the Great (the late 1700s) throughout the 19th century is a dramatic removal of the Tatars from their homeland. The slight uptick in green toward the far right of the graph reflects the repatriation victory won by the Crimean Tatars. The question, of course, is whether this was similar to Stalin’s wholesale expulsion or something less genocidal.

It was less genocidal but by no means benign. How could emigration ever be benign, after all? As is so often the case, the Russians opted to bring Crimea under its control by using a puppet, in this instance a khan named Sahin Giray. After instituting some reforms intended to “Westernize” the khanate, and deeply unpopular with the masses—including being subject to the Russian military draft—Giray was put under house arrest in St. Petersburg.

Once Crimea was annexed, Katherine began colonizing the region with non-Muslims. This was partly responsible for the demographic changes. There were also reasons for the Tatars to flee, particularly in the period following the Crimean war when Russia was defeated by a coalition of armies including the Ottomans and the British. Despite Russia’s loss, many Tatars fled, especially the elites, because of a fear that there would be reprisals against them even though many fought courageously for the Czardom.

Just as would happen in the Middle East under Zionist colonization, non-Tatars were lured into settling in Crimea with cash awards and the mass expulsions of Tatar peasants.

By 1917, the Tatars constituted only 30 percent of the Crimean peninsula. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks claimed that it favored the self-determination of oppressed nationalities, the tumult of the civil war made it difficult to put this into practice.

In 1921 Lenin wrote a comrade:

In all autonomous republics, the Tatar Republic in this case, there are two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars): one of them takes the standpoint of class struggle and works for further class differentiation of the sections of the native population, and the other has a shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism….

The petty-bourgeois nationalism is an obvious reference to the preference for SR and Menshevik politicians among the Tatars, a most unfortunate choice given the polarization following October 1917.

Celebi Cihan was one such “petty bourgeois nationalist”. As leader of the Milli Farka Party, he spoke for its key demands: nationalization of the church and private property, opposition to the conservative clergy, breaking off contacts with the Russian liberals, and closer cooperation with the Russian social democracy.

Despite these sympathies, the Milli Farka was considered an enemy of Soviet power. In February 1918, the Chekha arrested Cehin and put him in front of a firing squad. Afterwards they threw his body into the Black Sea. And this was during the “heroic” period of Communist rule. It should be mentioned that the Bolshevik heading up such repression was none other than Bela Kuhn, the man who also helped to sabotage the German revolution.

It was such actions that led some of the Tatars to collaborate with the German contingent that was part of the invasion force fighting alongside the White Army, just as they would collaborate with the Nazis during WWII.

In a bold attempt to reverse the disastrous policies being pursued by Bela Kuhn, the Soviet Union created an autonomous socialist republic for the Crimean Tatars in 1923 and had the good sense to put Veli Ibramihov in charge. Ibramihov had been a member of the left wing of the Milli Farka and had evolved toward Bolshevik politics. Ibramihov followed a number of enlightened policies:

  • Crimean Tatars were elevated into responsible positions in the autonomous republic’s government.
  • “War Communism” policies that severely affected Tatar peasants were reversed.
  • Tatarization would be implemented on all levels, including the reopening of Tatar-language schools, scientific institutes, museums, libraries and theaters.

Despite Ibramihov’s nationalist leanings, he never for one minute displayed secessionist tendencies. He and the Crimean Tatar people had the misfortune to have encountered Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism just a few years after these policies were adopted. In 1927 Stalin decided to create an autonomous Jewish republic in the south of Crimea that would be seeded with 3500 “colonists” who would displace the Tatars. (I have written with some pleasure about this kind of project in another part of the USSR. At the time I had not considered the possible collateral damage to the indigenous population.)

After Ibramihov wrote a letter to Stalin complaining about the abridgement of Tatar rights, he was arrested on the charge of being a “bourgeois nationalist” and executed on May 9, 1928.

In my view, there is a red thread that runs from Katherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea, to Kuhn and Stalin’s repression, to Putin’s annexation once again of Crimea. He is basically reprising Katherine’s colonizing tendencies while justifying it in the name of “anti-imperialism” in faux Bolshevik style.

Long-time British Trotskyist (but of a very benign nature) Murray Smith has written a useful article (http://links.org.au/node/3773) that makes the Putin/Romanov connection (Katherine the Great was of course a Romanov). It is about Putin’s desire to reconstitute the traditional Great Russian hegemony over that part of the world even if it has to be realized over the dead bodies of lesser nationalities. Here is Smith:

In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.

And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it’s true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.

When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.

The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).


February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/

February 26, 2014

Ukraine, Stalin, Hitler, and the American liberal

Filed under: Fascism,Stalinism,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Famine: Collecting corpses in a village in eastern Ukraine, 1933

It has been a long time since I considered the contradictions of Ukrainian history but the widespread belief that Ukraine is about to become the modern-day equivalent of the Third Reich is evidence that many on the left have little interest in the beleaguered nation’s history.

Furthermore, I continue to be amazed by the failure of some leftists to put rightwing Ukrainian nationalism in context, as if the toppling of Lenin statues was prima facie evidence of the need to have backed the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. For such people the fact that President Putin backed him was grounds in and of itself to oppose the protest movement, as if neoliberal Russia had anything to do with the USSR.

For many Ukrainians, the USSR was an oppressor. Like other nations promised self-determination in the early days of the Russian Revolution, it soon discovered that Stalin had plans to reinstitute Czarist domination under the guise of building socialism. In a 1939 article titled “Problem of the Ukraine”, Leon Trotsky summed up the relationship between the Kremlin and its vassal state:

The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence. To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight and to force it to chant paeans in the language of Kobzar to the rapist clique in the Kremlin.

The Kobzar, by the way, were traditional Ukrainian poet-musicians who were forced to perform pro-Stalin songs.

That, of course, was not the greatest offense, nor was the de facto imposition of Russian language on a subject people. What sears in Ukrainian memories was the 1932-33 famine that was the inevitable outcome of forced collectivization. By some estimates, the number of deaths was as great as 7.5 million.

For unabashed fans of Stalin like Grover Furr, the famine as hoax looms large as a talking point—on the same plane as the guilt of Leon Trotsky as a Nazi spy. On his website he has a Village Voice article from 1988 by Jeff Coplon titled “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right” that I would hardly use as an excuse for Stalin worship, considering its admission that:

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possibly one or two million, Ukrainians died — the minority from starvation, the majority from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffering. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.

Yet, the general thrust of the article was to justify Stalin’s acts as necessary for the country’s great leap forward using the old “you need to break some eggs to make an omelet” argument:

In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move towards socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thousands of party activists assassinated.

I doubt that Coplon was sufficiently versed in Soviet history to understand that forced collectivization had such an adverse effect on the economy that some experts count this as a major impetus to perestroika, the policy that would eventually lead to the collapse of the USSR. This was Coplon’s first and last excursion into Soviet history. Mostly his archive consists of articles about rodeos, basketball, etc.

In terms of whether there was a “genocide” or not, clearly there was not if your understanding of the term is based on Hitler’s systematic murder of Jews, men, women and children alike, merely for the crime of being Jewish. But most genocides are not like this. Indeed, some are associated with nation-building efforts that the dominant group deems a necessary evil, like Andrew Jackson’s “trail of tears” that left the Cherokees on the verge of extinction or the Turkish removal of the Armenians from their territory, seen by most Turks as a defensive measure against imperialism.

The one thing that caught my eye in Copol’s article, my first reading of the piece since it came out 36 years ago, was the invocation of the authority of the N.Y. Times reporter Walter Duranty, an early exponent of Coplon’s brand of revisionism. His critics, like Robert Conquest, were guilty of “red-baiting”. Now I am the last person on earth to take Conquest as an authority on Soviet history but this is the same Walter Duranty who told N.Y. Times readers that the Moscow Trials were legitimate.

Coplon identifies one Robert Green as a major figure in the Ukraine famine hoax. He was “a phony journalist and escaped convict who provided famine material to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935.” Just to make sure that his Village Voice readers were as impressed with the N.Y. Times’s apparent support of his argument, he invokes a publication whose liberal credentials were as authentic as the Village Voice’s: the Nation Magazine. He writes that “Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935.”

He fails to mention, however, that the Nation’s ace reporter covering the Soviet Union was none other than Louis Fischer, a long-time Stalinist who initially started out expressing deep concern over the impact of forced collectivization but by 1933 had swung over totally to backing the Kremlin.

His May 2, 1934 article charmingly titled “The Tragedy of Trotzky” will give you a flavor of how he saw things:

One must judge the actual situation in the U. S. S. R. And a dispassionate study has to yield this verdict: notwithstanding the horrible cancer of bureaucracy which robs the Soviet organism of much of its spiritual vitality, the destruction of the kulaks, the agrarian collectives, costly in organization and imperfect in operation though they have been, the state industries with all their inefficiency, and the huge mass of new construction are tremendous anti- capitalist facts. They also represent seven-league strides toward socialism.

By 1945 Fischer had become disillusioned by Stalin and decided to quit the Nation over editor Freda Kirchwey’s continuing infatuation with the Soviet tyrant. He would go on to write a chapter in the “God that Failed” collection alongside Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and others. He also taught Soviet studies at Princeton until his death in 1970.

It seems that Russophile habits die hard at the Nation. Stephen A. Cohen, the husband of editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and a long-time Sovietologist now teaching at NYU, has worked himself into quite a lather over events in the Ukraine. Although he has not written anything about the Ukraine, he has been popping up on radio and television to make points that will be familiar to anybody who has been reading Global Research or Moon of Alabama. On Democracy Now, he rambled on–a bit incoherently in my view:

So what Obama needs to say is, “We deplore what the people in the streets are doing when they attack the police, the law enforcement official. And we also don’t like the people who are writing on buildings ‘Jews live here,'” because these forces, these quasi-fascist forces—let’s address this issue, because the last time I was on your broadcast, you found some guy somewhere who said there was none of this there. All right. What percent are the quasi-fascists of the opposition? Let’s say they’re 5 percent. I think they’re more, but let’s give them the break, 5 percent. But we know from history that when the moderates lose control of the situation, they don’t know what to do. The country descends in chaos.

Who knows? Maybe the stream-of-consciousness on display in his remarks above and his failure to write much about the unfolding events indicates a flagging intellect, one that might very well have precipitated his descent from the august environs of Princeton to lowly NYU.

Now in terms of the fascism question, nobody can deny that there are forces in the Ukraine that can be described by that label. To some extent, this is part and parcel of tendencies throughout the former Soviet empire. How Cohen can wring his hands over their presence in the Ukraine but ignore them in Russia constitutes something of a mystery. In 2005, the BBC reported that 19 Russian parliamentarians lent their names to a letter addressed to the country’s prosecutor general. It compared Judaism to Satanism, accused Jews of ritual murder and called for all Jewish organizations in Russia to be investigated and banned.

There’s also the undeniable fact that many Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the Nazi invasion.

John A. Armstrong describes the collaboration between Nazis and Ukrainiab nationalists  in “Ukrainian Nationalism 1939-1945”:

Local Ukrainian nationalists, most of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists], were organized and excited to more extreme action by OUN leaders who had been living as émigrés in Germany and who had been dispatched to the Carpatho-Ukraine by the OUN directory on the advice of the German intelligence service. A major part of their activities was devoted to forming a para-military organization, the Carpathian Sich, which, they hoped, would form the nucleus of an army of an all-Ukrainian state.”

When Hitler began his invasion of the USSR, the OUN could be counted on as an ally. In the context of the 1930s, anti-Soviet nationalist movements would have had an enormous affinity with each other, especially the Ukrainian movement that defended a people who had absorbed more punishment than most from the Soviet state. The original liberal and Christian ideology of the 1920s became replaced with an outspoken fascist belief in the purity of the Ukrainian nation. One OUN leader, according to Armstrong, professed, “Nationalism is based on feelings, which is carried by the racial blood.”

OUN leader Richard Iarii was in constant contact with Nazi Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr. In the summer of 1939, OUN militia leader Sushko had organized an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht in its approaching invasion of Poland. Since the Ukrainians were a subject nation in Poland, the nationalists looked forward to war between their Nazi benefactors and the British-backed Polish state.

When war finally broke out between the Nazis and Soviet Union, the Ukrainian nationalists were tossed aside. Their racial ideology precluded any long-lasting alliance between them and what they regarded as an inferior Slavic race. This did not prevent Ukrainian leaders from initially welcoming the invading troops. Reverend John Hyrn’okh, a chaplain of a pro-Nazi Ukrainian militia, wrote a pastoral letter stating that “We greet the victorious German Army as deliverer from the enemy. We render our homage to the government which has been erected. We recognize Mr. Iaroslav Stets’ko [Nazi collaborator] as Head of the State Administration of the Ukraine.”

Once the Nazis established control over the Ukraine, they began killing Jews and non-Jews alike. Estimates run up to 3 million non-Jews and 950,000 Jews. That some Ukrainians can today think of honoring Stepan Bandera, the head of the OUN only reveals the depth of the moral and political degradation that was bequeathed by Stalinism. When the hatred toward the USSR was so all-consuming, it apparently became possible for some elites to build alliances with a mass murderer whose real goal was to exterminate the Ukrainians in order to create an Aryan outpost of the Third Reich.

The worries that contemporary versions of the OUN like Svoboda seek to impose fascist rule over Ukraine poses certain obvious questions. If they are the cat’s paw of imperialism, what kind of imperialism is it? Does the European Union constitute a fascist threat to the Ukraine? If there’s anything that you can say about the EU, it is that the prevailing ideology is one of neoliberal democracy rather than the blood/race irrationalism of traditional fascism—not to speak of the statist control of the economy that reigned under Hitler’s “national socialism”. The obvious rulers of the EU in Germany have little use for “Mein Kampf”; they rely instead on Milton Friedman’s books and Margaret Thatcher’s speeches.

If anything, the ill-conceived romance of the Ukrainian masses with the EU has to do with a notion that corruption will be eliminated and that oligarchic control over the economy will come to an end. Based on this report, this is as about a foolish a notion as thinking that the invading Wehrmacht would treat Ukrainians as master-race brethren:

Gerry Rice, a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund, which would have to provide the billions of dollars in urgently needed credit, issued a statement on Monday saying only, “We are talking to all interested parties.”

The Obama administration said it was prepared to provide financial assistance beyond that from the I.M.F., but it did not say how much.

“This support can complement an I.M.F. program by helping to make reforms easier and by putting Ukraine in a position to invest more in health and education to help develop Ukraine’s human capital and strengthen its social safety net,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters in Washington.

The I.M.F. has made clear it is unwilling to help Ukraine without a commitment from the country to undertake painful austerity measures and other restructuring. Mr. Yanukovych’s resistance to those demands was a principal reason he backed away from a trade deal with Europe and sought help from Russia instead.

Given the animosity of the new Ukrainian government toward Russia, Ivan Tchakarov, an analyst with Citibank, said that Ukraine could turn only to the West for help, and would inevitably face demands for tough reforms and a near-certain recession as a result.

“Assuming that Russia will pass, it will be up to the I.M.F. and E.U. to pick up the tab,” Mr. Tchakarov said. “The I.M.F. will impose hard constraints on the economy, and these will most probably mean a recession in 2014.”

Still, Mr. Tchakarov noted that there would be long-term benefits to Ukraine’s undertaking desperately needed measures, like ending subsidies of gas prices and cutting the thickets of business regulations that weigh down the economy. These actions could potentially allow it to emerge far stronger, like its neighbors Poland and the Baltic countries, he said.

–NY Times, “Amid Political Upheaval, Ukraine Faces Dire Need for Economic Help”, Feb. 25 2014

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,606 other followers