Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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:

https://vimeo.com/88987769

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

by LOUIS PROYECT

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

December 12, 2012

Was Che Guevara a Stalinist?

Filed under: cuba,Latin America,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm

Spain Rodriguez and Che Guevara

Working my way at a leisurely pace through Sam Farber’s egregiously wrongheaded “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959”, I came across this remarkable comparison between Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy and Che’s:

The second major source of Cuba’s foreign policy was the independent Communist perspective of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who according to his biographers was a self-described admirer of Stalin even after Khrushchev’s revelation of the Russian leader’s crimes in 1956. Guevara was an ally of the old Cuba Communists from 1957 to 1960, a decisive period during which the key divisions about the kind of society that would be built in Cuba were made. But after 1960, Guevara’s views and practices began to differ from those of the USSR and the old Cuban Communists on matters of domestic and foreign policy. The Soviet Union and the old Cuban Communists were supporting the “right-wing Popular Front approaches, which as I earlier indicated, were initially developed in the mid-thirties by the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties involving alliances with forces to their right including the “progressive bourgeoisie.” Guevara’s approach was more similar, although not identical, to the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.

I really don’t want to make this article any longer than it has to be so I will not take apart all the factual and analytical errors contained in this excerpt but limit myself to Farber’s observation about Guevara adopting a policy “more similar” to the “the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.” They say that very observant Muslims can be identified by the appearance of a bruise-like marking on their forehead developed through a lifetime of prayer. I sometimes worry that I will develop the same kind of mark through slapping my forehead from reading such Farber howlers. What in god’s name is this professor emeritus talking about? Stalin’s “aggressive” policies? If this is a reference to the “third period”, then aggressive is hardly the operative term. Instead, imbecilic ultraleftism might obtain. There was nothing “aggressive” about the policy of lumping together National Socialism and “social fascism” (in other words, the German Social Democracy).

An obvious obligation for a scholar writing about Che’s foreign policy would be to examine the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), three groups that reflected both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s foreign policy outlook. In a 1967 message to the Tricontinental, Guevara said the following:

America, a forgotten continent in the last liberation struggles, is now beginning to make itself heard through the Tricontinental and, in the voice of the vanguard of its peoples, the Cuban Revolution, will today have a task of much greater relevance: creating a Second or a Third Vietnam, or the Second and Third Vietnam of the world.

What in the world does this have to do with Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy (a wonkish term that I only use  to remain consistent with Farber’s Cubanology)? Most people at the time, including members of the Fourth International, recognized this call as a return to the proletarian internationalism of Leon Trotsky (as well as Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg) even if the practical application of it in Bolivia was poorly thought through.

If you go to the index of Farber’s book, you will find no reference to the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). As a rule of thumb, anything that inconveniences his ideological agenda gets swept under the rug. Furthermore, despite all his efforts to tarnish Che Guevara as a Stalinist, there is evidence that Farber found the Cuban Communist Party (called the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP) much more “Marxist” than the movement led by Castro and Guevara.

Ironically, although at the beginning of 1959 the PSP was neither popular nor prestigious and Fidel Castro and his Twenty-sixth-of-July movement were monopolizing mass support, the results of the revolutionary process would prove to be much closer to the PSP program than to any other Cuban political group or party.

Last but not least, the PSP was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program as the basis for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted with the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

“The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1983), pp. 59-83

I want to call your attention to the use of the terms “program” and “ideology” in the excerpt above. They are a dead giveaway that the author is in the throes of what Marxists call idealism. This is not the idealism of boy scouts but of Plato. It is a philosophy that held sway until the mid-19th century when Marx appropriated materialism as a weapon in the class struggle. For Sam Farber the “positions” of the PSP matter much more than its role in the Cuban class struggle as a conservative enemy of the “putschism” of the young rebels. The irony in all this is that Farber got his political training in Max Shachtman’s YPSL, a group that when he joined in 1961 still had some Trotskyist blood flowing in its increasingly hardening arteries.

In September 2011 Jacobin Magazine published an article by James Bloodworth titled “The Cult of Che” that repeats the slander about Che’s Stalinism.

It was here [in Guatemala after Arbenz was overthrown] that Guevara, in his own words, became a communist, or more specifically, a believer in the quasi-religious doctrine of Stalinism: “At which moment I left the path of reason and took on something akin to faith I can’t tell you even approximately because the path was very long and with a lot of backward steps. ”Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, describes how Che, writing to his aunt back in Argentina, had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated,” signing-off his letters as “Stalin II.”

I have a totally different interpretation of Che’s letter to his aunt. If you were a serious Stalinist in the 1950s, the last thing you would be talking about is seeing “capitalist octopuses annihilated.” The Communist Parties of Latin America were like those everywhere else in the world, committed to class-collaboration. In fact, it was a desire to see these octopuses (do you think that this was the inspiration for Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid”?) annihilated that drew Che Guevara into the arms of the July 26th Movement despite its failure to adhere to the programmatic points of the PSP. (Now what was it that Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Bracke? Oh, I remember: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”)

Frankly, I would advise the Jacobin Magazine comrades to think twice about publishing articles by people who have given interviews to Norm Geras, the scabrous British professor emeritus and arch-Islamophobe—as James Bloodworth did in June 2012. I am generally not disposed to applying litmus tests, a hallmark of the Trotskyist movement, but if I were, high up on my list would be Norman Geras’s blog. Getting his approval is the kiss of death.

When asked by Geras what he was reading at the time, Bloodworth responded, “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m quite embarrassed that I haven’t read this already.” One suspects that if Bloodworth had been asked to name his favorite blog, he might have answered Pam Geller’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Geras’s last question was: If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? Bloodworth replied: “Christopher Hitchens, Che Guevara, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” If I was sufficiently motivated to do a follow-up with Bloodworth, I might have asked if Che Guevara was going to be the main course or dessert.

As an antidote to these sorts of noxious efflorescence, I can’t recommend Spain Rodriquez’s “Che: a graphic biography” highly enough. Published by Verso in 2008 (edited by the good Paul Buhle), it was sitting on my shelf for the past four years as one in a collection of books I had promised to review.

Spain Rodriguez’s death last week was just the impetus I needed to read the book and pull together some thoughts. For those who knew as little about Spain as I did, there’s an obit by Paul Buhle that should make it obvious why he would have developed a working relationship with the artist:

The whole comix artistic crowd moved to San Francisco around 1970, joining Robert Crumb and a few others already there, part of the acid-rock, post–Summer of Love setting. Underground comix, replicating the old kids-comics format but now in black and white, grew up alongside the underground press, whose reprinting of comix created the market for the books. Crumb was the artist whose work sold the best, in the hundreds of thousands, but Spain was widely regarded as the most political. He was heavily influenced by the most bohemian of the EC comics world, wild man Wallace Wood, whose sci-fi adventures depicted civilizations recovering from atomic war and whose Mad Comics stories assaulted the 1950s commercialization of popular culture. Wood’s dames were also extremely sexy, too overtly sexy for the diluted satire of the later Mad Magazine.

Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International was Rodriguez’s signature saga in these early years, serialized in underground papers, comix anthologies, and eventually collected in comic book form as Subvert Comics. These revolutionaries took revenge on a truly evil American ruling class in assorted ways, many of them violent, but they also had fun and sex, and were subject to many self-satirizing gags, in the process. By the middle 1970s, his work had broadened into more social and historical themes, often with class, sex, and violence highlighting his points. Histories of revolutions and anti-fascist actions (and all their complexities) inspired some of his closest reading of real events, but he had no fixed point on the left-wing scale. He admired and drew about anti-Bolshevist anarchist leader Nestor Makhno also anti-Stalinist Spanish anarchist Durruti, but he also drew about Red Army members facing death fighting the Germans, and so on. (Several of these pieces are now reprinted in Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, an anthology from that 1980s series, just published by PM Press.)

I would argue that if Paul had an affinity for Spain, Spain obviously had one for Che who in many ways was the same kind of eclectic rebel. If Che signed a letter to his aunt “Stalin II”, this by no means precluded him carrying around Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” (a gift from Regis Debray) in his knapsack in the Bolivian countryside.

And quite frankly, there is a dotted line between Paul and me and through him, Spain and Che as well. Not long after I had decompressed from 11 years of membership in the Socialist Workers Party, I began to draw away from the sorts of “litmus tests” that people like Farber and Bloodworth were wont to impose. Some fifteen years ago or so I became good cyberfriends with Mark Jones, a Briton who was about as pro-Stalin as you can get. He was even brassy enough to defend Stalin’s purge of the Red Army officers’ corps, a position that by the 1960s was only popular among Hoxhaite circles. But it was our shared belief in the need to confront the environmental crisis that made us political allies. The other stuff was secondary.

Turning now to Spain’s book, the conclusion that you will be left with is that Che Guevara was a man of deep principle whose hatred of injustice guided his every step.

che_spain

This page from early in the book is drawn from “The Motorcycle Diary”. It gives you both a flavor of Spain’s amazing graphic capabilities as well as his insight into what made Che Guevara tick. In the top right Che says farewell to a miner and his wife who he met on his way through Chile. He says, “Even if communists are a danger to ‘decent life’ it seems like the natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger.” That says it all, a protest against persistent hunger.

Despite all attempts to either demonize or sanctify Che Guevara, he was simply a product of his generation. Seeing the exploited and oppressed with his own eyes, either on his father’s plantation or “on the road” in Latin America served as a categorical imperative: you must help make the socialist revolution.

Che Guevara called himself “Stalin II” not because he had conducted a meticulous study of the writings of Leon Trotsky versus Joseph Stalin and decided that the ideas of the latter were more correct. The powerful historical momentum that begun just ten years earlier when the Red Army wiped fascism off the face of the earth was the decisive factor. So was the colonial revolution that was to turn the Congo, Algeria and Vietnam into a maelstrom. Che was not a “Stalinist”. He was simply a servant of history.

One of Karl Marx’s most frequently citations is from the 18th Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The problem with people like Farber and Bloodworth is that they are not interested in historical context. Everything takes place in a vacuum that has more in common with a graduate school political science seminar than the beating heart of the class struggle. Che Guevara arrived at his ideas in the same way that millions of young radicals did in the immediate post-WWII era. That period of history came to an end a long time ago. For the radicals of today we have the obligation to identify the progressive historical forces today that are gathering momentum today and help midwife them to victory. About the best thing you can say about Che is that he rose to the occasion. Let us not succumb to the easy temptation in a period of deep reaction to treat him as our enemy. While no revolutionary leader should be mythologized, the martyrdom of Che Guevara was something that should be respected by each and every one of us no matter our ideology.

The Associated Press Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Bolivian President Pays Tribute to Guevara
By CARLOS VALDEZ

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales celebrated the birthday of Che Guevara Wednesday, the first time a top Bolivian leader has paid tribute to the revolutionary who was executed in the Andean nation four decades ago.

Surrounded by Cuban and Venezuelan officials, Morales observed the 78th anniversary of Guevara’s birth, using the occasion to praise his close allies President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Guevara, an Argentine, launched an armed revolt in 1966 to bring communism to Bolivia after helping lead the 1959 Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and thrust Castro into power.

He waged a guerrilla insurgency for 13 months in Bolivia but was captured and executed by the Bolivian army at age 39.

Morales flew in a helicopter loaned by Venezuela to the small town of La Higuera– the site of Guevara’s execution– 480 miles southeast of La Paz.

Local children and nearby residents blew out a birthday cake with 78 candles representing how old Guevara would be if were alive.

He said in a speech that a decade ago he had a dream that there would be other Cubas in Latin America.

“I wasn’t wrong,” he said. “Now we do have another commander, colleague Chavez.” He also praised Castro’s Cuba, and he said both leader have shown they unafraid of “the empire,” a reference to the United States.

Since taking office in January, Morales has forged close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, which have flooded Bolivia –South America’s poorest country– with aid.

Morales thanked Venezuela and Cuba for their aid and said he would make Castro a cake for his next birthday made of coca — the leaf from which cocaine is derived.

The coca leaf has traditional and legal uses in Bolivia although the U.S. has long backed its eradication.

May 7, 2012

Insane sectarianism

Filed under: Greece,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

The leader of Greece’s Communist Party (KKE) Aleka Papariga on Thursday ruled out any possibility for cooperating with the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).

In comments made during an interview with Skai Radio, Papariga said the main reason KKE saw no scope for cooperation «that would be beneficial for the people» was that the proposal made by the leftist grouping did not stretch beyond the elections themselves.

KKE will remain in the political opposition, she said.

Describing the day after the elections, Papariga said the political landscape would resemble «quick sand.» Conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK will continue to try and convince the public while those who still want the two parties in a coalition can have Prime Minister Lucas Papademos at the helm again, she said.

In any case the KKE leader predicted that whichever government emerges from the polls will be short-lived, leading to fresh leaks from the political parties and the creation of more new ones.

Questioned about ongoing strikes in the private sector, the communist leader remarked that there can be «no peace among workers forced to live on a monthly salary of 300 euros.”

April 22, 2012

Red Plenty

Filed under: computers,Red Plenty,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

The NY Times was not content to give Francis Spufford’s mixture of fact and fiction about the USSR (faction—really) “Red Plenty” one rave review. At least two were necessary. On February 14th this year, Dwight Garner wrote this valentine:

Any reader with a pencil has a dozen ways to express negative sentiment in the margins of a book — I am partial to ick, ack, awk, ugh and the occasional wha? — but a writer’s great sentences, in their bid for posterity, mostly just get underlined. At the end of the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty,” however, I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: “Bravo.” I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O.

For what it is worth, Garner also went head over heels for Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free”, a callow memoir about growing up an SWP red diaper baby. I guess that even if there was no longer a single Marxist alive anywhere in the world, reviewers will still be singing the praises of such books. That is to be expected when the contradictions of capitalism create the objective conditions for a renewed interest in Marxism, as is the case today.

On March 2nd, Andrew Meier was just as effusive, concluding his review thusly:

Yes, “Red Plenty” is a literary/historical seesaw, a work sure to have even the most bilious Kindle-haters tapping for hyperlinks. But it is a work, by turns learned and lyrical, that grows by degree, accreting into something lasting: a replica in miniature of a world of ideas never visible to most, and now gone.

Neither Garner nor Meier are typical hardened anti-Communists. In fact, their political outlook is not that much different from that of Spufford, a liberal I have described as preferring the “devil you know” to the socialism some unrepentant types still uphold.

One thing is made abundantly clear from the introduction to Part Five of “Red Plenty”, the USSR was rotten from the beginning:

But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue—or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than wisdom. Lenin’s core of Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters.

In other words, Lenin led to Stalin. This is the same formula that is at the heart of all Sovietology, whether of the liberal variety like Robert Tucker or the reactionary Robert Service. Spufford grudgingly admits that the USSR was proceeding along a viable path in the 1920s under the NEP, but concludes that Stalin’s war on the peasantry was practically necessary: “the farmers’ incomes made them dangerously independent, and food prices bounced disconcertingly up and down. Collectivisation saw to all these problems at once.”

One suspects that Spufford views the NEP as an outlier. For him, the main course of Soviet history is a blend of top-down economic planning and the police state. Even more disconcertingly, this historical narrative would appear to be in consonance with Marx’s writings rather than an assault on them.

The dead giveaway is the reference to Plato in the citation above. When Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt) was indoctrinating me as an undergraduate at Bard College in the early 60s, he insisted that totalitarianism was the logical outcome of a German philosophical idealism rooted in Plato’s philosophy. The Soviet dictatorship was nothing else but the embodiment of the philosopher king. This obsession with ideology ran very deep in the 50s and early 60s. To some extent, it was a reflection of the existentialism of the day (Blucher and Arendt were part of Heidegger’s circle in the 1920s) but also Anglo-American sociology typified by Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology”. Now that I am older and wiser (go ahead and laugh), I understand that American pragmatism–the official ideology of the ruling class–never received the same kind of critical scrutiny. After all, as Marx pointed out, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. Why should America be any different?

Although book reviewers are beside themselves with Spufford’s literary skills, I find them just as dubious as his political analysis. The brunt of this review will be about the latter, but a few words about style are necessary.

I counted 56 characters in “Red Plenty”—some fictional like Khrushchev and others made up like Galina, a college student who is a kind of hard-core Communist. Unlike a novel, there is little attempt to connect them. They pop up in one part and only reappear a decade or so later. It is almost as if Spufford had written a thousand page novel and about half of it got lost on the way to the printer. Not just the first half or the second half, but random pages perhaps strewn by the wind. In many ways, they remind me of the “interludes” in John Dos Passos’s “USA”, his brief profiles of people like Henry Ford, etc. But “Red Plenty” is all interludes with no connective plot tissue. This is certainly “novel” in the sense of being new, but no competition to the traditional novel of ideas that such a subject (the crisis of Soviet planning) deserves.

The other major problem is the rather clumsy attempt by Spufford to achieve verisimilitude by throwing in all sorts of reminders that this is happening in a very backward Russia and nowhere else. You can turn to practically any page and read something like this:

But the smell of vodka merged with the sweaty sourness of the workers a little further forward, whose factory had plainly lodged them in a barracks without a bathroom, and the fierce rosewater scent the short woman had on, into one, hot, composite human smell, just as all the corners and pieces of sleeve and collar he could see fused into one tight kaleidoscope of darned hand-me-downs, and worn leather, and too-big khaki.

Aaah! I can hear the Song of the Volga Boatmen in the background now.

From the very top of the hierarchy to the very bottom, Spufford’s characters are marked by a Quixotic belief that their system works, even if they disagree on how to make it work better. Unlike some of the classic anti-totalitarian literature of the 20th century, there is no Winston Smith to put forward a contrary analysis even though there is an implication throughout that a Grand Illusion is at work.

At its core, “Red Plenty” is a rehashing of issues that I first ran into nearly 20 years ago when “market socialism” was all the rage among certain elements of the left. On PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network listserv, you had both Marxists and liberals similar to Spufford arguing that planning was futile. Some were even ready to agree with the Austrian school that markets were necessary for the proper allocation of resources.

There was always an assumption that planning existed in the USSR. Even with computers, planning was doomed to fail—a central thesis of “Red Plenty”. But how warranted was that assumption? While I admit to having only a skimpy knowledge of planning in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, I have to wonder how much it differed from what went on when its rulers were up-and-coming bureaucrats.

The Soviet government announced the first five-year plan in 1928. Stalin loyalists, like Krzhizanovksy and Strumlin, who headed Gosplan, the minister of planning, worried about the excess rigidity of this plan. They noted that the success of the plan was based on 4 factors: 1) five good consecutive crops, 2) more external trade and help than in 1928, 3) a “sharp improvement” in overall economic indicators, and 4) a smaller ration than before of military expenditures in the state’s total expenditures.

How could anybody predict five consecutive good crops in the USSR? The plan assumed the most optimistic conditions and nobody had a contingency plan to allow for failure of any of the necessary conditions.

Bazarov, another Stalin loyalist in Gosplan, pointed to another area of risk: the lack of political cadres. He warned the Gosplan presidium in 1929, “If you plan simultaneously a series of undertakings on such a gigantic scale without knowing in advance the organizational forms, without having cadres and without knowing what they should be taught, then you get a chaos guaranteed in advance; difficulties will arise which will not only slow down the execution of the five-year plan, which will take seven if not ten years to achieve, but results even worse may occur; here such a blatantly squandering of means could happen which would discredit the whole idea of industrialization.”

Strumlin admitted that the planners preferred to “stand for higher tempos rather than sit in prison for lower ones.” Strumlin and Krzhizanovksy had been expressing doubts about the plan for some time and Stalin removed these acolytes from Gosplan in 1930.

In order for the planners, who were operating under terrible political pressure, to make sense of the plan, they had to play all kinds of games. They had to falsify productivity and yield goals in order to allow the input and output portions of the plan to balance. V.V. Kuibyshev, another high-level planner and one of Stalin’s protégés, confessed in a letter to his wife how he had finessed the industrial plan he had developing. “Here is what worried me yesterday and today; I am unable to tie up the balance, and as I cannot go for contracting the capital outlays–contracting the tempo–there will be no other way but to take upon myself an almost unmanageable task in the realm of lowering costs.”

Eventually Kuibyshev swallowed any doubts he may have had and began cooking the books in such a way as to make the five-year plan, risky as it was, totally unrealizable.

Real life proved how senseless the plan was. Kuibyshev had recklessly predicted that costs would go down, meanwhile they went up: although the plan allocated 22 billion rubles for industry, transportation and building, the Soviets spent 41.6 billion. The money in circulation, which planners limited to a growth of only 1.25 billion rubles, consequently grew to 5.7 billion in 1933.

As madcap and as utopian as the original plan was, Stalin tossed it into the garbage can immediately after the planners submitted it to him. He commanded new goals in 1929-30 that disregarded any economic criteria. For example, instead of a goal of producing 10 million tons of pig iron in 1933, the Soviets now targeted 17 million. All this scientific “planning” was taking place when a bloody war against the Kulaks was turning the Russian countryside into chaos. Molotov declared that to talk about a 5-year plan during this period was “nonsense.”

Stalin told Gosplan to forget about coming up with a new plan that made sense. The main driving force now was speed. The slogan “tempos decide everything” became policy. The overwhelming majority of Gosplan, hand-picked by Stalin, viewed the new policy with shock. Molotov said this was too bad, and cleaned house in the old Gosplan with “all of its old-fashioned planners” as he delicately put it.

Now the USSR was clearly a different place in 1960 than it was in 1930. But it was subject to the same distortions as it was earlier. Politics trumped science. No matter how cogent the strategies put forward by software engineers, they were likely to be superseded by the feudal-like social relations that existed under Stalinism, with a King at the top—the General Secretary of the CP—and all the fiefdoms underneath him run by factory managers. Socialism is not just about planning. It is about workers control. Without thoroughgoing democracy that is fed by initiatives by those who produce the wealth of society, it is very difficult to use scientific methods to create “plenty”. The implied message of “Red Plenty” is that since democratic socialism is impossible, you might as well live with market relations and all the shit that goes along with it, well on display in his own country and the rest of Europe today.

In the 1980s I was president of the board of Tecnica, a kind of radical Peace Corps that sent programmers and engineers to Nicaragua to volunteer their skills. While Nicaragua was not socialist, it was committed to planning on a large scale. Our organization reported to Carl Oquist who was Daniel Ortega’s chief economics adviser. But no matter how many volunteers we sent, including some very capable people from Bell Labs and other blue-chip American firms, and no matter how many Nicaraguans we trained in the use of spreadsheets and database management systems, it could never compensate for a contra war that was draining the country economically.

Missing from “Red Plenty” is any engagement with the costs of war on economic development in the USSR. Spufford has no use for Stalin but does not explain how the Soviet people ended up with him. A contra war that ensued after the Bolsheviks took power resulted in the deaths of many of the most democratically minded and politically educated worker cadres who made the revolution. A political vacuum and the country’s inherited backwardness made it all the more easy for a despot like Stalin to take power and build a “socialism” that had much more in common with the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism than the Marxist beliefs of those who were shot down by American and British rifles in 1919.

In an interview with the Browser, Spufford is asked whether he agrees with the thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century”, namely that “in the 1920s and 30s the Soviet Union was a brilliantly successful state for Jews.”

While admitting that some aspects of the book are “undeniable”, he repeats the catechism of the professional anti-Communist:

But communism is a bit embarrassing now. It is getting hard to get people to own up to the fact that once upon a time they thought it was sensible. It was part of the centre of gravity of the 20th century. What I agree with about it is that it brings an aspect of the 20th century into view. One of the hardest things for us to remember about Stalinism is that as well as being a system of horrors it also represented modernity and social mobility and opportunity for lots of people. In a horribly straightforward way the great purges opened up an incredible number of jobs, as we saw with Khrushchev, who is a fine example of Russia being a land of opportunity built on numerous graves.

In generational terms, I belong to the 60s—a time when many young people still believed that the Soviet Union was “progressive” but only in the most dialectical sense. Born in 1964 and nearly 20 years my junior, Spufford comes of age at a time when Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Austrian economics were becoming hegemonic.

Those born 20 years after Spufford are now in their late twenties and unlikely to be convinced that history is at an end or that markets and “plenty” go together. These are the young people with crappy jobs if they are lucky and/or with huge college debts. They are also the kinds of people in the vanguard of the Occupy movement and the democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

No matter how many books get written about the evils of 20th century communism, I doubt that this will matter to them. They want a society that is based on economic justice and peace. Whatever name you call it, this is what they seek no matter how many glowing reviews that “Red Plenty” garners in the New York Times. As has been the case since Marx and Engels were the same age, capitalism creates socialism through its own contradictions. As long as there is capitalism, there will be a movement for socialism. It is our job in the 21st century to rebuild a movement that is the only hope for the future, starting now.

February 22, 2012

Assessing the Russian and Egyptian crackdown on imperialist NGO’s

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

Spy versus spy

Last month Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, was forced to admit in a BBC documentary that a fake rock was used to spy on Russians. The Independent reported:

A former UK government official has admitted Britain was behind a plot to spy on Russians with a device hidden in a fake rock, it emerged today.

Russia made the allegations in January 2006, but they were not publicly accepted by the UK before now.

Jonathan Powell, then prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told a BBC documentary: “The spy rock was embarrassing.

The Russian security service, the FSB, linked the rock with claims that British security services were making covert payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups.

Then president Vladimir Putin later introduced a law restricting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from getting funding from foreign governments, causing many to close down.

Cracking down on NGO’s is old news in Russia. Back in 2005, a law was passed that effectively made it impossible for Amnesty International, Greenpeace or any other group with foreign funding to operate in Russia.

Putin has often played the nationalist card, most recently accusing Golos, an electoral watchdog, of being a tool of the West, as the NY Times reported in December:

Golos’s critics in the Russian government say its work is tainted by the money it receives from two American agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development. A promotional video clip for a report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday on the NTV channel, owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, features images of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills juxtaposed with footage of Golos’s leaders as a portentous voice asks, “Who is behind these ‘independent observers?’ ” A pro-government blogger has posted what appears to be paperwork showing that Golos received $92,653 from the United States government for the month of February.

Global Research, a website run by Michel Chossudovsky who is arguably the planet’s leading exponent of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning, published an article by Eric Walberg on February 9th titled Vladimir Putin and Russia’s “White Revolution” that described the judo-practicing ex-President as a kind of “lesser evil” to the opposition in the street that has been likened to the white wine-drinking/brie-eating crowd on the north side of Tehran that had the unvarnished nerve to oppose Ahmadinejad:

Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.

I date my distrust for this kind of apologetics to 2002 or so when Jared Israel began to post material to Marxmail that elevated Putin into some kind of “anti-imperialist” hero. I could tolerate his over-the-top worship of Milosevic, even though I was sometimes embarrassed to be on the same side of a debate with him against KLA supporters on the left, but something about the pro-Putin propaganda really turned me off. Israel’s articles should sound very familiar to those who have been exposed to this sort of thing on Counterpunch, Global Research, and MRZine:

…the US establishment, and the Empire of which it is a leading part – perhaps we should call it the New World Empire – is very much interested in protecting its current hegemonic position in the world from possible future challenges coming from Eurasia – namely, from the still-nuclear-armed former Soviet Union.

To “strengthen civil society” these fake-democracy funding agencies set up NGOs, newspapers and TV stations and political parties as a Fifth Column to destabilize local societies along vulnerable lines of conflict. Or they inflame regional conflicts in the guise of “peace” and “mediation” groups. Ultimately these Fifth Column groups stage, or attempt to stage coup d’états, always under the guise of democratic reform, thus putting US operatives in power.

This happened in Yugoslavia and Philippines. It was attempted in Belarus and Venezuela. The basis is being laid for such coup d’états all over the former Soviet Union.

Looking back on this period, I’d have to say my instincts were pretty healthy. Within a year or so, Israel had dropped the “anti-imperialist” pose and begun to write articles defending the Likud and calling 9/11 an inside job. There was always something conspiratorial about his mindset and it was a fairly easy transition from hating the KLA to hating Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. If there is any consolation, he seems to be retired politically.

The Egyptian army has studied Putin’s methods apparently, but is acting even more boldly—throwing Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in jail for working for an NGO that gets overseas funding without the government’s permission. (The LaHoods are Lebanese Christians.)

In today’s N.Y. Times, Thomas Friedman waxes indignantly over this affront:

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

Now if you were a consistent “anti-imperialist”, you’d have to back the Egyptian military, right? That would seem to be the position of Global Research, which has never been afraid of sounding stupid. In an article by Tony Cartalucci titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt, we learn that the “Arab Spring” was nothing but a Western conspiracy—not that different it would seem from 9/11:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

Cartalucci informs his readers that other nations are under siege from the West in this fashion, including Thailand, Russia, Myanmar and Malaysia—a virtual rogue’s gallery. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this at least has the merit of consistency: in order to take a position on a conflict between a state and its opponents, all you have to do is determine whom the West supports and then take the opposite position. In the case of Myanmar, Cartalucci is not afraid to stake out a truly absurd position: “’Democracy icon’” Aung San Suu Kyi’s entire political apparatus is US and British funded.” You see, it does not really matter how many peasants and workers have been murdered fighting for a better society. As long as there is US and British funding, that’s all you need to know.

This, I should add, is not the most outrageous position staked out by Global Research. Applying the same logic, Michel Chossudovsky has rendered the verdict that Occupy Wall Street was the American “color revolution”, implying of course that the cops had every right to pepper-spray demonstrators.

If you really want to understand how such people think, there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s. You had the imperialists on one side and “actually existing socialism” on the other. Anybody who failed to “defend” the USSR, which really meant defending every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, was an enemy of the Soviet Union. While few people outside the Stalinist milieu ever accused Trotsky of being on the imperialist payroll, this was the line of attack in the Moscow Trials.

It is easy to understand why some people are enamored with the “follow the money” way of thinking. It saves you from the trouble of dealing with contradiction. Instead of seeing the complex reality of young Egyptians turning to the NED for funding or to Gene Sharp for training, they simply lump them with Georgians, Serbs or any other “color revolution”. Essentially, this is a form of formal logic that most people absorb growing up in bourgeois society. It takes the form of “if a = b, then c”. But what if a is both b and not b? Arrghh. Don’t bother me with complexities…

The other thing to understand is that the conspiratorial mindset is very deeply engrained in some sectors on the left. Do you remember the old Mad Magazine spy versus spy comic? I suppose most of you are too young to remember, but it depicted a world in which spying counted for everything. It was very much tuned in to the zeitgeist that included James Bond novels and Cold War media reports about Soviet spies under every bed.

In such a world, the needs of—for example—Hungarian workers did not count. 1956 was about nothing except Western spooks trying to subvert a “socialist” country. If the reality of working class exploitation under Stalinist bureaucracy got in the way, the best remedy was to sweep it under the rug.

Unfortunately, the only thing that got swept under the rug after more than a half-century of lies, violence and corruption was the socialist experiment itself. Surely we can do better in the 21st century.

December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Czechoslovakia,democracy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.

To understand Havel, you have to go back to the beginning of Czech socialism that is a bit more complicated than is usually portrayed in the bourgeois press. While the general consensus among the anti-Stalinist left is that Eastern Europe was turned into “satellite states” of the USSR after WWII, Czech reality is far more complex.

After British imperialism decided to sell out Czechoslovakia through Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal, respect for the Western “democracies” declined precipitously and admiration for the USSR grew rapidly. Under Nazi occupation, the CP underground fought heroically as well. Unlike the situation in France, this occupation was unimaginably brutal resulting in the death of up to 55,000 Czechs in concentration camps or through execution. Last August I reviewed Protektor, a very good film dramatizing the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich and the repression that followed. Now available from Netflix, the film captures the period well.

So it is no surprise that Edvard Benes, the left social democrat Prime Minister who was ousted by the Communists in 1948, amounted to a “friend of the Soviet Union”. In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal.

Additionally, Czechoslovakia had the largest indigenous Communist movement anywhere in Europe before WWII. In free parliamentary elections held on May 26, 1946, the CP won 38 percent of the vote nationwide and the Social Democrats received an additional 13 percent. So we are not exactly talking about socialism imposed at the point of a bayonet.

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union.

The model of a restive population seeking to break the chains of socialism and opening the doors to multinational corporations has little to do with Czech realities. In fact, the first open revolt against the Stalinist bureaucracy was mounted in the name of “socialism with a human face”.

In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy.

Under Alexander Dubcek, there was a Prague Spring in 1968 that was very much in sync with the student movements of the West. In 1967 a group of writers, including Milan Kundera, threw their support behind members of the Communist Party who were ready to challenge the old way of doing things. In April of 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Programme that would have transformed the country. Politically, it stressed democratic rights of the sort that were once understood as consistent with socialism. Economically, it advocated a more market-driven approach not that different from what existed during the NEP.

Ironically, when Fidel Castro made his speech in 1968 describing Russian intervention as a necessary evil to stamp out an imperialist plot, the very “liberal” measures he was condemning in Czechoslovakia were exactly the same that he and his brother would be pursuing today.

Despite widespread support for socialism early on, the ruling CP did everything it could to dampen the people’s spirit. Even when other Eastern European CP’s were loosening their grip after Stalin’s death, the Czechoslovak CP stuck to its hidebound ways. It was committed economically and culturally to the worst abuses of the Stalin era. As is usually the case, the intelligentsia was the first segment of the population to grow restive.

Another film is useful in understanding the vise-like grip with which the CP held society captive, namely Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession” which dramatizes the Slansky trial of 1952. Rudolf Slansky was a Jewish CP’er who was put on trial for thought crimes in the same manner as the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Charged as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs, enemies of the Czechoslovak nation, of its People’s Democratic order, and of Socialism”, Slansky and other victims of Stalinist injustice were executed.

The purpose of these trials was exactly the same as it was under Stalin, to cower the population into silence. Even the intelligentsia, especially the writers who would later on rebel against such madness, was pressured into supporting the regime. Dusan Hamsik, a leader of of Writer’s Union that was in the vanguard of the Prague Spring, wrote: “In those days it was the writers themselves who were their own best censors; the few who thought differently never offered their words for publication — indeed never committed them to paper in most cases. For it was unthinkable that any discordant voice should raise itself.”

A bit of a thaw took place in 1962, largely as a result of economic difficulties. As is so often the case, when a Stalinist government finds it difficult to deliver the goods, it will ease up a bit in order to allow the population to blow off steam. But to make sure that his subjects did not go too far, the dictator Novotny warned:

We will not allow this decadent capitalist culture to be propagated in our society, and we will not allow the socialist system, won in hard struggles, to be attacked in various ambiguous terms in the television and often also in the theatre … we need criticism … but let no one dare touch our Communist Party, its program, or our socialist system. This must be sacred, and it must stay sacred for all … the Party maintains the right to direct cultural activity, the same as it directs and manages the entire life of the country.

Novotny was also deeply concerned about the decadent cultural influences that the West was having on Czechoslovak youth, sounding very much like the preachers denouncing Elvis in the USA: “all right, let them dance, but we will not permit these modern dances to degenerate into vulgarisms and thus actually cultivate dark lusts in our people.”

Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Czech intelligentsia was disproportionately represented in the CP. This meant that when the reform-oriented faction in the party led by Dubcek sought to renovate the system, the program was a mixture of political liberalization that everybody could support and economic measures geared to the market. The working class embraced the former and held an open mind about the latter.

In December 2008, Andy Kilmister wrote an article for International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International, titled “The `Prague Spring’ and the `Prague Autumn’” that is a must-read for understanding what happened.  It reveals that although the workers might have been sitting on the fence in the economic debate between Novotny supporters and the new government, they swung sharply against the Soviet invasion in a revolutionary manner:

Between 1 October and the end of 1968, 260 further workers councils were created, with the trade unions playing a leading role in initiating this development 17. In January 1969 a national meeting in Plzeň of councils and preparatory committees representing 890,000 employees (over a sixth of the workers in the country) took place and `thereafter, the workers’ movement sheltered the political left as the ČKD-Vysočany plant had sheltered the secret August congress’.

The agreement with the metal workers on 19 December was followed by agreements in January 1969 between the students and construction workers, mineralogical, geological and gas workers and print workers and later by collaboration with power-station workers, designer and civil engineers, lumber workers and railway workers. Galia Golan reports that `by and large these alliances held throughout 1968-9 though they were much criticized (and feared) by the conservatives in the regime. In concrete terms, they led to the formation of worker-student action committees which coordinated efforts designed to salvage what was possible of the post-January policies’. Petr Cerny describes `Prague radicals who, for a brief moment, achieved what the western left had only dreamed of in 1968: a worker-student alliance’.

While the most famous Czechoslovak writers were solidly behind the Dubcek initiatives, including Milan Kundera and Jeri Pelikan, one decided that he had no interest in reforming socialism. The whole system had to go as the NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel makes clear:

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

Moving ahead to 1989, when Stalinism entered its death-knell, Czechoslovakia was given the opportunity to pick up where the Prague Spring had left off, not having to worry about Soviet tanks. Among the politicians deemed suitable for leading a new society, Dubcek and Havel stood out—representing two different solutions to the problems that had faced for decades.

In a review of John Keane’s critical biography of Vaclav Havel, a biography that Slavoj Zizek used as a peg to attack Havel’s legacy in the London Review, Laura Secor wrote:

In 1989, five years after Havel’s release, popular demonstrations brought down the Czechoslovak government. Dubcek, Keane contends, was the obvious choice for the country’s transitional presidency — but Havel manipulated Dubcek into stepping aside, by promising to support him in the upcoming free elections. According to Keane, Havel broke that promise, betraying Dubcek and retaining the presidency for himself. Not long afterward, Czechoslovakia split.

Once in power, Havel set about the task to dismantle Czech socialism and create a new state according to the formulas established in George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and elsewhere. A section from Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds” has been circulating widely on the Internet, including my posting to the Marxism mailing list. Written not long after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it knocks Havel off his pedestal rather deftly:

Havel called for efforts to preserve the Christian family in the Christian nation. Presenting himself as a man of peace and stating that he would never sell arms to oppressive regimes, he sold weapons to the Philippines and the fascist regime in Thailand. In June 1994, General Pinochet, the man who butchered Chilean democracy, was reported to be arms shopping in Czechoslovakia–with no audible objections from Havel.

Havel joined wholeheartedly in George Bush’s Gulf War, an enterprise that killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 1991, along with other Eastern European pro-capitalist leaders, Havel voted with the United States to condemn human rights violations in Cuba. But he has never uttered a word of condemnation of rights violations in El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia, or any other U.S. client state.

In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies.

Now I have no way of knowing what Parenti would have been saying about the Prague Spring in 1968, but I strongly suspect that he would have agreed with Fidel Castro. For the section of the left that believes that the Soviet intervention was a “necessary evil”, there’s actually a strong affinity with liberals who have urged a vote for Gore, Kerry and Obama in recent elections. If the choice is between someone like Obama and Newt Gingrich, you have to vote for Obama. Along the same lines, a Czechoslovakia under Dubcek might have led down the slippery road to what it would become under Havel so it was necessary to back the Soviet invasion.

The possibility that an alternative to both liberalizing technocrats and open supporters of Western imperialism does not really exist in the mind of someone like a Michael Parenti or many who think this way, like Alexander Cockburn or Michel Chossudovsky. The drama in a place like Iran or Libya is always between two players, and no possibility exists for the masses to make history on their own terms.

This is the terrible political legacy that 70 years of Stalinism has left us. After WWII, a powerful constellation of nominally socialist states existed around the world, either conforming to the Soviet model or to some Bonapartist variant best expressed by Nasser’s Egypt. In such states, the authoritarianism was necessary—we were led to understand—because political freedoms would open the door to CIA subversion. It was never considered that such repression was mainly designed to enforce class distinctions that were the same in spirit or in substance like those in capitalist societies.

Social inequalities and repression of the sort symbolized by Novotny or Qaddafi’s show trials were rationalized as blemishes in a system that was historically “progressive”. When the disgruntled masses took it upon themselves to resist their rulers, the “anti-imperialist” left took the side of the rulers if there was the slightest hint of Western support. Given the realities of geopolitics, it was almost impossible to find a situation in which the CIA was not intervening. In Egypt, the contradictions were most acute as the West backed the Tahrir Square protesters and the Mubarak regime simultaneously.

If there was ever a time to break with this “lesser evil” mentality, it is now. With the deepening crisis of world capitalism, an urgent task confronts us. A revolutionary movement has to be built worldwide that makes no concessions to the paternal rule of a Qaddafi or a Novotny. There will always be the possibility that in a revolt against such rulers, things might not follow a straight and narrow path toward socialist victory but deferring to the status quo in the name of “anti-imperialism” is unacceptable.

Arise ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

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