Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2011

Israeli film maker threatened with death

Filed under: middle east,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:10 am

NY Times January 27, 2011, 5:40 pm

Israeli Journalist Reports Death Threats Over Gaza War Film


Israeli soldiers expressed regrets over their conduct in Gaza in a new documentary.

Nurit Kedar, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, told Channel 4 News of Britain on Thursday that she had received death threats following the broadcast of her latest film, a report on Israeli soldiers who expressed regrets over their own conduct during the war in Gaza two years ago.

The 13-minute documentary, made for Channel 4 News, was posted online on Wednesday. In response, Ms. Kedar said: “I have had phone calls saying, ‘You should be hanged,’ and calling me a traitor. People have sent me messages calling for me to be expelled from Israel, saying I am a traitor to my mother and father.”

The Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday that a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London had complained about the film. Among the embassy’s objections was the weight Ms. Kedar’s film gave to the use of the word “cleanse,” by a young tank commander she interviewed. The commander said that before his unit went into Gaza, the soldiers were told: “We needed to cleanse the neighborhoods, the buildings, the area. It sounds really terrible to say ‘cleanse,’ but those were the orders.”

According to The Chronicle, the Israeli spokesman said the word was mistranslated, that it was “used by soldiers to describe when they are not under threat during a search, the nearest equivalent being ‘clear.’ ”

Before the film was broadcast, the embassy gave this statement to Channel 4 News:

Unlike much of the region, the open society within Israel allows for all allegations such as these to be aired and investigated. Israel has already authorized over 100 separate investigations into the operation and five broader investigations, and close to 50 criminal investigations are also taking place.

All this in the context of having to respond to over 12,000 missiles raining on our citizens — such an operation could unfortunately never be flawless given these circumstances.

Our judicial process is renowned across the world for its independence. This is a country, after all, which holds even the very top of society to account, as has been proven in recent days. This is Israel in the 21st century, a flourishing democracy, thriving amongst a desert of tyranny in the Middle East.

January 26, 2011

Dueling Utopias

Filed under: utopian thought — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Russell Jacoby

Erik Olin Wright

In the latest issue of Dissent, a social democratic journal founded by Irving Howe in 1954, there’s a remarkably vituperative review of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias by Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor. This is the most vicious paragraph:

WHAT IS one to make of this morass? Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber’s 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber’s book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a “real utopia” with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron’s suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled “Awakening from Utopia,” sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the “real utopias” in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.

It must be understood that Jacoby has a special interest in knocking down someone who writes about utopian socialism, especially a figure with some authority in the academic milieu that is home to both of them. Reading Jacoby’s appraisal of Wright, one wonders if there is a kind of envy at work:

He [Wright] is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across the globe. He teaches in what many consider the finest sociology department in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Madison department is where C. Wright Mills received his doctorate, and it housed his mentor, Hans Gerth, an émigré scholar who was a student of another sociologist, Karl Mannheim, whose 1929 Ideology and Utopia remains a touchstone study.

From the looks of it, Wright has won more blue ribbons than Heineken beer, as my good friend the late Mark Jones once described David Harvey. In this rarefied arena, the competition is very intense when it comes to Marxism, at least as defined as published articles and books that few sans-culottes activists will ever have the time or the energy to read.

This is not the first time that Jacoby has gone for the jugular. In the April 10, 2006 Nation Magazine, he went after a young academic named Eric Lott whose book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual he described thusly:

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the “liberal front” he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you’d think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.

I wrote about the Jacoby attack on Lott not long after it appeared:

Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice), it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (there are surely much worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity.” Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.

Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott’s work smacks of ‘infantile leftism,’ but when “Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.” I don’t quite know how to put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.

But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his defense of Todd Gitlin’s and other “old fogies” call for a “universal left.” Let’s get something straight. This “universal left” has nothing to do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.

The latest contretemps with Wright has an added dimension. Although you might not have figured it out from Jacoby’s review, Jacoby is a long-standing utopian socialism theorist so there is a kind of turf battle going on. How dare Wright tackle a subject that Jacoby has made his own?

In some ways, the intensity of Jacoby’s attack reminds me of the beating Mark Danner took at the hands of George Packer in the NY Times Sunday book review. Both men have staked out turf in the “decent left”, with Danner urging NATO punishment of the dastardly Serbs throughout the 1990s and Packer defending Bush’s war in Iraq—until it turned sour. But if you are vying for top honors in State Department liberalism, there’s going to be a need to knock your competitor down a peg or two.

On the question of utopianism, it must be stressed that Wright and Jacoby have completely different approaches. Wright is far more interested in experiments like Mondragon than Jacoby whose notion of utopia mostly revolves around the need for projecting lofty goals, especially through imaginary literature such as Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.

Unlike Wright who has a very active presence on the Internet and who does not mind duking it out with his ideological opponents, including me, Jacoby is a rather aloof and remote figure whose output is almost completely restricted to print journals. Indeed, he does not even have an email address on his UCLA website, an effort one supposes to preempt exchanges with riffraff like me.

Although it is restricted to subscribers, there is an electronic version of an article that Jacoby wrote in the December 2000 Harper’s Magazine titled “A Brave Old World: Looking Forward to a nineteenth-century utopia.”

The article was written to commemorate Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887″ and to make the case for its relevancy in 2000, which mostly has to do with the need for visionary schemes for future societies. Jacoby’s main point is that utopianism has gotten a bad rap because of a failed experiment in the USSR that also embraced ambitious goals. He writes:

Anti-utopianism continues to suffuse our culture. Conventional as well as scholarly opinion posits that utopia spells concentration camps and that utopians secretly dream of being prison guards. Robert Conquest, a leading chronicler of the Soviet terror, is lauded by Gertrude Himmelfarb for telling the truth about “totalitarianism and utopianism” in his latest book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. And the final chapter of The Soviet Tragedy, by Martin Malia, another leading Soviet historian, is tellingly entitled “The Perverse Logic of Utopia.” Indeed, we now think of utopian idealism as little more than a prelude to totalitarian murder. At best, an expression of utopian convictions will call forth a sneer from historians and social scientists. In the nineteenth century the anticipation of a future society of peace and equality was common; now it is almost extinct. Today few imagine that society can be fundamentally improved, and those who do are seen as at best deluded, at worst threatening.

Now who am I to condemn anybody, least of all a widely respected academic like Russell Jacoby, for having utopian convictions? Given the terrible state of the world, one can surely understand why Jacoby would want to hole up in his UCLA office and fantasize about a world where there is no hunger, war, or alienation. It also certainly beats getting your hands dirty working on a campus protest against the war in Afghanistan.

But I think the whole idea of utopia has very little use in the class struggle today. As an old fashioned Marxist, I think the focus has to be on the here and now. As American Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

I don’t think there is any great harm in dreaming up utopian solutions to our problems. Erik Olin Wright’s endorsement of Mondragon will not set us back in the class struggle, nor will Jacoby’s musings do much harm either.

My own approach, however, is at odds with utopianism as I tried to make clear in an article I wrote over ten years ago. It follows in its entirety:

Neo-Utopian Socialism

It is really hard to believe, but adherents to rival utopian visions can have nasty splits just like “Marxist-Leninists”. Evidence of this is contained in the most recent copy of “Democracy and Nature”, a journal formerly known as “Society and Nature”. The International Managing Editor is Takis Fotopoulos.

In the “Dialog” section of the issue, the editors air their dirty laundry. Murray Bookchin, a member of the advisory board along with other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Andre Gunder Frank and Cornelius Castoriadis, is tendering his resignation. Bookchin is the guru of the social ecology movement, which –crudely put– is a mixture of anarchism and environmentalism. He lives in Vermont and posts jeremiads against capitalism to his followers near and wide.

“Very disturbingly, Takis and I have even drifted apart on the issue that long held us together, libertarian municipalism. (I now strongly prefer the word ‘libertarian’ over ‘confederal’ municipalism because ‘libertarian’ has a revolutionary political content, rather than merely a structural and logistical one.) His current advocacy of a personal voucher system and an ‘artificial market’ (whatever happened to a libertarian-communist moral economy?), and his notion that libertarian municipalism could somehow creep up on the bourgeoisie and erode the power of the state are highly disturbing to me. These notions divest libertarian municipalism of its confrontational stance toward the state in the form of a revolutionary dual power. I did not propound this theory of politics to see it mutate into Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy.”

Bookchin’s “libertarian municipalism” is offered as an alternative to the Marxist vision of a transformation of society led by the working-class.

Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable by delegates to adjust differences.

Okay, let’s see if we can get this right. Capitalism will be replaced by a more humane system through the incremental replacement of capitalist chunks of real estate by new egalitarian units. Today we have liberated Putney, Vermont and Madison, Wisconsin. Next week we have a shot at taking over Dallas, Texas. When all the towns and cities have been become liberated zones, we then celebrate our victory by eating dishes of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

What is that Takis Fotopoulos believes in that so exercised Bookchin? The fight is over models and nothing else. Bookchin clings to one model, while Takis to another.

In his “Outline of an Economic Model for an Inclusive Democracy”, contained in the very same issue, Fotopoulos makes a sales presentation for this breakthrough in model-creation:

Although it is up to the citizens’ assemblies of the future to design the form an inclusive democracy will take, I think it is important to demonstrate that such a form of society is not only necessary, so that the present descent to barbarism can be avoided, but feasible as well. This is particularly important when the self-styled ‘left’ has abandoned any vision that is not based on the market economy and liberal ‘democracy’, which they take for granted, and has dismissed an alternative visions as ‘utopian’ (in the negative sense of the word.)

Fotopoulos takes swipes at Hahnel-Albert’s Parecon in his article, who are of course rival utopians. He believes that their schema invites bureaucracy because it provides for some state agency that invites people to state what their consumer “needs” are. Agencies, as we know from bitter experience, can turn into utter monstrosities. One day they will ask you whether you want pleats in your trousers or not. The next day they will be sending you to prison for stating the wrong preference.

Fotopoulos’ schema revolves around the issuance of vouchers.

Basic Vouchers (BVs) are used for the satisfaction of basic needs. These vouchers, which are personal and issued on behalf of the confederation, entitle each citizen to a given level of satisfaction for each particular type of need that has been characterized as ‘basic’, but do not specify the particular type of satisfier, so that choice can be secured.

In contrast to these kinds of detailed but essentially useless blueprints, Marx and Engels saw utopian thought as having limited value. For them, there were three essential features:

  • Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.
  • Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.
  • Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”:

To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer, or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”

This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.

My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.

Furthermore, one has no idea how Roemer’s theory can ever be put into practice since it is not really addressed to the working-class, the historical agent of change in Marxism. Who will change the world, the subscribers to “Economics and Society”? Roemer’s proposals are directed toward the narrow, insular, academic world of “dueling blueprints”. I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of their new left rivals, Albert-Hahnel.

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, another work obviously inspired by Edward Bellamy, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s and Hahnel’s enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgment on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be beside the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

A song for the miners

Filed under: Turkey,workers — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm

Hat tip to Kasama Project

January 25, 2011

The Establishment Left shifts gears

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Last month an open letter to the pro-Obama “establishment left” raised some hackles but it now appears that the intended targets are putting some distance between themselves and the President, as well they should if they hope to maintain a shred of credibility as progressives.

The first and most important reflection of this shift is a website called www.rootsaction.org that appears to be the handiwork of Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, especially in light of their announcement about the website on Znet today. Cohen and Solomon’s proudest moments in my opinion were spent with FAIR, a media watchdog organization that was very useful in refuting lies about Sandinista Nicaragua.

Eventually Cohen and Solomon drifted into Democratic Party politics and lent themselves to the anti-Nader cause. Both wrote articles in 2004 urging a vote for Kerry and quarantining Nader. There are also rumors that they were understudies for Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin in “An Unreasonable Man”, the very fine documentary on Ralph Nader.

In the last year or so, both have become vocal critics of Obama but within the framework of a loyal opposition. Solomon is a past master of holding Obama’s feet to the fire while making sure to maintain his credentials as a Democratic Party operative.

In a Counterpunch article dated April 6, 2009, Solomon proved adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He warned, “In their eagerness to help the Obama presidency, many of its prominent liberal supporters — whatever their private views on the escalation — are willing to function as enablers of the expanded warfare.” But there’s hope for the progressives. It will help the Democrats if they disavow war and seek peace:

For those already concerned about Obama’s re-election prospects, such war realities may seem faraway and relatively abstract. But escalation will fracture his base inside the Democratic Party. If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace.

I would say that the statement that “If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace” makes about as much sense as urging Goldman-Sachs to order its partners to contribute half their income to earthquake relief in Haiti. Solomon would have been far more practical if he had written a letter to Santa Claus urging him to not bring presents to the White House if the President did not behave himself.

Most of the people who have lent their name to Rootsaction.org are the sort of people you hear at the opening plenary of Left Forums in New York. They are also the kind of people who have worked with Progressive Democrats of America, a group that habitually calls on the President to return to traditional Democratic Party values. I would have to remind the comrades that he has returned to such values, if by this you mean the record of DP President Grover Cleveland who broke the Pullman Strike and colonized Hawaii.

There was obviously a need for something like Rootsaction.org in light of the growing disgust with Democratic Party politics. By creating a voice that has no obvious connection to the DP, Cohen and Solomon will have more credibility with the left—at least those sectors of the left that can’t connect the dotted lines between their sordid Democratic Party affiliations and this latest maneuver.

Perhaps in an effort to give multiple voices to the left wing of the Democratic Party all on the same day, Znet also published an article by Bill Fletcher Jr. who is ideologically very close to Cohen and Solomon but with the added cachet of having spent some time as a Marxist activist. Fletcher’s piece takes up the question of the Obama presidency through a review of Horace Campbell’s “Barack Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics.” Campbell, an African-American scholar, was a Marxist like Fletcher, but has created his own ideology called Ubuntu that Fletcher describes as “a means for cooperation, forgiveness, healing and a willingness to share.” Without wanting to sound too disrespectful, this ideology makes about as much sense to me as writing letters to Santa Claus in a world ruled by Lloyd Blankfein and Presidents who cater to their every whim.

Like Fletcher, Campbell blames progressives for the failure of the Obama presidency to live up to the ideals of the New Deal or other ostensibly progressive interludes in a long, dreary succession of DP White Houses that have much more to do with Grover Cleveland than FDR. Fletcher writes:

[The book] focuses on both a critique of Obama-as-President but more importantly on the unwillingness or inability of many progressive social forces to retain the level of mobilization that was evident in the 2008 election. Instead there has been an overreliance on Obama-as-individual rather than treating him as an instrument which needs to be pressured. Campbell, in contrast, points out the manner in which Abraham Lincoln was forced, through a combination of social forces, to become more than he had anticipated being.

This formula, of course, has been repeated a thousand times in the pages of the Nation Magazine both before and after Obama’s election. It assumes that if sufficient pressure was put on Obama, he’d have pushed for EFCA, effective measures against climate change, an ambitious jobs program, etc. Nowadays, you find virtually no such appeals because it has probably dawned on even the thickest progressive that Obama has much more in common with Herbert Hoover than FDR, or Abe Lincoln for that matter. Obama is capable of responding to social forces, as long as they emanate from Wall Street.

The remainder of Fletcher’s review serves as a kind of distancing of himself from the heady days of the Progressives for Obama website launched by Carl Davidson, where illusions in Obama were fostered on a wholesale basis. Fletcher writes, for example, that “Obama himself was programmatically not very different from Hillary Clinton.” Given this admission, it makes one wonder why he bothered to debate a Clinton supporter on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio show in 2008. Back then he said:

My reasons for backing Obama is that I think that on the issues that he is better positioned and that he offers an opportunity, beginning with his inauguration in 2009, to change the direction of the country and particularly to change the relationship between the United States and the rest of the planet.

In other words, the same pipe dream as Horace Campbell’s.

One hopes that the next time Fletcher will keep his early Marxist training in mind before making such an ill-considered prediction. One could have figured out where Obama was going long before he became President, as long as one looked at the social forces that had operated on him from an early age. The radical poet Franklin Marshall Davis warned the young Obama what was in store for him:

He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.

(Dreams from My Father)

Finally, I would urge you to read Chris Hedges’s article that appears in today’s Truthdig. It is a quite penetrating look at the efforts of such progressives to distinguish themselves from the White House while refusing to break with the two-party system. Hedges writes:

Barack Obama is another stock character in the cyclical political theater embraced by the liberal class. Act I is the burst of enthusiasm for a Democratic candidate who, through clever branding and public relations, appears finally to stand up for the interests of citizens rather than corporations. Act II is the flurry of euphoria and excitement. Act III begins with befuddled confusion and gnawing disappointment, humiliating appeals to the elected official to correct “mistakes,” and pleading with the officeholder to return to his or her true self. Act IV is the thunder and lightning scene. Liberals strut across the stage in faux moral outrage, delivering empty threats of vengeance. And then there is Act V. This act is the most pathetic. It is as much farce as tragedy. Liberals—frightened back into submission by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party or the call to be practical—begin the drama all over again.

We are now in Act IV, the one where the liberal class postures like the cowardly policemen in “The Pirates of Penzance.” Liberals promise battle. They talk of glory and honor. They vow not to abandon their core liberal values. They rouse themselves, like the terrified policemen who have no intention of fighting the pirates, with the bugle call of “Tarantara!” This scene is the most painful to watch. It is a window into how hollow, vacuous and powerless liberals and liberal institutions including labor, the liberal church, the press, the arts, universities and the Democratic Party have become. They fight for nothing. They stand for nothing. And at a moment when we desperately need citizens and institutions willing to stand up against corporate forces for the core liberal values, values that make a democracy possible, we get the ridiculous chatter and noise of the liberal class.

The moral outrage of the liberal class, a specialty of MSNBC, groups such as Progressives for Obama and MoveOn.org, is built around the absurd language of personal narrative—as if Barack Obama ever wanted to or could defy the interests of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase or General Electric. The liberal class refuses to directly confront the dead hand of corporate power that is rapidly transforming America into a brutal feudal state. To name this power, to admit that it has a death grip on our political process, our systems of information, our artistic and religious expression, our education, and has successfully emasculated popular movements, including labor, is to admit that the only weapons we have left are acts of civil disobedience. And civil disobedience is difficult, uncomfortable and lonely. It requires us to step outside the formal systems of power and trust in acts that are marginal, often unrecognized and have no hope of immediate success.


January 24, 2011

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.

On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.

As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.

One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.

These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!

January 23, 2011

David Gibbs replies to Marko Attila Hoare

Filed under: cruise missile left,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

David N. Gibbs Replies to Marko Atilla Hoare

This posting is a follow-up on an extended debate that I have been having with Marko Atilla Hoare, on the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. For those interested in the full set of comments, you can find them here http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/david-gibbs-answers-marko-atilla-hoare/. This debate actually began on Modernityblog, but I have decided that Louis Proyect’s website is a much better venue for my comments. I thank Louis for allowing me to post on his website.

Let me begin by noting that Hoare seems to have an obsessive interest in my 2009 book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). Over the past two months, Hoare has written three lengthy attack reviews of my book on his own website, which (when printed out) run to some eighteen single-spaced pages; in addition to several dozen postings to Modernityblog, in debates that directly address my book. And he promises that there will be yet more attack reviews, to add to all this. One wonders if the man actually has a job, or if attacking me has become a full time endeavor. Either way, I am impressed by the sheer volume of his output.

In what follows, I will make no pretense that I answer all of Hoare’s allegations, which I find impossible, given the huge quantity of his charges. What I will show however is that Hoare’s writings contain major and systematic errors of fact that would, in any normal situation, discredit him.

One of Hoare’s most persistent charges is that my book whitewashes Serb atrocities, notably the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In reality, this is nothing but a smear, based on an extended series of factual errors. Several examples follow. In Modernityblog (29/12/10), Hoare writes:

“in your sections on Srebrenica (pp. 153-154, 161-162), you falsely portray the Srebrenica Muslims as the ones principally guilty of the violence in the Srebrenica region, and of ‘creating the hatred’ there – despite the fact that most of the killing in the region was the work of the Serb forces.”

Wrong. This is what my book actually states (p. 161):

“the capture of Srebrenica led to atrocities that were far larger in scale than anything that had occurred during three years of fighting… the Serb armies began by expelling the town’s women and children, producing yet another act of ethnic cleansing. And then the Serbs proceeded to murder some eight thousand military age Muslim males. According to the Dutch investigation of the massacre: ‘Muslims were slaughtered like beasts.’”

Later in the debate (5/1/11), Hoare changes tack and makes the following statement — which contains new factual errors:

“Your account of the background to the Srebrenica massacre presents the Muslims/Bosnian army as the ones principally guilty of the atrocities in the region, and of having ‘created the hatred’ there (pp. 153-154).

You then claim ‘The origin of the Srebrenica massacre lay in a series of Muslim attacks that began in the spring of 1995.’ (p. 160)

So while you do not deny that the massacre occurred, you a) deny that it was genocide, and b) blame the victims for it.” [emphasis added]

The key point here is the claim that I supposedly “blame the victims” for the Srebrenica massacre. This is a straightforward factual error. In reality, my position is the following:

“Without question, the Bosnian Serb army and their political and military leaders must bear the overwhelming burden of guilt for having orchestrated this calamity. However, the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović must bear some of the blame as well. Contrary to popular belief, Bosnia’s Muslim-led government was in fact quite ruthless and some of its actions helped lay the groundwork for the massacre. Specifically, the Izetbegović government followed a clear policy that aimed to maximize casualties of its own civilians, a strategy adopted to elicit the outrage of international public opinion, and thus leading to Western military intervention against the Serbs and in favor of the Muslim.” [emphasis added]

This quote was taken from the following article, which was posted twice to Modernityblog:  D. Gibbs, “The Srebrenica Massacre After Fifteen Years,” Foreign Policy in Focus, July 30, 2010, (www.fpif.org/articles/the_srebrenica_massacre_after_fifteen_years).

In short, I never state that the 8,000 Muslim victims were responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. On the contrary, I put primary blame on the Serb forces, and secondary blame on the Muslim government (which is not the same as the Muslim massacre victims). Hoare’s inflammatory claim that I blame the victims is a factual error.

Hoare’s above statement contains yet another error, attributing to me the quote “created the hatred” – which implies that I believe the Muslims not the Serbs had created the hatred in the Srebrenica area. In reality, the phrase “created the hatred” appears nowhere in my book or in any of my writings.

A central claim by Hoare is that I engage in “genocide denial.” Indeed, his first review of my book was given the unsubtle title, “The Bizarre World of Genocide Denial” (Greater Surbiton, 6/12/10).  The origin of Hoare’s charge is an endnote in my book (p. 281), in which I presented an extended quote from an article by Katherine Southwick, in the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal. The quote criticizes the Krstić decision by the international tribunal at The Hague, which had originally defined the Srebrenica massacre as a case of genocide. The cited article strongly implies that the court had erred in defining that massacre as genocide. Based on the evidence in the Southwick article, my endnote concluded that Srebrenica was closer to a war crime than to a genocide. This endnote became the initial basis of Hoare’s entire claim that I am a supposed genocide denier.

If I cannot cite and agree with an article in a Yale law review without being attacked like this, then there obviously is something wrong with the way this discussion is taking place.

When the above was pointed out on Modernityblog, Hoare responded (29/12/10):

“The Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal article by Katherine G. Southwick that you cite, unlike you, does not blame the genocide on the victims.” [emphasis added]

This is another factual error since, as noted above, I never blame the victims for the Srebrenica massacre.

Another point of contention concerns the lead-up to the Srebrenica massacre. Hoare claims my book “suppresses the history of Serb mass killings of Bosniaks in east Bosnia in 1992” (7/12/10). Wrong. Here is what my book actually says (122):

“As war began [in1992], Serb forces launched a major offensive in northeast Bosnia, talking over a series of villages of mixed ethnicity, and then expelling most of the non-Serb inhabitants by force. By the end of 1992, Serb forces had overrun large portions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they controlled approximately 70 percent of the whole area of the country. The process of ethnic cleansing, for which the war became famous, had begun… The Bosnia conflict quickly became notorious for the scale of atrocities, especially those perpetrated by Serb forces against Muslim civilians. The widespread practice of ethnic cleansing was often associated with the killing of noncombatants, and also the raping of women and girls.”

In short: With regard to the issue of Serb atrocities, Hoare’s claims are an extended misrepresentation of my position, based on a long string of factual errors.

And there are still more errors. With regard to my sources, Hoare claims that Gibbs “hasn’t bothered to engage with the existing literature, but simply ignored all the existing works that undermine his thesis” (Greater Surbiton, 6/12/10). He then lists five specific authors that I supposedly failed to cite (Michael Libal, Richard Caplan, Daniele Corversi, Brendan Simms, and Hoare himself). Wrong again. In fact I cited four of these authors, each several times, and also included them in the bibliography. Hoare’s own writings were cited (and criticized) in four separate endnotes. His claim that I have ignored these authors is in error.

And in a later posting to Greater Surbiton (24/12/10), Hoare discusses at great length my book’s criticisms of his own work – thus contradicting his previous claim that my book had ignored his work. And he also discusses a quote from my book that discusses Serb atrocities in northeast Bosnia in 1992 (see my block quote above). This contradicts his previous statement that my book “suppresses the history of Serb mass killings of Bosniaks in east Bosnia in 1992.” Finally, I will note that Hoare’s third long review of my book contains a factual error in its very title of the review: “First Check their Sources 2: The Myth that Most of Bosnia was Owned by the Serbs before the War.’” In reality, the quoted phrase (“Most of Bosnia…”) appears nowhere in my book or in any of my writings.

The above should give the reader a sense of Hoare’s “style” of argumentation. No doubt this posting will be followed by yet another blistering attack on my work, penned by the ever-eager Mr. Hoare — presenting yet more factual errors. I wonder if his cumulative attacks will eventually exceed several hundred pages.  Perhaps Hoare should consider publishing all of his attacks of my work as a separate book; or even an encyclopedia.

January 21, 2011

Sins of South Beach

Filed under: crime,literature,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

I return to NYC tomorrow after a wonderful time in South Beach, especially the time spent with Alex Daoud, the author of the must-read “Sins of South Beach”. I plan to write a longer and more analytical review but this amazon.com review I wrote should be sufficient to persuade you to get your own copy.


If “Sins of South Beach” accomplished one and only one thing, namely to show how corruption works in politics, then author Alex Douad would have performed an enormous service to our country. There is hardly a week that passes by without someone like Tom DeLay being sentenced for money laundering. Americans really need to know how and why such a thing happens.

As someone who spent 18 months in a federal prison for bribes taken while mayor of Miami Beach, Douad is uniquely positioned to describe his own sins and those who he came in contact with, including some of the area’s most powerful politicians, real estate developers and bankers. Given the power of some of these individuals, it is something of a miracle that the book was ever published. It is also all the more remarkable given that it is likely the very first book ever written by a politician who has fallen from grace. In light of the state of American governance, this honest, insightful, courageous and beautifully written memoir is worth all the self-serving memoirs of public officials put together, including that of George W. Bush.

But “Sins of South Beach” is more than this. It is also a spell-binding tale that is written with a experienced novelist’s touch, one in which the reader can’t wait to get to the next chapter to find out what happens to the tarnished hero Alex Daoud. Indeed, this is the kind of book that would have made me miss a subway stop in my hometown New York City. But here in South Beach, where I am vacationing, the same thing happened. I took the book down to the beach with me with the intention of spending two hours under the sun while getting the low-down on what was happening here in the roaring 80s. But I became so riveted by the action that I lost track of the time and got myself a good sunburn! Oh well, that’s a small price to pay for getting immersed in such a gripping tale.

As someone with a background in politics and law, Alex Daoud is a remarkably gifted writer. “Sins of South Beach” has a cinematic quality, evoking “The Godfather” in some ways as well as classic tales of an honest man seduced into doing wrong, like “Double Indemnity” or “Body Heat”. In Alex Daoud’s case, the seducer was not a beautiful woman but a wealthy establishment in Miami Beach that bought and sold politicians like they were condominiums. Although the author is unsparing with himself, one cannot but note that the bribes he took harmed nobody except the rich men who were buying favors, and for whom such monies were almost pocket change. By comparison, Jack Abramoff hurt Indian tribes and non-unionized sweatshop workers in his quest to achieve wealth and power.

It should be understood, however, that Alex Daoud does not try to whitewash his career here. Despite being mayor at a time when Miami Beach was making great strides forward as an art deco cultural center and a fabulous place to spend a vacation, the book is focused almost totally on his sins. They say that Catholics are great both at sinning and at confessing. When a Catholic (a Lebanese Catholic in Daoud’s case) has a talent with the pen, such as St. Augustine’s Confessions, the result can be a classic of literature. While it would be a bit much to compare Alex Daoud to St. Augustine, I can say with conviction that this is the finest memoir by a public official that I have ever read and a book that I will recommend to friends and associates for the rest of my life.

Our Hero

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

January 20, 2011

LBJ orders pants

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

January 19, 2011

Milton Rogovin, radical photographer, dead at 101

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 1:36 am

NY Times January 18, 2011

Milton Rogovin, Photographer, Dies at 101


Milton Rogovin, an optometrist and persecuted leftist who took up photography as a way to champion the underprivileged and went on to become one of America’s most dedicated social documentarians, died on Tuesday at his home in Buffalo. He was 101.

He died of natural causes, his son, Mark Rogovin, said.

Mr. Rogovin chronicled the lives of the urban poor and working classes in Buffalo, Appalachia and elsewhere for more than 50 years. His direct photographic style in stark black and white evokes the socially minded work that Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks produced for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. Today his entire archive resides in the Library of Congress.

Mr. Rogovin (pronounced ruh-GO-vin) came to wide notice in 1962 after documenting storefront church services on Buffalo’s poor and predominantly African-American East Side. The images were published in Aperture magazine with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, who described them as “astonishingly human and appealing.”

He went on to photograph Buffalo’s impoverished Lower West Side and American Indians on reservations in the Buffalo area. He traveled to West Virginia and Kentucky to photograph miners, returning to Appalachia each summer with his wife, Anne Rogovin, into the early 1970s. In the ’60s he went to Chile at the invitation of the poet Pablo Neruda to photograph the landscape and the people. The two collaborated on a book, “Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.”

In a 1976 review of a Rogovin show of photographs from Buffalo at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, the critic Hilton Kramer wrote of Mr. Rogovin in The New York Times: “He sees something else in the life of this neighborhood — ordinary pleasures and pastimes, relaxation, warmth of feeling and the fundamentals of social connection. He takes his pictures from the inside, so to speak, concentrating on family life, neighborhood business, celebrations, romance, recreation and the particulars of individuals’ existence.”

Milton Rogovin was born on Dec. 30, 1909, in Brooklyn, the third of three sons of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania. His parents, Jacob Rogovin and the former Dora Shainhouse, operated a dry goods business, first in Manhattan on Park Avenue near 112th Street and later in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. After attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the young Mr. Rogovin graduated from Columbia University in 1931 with a degree in optometry; four months later, after the family had lost the store and its home to bankruptcy during the Depression, his father died of a heart attack.

Working as an optometrist in Manhattan, Mr. Rogovin became increasingly distressed at the plight of the poor and unemployed — “the forgotten ones,” he called them — and increasingly involved in leftist political causes.

“I was a product of the Great Depression, and what I saw and experienced myself made me politically active,” he said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times.

He began attending classes sponsored by the Communist Party-run New York Workers School, began to read the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and was introduced to the social-documentary photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

Mr. Rogovin moved to Buffalo in 1938 and opened his own optometric office on Chippewa Street the next year, providing service to union workers. In 1942 he married Anne Snetsky before volunteering for the Army and serving for three years in England, where he worked as an optometrist. Also in 1942, he bought a camera.

Returning to Buffalo after the war (his brother Sam, also an optometrist, managed the practice in his absence), Mr. Rogovin joined the local chapter of the Optical Workers Union and served as librarian for the Buffalo branch of the Communist Party.

In 1957, with cold war anti-Communism rife in the United States, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to testify. Soon afterward, The Buffalo Evening News labeled him “Buffalo’s Number One Red,” and he and his family were ostracized. With his business all but ruined by the publicity, he began to fill time by taking pictures, focusing on Buffalo’s poor and dispossessed in the neighborhood around his practice while living on his wife’s salary as a teacher and being mentored by the photographer Minor White.

His wife, a special education teacher, was a collaborator throughout his career and helped him organize his photographs until her death, in 2003.

Mr. Rogovin’s photographs were typically naturalistic portraits of people he met on the street. “The first six months were very difficult,” he recalled in a 2003 interview, “because they thought I was from the police department or the F.B.I.

But he gradually built trust, giving away prints of portraits in exchange for sittings. He never told his subjects what to do, allowing them to pose in settings and clothing of their own choosing.

“These aren’t cool sociological renderings but intensely personal evocations of a world whose faces are often missing in a culture that celebrates the beautiful and the powerful,” Julie Salamon wrote in The Times in 2003 on the occasion of a Rogovin exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.

Mr. Rogovin began his Storefront Church series in 1961 at the invitation of a friend, William Tallmadge, a professor of music at the State University of New York at Buffalo who was making recordings at a black church on the city’s East Side. The success of the series encouraged Mr. Rogovin to devote more and more time to photography and persuaded him that photography could be an instrument of social change.

In 1972 he earned a Master of Arts in American studies from the University at Buffalo, where he taught documentary photography from 1972 to 1974. The next year he held his first major exhibition, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

In the next years his photographs were published in several books and widely exhibited; a show of his work is currently on view at the Gage Gallery in Chicago. Many are in the collections of museums, including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Library of Congress acquired his archive in 1999.

In addition to his son, of Forest Park, Ill., Mr. Rogovin is survived by two daughters, Ellen Rogovin Hart of Melrose Park, Pa., and Paula Rogovin of Teaneck, N.J.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In his later years, as his health declined, Mr. Rogovin used a wheelchair and no longer took photographs. In 2009 he was nominated for a National Medal of Arts but was not selected.

His activism, however, was undimmed — he attended political rallies and antiwar protests into his final years — and his social conscience remained acute.

“All my life I’ve focused on the poor,” he said in 2003. “The rich ones have their own photographers.”

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