Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 5, 2011

Pham Binh radio interview

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

I think most people are aware that Binh has been writing some of the most profound analyses of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Listen to this interview with him conducted by another sharp guy Richard Estes.


Plus, an article on occupations past and present.



November 3, 2011

Veterans march in NYC to support OWS

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Occupy Oakland activists fend off black bloc agents provocateurs

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,Zizek — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

For reasons I don’t quite understand, anytime I write anything about Zizek, it generates exceptional traffic here. This may be because there is a lot of interest in Zizek or because he brings out the best (worst?) in me. I confess that Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding, but I do look forward to increased traffic on my blog in the hope that new readers will find other articles useful as well. The one below was written before I began blogging. You can find all my articles, both from that period and afterwards, at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm.

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 31, 2004

An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters” website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the figurative sense)  [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.

October 31, 2011

Is democracy the enemy? A reply to Zizek

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Although the content of Slavoj Žižek’s blog post in the London Review (Democracy is the enemy) is not so nearly as bad as the title, it still betrays the same kind of misunderstanding of the relationship between democracy and socialism that I addressed in my critique of “The Idea of Communism” conference held a couple of weeks ago in NY:

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

To start with, the title is an obvious attempt to jar the liberal sensibilities of the London Review’s readers. As a perennial Katzenjammer Kid of academic Marxism, Zizek relishes these types of formulations. It goes hand in hand with his embrace of Lenin, who unlike Gramsci or Walter Benjamin et al, will never be invoked at a Modern Language Association keynote address.

The first part of Zizek’s article actually makes some good points at the expense of the atrocious Anne Applebaum, a neoconservative at the Washington Post:

The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’

‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.

Back in 2003 I had an occasion to write Ms. Applebaum one of my patented Lazlo Toth type letters:

My dear Anne Applebaum,

I realize that you have a lot invested career-path-wise in flogging Communism and might get carried away on occasion like a bull at the sight of a red cape. However, your review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism” in the London Telegraph seems to detach itself from the planet and fly off into the stratosphere. You start off:

“Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.”

I wasn’t aware that Salvador Allende was a murderer, or a communist. Is this your own heterodox interpretation or something that the neo-McCarthyite movement has cooked up while I wasn’t paying attention? I honestly can’t keep track of all the nutty things coming out of the Weekly Standard, the NY Post editorial page and David Horowitz’s website nowadays. It is like trying to keep track of car commercials during a football game. Can you refer me to an article that makes the case that Allende was rounding up free-market ideologues and throwing them into concentration camps or cutting off their noses? In sorry times such as these, a good laugh always helps.

I remember her rising to the bait and replying to me, but I can’t exactly remember what she said. Anyhow, I’m happy that Zizek took her on.

However, I am not so happy with his take on Marxism and democracy:

Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.

The thing that bothers me the most is that for all of Zizek’s constant references to himself as a kind of diehard Marxist-Leninist, as well as all of his academic credentials, you can never find him referencing what Marx or Lenin ever wrote about democracy. I am especially troubled by his claim that “Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc.”

Did you ever consider why Lenin decided to get a law degree? It was in order to discover loopholes in the Czarist legal codes to help workers win the right to strike or to organize. Back in 1970 when I was in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party, a debate broke out in the branch between the majority led by Peter Camejo and a minority led by Larry Trainor, an old-timer from the James P. Cannon generation, over whether we should support the Shea Bill, described at the time by the Harvard Crimson:

The law, often known as the Shea Bill after its sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, Rep. H. James Shea. Jr. (D-Newton), authorizes Massachusetts residents to refuse combat duty in wars Congress has not declared. Furthermore, it instructs Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Quinn to defend and assist servicemen who refuse to fight on these constitutional grounds.

The minority made arguments similar to Zizek’s, accusing the majority of fostering “a democratic illusion” in a parliamentary system stacked against the working class. By urging a vote for the Shea Bill, we were supposedly building confidence in the capitalist state and undermining the anti-war movement, as if we urged a vote for Gene McCarthy or George McGovern. I have vivid memories of Peter getting up to explain how Lenin used to study the Czarist legal codes late into the evening to figure out a way to use the laws against the system. That was the way most of us in the SWP thought about such matters in the days before the group turned into something similar to the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party that like Zizek is all too fond of drawing distinctions between the communist goal of the future and just about every reform that is worth struggling for.

You can get a good idea of Lenin’s approach to these matters in his 1899 article “Factory Courts” that urged the creation of joint employer-worker bodies that would “examine cases and disputes arising in connection with the terms of hire, with the fixing of rates of pay for ordinary work and overtime, with the discharge of workers in violation of rules, with payments for damage to material, with unfair imposition of fines, etc., etc.” Such bodies were fairly common in Western Europe at the time and would obviously never affect what Zizek called “the social relations of production”. That being the case, why did Lenin urge their introduction into Russia? He explained:

The first advantage of the factory court is that it is much more accessible to the workers. To present a petition to an ordinary court, one has to submit it in writing (which often requires the employment of a solicitor); stamp duty has to be paid; there are long waiting periods; the plaintiff has to appear in court, which takes him and the witnesses away from their work; then comes a further period of waiting until the case goes to a higher court to be retried after an appeal by dissatisfied litigants. Is it any wonder that workers do not willingly resort to the ordinary courts? Factory courts, on the contrary, consist of employers and workers elected as judges. It is not at all difficult for a worker to make a verbal complaint to one of his fellow workers whom he has himself elected. Sessions of factory courts are usually   held on holidays or, in general, at times when the workers are free and do not have to interrupt their work. Cases are handled much more expeditiously by factory courts.

After enumerating other advantages, Lenin concludes with the most salient point:

Finally, there is one other benefit accruing from factory courts that must be mentioned: they get factory owners, directors, and foremen into the habit of treating workers decently, of treating them as equal citizens and not as slaves. Every worker knows that factory owners and foremen all too often permit themselves to treat workers in a disgracefully insulting manner, to rail at them, etc. It is difficult for a worker to complain against this attitude; it can be rebuffed only when the workers are sufficiently developed and are able to give support to their comrade.

The above paragraph is about as “Leninist” as you can get. Unlike Zizek’s Lenin, who comes across as a podium-pounding preacher for “communism”, Lenin’s focus was on organizing workers so that they gain self-confidence in struggle, achieving victory by victory until they have enough of a sense of their own right to become a ruling class. When that day arrives, you will see the greatest flowering of democracy possible.

That being said, Lenin also believed in the need to expand bourgeois democracy. Why? It was a way for workers to press their own demands within the system. To sneer at workers running their own candidates, etc. is not only a slap in the face to what Lenin stood for, but Marx and Engels as well.

In 1847 Engels wrote an article titled “The Principles of Communism” that, among other things, answered the question “What is the attitude of the communists to the other political parties of our time?” It stated:

In England, France, and Belgium, where the bourgeoisie rules, the communists still have a common interest with the various democratic parties, an interest which is all the greater the more closely the socialistic measures they champion approach the aims of the communists – that is, the more clearly and definitely they represent the interests of the proletariat and the more they depend on the proletariat for support. In England, for example, the working-class Chartists are infinitely closer to the communists than the democratic petty bourgeoisie or the so-called Radicals.

I was also intrigued to see Engels urge communists to “continually support the radical liberal party, taking care to avoid the self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie and not fall for the enticing promises of benefits which a victory for the bourgeoisie would allegedly bring to the proletariat.”

One can only assume that Engels probably would have urged leftists in the U.S. to support our own “radical liberal party”—the Greens before the Democrats took over, or the Nader-Camejo campaign in 2004. Given the lack of motion in the working class, such formations are the only instruments existing today that can pose an alternative to the two-party system and even elect men and women to local office. Furthermore, if the Green Party hadn’t been sabotaged by the Demogreens, it is conceivable that as it gathered more and more momentum, it might have even elected people to Congress.

Can you imagine the impact Peter Camejo would have had if he had been elected to Congress? With only a Bernie Sanders there to pose as an “independent” critic of capitalist misrule, there’s not much of an alternative to conventional liberal politics.

Someone like Camejo would have used every opportunity to denounce the system from within, in the spirit of what Lenin urged “left Communists” (Zizek’s forerunners) in his famous article on Left-Wing Communism, the Infantile Disorder:

Even if only a fairly large minority of the industrial workers, and not “millions” and “legions”, follow the lead of the Catholic clergy—and a similar minority of rural workers follow the landowners and kulaks (Grossbauern)—it undoubtedly signifies that parliamentarianism in Germany has not yet politically outlived itself, that participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory on the party of the revolutionary proletariat specifically for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, and for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden and ignorant rural masses. Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.

Windbags, indeed.

Capitalist society illustrated

Filed under: anti-capitalism — louisproyect @ 3:21 am

October 29, 2011

Siberia Monamour; The Edge

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Something tells me that Russian film is going through some kind of renaissance. My first inkling was “Silent Souls”, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s meditation on love and loss among the Merjan people that I reviewed last month. Like “Silent Souls”, two recent films are set in Russia’s hinterlands and to be sure, there is nothing more hinter than Siberia. Last night I saw “Siberia, Monamour” that kicked off the Eleventh Annual Russian Film Week in New York at the Village East theater. If this film is any indication of the quality of the films being shown at this festival through November 5th, and I suspect it is, New Yorkers are strongly urged to check out the schedule and make time for something special. Also set in Siberia is “The Edge”, a striking mixture of life in the gulag and steam locomotives! It opens at the Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles on November 23rd. Both of these films capture the visual beauty of the Siberian taiga (mountainous forests resembling the Canadian Rockies) as well as its physical and psychological isolation. Superior story telling and performances mark both as well. While neither one is explicitly political, it is obvious that both represent attempts to come to grips with the Soviet experience.

Monamour, obviously a play on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, is the name of a tiny Siberian village in post-Soviet Russia that is suffering the effects of economic rather than nuclear fall-out. This is not the Russia of oligarchs in Gucci shoes driving Mercedes-Benz’s. The main mode of transportation is a horse-drawn hay cart that Yura (Sergey Novikov) uses to visit his young nephew Leshia (Mikhail Protsko) and Ivan (Pyotr Zaychenko), his father and the boy’s grandfather, in Monamour. When Yura’s wife discovers some canned goods buried in the hay that will help the old man and the boy make it through hard times, she withdraws them angrily. There is barely enough food for his own family, how can he give anything to others? It is obvious that in a devastated Siberia, individual need trumps solidarity.

Also buried in the hay is a hunting rifle that Yuri needs as protection from feral dogs that live in the woods. We first see these dogs in the opening scenes as they devour a deer that they have hunted down. As terrifying as they appear, one of the dogs is a frequent and friendly visitor to the primitive farmhouse inhabited by Leshia and his grandfather. Leshia calls the dog Fang in homage to White Fang, the wolf-dog in Jack London’s children’s adventure story. His grandfather hates the feral dogs since they have killed most of the game in the surrounding forests. In this Hobbesian universe, it is dog versus man—literally so, as we will eventually discover. In a world with little in the way of creature comforts or hope for the future, the grandfather relies totally on a religious icon that he prays to like clockwork, begging Jesus and God for relief that will certainly not come in this world. Looking at the miserable conditions such people live in, one wonders whether Communism managed to change daily life in Siberia in any sort of material way.

The only signs of modernization would seem to be the army patrols that are looking for the criminals who prey on rural folk and who are the human equivalents of the feral dogs. On his way to Leshia and Ivan, Yuri runs into a couple of soldiers who have lost their way in the forest. After giving them directions, he prevails on them to share some home-brewed alcohol and food that he has brought along. The older soldier, a Captain (Nikolai Kozak), is only too happy to drink with Yuri and they finish off the bottle, much to the chagrin of the younger soldier who takes his job seriously. As Yuri continues on his way—drunkenly—to his father and nephew, the two soldiers head to a local whorehouse where the Captain’s degradation only deepens.

The paths of the soldiers, a prostitute the Captain dragoons for his commanding officer—a degenerate who even the Captain will not forbear, Yuri’s family, the feral dogs, and two criminals searching for religious icons to sell as antiques become intertwined in a complex but deftly handled plot that combines sardonic humor and wrenching pain and suffering. Furthermore, the characters—both human and canine—are not drawn together through the by-now hackneyed coincidence device found in another dog meets human film “Amores Perros”, but through the iron necessity of social relations in contemporary Russia.

This is only the second film ever made by Slava Ross, who was born in Siberia in 1966. It is both a loving tribute to a land that he obviously finds beautiful despite its harsh conditions as well as a cry against the suffering of its people today. If it ever makes it to American movie houses, as it surely should, don’t miss this memorable work of art.

In the opening scene of “The Edge” (Krai), we see Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov), a veteran of the recently concluded war against the Nazis, on board a steam locomotive that is heading to a Siberian work camp. Trains are the only way in and out of the camp, where Ignat has been assigned to work as a mechanic and engineer on the colossal machines. In this film, the machines are as important dramatically as the feral dogs are in “Siberia, Monamour”. Director Alexey Uchitel told the Voice of Russia:

The film is consistent with many Western stereotypes of Russia – the taiga, bears, moonshine, naked women in the Russian banya (sauna) a KGB agent with a gun.  But the racing around on old locomotives, built in the early 20th century, is quite an unusual thing. In the film, trains made in the early 20th century build up astonishing speeds.

Our locomotives are great actors. They are like living creatures. They hiss, they blow off steam, they can be gentle and they get so angry that they derail. When we were shooting the last episode a huge train derailed knocking off all our projector lamps.  I think he was really tired.

The camp is made up entirely of people who have had some contact with Nazi Germany, either as friend (Wehrmacht prisoners of war) or as foe—Russians who were used as slave labor. As was so often the case with Stalin, such distinctions hardly mattered.

There is no barbed wire or walls to keep the camp’s inhabitants from escaping. As the commandant, a man who lost his right arm in combat, tells Ignat, there is no exit from the camp except for the trains that he has been brought to maintain.

Ignat is a man of few words. Striding into the camp like Clint Eastwood into a lawless Southwest town, Ignat speaks through his actions. He has a master’s touch with the locomotives, and is unbeatable with his fists and irresistible to women, including the beautiful but coarse Sofia who dumps her current lover—an engineer like Ignat. She is a Russian who was dragged off to Germany just like the young prostitute is dragged off to satisfy Russian soldiers’ lust in “Siberia, Monamour”. When she is sent to the work camp after the war, she brings back an orphaned German baby boy who is still treated as an enemy by a Stalinist functionary who keeps the inmates in line.

Ignat soon learns that there is some kind of ghost living on a nearby island. After standing up to the German military, this amounted to small potatoes. The ghost turns out to be Elsa, a German woman in her early 20s who has been hiding out from the Russians since the war began. She came there originally with her father, who was hired to develop the railway system during the short-lived German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. When Hitler invaded Russia, Elsa and her father instantly become enemies and flee for their lives. Bullets strike her father down, but she narrowly escapes with her life. Like the last Japanese soldier on a desert island in the Pacific, she is not even aware that WWII has ended–or begun for that matter. All she knows is that the Russians want to kill her, for what reason she does not know.

Also on the island is a locomotive engine in utter disrepair that Ignat is determined to salvage and make his own. After an initial altercation with Ignat, Elsa becomes his assistant and then his lover.

Like “Siberia, Monamour”, this is a raw and elemental work that only deals with the Soviet experience in an indirect manner. But there is little doubt that the director’s sympathies are with those who became its victims. While director Alexey Uchitel’s main intentions are to tell a good story with believable and sympathetic characters, his film is a necessary commentary on a system that became undone through its own irrationalities. The idea that Russians who were dragged off as chattel slaves to Germany should be suspected of treason and kept isolated in Siberia is pure insanity.

Russia has selected “The Edge” for its Best Picture Academy Award this year. While I have no doubt concurring with this decision, I would raise the ante and bet that it will surpass anything made in Hollywood this year. It is reassuring that despite the continuing decline of Russia in the post-Soviet era into a typical, class-divided petro-dictatorship, the film industry shows signs of great health.

October 27, 2011

Occupy the DOE!

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 1:20 am

October 26, 2011

Reflections on the passing of John McCarthy and Dennis Ritchie

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

John McCarthy

Dennis Ritchie

Two towering figures in computing died this month, besides Steve Jobs. A good case can be made that their contributions are as great as his, if not greater. The first was Dennis Ritchie who died at the age of 70 on October 13th. Ritchie invented the C programming language and the Unix operating system, two of the technologies that are key to the distributed computing today that makes the Internet possible. The other is John McCarthy who died yesterday at the age of 84. Like Ritchie, McCarthy was a major innovator in both languages and operating systems. He was the father of time-sharing, the key component of mainframe operating systems that allowed multiple users to access the computer as if they were the exclusive owner. McCarthy went on to become a pioneer of artificial intelligence and created a language called LISP that is widely used in this arena.

When I began working on IBM mainframes in 1970, I was trained in something called TSO or time-sharing option. This was the framework for submitting test jobs, editing my COBOL programs, debugging, etc. TSO grew out of a project under John McCarthy’s supervision in 1957 on an IBM 704, the predecessor to the 360 generation of computers that I was introduced to in 1970. Before time-sharing, a computer was used on a serial, one-at-time basis. So an IBM 704 might be loaded with a payroll program to print checks. Afterwards, another program to print checking account statements would be loaded to print statements, etc. If you wanted to make a change to the program that was used for payroll, you had to wait until these jobs were completed. With time-sharing, all three tasks—plus many more—could be run simultaneously. The only limitation was the size of the memory of the computer. It is astonishing to think that the average mainframe in the early 70s, which cost 115 thousand dollars and required mammoth air-conditioning support, typically was shipped with 8 megabytes of memory. By comparison, my wife’s IPod with 8 gigabytes of memory, a thousand times larger than an IBM 360, costs $199.

I had a brief exposure to LISP about 15 years ago when I enrolled in a computing and education program at Teachers College in Columbia. One of the classes I took was titled Cognition and Computers taught by John Black. It was supposed to introduce you to the use of artificial intelligence in primary education. We were required to use a LISP-like meta-language (don’t ask me to explain) for homework exercises, all of which were supposed to “teach” students about highly mechanical tasks such as playing billiards or starting a car. I seem to remember his explanation of how the language would be used:





I stupidly tried to use our LISP-like language for an exercise on American history that he told me was inappropriate. I tried again with a more mechanical application, only to be told—after 25 years of programming experience—that I still didn’t get it. I dropped out of the class with a great feeling of relief.

One of the books I have on my shelf at work is titled “LISP Lore: a Guide to Programming the LISP Machine”, a gift of the author Hank Bromley, an MIT graduate who was one of our Tecnica volunteers in Nicaragua. I have opened it once or twice without making heads or tails out of what I was reading.

In the NY Times obituary on McCarthy, the verdict on AI is mixed at best:

Artificial intelligence is still thought to be far in the future, though tremendous progress has been made in systems that mimic many human skills, including vision, listening, reasoning and, in robotics, the movements of limbs. From the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, the Stanford lab played a vital role in creating some of these technologies, including robotics and machine-vision natural language.

The last time I heard AI being hyped was in the early 80s when Reagan was pushing SDI or “Star Wars”, an anti-ballistic missile system that would supposedly put a shield over the U.S. Breakthroughs in AI would supposedly make the system fail-safe. Fat chance of that after what I saw at Teacher’s College.

Opposition to SDI became part of a broader anti-nuclear movement that opposed both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and the Reagan administration’s talk about surviving nuclear war got lots of people into motion, including the Green Party in Germany. In the U.S., you saw the growth of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a group that was formed primarily to oppose SDI. I was a member briefly until my attention shifted to solidarity work in Central America.

I imagine that John McCarthy would have been gung-ho for SDI even though he started out early in life as a Communist. The Times obit  recounts:

John McCarthy was born on Sept. 4, 1927, into a politically engaged family in Boston. His father, John Patrick McCarthy, was an Irish immigrant and a labor organizer.

His mother, the former Ida Glatt, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, was active in the suffrage movement. Both parents were members of the Communist Party. The family later moved to Los Angeles in part because of John’s respiratory problems.

He entered the California Institute of Technology in 1944 and went on to graduate studies at Princeton, where he was a colleague of John Forbes Nash Jr., the Nobel Prize-winning economist and subject of Sylvia Nasar’s book “A Beautiful Mind,” which was adapted into a movie.

At Princeton, in 1949, he briefly joined the local Communist Party cell, which had two other members: a cleaning woman and a gardener, he told an interviewer. But he quit the party shortly afterward.

In the ’60s, as the Vietnam War escalated, his politics took a conservative turn as he grew disenchanted with leftist politics.

Dennis Ritchie went in the reverse direction politically from McCarthy as the NY Times obit reveals:

While a graduate student at Harvard, Mr. Ritchie worked at the computer center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became more interested in computing than math. He was recruited by the Sandia National Laboratories, which conducted weapons research and testing. “But it was nearly 1968,” Mr. Ritchie recalled in an interview in 2001, “and somehow making A-bombs for the government didn’t seem in tune with the times.”

I first ran into Ritchie’s writings back in the early 90s when Columbia trained us in the C programming language. Ritchie co-authored a book titled “The C Programming Language” with Brian Kernighan that I still have on my shelf from that time. The university was about to go full blast into client-server computing and C was being considered as a front-end to replace COBOL.

I have to confess that I never developed an appreciation for C and could never understand why it would be considered for business-oriented applications of the sort that had been written in COBOL. In Cobol, you would open a file on a disk or on tape for output with this instruction “OPEN OUTPUT EMPLOYEE_MASTER_FILE”. Here is the equivalent command in C:

/* fopen example */
#include <stdio.h>
int main ()
FILE * pFile;
pFile = fopen (“myfile.txt”,”w”);
if (pFile!=NULL)
fputs (“fopen example”,pFile);
fclose (pFile);
return 0;


Columbia wisely decided against getting involved with C and used Foxpro instead for a client-server system to handle the school’s basic financial functions (purchasing, budgets, etc.) I never got involved with the Foxpro work but was assigned to support the back-end of the system using Unix and Perl, a fairly high-level language that was simple to use like COBOL but succinct like C. My job consisted mainly of getting data from the mainframe loaded into Sybase tables that were updated by users during the day and sent back to the mainframe at night. Columbia is about to replace this nearly 20 year old system with a package from Peoplesoft. I am in the strange position of supporting a “legacy” system that was bleeding-edge when it was introduced but that’s the way it goes in data processing.

I am glad that I acquired basic skills in Unix since my Macbook—and all Apple computers—run on Dennis Ritchie’s operating system. This means that I am able to write software on the computer using Perl, including a program called compare.prl that reconciles my checking account using a file I download from Chase online. The best thing about Unix, of course, is that it is far more stable than Windows and we have Steve Jobs to thank for that. Jobs went against the grain when he started NeXT back in 1985, a personal computer that used Unix. Apple bought NeXT in 1996 and adapted the computer for the Mac, an architecture that persists to this day.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

October 25, 2011

Another Bard professor proffers bad advice to OWS

Filed under: bard college,Occupy Wall Street,philosophy — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Steven Mazie

Another Bard professor has chimed in with the “damning with faint praise” stance of Roger Berkowitz that I dealt with in a post titled “Bard Professors attack Occupy Wall Street“. This time it is Steven Mazie, a political science professor, who has a web-only NY Times op-ed titled “Rawls on Wall Street“.

Like Berkowitz, Mazie frets over the hatred that the protesters have toward the rich:

Despite providing a remarkable venue for what Al Gore called a “primal scream of democracy,” Occupy Wall Street is leveraged too heavily on the rhetoric of rage rather than reciprocity. Rawls would argue that Occupy is fully justified in its criticism of the political and economic structures that propagate massive concentrations of wealth; he saw the “basic structure” of society as the “primary subject of justice.” But Rawls would lament the tendency of the “99 percent” to misdirect their energies into hatred of individuals in the 1 percent. He would have them save their hostility for the policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains from the past two decades of economic growth.

Whenever I read this kind of sanctimonious nonsense, I feel like I have wandered into Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” by mistake, with its images of Madame LaFarge knitting away furiously. Of course, when you stop and think about it, there’s not much difference between John Rawls and Charles Dickens. This kind of 19th century moralism is a lot easier to take when you are reading a good story like “A Christmas Carol” but when served up by a political science professor as advice to people who haven’t worked in five years or so and who have lost their homes, it is pretty objectionable.

John Rawls was a perfectly decent man, who despite his British-style Victorian-era pieties was actually an American born in Baltimore in 1921. In 1971 he came out with “A Theory of Justice” that made the case for liberalism at the very moment its reputation was in tatters after six years of imperialist slaughter in Vietnam. The book was typically “philosophical” in its abstraction-sodden prose. Four years earlier I decided to drop out of the graduate philosophy program at the New School and join the Trotskyist movement because philosophy in general—and ethics in particular—was so out of touch with what was going in the world. I had no idea who John Rawls was at the time but had heard more or less the same song and dance from Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”.

For that matter, I had read “Sermon on the Mount” when I was a religion major at Bard College. From the very day homo sapiens began to organize itself into tribes, wise elders understood the need for ethical behavior. You did not need to read John Rawls to understand that we should strive for social justice. The problem was that so many Princeton graduates who had probably studied with Rawls there had gone on to work on Wall Street or with the CIA, where the do-good philosophy they learned from him was conveniently ignored.

As a Rawls disciple, Mazie has applied a tepid meliorism to Israel-Palestinian relations, arguing that Israeli Palestinians deserve better civil rights type treatment without once considering the possibility that a state based on ethnic cleansing can never truly be just. One supposes that this is the kind of advocacy for Palestinian rights that won’t lead to a Joel Kovel type termination.

Mazie’s op-ed piece makes sure that its readers understand that Rawls is a horse of a different color than Karl Marx:

Rawls’s boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme — could provide a lodestar for the protests. Rawls was no Marxist: this “difference principle” acknowledges that a productive, free society will be home to at least some degree of inequality. But the principle insists that if the rich get richer while wages and social capital of the poor and middle class are stagnant or falling, there is something seriously wrong.

This idea is built on the premise that in a just society, citizens should be understood as free and equal participants in a system of social cooperation. Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts. But everyone deserves the same bundle of individual rights and liberties, and everyone is entitled to “fair equality of opportunity,” including access to a decent education and a genuine chance of success in pursuing one’s life plans.

I am not sure how some pundits came to the conclusion that John Rawls was one of the greatest philosophers in the 20th century based on such banalities. At any rate, that there is “something seriously wrong” can hardly be redressed by moral appeals. It will take force, something that is out of the range of possibilities for liberalism unless of course it is deployed against those impudent Third World countries that believe that “a genuine chance of success” is only possible by seizing the means of production and instituting an economy based on human need rather than private profit—heaven forefend.

I have only dealt with Rawls in the past indirectly through a commentary on analytical Marxists who felt compelled for some ungodly reason to engage with him on his own turf.

G.A. Cohen was one of them:

Cohen … feels the need to defend the socialist project from the challenge presented by bourgeois political and ethical philosophy. Liberals like John Rawls and conservatives like Robert Nozick have written a number of books that attempt to defend just societies and the forms of political action necessary to achieve them. They also have a great deal of credence in the academic circles Cohen travels in.

Cohen wants to make socialism appear as a rational choice in the face of their challenges but he ends up conceding much too much to them. The worst concession is that he conceives of political action as the role of the individual rather than classes. While he does not share Elster’s outright hostility to the notion of classes, the overall tendency in Cohen’s work is to wrestle with issues of the class struggle as they appear in the guise of moral dilemmas to individuals.

For example, in chapter 12 of “History, Labor and Freedom” he takes up the question, “Are Disadvantaged Workers who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs.” What a peculiar subject for an “orthodox” Marxist to be tackling. One would think that Cohen would have had much more interest in class struggle type issues in 1988 when the book was written. Issues such as the approaching civil war in Yugoslavia do not seem to engage his interest.

Most of the chapter is an involved with consideration of the choices before an “imaginary worker in an imaginary situation.” He is one of the 7,000 unemployed people in the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania (population 33,000), to which the Beryllium Corporation came in 1956, offering hazardous jobs.” “Our worker, whom I shall call John, took one. He was confronted with a choice between employment and health, and he chose the former. Was he forced to take the health-endangering job? did he, in taking it, contract freely?”

Of course the question of the “contractual” basis of justice lies at the heart of John Rawls’ liberalism and one could write at length about how preposterous this notion is and how pointless it is to engage Rawls’ thinking on his own terms.

I will rather conclude with several obvious conclusions. To begin with, the study of individuals and their moral problems is not the subject-matter of Marxism. Marxism studies classes. A proper use of a Marxist’s time would be to study actual rather than imaginary workers in identical situations. It would be useful to explore how capitalism tends to threaten the job safety of the working-class even in the expansionary period of 1956 or 1997 for that matter. It would then consider how the ruling-class parties share in the creation of a legal fabric that allows such plants to be kept going. It would conclude with recommendations about how to abolish such oppressive conditions. This is not to be found in Cohen’s work.

John Roemer was another:

“Egalitarian Perspectives” is a collection of John Roemer’s articles from the years 1981 and 1992. We learn in the introduction that Roemer made a pilgrimage to G.A. Cohen in 1981, like Luke Skywalker to the Jeddi Master, where he learned “the range of questions addressed by modern political philosophy.” The visit emboldened the young acolyte to launch an assault against classical Marxism’s “wrong-headed” surplus value approach to exploitation. Roemer knew what Marx “really meant,” and this was captured by his own property-relations theory.

Roemer states that the purpose of the book is to answer the question of “what egalitarians seek to equalize.” Those who are trailblazers on this question are Richard Arneson, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen and John Rawls. If some of you are scratching your heads trying to recall where you last heard these names, trust me that it was not at a trade union conference or a rally for political prisoners. The topic of “egalitarianism” within this circle of professional philosophers is an entirely abstract matter. They chat about it in the same dry and intellectual way that aesthetic philosophers discuss “beauty”.

This collection of thinkers treat question of “egalitarianism” as a subject within the rarefied world of Anglophone political philosophy. It arises out of a debate between disciples of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill on one side and John Rawls on the other, who proposes a “primary goods” theory of justice. A just society according to Rawls is one in which society maximizes the “primary goods” of the worst off members. Roemer enters the fray by trying to adapt Marxist solutions to the problem of “distributive justice.” In essence he is trying to blend liberal and socialist themes. From liberalism he appropriates the concern with welfare, from Marxism he hopes to find a theory that will reveal the underlying economic forces that explain inequality. Somewhere along the line Roemer drops the connection with Marxism, as tenuous as it is.

There is precious little in Roemer’s book that has any relation to the sorts of topics that preoccupy Marxists. Mostly it can be found in the section “Socially necessary exploitation and historical materialism.” Roemer’s definition of exploitation in this section is as follows: “were a coalition able to preserve the same incentive structure, and, by withdrawing with its per capita share of produced assets thereby improve the lot of its members, then it is capitalistically exploited in the current allocation.”

Yeah, I know. This is virtually impossible to understand at first glance. I have been knocking my head against Roemer’s shitty prose for a couple of weeks now, so I think I can provide a translation. He is saying that if a group of workers dropped out of capitalist society and improved their situation, then the situation they dropped out of was exploitative. Now you may ask yourself why I chose the words “dropped out.” Does this mean the same as Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in and drop out”?

Yes, it does and this is exactly what Roemer is talking about in so many words:

Assuming capitalist property relations were necessary to bring about accumulation and technical innovation in the early period of capitalism, then the coalition which has withdrawn will soon fall behind the capitalist society because of the incentives to innovate. Even the proletarians under capitalism will eventually enjoy an income-leisure bundle superior to the bundle of independent utopian socialists who have retired into the hills with their share of the capital, assuming enough of the benefits of increased productivity pass down to the proletarians, as has historically been the case.

Translation from the Roemer-ese: When some workers “drop out” of bourgeois society and go to Vermont with their tools and set up a commune like a bunch of lazy grasshoppers, they will eventually fall behind the industrious ant workers who remain in bourgeois society, and who keep their hair short and drive their cars to their factory job each day where foremen yell in their face and where assembly lines keep speeding up and where they keep losing fingers… The criteria for Roemer is not lost fingers or alienation, it is the bundle of goods you can take home. (What was John Roemer doing in 1967 anyhow? Somebody should have slipped him some acid.)

In terms of Marxism and morality, I can still remember how bowled over I was back in 1967 or so after reading “Their Morals and Ours” by Leon Trotsky. Compared to John Rawls’s weak tea, these are the words to live and die by:

Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable. Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

Under “normal” conditions a normal” man observes the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” But if he murders under exceptional conditions for self-defense, the judge condones his action. If he falls victim to a murderer, the court will kill the murderer. The necessity of the court’s action, as that of the self-defense, flows from antagonistic interests. In so far as the state is concerned, in peaceful times it limits itself to individual cases of legalized murder so that in time of war it may transform the “obligatory’ commandment, “Thou shalt not kill! into its opposite. The most “humane” governments, which in peaceful times “detest” war, proclaim during war that the highest duty of their armies is the extermination of the greatest possible number of people.

The so-called “generally recognized” moral precepts in essence preserve an algebraic, that is, an indeterminate character. They merely express the fact that man, in his individual conduct, is bound by certain common norms that flow from his being a member of society. The highest generalization of these norms is the “categorical imperative” of Kant. But in spite of the fact that it occupies a high position upon the philosophic Olympus this imperative does not embody anything categoric because it embodies nothing concrete. It is a shell without content.

This vacuity in the norms obligatory upon all arises from the fact that in all decisive questions people feel their class membership considerably more profoundly and more directly than their membership in “society”. The norms of “obligatory” morality are in reality charged with class, that is, antagonistic content. The moral norm becomes the more categoric the less it is “obligatory” upon all. The solidarity of workers, especially of strikers or barricade fighters, is incomparably more “categoric” than human solidarity in general.

The bourgeoisie, which far surpasses the proletariat in the completeness and irreconcilability of its class consciousness, is vitally interested in imposing its moral philosophy upon the exploited masses. It is exactly for this purpose that the concrete norms of the bourgeois catechism are concealed under moral abstractions patronized by religion, philosophy, or that hybrid which is called “common sense”. The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit which retains the tradition of thousands of years is the first duty of a proletarian revolutionist.

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