Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2015

The racism of early environmentalism–or environmentalists?

Filed under: Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Jedediah Purdy

Last week the New Yorker Magazine ran an article by Duke Law Professor and public intellectual Jedediah Purdy titled “Environmentalism’s Racist History” that might have been more appropriately titled “Environmentalists’ Racist History” since the brunt of the article was to show that a group of men held deplorable but typical Victorian ideas about race while at the same time waging important campaigns on behalf of wildlife preservation.

For example, Madison Grant—an ally of Theodore Roosevelt—fought to protect the bison and the Redwood trees while at the same time writing a book titled “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History.” I should add that Purdy includes Grant’s role in creating the Bronx Zoo on the positive side of the ledger—something I would question given the sorry record of captive creatures in such places. Apparently the book helped to influence the Immigration Act of 1924 although it is not exactly clear what this has to do with the bison. When my grandparents came over before this bill was passed, did they take the next train to North Dakota to hunt bison? I rather doubt it.

Purdy also takes aim at John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club who refers to Blacks as lazy “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians. Again, there is not exactly any connection made between Muir’s racist views and the mission of the Sierra Club. Henry David Thoreau also gets smacked for stating “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.”

He also points out that many of these early environmentalists backed eugenics as well, not that there was any direct connection between protecting bison and sterilizing women.

Purdy tries to make a connection by rendering Grant and Muir as misanthropically predisposed to humanity, especially its lower classes. They were catering to the aristocracy that saw the forest and especially its larger animals such as elk as a refuge from the teeming masses.

This is an analysis I first ran into from William Cronon that I alluded to in a May 23rd post titled “Christian Parenti, William Cronon, and the Abbeyist agenda”. Cronon is very big on the reactionary character of Teddy Roosevelt era wildlife preservation programs:

Thus the decades following the Civil War saw more and more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens seeking out wilderness for themselves. The elite passion for wild land took many forms: enormous estates in the Adirondacks and elsewhere (disingenuously called “camps” despite their many servants and amenities), cattle ranches for would-be rough riders on the Great Plains, guided big-game hunting trips in the Rockies, and luxurious resort hotels wherever railroads pushed their way into sublime landscapes. Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists, who brought with them strikingly urban ideas of the countryside through which they traveled.

Missing from Purdy’s article is any understanding of the context. In point of fact, all of the men he writes about were simply reflecting the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. Social Darwinism and eugenics were deeply embedded in the intellectual life of the period.

For example, Lewis Henry Morgan—best known in some ways for Marx and Engels’s positive references to his study of the Iroquois—viewed Indians as an impediment to civilization because of their reliance on hunting, something he regarded as enchaining them to their “primitive state”.

Furthermore, many of the great philosophers of the 19th century viewed Europeans as higher up on the evolutionary scale, including Immanuel Kant who wrote:

The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why at all points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with weapons. The Romans, Greeks, the ancient Nordic peoples, Genghis Khan, the Turks, Tamurlaine, the Europeans after Columbus’s discoveries, they have all amazed the southern lands with their arts and weapons.

What would have been remarkable is if any of these early environmentalists had written passionate defenses of American Indian or African-American rights. Furthermore, Purdy has complaints about the racism of environmentalist groups today, calling attention for example to less than two per cent of the combined seven hundred and forty-five employees of the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (N.R.D.C.), and Friends of the Earth being from minorities.

Purdy has a new book out titled “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene” that will probably sell lots of copies since he is one of those people who gets interviewed by Charlie Rose and reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review section. From the looks of it, it has the same kind of profundity as the typical TED lecture:

A democratic Anthropocene is just a thought for now, but it can also be a tool that activists, thinkers and leaders use to craft challenges and invitations that bring some of us a little closer to a better possible world, or a worse one. The idea that the world people get to inhabit will only be the one they make is, in fact, imperative to the development of a political and institutional programme, even if the idea itself does not tell anyone how to do that. There might not be a world to win, or even save, but there is a humanity to be shaped and reshaped, freely and always in partial and provisional ways, that can begin intending the world it shapes.


In any case, I hope that in trying to correct the racial composition of the Sierra Club et al, Purdy finds the time to prevail upon his editors at the New Yorker Magazine to rectify the imbalance there since the percentage of minority contributors is about the same: about two percent.

This is not to speak of Duke University, where he is a big muckety-muck in the Law School. Also on the Duke faculty is one Jerry Hough who can’t understand why Black students just don’t get it: “I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Or that has students who like to hang nooses to make a point to Blacks with those strange names about knowing their place.

August 16, 2015

Racism and the “Overhunting” hypothesis

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

Victim of a paleo-Indian’s blitzkrieg?

This week a study carried out by scientists at the University of Essex in England got picked up far and wide. It purported to prove once and for all that overhunting or some other excessive behavior by prehistoric man such as setting out-of-control fires led to the extinction of many large-scale mammals (megafauna) such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabertooth tigers. Their computer-generated data supposedly now ruled out climate change as the cause. The study is behind a paywall and probably too technical for the lay reader (including me) but the takeaway is conveyed by this graph, which indicates that there is a direct relationship between the rate of extinction and geography. They occur most frequently on islands and the smaller the island, the greater the risk. This should come as no surprise and it would likely rule out woolly mammoths becoming extinct on some South Pacific island.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 3.24.45 PM

I doubt that this study will have much effect on those who believe that climate change was responsible, especially since it is virtually impossible to nail down exactly what happened 15,000 years or so ago. However, the debate is of keen interest to me as someone who has written about American Indian history since I noticed long ago when I first began writing about it there was a tendency for academics I ran into on the Internet to draw analogies between the overhunting of megafauna with modern capitalist despoliation of wildlife and natural resources. They were anxious to label any ex post facto defense of primitive communism as an exercise in Rousseau’s “noble savage” idealization.

Paul Martin is the scholar most identified with the wasteful overhunting thesis. In a book titled “Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America”, he coined the term “blitzkrieg effect” that likens spear and club wielding tribes millennia ago to the Wehrmacht. His case is largely based on the coincidence of the Clovis spear with the beginnings of these extinctions as if it was the hydrogen bomb of its time.

I have also had some discussions about these matters with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of the British philosopher who I got to know fairly well through his time on Marxmail. Guy Jr.’s dissertation was on the overhunting of megafauna in New York State. Looking at mastodon bones from 13,000 years ago certainly has some value but I often wonder to what extent archaeologists project their own worldviews into the distant past. After all, in a world marked by senseless brutality, why not assume that the megafauna were killed wantonly?

While there have been many rebuttals of the overhunting thesis, with Dale Guthrie’s climate change hypothesis gaining the most attention, the most convincing for me is an article titled “A requiem for North American overkill” by Donald K. Grayson and David J. Meltzer that appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003). They are also quite right in linking the popularity of the Paul Martin thesis with the sociobiological tendency to paint early man as a ruthless and scary savage:

It is easy to show that overkill’s continued popularity is closely related to the political uses to which it can be put. Take, for instance, Peter Ward’s recent discussion of the matter. Ward—a superb paleontologist whose scientific research focuses on fossils that are between about 300 million and 60 million years old—is convinced by Martin’s arguments, concluding that “the ravages of hungry people surely were involved in the destruction of many species now extinct” [88, p. 223]. In this conclusion, he finds “tragic validity for times approaching”: “the Snake River salmon is virtually extinct . king crab fishing in Alaska has been essentially terminated because the stocks are gone; the great shellfish fisheries of Puget Sound have been halted because the oysters and mussels are too poisoned by industrial wastes to eat” [88, p. 227]. For Ward, the overkill position is inextricably linked to modern times and to the homily of ecological ruin.

Ward is not alone in taking this approach. In The Third Chimpanzee, ecologist Jared Diamond enthuses over Martin’s argument and ends the chapter with a brief discussion of “the blitzkriegs by which modern European hunters nearly exterminated bison, whales, seals, and many other large animals”. The next chapter begins with a discussion of “the risk of a nuclear holocaust” [22, pp. 347–348].

For these discussions, and others like them, overkill provides powerful political capital. That we may agree with the political goals of these authors is immaterial. Our concern here is that both science and environmental concerns are being done a disservice by relying on claims that have virtually no empirical support. We are not suggesting that those who use overkill in this way do so in disregard of the facts against it. We do believe, however, that they are insufficiently familiar with the archaeological and paleontological records bearing on overkill, and so cannot properly judge Martin’s claims of its explanatory power.

In fact, Martin’s recent writings suggest to us that he is no longer trying to approach this issue within a scientific framework. As we have noted, he explicitly maintains that the North American overkill position does not require supporting evidence. He is unconcerned that archaeologists ‘wash their hands’ of his ideas. He criticizes the search for pre-Clovis sites in the New World as “something less than serious science, akin to the ever popular search for ‘Big Foot’ or the ‘Loch Ness Monster’” [58, p. 278]. As one of us has observed elsewhere, Martin’s position has become a faith-based policy statement rather than a scientific statement about the past, an overkill credo rather than an overkill hypothesis [36,37].

By emphasizing the nature of the problem and by focusing research on the latest Pleistocene archaeology and paleontology of North America, Martin’s arguments have led to a good deal of productive science. Now, however, it has become quite clear that things did not happen the way that Martin has envisaged. Martin’s arguments drawn from islands are not relevant to continental settings, especially given that in every known instance, island extinctions were accompanied by massive habitat disruption. Northern Hemisphere mammal communities saw substantial extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, with or without Clovis and even with or without a human presence. There are no kill sites for 26 of the 28 genera of North American herbivores and only 14 sites for the remaining two. It remains fully possible that the North American extinctions were not confined to the very end of this period, but were scattered across thousands of years, as occurred in Europe. Unless we can somehow accept that the very absence of evidence demonstrates that overkill occurred, it is time to focus on understanding what really did happen. Unfortunately, what did happen is not at all clear. Although a number of climate-based hypotheses have been forwarded for North America [28,41], none have gained widespread acceptance, since none connect particular climate variables with particular organisms in powerful ways. Doing so is likely to be a daunting task, since it is very likely that an adequate explanation will have to be built by treating each organism on its own [27]. Nonetheless, experience in other parts of the world shows that it can be done [18,40]. It is clearly time to begin the task in a North American context.

Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Vine DeLoria Jr.’s take on all this in a chapter titled “Mythical Pleistocene Hit Men” in his book “Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact” that can be read in its entirety on Google Books.

His interest obviously is in revealing the racism that underlies the overhunting hypothesis. I found his write-up most useful when I first began looking at these matters. I am struck by his reference to bison being driven off the edge of cliffs since this exactly what I heard back in 1996 or so when I began making the case for the American Indian:

Since these events, if they did indeed occur, happened some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, why should it matter? It matters immensely because the image which science has given American Indians is such that modem Indians are blamed for the extinction of these creatures. Conservative newspaper columnists, right-wing fanatics, sportsmen’s groups, and scholars in general tend to see the “overkill” hypothesis as symptomatic of a lack of moral fiber and ethical concern for the Earth among Indians. Some people are offended by the thought that many people believe that Indians were more concerned and thoughtful ecologists than modem industrial users. Advocating the extinction theory is a good way to support continued despoilation of the environment by suggest-ing that at no time were human beings careful of the lands upon which they lived.

I can speak here from firsthand personal knowledge. In 1990, I was invited to speak at Stanford University, trumpeted as the “Harvard of the West,” to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. I was asked to speak on the Indian relationship with the land, and I tried as best I could to outline the philosophical principles I thought would be meaningful to the audience and the values I thought were involved in the Indian perspective on the natural world. The first question from the audience when I finished was a person asking whether I didn’t think running hundreds of buffalo over a cliff was wasteful. The tone of the question implied that the previous weekend other invited Indian speakers and myself had destroyed hundreds of bison somewhere in Wyoming. Since the only recent slaughter of buffalo that I could remember was the Super Bowl, I took offense and refused to answer any more questions. I did not think that political correctness, applied retroactively to 15,000 B.C., was appropriate.

August 15, 2015

Lars Lih and Lenin’s April Theses

Filed under: Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Lars Lih

In a Jacobin article titled “The Lies We Tell About Lenin”, Lars Lih characterizes Trotskyism in a way that I find unsatisfactory:

So far I have looked at errors that purport to explain the failures of the revolution, but latter-day partisans of the October Revolution are also engaged in heresy-hunting. For them, the success of the revolution is explained by the rejection of ideological errors. The mainstream Trotskyist interpretation is built around a story of this type.

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension.

Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

There are number of difficulties with this canonical story, but here I will just point to one odd feature of this pro-October story: it has a pronounced anti-Bolshevik tinge. According to many writers in the Trotskyist tradition, the doctrine of Old Bolshevism was pernicious error that had to be rejected before revolutionary victory was possible. We are constantly reminded by writers in this tradition that the Bolsheviks themselves, taken as a whole, were a dull lot who stubbornly remained loyal to what they had been told yesterday, even when their brilliant and visionary leaders had moved on.

A little later in the article Lih reduces the Bolshevik/Menshevik split prior to 1917 to one over the nature of the coming revolution:

One key debate about the Russian Revolution has always been: was Russia ready for socialist revolution, or for only a “bourgeois revolution”? The Bolsheviks maintained the former, the Mensheviks the latter position. Who was right, and who was wrong in the debate?

Of course there is a contradiction in what Lih writes. If as in the first citation, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was all about the socialist revolution being possible in Czarist Russia, what could explain the heated debates between Lenin and Trotsky around the time of the 1905 dress rehearsal if, as the second citation indicates, the Bolsheviks said Russia was ready for socialist revolution?

In fact, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both believed that bourgeois revolution rather than socialism was on the agenda but differed over which class would be in the driver’s seat. Lenin insisted that it must be the proletariat while the Mensheviks oriented to the liberal bourgeoisie, especially in the Cadet Party. Lih tries to minimize the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks by reducing them into one over how to regard the role of specialists and professionals:

In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917. The Mensheviks realized that, on the one hand, a modern society could not do without educated specialists and professionals, and, on the other hand, the Russian proletariat was not organized or “purposive” enough to exercise the vlast in isolation nor was the Russian peasantry a secure base for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

There is an unfortunate tendency in Lih’s scholarship (or journalism as in this instance) to neglect backing up his claims with citations but I doubt that Lenin was concerned about the role of “educated specialists” as much as he was about the class power of the Russian bourgeoisie. Specialists and professionals are typically members of the petty-bourgeoisie while the essential question for the Russian left was how to regard the bourgeoisie: the industrialists and landlords who had about as much professionalism as a fire hydrant.

But it is really the crude reductionism of this that bothers me most: “Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.” This attempt at satirizing the Trotskyist left is clumsy at best but it does point to an essential question: whether Lenin changed his mind about the character of the Russian revolution.

For some time now, Lars Lih has challenged the idea that Lenin adopted a new position on the class character of the Russian Revolution with the April Theses, denying that it differed from what Lenin had stated all along. In an article for the newspaper of the ultraleft, gossip-prone CPGB, Lih describes Bolshevik goals as “democratic” (he is reluctant to use the term most often used by Lenin: bourgeois-democratic”) but essentially overlapping with proletarian dictatorship—constrained only by the the reluctance of Lenin to frighten Russians with the “S” word:

There was an article, for example, by Lenin entitled ‘Paths to the revolution’, published in late September or October, and it does not mention socialism or socialist revolution, although it does include all sorts of things like bank reform and peace negotiations. But after October the rhetoric shifted very drastically, and ‘steps toward socialism’ was very prominent.

So why did they downplay socialism before? I am sure it was a conscious decision, made to try and convince people to carry out the revolution. Because they were close to the people, if they thought socialist revolution would appeal to them, then they would have called for it. They must have known that it would not appeal.

Ever since the Jack Barnes sect-cult dumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and made Lenin’s concept of a “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” words to live by, I have failed to understand why otherwise sensible people like the ex-Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers in Australia could make the same error. To start with, it is questionable whether permanent revolution was any kind of theory. I always regarded it as an analysis of the class dynamics of the Russian revolution and not something that could be applied universally. In fact, Trotskyism turned into a formula that was always invoked in order to establish its own purity just as it is doing now with respect to Greece. It says that unless nations follow through with socialist measures, the goals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (land reform, democratic rights, national independence, etc.) will not be guaranteed. For me this has always been something of a tautology, amounting to a statement that unless there is a revolution there will be no revolution.

Taken on its own merits, a work such as the 1906 “Results and Prospects” was much more reliable as anticipating 1917 than anything Lenin ever wrote:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

I have heard Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” described as “algebraic” from its supporters as if it could refer to either socialism or perhaps a very left-wing government resting on capitalist property relations. In fact, the latter is exactly what Lenin thought it meant despite those who would have you believe that like Fidel Castro he had secret plans to build socialism without ever using the word in advance (to reprise Lars Lih’s silly formulation above.)

All you need to do is look at Lenin’s “The Socialist Party and Non-Party Revolutionism”  where he examines the demands that arose in 1905 as a dress rehearsal for 1917 :

What I mean is that actually they are not specifically class demands, but demands for elementary rights, demands which will not destroy capitalism but, on the contrary, bring it within the framework of Europeanism, and free it of barbarism, savagery; corruption and other “Russian” survivals of serf dom. In essence, even the proletarian demands are limited, in most cases, to reforms of the sort that are fully realisable within the framework of capitalism. What the Russian proletariat is demanding now and immediately is not some thing that will undermine capitalism, but something that will cleanse it, something that will accelerate and intensify its development.

He adds:

Naturally, as a result of the special position which the proletariat occupies in capitalist society, the striving of the workers towards socialism, and their alliance with the Socialist Party assert themselves with elemental force at the very earliest stages of the movement. But purely socialist demands are still a matter of the future: the immediate demands of the day are the democratic demands of the workers in the political sphere, and economic demands within the framework of capitalism in the economic sphere. Even the proletariat is making the revolution, as it were, within the limits of the minimum programme and not of the maximum programme.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Lenin was not quite yet convinced of the inevitably of socialist measures in Russia on the cusp of taking power. Just two months after issuing the April Theses, he was still contemptuous of the idea of building socialism in an article titled “Economic Dislocation and the Proletariat’s Struggle Against It”:

The point is that people who have turned Marxism into a kind of stiffly bourgeois doctrine evade the specific issues posed by reality, which in Russia has in practice produced a combination of the syndicates in industry and the small- peasant farms in the countryside. They evade these specific issues by advancing pseudo-intellectual, and in fact utterly meaningless, arguments about a “permanent revolution”, about “introducing” socialism, and other nonsense.

Of course, almost immediately after October 1917, Lenin articulated the need for a proletarian dictatorship in “State and Revolution” and began introducing socialism at a breakneck pace. (The question of whether socialism could be built in a single country is a rather complex one left for another time.)

Finally, on Lars Lih’s fairly long-standing (five years or more at least, I believe) project of rehabilitating the reputation of people like Kamenev on the Bolshevik central committee who were taken aback by the April Theses, there has been an ongoing effort to obfuscate the struggle that took place between Lenin and the “Old Bolsheviks”. For example, in the CPGB article, he writes:

We should bear in mind the possibility that these people had something significant to say to Lenin. I shall give a straightforward example of this. Stalin, who was a fairly high-up Bolshevik at this time – one of the top ten leaders at least – is recorded as saying in a meeting with Lenin and others that the April theses were too schematic and that they overlooked the question of small nations. Often, that is used as evidence that Stalin did not know what was going on, but the fact is that the April theses did not mention the national question.

But the real struggle was over the question of the character of the Russian Revolution. If the Soviets took power, that would effectively render the Constituent Assembly null and void—and hence the future of the bourgeois-democratic project. Since it was commonly understood in the Bolshevik leadership that a 1789 type revolution was necessary in Russia, why would Lenin skip over the necessary stage of radical capitalist democracy under the stewardship of workers and peasants?

Although Lars Lih is dismissive of Leon Trotsky, I would hope that he finds the time at some point to read his “History of the Russian Revolution” (or if he has read it, I hope he makes an effort at understanding what he read.) In the chapter titled “Rearming the Party”, he deals at length with the reaction of the Old Bolsheviks to the April Theses. Trotsky quotes Tomsky: “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and the peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the Commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone.” He also quotes Rykov:  “Gigantic revolutionary tasks stand before us, but the fulfillment of these tasks does not carry us beyond the framework of the bourgeois régime.”

I would also urge him to look at what Lenin wrote about the “old Bolsheviks” just one week after he issued the April Theses:

Old Bolshevism should be discarded. The line of the petty bourgeoisie must be separated from that of the wage-earning proletariat. Fine phrases about the revolutionary people are suitable to a man like Kerensky, but not to the revolutionary proletariat. To be revolutionaries, even democrats, with Nicholas removed, is no great merit. Revolutionary democracy is no good at all; it is a mere phrase. It covers up rather than lays bare the antagonisms of class interests. A Bolshevik must open the eyes of the workers and peasants to the existence of these antagonisms, not gloss them over. If the imperialist war hits the proletariat and the peasants economically, these classes will have to rise against it.

To create a network of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies—that is our task today. The whole of Russia is already being covered with a network of organs of local self-government. A commune may exist also in the form of organs of self-government. The abolition of the police and the standing army, and the arming of the whole people—all this can be accomplished through the organs of local self-government. I have taken the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies simply because it already exists.

August 14, 2015

Cenk Batu; Salamander

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

Probing the Deep State — On TV

Back in 2012 James Wolcott told Vanity Fair readers “the action has left the Cineplex and headed for broadcast and cable.” In making the case for television, Wolcott offered up “Downtown Abbey” and “Mad Men” as fare that trounces Cineplex flicks geared to the 14-year-old comic book fan. With all due respect to Wolcott, my preference would have been for the European TV series that I have covered for CounterPunch in the past starting with Swedish Marxist detective stories such as Wallander and more recently Danish shows such as Dicte, which by no means Marxist were certainly superior to anything coming out of Hollywood, including the typical Oscar honoree.

Now moving southerly into Europe, I am once more struck by the artistic superiority of a couple of TV series that thankfully are freely available on the Internet. Hailing from Germany, “Cenk Batu, Undercover Agent” is a police procedural that can be seen on Youtubewhile “Salamander”—a tale of the Belgian Deep State that should appeal to Stieg Larsson fans—is available on DailyMotion, a video sharing website that was launched by a couple of Parisians in 2005.

Read full article

August 11, 2015

I was wrong on the Cochranites in 1971–dead wrong

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

In my article on “Why does the left suck so badly”, I referred to the Cochranites—a group organized as the Socialist Union that published a magazine from 1954 to 1959 called the American Socialist. The two main leaders were Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, who had left the Trotskyist movement in order to build a new non-sectarian organization that in many ways anticipated the development of groups like Solidarity in the USA or European parties such as Podemos or Syriza.

I became convinced that such an approach was necessary after reading Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” in the early 1980s and worked with him to build a new non-sectarian movement through the auspices of the North Star Network. Like the Socialist Union, the North Star Network was short-lived but the ideas it stood for lived on.

Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com posed a question to me after my article appeared:

I was very interested to read your contribution to an ancient issue of the SWP’s internal discussion bulletin a polemic aimed at the Cochranites: I’d provide the link but I’d have to wade through a ton of material and I just wanted to let you know it’s online. It would be equally interesting to read a commentary by you on your old self, as revealed in that yellowing document. (The SWP’s internal discussion bulletins are posted on the same site as the speech you link to in this post).

As it turns out, Justin was referring to my article that was a contribution to the 1971 preconvention discussion in the Socialist Workers Party. The irony is that both Peter and I considered the Cochranites to be rightwing renegades from Trotskyism at the time, even though we would later adopt positions 180 degrees in the other direction. To my knowledge Peter never wrote anything about the Cochranites (he was much more of a speaker and an organizer than a writer) but I am quite sure he would have agreed with me. Peter did mention the Cochranites in his memoir but there is little evidence that he understood their importance:

At fourteen I told my mom I was now a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck on Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10:00 p.m. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I’d imagined that it would be in a huge hall with thousands of workers with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn’t turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

My own conversion to what amounted to neo-Cochranism took place shortly after I launched the Marxism list in 1998 when I noticed that someone named Sol Dollinger had become a subscriber. I sent him a note asking if he was related to Genora Dollinger, who was best known as Genora Johnson, the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary to the UAW in Flint, Michigan. It turns out that Genora was his late wife and that both of them were members of the Socialist Union. Sol put me in touch with Cynthia Cochran in New York, who was Bert’s widow. That led to my frequent visits to her apartment on the West Side to discuss the Cochranite legacy and to pick up copies of the American Socialist magazine to post to the Internet.

Before I turn my attention to the piece I wrote on the Cochranites 44 years ago, it would be worth putting the 1971 convention into context. This convention was both an endorsement of the “new radicalization” analysis of the SWP and a fairly brutal attack on the Proletarian Orientation Tendency that was not happy with it. I was in the Boston branch of the SWP at the time, where Peter Camejo was assigned to do battle with the POT that constituted probably around 40 percent of the branch. They were a majority at one point but the national office had taken the bureaucratic liberty to transfer in people like me to make sure that they were stifled.

The SWP argued that the new radicalization was going to be different from that of the 1930s that was based in the unions. In a nutshell, it considered the social movements to be as important as the trade union struggle. For the POT, the main complaint was not so much orienting to the Black struggle et al but the failure of the SWP to assign any serious forces to the union movement—which was true. At the time any challenge to the party apparatus was considered disloyal and eventually all of the POT members were either expelled or left in disgust. The irony, of course, is that within a decade after this fight in the party, the SWP leadership would not only adopt the POT line but take it in the most extreme direction arguing that any new upsurge in the social movements would take place strictly through the trade unions. As an indication of how stupid this line was, the party went from nearly 2000 members in 1981 to what it is today—a hundred or so men and women in their 60s and 70s utterly disconnected not only from the mass movements but from the planet earth.

Turning to my article, I am not sure why I referred to the POT misrepresenting the Cochranites but I suspect that it might have been their members making an analogy between the “new radicalization” analysis and the approach of the Socialist Union, which was one of breaking with Trotskyist orthodoxy. Frankly, except for the brief period between 1965 and 1975 or so, the SWP never thought outside the box. It was always a party that had a deep workerist dynamic, always hoping against hope that the 1930s would return.

In any case, the purpose of my article was to prove that having a working class composition was no guarantee that you would remain revolutionary. I wrote:

The Cochranites in Detroit were primarily industrial workers, especially auto workers with deep roots in the trade unions. Many of them had been leaders in previous union struggles. Also in the Cochranite faction were some supporters in New York who had more of a middle class type background and composition.

Within the Cochran faction there were two groupings. One was led by Mike Bartell in New York. Bartell, the least important leader of the Cochran group, was adapting to Stalinism. After the victory of the Chinese CP and the Yugoslav CP and the growing fear of a third world war because of the cold war some Trotskyists thought Stalinism would be forced to play a revolutionary role or was already playing a progressive role. Bartell wanted to concentrate on maneuvering within the CP periphery. Cochran’s base was in industrial cities like Detroit. Cochran reflected an adaptation to the trade union bureaucracy. He was primarily interested in maneuvering within the trade union bureaucracy.

Bartell and Cochran had one thing in common. They were opposed to continuing as a Trotskyist party. They were opposed to Leninism. They were liquidationists who no longer believed the revolution needed a party. Both wings of the Cochranites were hostile to doing political party building work such as holding forums, running election campaigns, selling The Militant. The basic question of the 1953 split with Cochran was over whether we need or do not need a Leninist party.

Of course the Cochranites were right. We do not need a “Leninist party”, at least understood in terms of what James P. Cannon stood for. The whole purpose of the Socialist Union was to serve as a catalyst for regroupment rather than to position itself as the nucleus of a Leninist party. Indeed, one of the major activities of the Socialist Union was to organize forums to address this need. For example, in 1956 the Socialist Union organized a regroupment forum in Chicago that drew 800 people. Among the featured speakers were Sidney Lens and A.J. Muste who would become key leaders of the antiwar movement about ten years later. Cochran’s speech to that gathering is on the American Socialist archives. His words seem as pertinent as ever:

What we have to ask ourselves, I think, is this: Is it possible now in the light of the dolorous experience of American radicalism, and the greater knowledge we possess today of the Russian experiment, is it possible to look at Russia from higher vantage ground, and from the viewpoint of our own American needs even if we have some differences in our precise appreciations? Can the Left free itself from unthinking idolatry and the whitewashing of Russian crimes against socialism; and, on the other extreme, from the embittered hostility which misses the epic movement of historic progress, and can see in the Soviet bloc only the anti-Christ of our time.

IN other words, I am making a plea for sanity, for more mature judgement, for deeper historical insight, for an end to Left bigotry and Babbittry, for a cease-fire in our own cold war, for an effort at cooperation, and where possible, reconciliation.

If we do not regroup our effectives, if we cannot integrate our work, then it may be that the present radical movement in this country, from one end of the spectrum to the other, will go under in the flood, and a new generation will have to build a socialist organization from the ground up.

If we can find the inner resources to unravel this knotty riddle of our lifetime, then we have the chance to reconstruct the movement on sturdier foundations and along more mature lines, and the challenge of democratic socialism, compelling and clear, can again be flung into the market place—where it has unnecessarily been absent far too long.

August 9, 2015

Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

This week a person I have had some contact with as a result of my participation in Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism website posed this question to me: “Why does ‘the left’ suck so badly?”

He went on to say:

Saying right off the bat that “the left,” “progressives,” “liberals”, along with the Greens and the Sanders people and some of #BlackLives matter seem to be such a gigantic mish-mash that “the left” doesn’t even seem like a good name, like maybe there shouldn’t even BE a name. And that’s before we get to other kinds of organizers for the unions and the environment, and then the Marxist groupuscles, and the anarchists, and the co-op people… Anyhow, I’ll use “the left” as a shorthand for the seething mish mash.

I’m asking because of the ridiculousness of the comments we had on Greece; you saw them. So many pom pom wavers, so few analysts, and even fewer people who took action. (I mean, any sort of action at all, like organizing a small relief effort.) So many people saying “it’s easy,” if only we — by which they mean others — had the will! (Granted, I’m not a doer either, but I am an excellent blogger, and I am doing what I am good at.)

It’s the same deal with the Greens, who given a golden opportunity to sit outside every Sanders rally with a sign-up table and leaflets, seem to have collectively decided that the ticket to winning is saying how evil Democrats are (true, but irrelevant) and how inferior Sanders is (also true, also irrelevant). Then again, Sanders saw the ball, picked it up, and ran with it… And they did not. So perhaps that is the problem for them. Anyhow, they’re still smarting over Nader in 2000. 15 years ago. Not kidding!

This is an ancien regime, fin de siecle moment if ever I saw one, and virtually nobody on “the left” seems prepared to take advantage of it. Of course, there are powerful forces arrayed against “the left,” but then there always are, aren’t they? Until there aren’t…

Is it that so many on “the left” are academics, and the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Or that too many of them have hostages to fortune, as families and possessions they think twice about losing? Is it that TINA applies in the world of ideology, as well? That (for example) we don’t think of — and we saw this in Greece — of the ATM machine as a tool of political domination, or even as a tool at all? (More like a natural resource or a mechanical device.) Is it that identity politics divides many, many people who ought — on “class” (wage vs. owner) interests — to be united? Could it be medical, in that we are literally too fat and too depressed and fucked up because of our horrible diet? Successful corruption, in that the elites still have the power and the money to co-opt the leaders? All of the above? What, what?

And then of course we look to Europe, where if “the left” was a thing in Europe, Syriza would had some assistance.

I can’t think of a historical precedent for things being this fucked with no alternative presented….

Like I said, I can’t formulate the question properly….

Thanks for any analytical tools you have to offer!

It probably makes sense for me to limit my answer to the part of the left I am most familiar with, namely the socialist left that I have been connected with organizationally or ideologically for nearly a half-century.

If you look at the broad historical record, you will see a steady decline from the early 1900s when Eugene V. Debs received six percent of the vote in 1912. Back then there was obviously no such thing as a Communist movement since the Russian Revolution had not taken place. But within five years, the Communist movement would supplant the Debs-type parties that existed everywhere. If you’ve never seen Warren Beatty in “Reds”, I recommend the film for its pretty accurate description of what happened in the 1920s as “Leninist” type parties sprouted up everywhere.

In my view, despite all the good that these parties did in fighting for much needed reforms such as the right to form trade unions and opposing Jim Crow, they undermined the authority of the left by functioning as cheerleaders for Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s the CPUSA had close to a hundred thousand members and was a powerful presence in the trade unions, civil rights movement, and even elected member Benjamin Davis to the NY City Council. But after the Khrushchev revelations, the party lost the bulk of its members. Of course this mass exodus was facilitated by the McCarthyite witch-hunt that made membership in the CP a risk to your livelihood if not your freedom.

When I came around the left in 1967, the CP was a hollowed out shell with an aging membership. For young people like myself, the party was not an option. Some of us became Trotskyists and others joined Maoist groups since their militancy seemed appropriate to the period, which was one marked by massive opposition to the Vietnam War and ghetto rebellions. It was fairly easy to believe back then that the USA would have had a revolution long before 2015.

What we had not properly analyzed, however, was the sea change that had taken place since the heyday of Debs’s party and the dominance of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Workers in basic industry such as auto, steel and rail were enjoying a high standard of living and job security. There was almost no reason for them to become revolutionary, even those who were most oppressed like the Black and Latinos. For workers, the overwhelming need was to get a good union contract that kept pace with inflation, not to join a tiny group that had as its goal a repeat of 1917. The deeper the identification with 1917 of such groups, the more difficult it was to grow. Those that have relative success today tend to avoid the mumbo-jumbo. Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative group, got elected to City Council in Seattle not by pledging to organize a Soviet but by promising to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Given the worsening economic conditions in the USA that weigh most heavily on Blacks and Latinos, there are signs of motion—the large crowds for Bernie Sanders among them. Unfortunately, the Sanders campaign—even though he made a record of Debs’s speeches in 1979—is tied by an umbilical cord to the Democratic Party. The burning need is for a third political party to the left of the Democrats that can bring together everybody who feels the need for fundamental change even if they are by no means convinced that a socialist revolution is necessary. That is why I have argued for the need for something like Syriza or Podemos in the USA even though Syriza is widely seen as a failure today, especially by those living as if it were still 1917. In essence, you have to be able to make a distinction between the decisions the leaderships of such parties make in the heat of battle, especially when they are facing much more powerful enemies such as the ECB and the IMF, and how they are organized.

Organizationally, a group like Syriza had the advantage over the “1917” left because it did not impose an ideological straightjacket on its membership. The same thing is true of Podemos whose leader Pablo Iglesias urged the left to engage with people on their own terms:

When the 15-M movement [the anti-austerity movement in Spain] first started, at the Puerta del Sol, some students from my department, the department of political science, very political students — they had read Marx, they had read Lenin — they participated for the first time in their lives with normal people.

They despaired: “They don’t understand anything! We tell them, you are a worker, even if you don’t know it!” People would look at them as if they were from another planet. And the students went home very depressed, saying, “They don’t understand anything.”

[I’d reply to them], “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?” One can have the best analysis, understand the keys to political developments since the sixteenth century, know that historical materialism is the key to understanding social processes. And what are you going to do — scream that to people? “You are workers and you don’t even know it!”

The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: “He was always right — but no one ever knew.”

In your query you mention the Green Party. They are certainly not without their problems but I don’t think it would be fair to say that they “suck”. I think that they are running very principled and effective campaigns that relate to the concerns of the average person such as the right to drink clean water and be spared the horrors of global warming. In some ways they are a throwback to the Debs campaigns of the early 20th century.

The weakness of the Greens and the left in general is not exclusively their own fault. We are living in a period that is hostile to social change. The difficulties in finding a job—the conditions that face the “precariat” or contingent labor force—does not translate into class solidarity since people tend to seek individual solutions. If you’ve ever seen Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”, you’ll remember that laid off workers in Flint were not thinking in terms of mass action to reopen the plants under workers control. One man told Moore that he was moving to Texas where supposedly there were more jobs while a jobless woman raised rabbits for sale as meat. The only recent sign that people were ready to move collectively was Occupy Wall Street, which lost momentum after public spaces were finally cleared of youthful protesters. So you can say that there are contradictory tendencies today, one propitious for the left and one that breeds indifference and retreating into personal salvation.

You can expect this state of affairs to continue for some time to come. But when it begins to change, it can take place rapidly. In 1929, an economic disaster led millions to move collectively to change society. In 1965, the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions transformed the lives of many thousands of young people, including me. I doubt that there is anything that will happen on that scale until after I am dead and gone. But when it does, the pace of events can often find the left desperately trying to catch up. In 1909 Karl Kautsky, the leader of the Socialist Party in Germany, described how the tempo cam change almost overnight:

But the rate of progress increases with a leap when the revolutionary spirit is abroad. It is almost inconceivable with what rapidity the mass of the people reach a clear consciousness of their class interests at such a time. Not alone their courage and their belligerency but their political interest as well, is spurred on in the highest degree through the consciousness that the hour has at last come for them to burst out of the darkness of night into the glory of the full glare of the sun. Even the laziest becomes industrious, even the most cowardly becomes brave, and even the most narrow gains a wider view. In such times a single year will accomplish an education of the masses that would otherwise have required a generation.

My only purpose today is to convince young people today on the left to avoid the mistakes of the past, which ultimately boil down to mechanically applying the “lessons of 1917” to the USA or any other revolution for that matter. We have to learn to speak in the language of American society and relate to the deepest felt needs of the average person. Frankly, it might be more useful to study the sermons of the new Pope than V.I. Lenin.

From 1954 to 1959 a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braveman put out a magazine called the American Socialist that I am trying to emulate in my own modest way. Bert and Harry (not to be mistaken with the Piels brothers) were a bit ahead of their time in advocating a similar approach. The fact that they dissolved the group in 1959 is not an indictment of their approach, any more than Alexis Tsipras buckling under to the German bankers. Conditions often favor the rich and the powerful after all.

Long after they were gone, their words remain relevant. In trying to create a movement of the left that was rooted in the American experience, they were the continuators of Eugene V. Debs and Karl Marx for that matter who was immersed in the reality of working class life. In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech introducing the American Socialist magazine. They still ring true:

I AM convinced, in the light of this reading of the American scene, that there is a real need for genuine American radicalism. By that I mean a movement that understands this country, that is sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of its people, that knows how to establish communication with them and how to make itself heard, that has the ability to come up with drastic structural solutions which recommend themselves to significant bodies of people as meaningful and realistic. I don’t mean by radicalism, the pettifogging, the quotation-mongering, the pseudo-Marxian profundities, the dogmatics, the circle bickerings and soul-destroying factionalism which have distinguished, I am afraid, all of us on the Left for the past years, and which carry a heavy onus of the responsibility for our ineffectiveness and disintegration. I know that a new important radicalism will arise in this country in response to the needs that exist and are due to become more pressing as time goes on. Whether the existing radical circles will play any role in this coming development is another question.

The past year hasn’t shown any progress but there has been a lot of churning and soul-searching. That’s a good sign. It shows there is still some life in the old carcass. When the time comes that you don’t even react to disaster, than you know that rigor mortis has set in. I don’t see that the discussion has produced a comprehensive meeting of the minds as yet, or that any new key ideas have been produced, and some have shown themselves to be remarkably impervious to floods, fires, famines and earthquakes. But there has definitely been, so far as I can observe, a sorting-out process, and, for many, a limited consensus of thought established.

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern—is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.

August 8, 2015

We Come as Friends; Tango Negro

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Premiering on Friday, August 14th in New York, two documentaries perfectly illustrate the unequal exchange between colonizer and colonized. To use a word coined by Malcolm X, “We Come as Friends” that opens at the IFC Theater highlights the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In contrast to the baleful impact of capitalist exploiters, “Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango” that opens at the MIST theater in Harlem (46 West 116th Street) reminds one of the beneficial legacy of Africa in the New World. While few people need to be reminded of how the music of slaves was essential to the emergence of jazz and the blues, “Tango Negro” proves that without the African drum, the seemingly purely European tango never would have been born. This is obviously a result of Buenos Aires being mostly Black in the 1830s and 40s according to the people’s history from below that this remarkable film features.

Although director Hubert Sauper describes “We Come as Friends” as cinema vérité, it is not of the Frederick Wiseman fly-on-wall-variety. Sauper’s presence is felt in every frame as he chats somewhat noncommittally with the aforementioned vultures—UN officials, Chinese oil refinery workers, Christian missionaries, and Texas biznessmen—reveal their desire to do well (profiting) by doing good in South Sudan. Although he has no speaking role in the film, the oleaginous visage of George Clooney is part of this rogue’s gallery.

Although I have never bothered to watch one of those idiotic “Making of” features on HBO that give you the lowdown on how some piece of crap Hobbit movie was slopped together, “The Making of ‘We Come as Friends’” would be something I’d give my eyeteeth to see (what are eyeteeth anyway?) Sauper flies from one location to another in a tiny single-engine plane named Sputnik that has room for a crew of three and that looks like something a strong gust of wind will blow it out of the sky. If you have the slightest inkling of what a project it is to get film made anywhere, the idea that “We Come as Friends” ever got made at all is miraculous as Sauper relates in the press notes:

At times, it was even challenging to find the basics – food, water, or a safe place to sleep. Some of the film crew fell deadly ill from malaria and tropical parasites. And my co-pilot, Barney, was shot at by a gang of ten armed men, disguised as fake police. This hold-up ended with two people dead, all our film equipment stolen and a whole house destroyed by bullets.

Throughout it all, Sauper retains his aplomb as he asks one scumbag after another what they expect to accomplish in South Sudan. So startling are some of the exchanges that you almost wonder if he convinced his interviewees to recite lines he gave them to look bad. For example, he is in the rec room for Chinese oil drillers as they are watching an old episode of “Star Trek”. They begin riffing on the idea of space exploration and the need to go to other planets with adequate weaponry so that when they are setting up for mineral extraction they will be able to fend off hostile aliens, thus evoking the plot line of “Avatar”. As is always the case in these scenes, Sauper expresses no outrage and simply asks them to continue. The end result is that they are hoisted on their own petard.

In contrast to the colonizers, the colonized are under no false illusions. Time after time, they recount their suffering and pessimism about “development” even as South Sudanese officials—the comprador bourgeoisie—blather on and on about the wealth that will accrue to their countrymen. One man promotes the idea that investors be given free land to build airports since it will provide jobs. When Sauper asks what kind of jobs, the man pauses for a second and then replies that airports need people to clean them.

In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.

The film was the first time I had found myself thinking more deeply about what was happening in Sudan. As long ago as 2004, I had my doubts about the alliance between the USA and the rebels in the south who were trying to liberate their country from the admittedly oppressive Arab ethnic group that rule from the North. In a review of “Lost Boys of the Sudan”, I noted:

The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton’s largesse in 1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year’s war on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.

In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that was on display in Iraq:

More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that “the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns” (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of “a strategy of preempting threats”).

Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement of Christians:

Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.

“There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.

There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might be a consequence of John Garang’s manipulation of do-gooders anxious to purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:

The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.

“The more children, the more money,” said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan’s 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives’ freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.

However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.

As it turns out, I was overly optimistic as is so often the case with Marxists. As the film amply demonstrates, the humanitarian cause that people like George Clooney took up was a velvet glove concealing the iron fist of colonialism. If you want to get an idea of what is happening today in South Sudan (besides seeing this truly remarkable film), I urge you to read Nick Turse’s article in TomDispatch.com:

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa. It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims — and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army.

That was the dream, at least. But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong. Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other. The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.

On a happier (if not joyful) note, “Tango Negro” is a celebration of Black culture in places where few suspected it existed. If the distinctly non-African sound of the bandoneon (an accordion) puts a white stamp on this deeply nostalgic musical and dance form, Juan Carlos Cáceres, who is the star of this film and who died in April of this year at the age of 79, demonstrates that the rhythm is distinctly African.

Cáceres was a man of many talents. He came to Paris just before the May-June events of 1968 as an accomplished artist and musician. But not long afterwards, he began a career as a musician and musicologist with a focus on the culture of the Río de la Plata that flowed between Argentina and Uruguay. It was along this riverbed where most people of African descent, both free and enslaved, made home. He became an expert in playing and analyzing the distinct art forms of the region, including the tango, the milonga and candombe. The candombe is as closely related to native African ritual performances, as is the rumba in Cuba or the samba in Brazil.

As a pioneer of the study of the African roots of the tango and an able performer, Cáceres is an ideal personality to weave together all the different strands of this story. He performs with many younger musicians, including at the climax of this stunning film an Argentine woman who is a descendant of slaves and a passionate defender of Afro-Argentine culture. She sings as Cáceres plays the piano with a troupe of white and Black musicians ending the film on a rapturous note.

The film was directed by Dom Pedro, an Angolan, and will enrich the brain as well as the heart. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen the new Harlem with its excellent assortment of restaurants and other varieties of nightlife, this is a good place to start.


August 7, 2015

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now”

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 12:32 pm

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.29.52 AM


What Now? The Left in a Time of Lowered Expectations

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now” is a collection of articles and speeches that the author has given to left-leaning audiences around the world that elaborate on ideas presented in works such as “The Socialist Alternative” and “The Contradictions of Real Socialism”. Even if you are familiar with his theories on socialist development, this new book is very much worth reading because it represents a deepening of his thinking on the problems facing the left in a period of lowered expectations. For those who have never read Michael Lebowitz, the book will introduce you to one of the most important theorists of the socialist project today—in many ways our István Mészáros.

In a talk he gave in Athens to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute in December 2010, Lebowitz urged the Greek left to think beyond resisting austerity. While the need to say no to joblessness, cutbacks and fascist violence is essential, there is a need to break with the capitalist system itself that generates such ills. As a kind of prophet of the Chavista project in Venezuela, he must have anticipated shortcomings in the recently elected Syriza government even back then. As might be the case with all such broad-based left parties that do not proclaim the need for socialism, the contradictions of capitalism will eventually catch up to them once they take power. Even though it was misattributed to Trotsky, the observation that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” would apply to events in Greece if you substitute the word capitalism for war. Indeed, Yanis Varoufakis’s statement that “In 1967 there were the tanks and in 2015 there were the banks” would seem to apply in spades.

read full article

August 5, 2015

When the Swedish Social Democrats partnered with Nazi Germany in the name of neutrality

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson: architect of the “Swedish model” and Hitler’s enabler

(This is the fifth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics.)

For most people of Bernie Sander’s age, Sweden’s long-standing neutrality gave it an aura of progressivism during the Vietnam War when it lent itself to peace activism at the highest level of government. However, during WWII that policy had a much more malevolent effect insofar as it meant that the government would tilt toward Nazi Germany economically and militarily—this despite the fact that the Prime Minister Per-Albin Hansson was a Social Democrat.

In December 1939 Hansson called for a government of national unity that would include parties from all parts of the political spectrum except for the CP. He named a non-party career diplomat Christian Guenther as Foreign Minister to replace the Socialist Rickard Sandler, a move calculated to advance Sweden’s pragmatic view of neutrality.

To avoid war with Germany, a nation that had already conquered Denmark and Norway, Sweden took a very flexible attitude toward Nazi troop movements on its soil. On July 8, 1940 the two nations hammered out a deal that would prove useful to Nazi war plans. Around 30,000 Nazi soldiers would board Swedish trains each month as the same railway transported 1500 trainloads of Nazi armaments. Although the rank-and-file Socialist objected to this, the king and Christian Guenther pushed strongly for acceding to German demands. As will be noted in the film clip below, Per-Albin Hansson was much more persuaded by these two men than he was by the ordinary Swede.

On June 26, 1941, the day that Finland entered the war against the USSR, Sweden gave the green light to a trainload of 15,000 Nazi soldiers to head East on behalf of Operation Barbarossa. Between June 22nd and November 1 of the same year Swedish trains carried 75,000 tons of German war material to head in the same direction. As the trains came back from the front, they carried wounded Nazi soldiers to occupied Norway where they were treated in Oslo hospitals until they were ready to return to the killing fields. Swedish authorities also set up base camps for the Wehrmacht fully supplied with food, oil and other necessities. And all the while German warplanes flew over Swedish air space en route to Russia. Sweden was also nice enough to sell or lease more than a thousand trucks to Germany just to make sure that the invasion of Russia would not go haywire.

It was only when Germany began to suffer a serious setback in Russia and when the allies escalated their pressure on Hansson that Sweden finally began to deny German requests to transport men and material on its railway system. One can easily imagine that if Germany had accomplished its goals in Russia, the government of national unity led by a politician who was considered the architect of the “Swedish model” might have kept up its de facto support of Nazi Germany’s genocidal war.

A large part of Sweden’s implicit support for Nazi war aims can be explained as old-fashioned profiteering after the fashion of Swiss banks, another bastion of WWII neutrality. It was fairly incontrovertible that Swedish iron ore was crucial for the German war industry, as this table would indicate:

Year Millon Tons
1933 2.3
1937 9.1
1942 9.0
1943 10.1

In November 1934 Hitler admitted that without Swedish iron ore, Germany would not be able to make war. Meanwhile, a balance of trade was maintained to some extent by Sweden’s willingness to buy German coke and coal, as well as German weapons that by all accounts were very cost-efficient. Just ask the people of Leningrad. It should be added that a large part of Germany’s payments for Swedish iron ore and ball-bearings (another important component of the war machine) was made with gold that by all accounts consisted to a large degree of loot stolen from Belgium, the Netherlands and Jewish families and then melted down to avoid detection. But then again, if the gold was being used to pay for socialized medicine in Stockholm, who could complain?

Christian Leitz, the author of “Nazi Germany and Neutral Europe During WWII from which the data in this article derives had this to say about Per-Albin Hansson:

In view of continued Swedish supplies to the Third Reich it is not surprising that relations between Sweden and the Allies ‘remained characterized for the rest of the war by suspicion and anger on the part of the Allies and nervousness over post-war trade prospects among the Swedes’. Although, by 1944, Germany was evidently losing the war, Sweden continued to make a vital contribution to the German war effort. In September 1944 Churchill brought the attitude of the Swedes to a point when he accused them of ‘calculated selfishness, which has distinguished them in both wars against Germany’. Why did the Swedish government not respond more readily to the growing Allied pressure?

One important reason was that, even during the second half of the war, the Swedish government and an overwhelmingly pro-Allied Swedish public accepted trade with Germany as a national right under international law.”‘ During the course of 1944, this line of argument rang increasingly hollow in the light of growing evidence about the horrifying nature of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. Leading members of the Swedish government continued to believe, however, in the need to retain normal relations with the Nazi regime. Historians have highlighted particularly the attitude of the leader of Sweden’s government, Per Albin Hansson. According to Alf Johansson, a leading Swedish authority on wartime Sweden, Hansson continued to believe in the threat of a German invasion long after it had ceased to be a realistic possibility. Moreover, Johansson argues, ‘Hansson’s role during the last years of the war was to act as a brake on all attempts towards an activism of Swedish policy in one direction or the other.’ Essentially, Hansson seems to have wanted to sit out the war without having to make any radical changes in the course of Sweden’s policy of neutrality. In this undertaking Hansson was very willingly supported by his foreign minister, Gunther. On the basis of observations made by various of Giinther’s fellow officials, Levine has concluded that Gunther’s policies were quite pro-German even in the later stages of the war.

* * * *

Last October I reviewed a film called “The Last Sentence” for CounterPunch that was a biopic of the later years of Torgny Segerstedt, a Swedish newspaper editor who blasted Hitler repeatedly much to the chagrin of Per-Albin Hansson, his foreign minister Christian Guenther, and King Gustav.

I watched it again yesterday (available on Vimeo or Amazon streaming) and got much more out of it this go-round. Using the ability of the latest version of Quicktime on my spanking new Macbook, I have used its screen capturing abilities to excerpt four key moments of the film (I am still trying to get the audio kinks worked out as will be obvious):

  1. Over drinks, Albin warns Segerstedt to quiet down his anti-Nazi editorials.
  2. King Gustav reads Segerstedt the riot act.
  3. Segerstedt confronts Marcus Wallenberg, a member of the banking dynasty best known for the efforts of his nephew Raul Wallenberg to save the lives of Hungarian Jews.
  4. Segerstedt confronts Christian Guenther in the men’s room of Swedish government offices.


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

Palmiro Togliatti

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

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

Togliatti? Transitional program? WTF?

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

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

Meanwhile here’s Thomas on Togliatti:

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

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

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

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

Paul Ginsborg:

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

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

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

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

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