Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 20, 2014

The Hacker Wars

Filed under: computers,crime,Film — louisproyect @ 3:22 pm

The “Hacker Wars” opened at Village East Cinema last Friday and is playing through Thursday. This review is a bit belated but I do want to urge New Yorkers to check out the film since it puts a spotlight on figures in the Anonymous movement that were of some significance despite being obscure to many of us, including me. The film also hints at why the “Hacker Wars” were lost, an outcome that is in many ways parallel to the demise of the Occupy movement, its second cousin.

Let me start off by saying that it took me a while to warm up to this documentary since director Vivien Lesnik Weisman made the decision to adopt an MTV type aesthetic that made use of exceedingly short fragments of the various principals speaking about their experience as hackers that must have been calculated to appeal to a younger audience that ostensibly lacked the patience to hear someone speak for a lengthy period—like five minutes or so. When you superimpose a hip-hop soundtrack over the interviews, it becomes rather annoying to an old fogey like me.

That being said, there’s some important material in the film that must be considered by a left that has grown accustomed to the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing activists who made up the rank-and-file of both Anonymous and Occupy, many of whom were self-professed anarchists.

The film is basically a profile of three victims of the war on hactivism: Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer—aka “Weev”, Jeremy Hammond, and Barrett Brown. All have spent time or are spending time in prison for their role in Anonymous and its ancillary cabals. And all of them leave something to be desired as personalities and activists.

Weev was a member of Goatse Security (GoatSec), a small band of hackers that was part of the constellation of groups that were either part of Anonymous or “fellow travelers”. Considering the fact that Anonymous was not a membership organization as such, it is hard to pinpoint the various convergences between people like Weev and the network. His biggest hack was uncovering a flaw in AT&T security that made the e-mail addresses of iPad users easily accessible.

As a kind of black Kryptonite evil version of Abby Hoffman, Weev fancied himself as a joker, assuming the guise of Internet troll. When you come across the term in the film, it is important to note that this is not the same thing as, for example, a libertarian making himself a nuisance on Marxmail until he gets the boot. For Weev, trolling means harassing people mercilessly.

A lot of Weev’s shtick is badmouthing “Kikes”, “fags” and “niggers”, behavior that the film puts the best positive spin on, as a form of ironic social commentary on hypocrisy. But there’s probably an aspect of this that the film neglected, no doubt a function of its general affinity for hactivism.

While the film was obviously made some time ago, I wonder how director Weisman would have responded to Weev’s article this month on the neo-Nazi website “The Daily Stormer” titled “What I learned from my time in prison”.

I’ve been a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda. Judge Wigenton was as black as they come. The prosecutor, Zach Intrater, was a Brooklyn Jew from an old money New York family. The trial was a sham…The whole time a yarmulke-covered audience of Jewry stared at me from the pews of the courtroom. My prosecutor invited his whole synagogue to spectate.

Maybe there’s a joke there but I don’t get it.

The documentary gives equal time to Barrett Brown, who was not a hacker but rather a kind of journalist/advocate for the movement, with credits in Vanity Fair and other mainstream outlets. Brown is a serious journalist, having written on a wide variety of topics including creationism. (He is the co-author of “Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny”.) But he is also something of a provocateur, although not so nearly as toxic as Weev. He is a long-time junkie and styles himself as a latter-day Hunter Thompson, even though that is my take on him rather than his or the film’s. A press conference he gave while taking a bath, for example, was pure Gonzo.

Brown has had a host of legal problems, largely tied to his complicity—at least as charged by the government—with Anonymous hacks. He also had charges of threatening an FBI agent, mostly stemming from a rant he made against the agent and his family in a drug-induced haze. He is all in all a much more fetching personality than Weev.

Finally, there’s Jeremy Hammond, who worked closely with “Sabu”, the tag used by Hector Xavier Monsegur. Sabu was part of the hacking group Lulz Security, commonly known as LulzSec, another part of the loosely-knit Anonymous network. The group’s biggest assaults were on communications megacorporations such as Sony and Fox News—much of it very high-profile even though LulzSec only consisted of six members.

In 2011 Sabu became an FBI snitch within 24 hours of being arrested. In the raids that followed from his becoming a rat, both Hammond and Brown became victims. The FBI, the judiciary and rightwing TV and radio have all lauded Sabu.

In a fleeting moment in this documentary, you see a cadre of hactivists sitting around bemoaning the arrests and pretty much agreeing that it destroyed Anonymous. I suspect that as long as Anonymous refrains from targeting American corporate behemoths, it will be able to raise hell in foreign countries, particularly those that are not American favorites.

After watching the film, it occurred to me that the lack of transparency and accountability in Anonymous as well as the black block wing of Occupy pretty much guaranteed the demise of dead-end anarchist tactics. The Guy Fawkes masks probably belong in the attic just as tie-dyed t-shirts and Nehru jackets ended up there by the time of the Carter presidency.

One final word on director Vivien Lesnik Weisman. She is a Cuban-American with a somewhat famous dad, Max Lesnik who scandalized the gusano community in Miami by rejecting its terrorism and advocating rapprochement with the Cuban government. His daughter made a documentary about him titled “The Man of Two Havanas” that unfortunately appears not to be available anywhere. This is from a Democracy Now interview with Weisman and her father:

AMY GOODMAN: Vivien, why did you do this film about your dad?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, first I wanted to explore my relationship with my father. It’s a personal film, as well as a political film. But my dad is — he has one passion, and that’s Cuba. So in order to understand my father better, I had to understand his passion. So therefore I went to Cuba. I got to know my country, the Cuban people, and was immersed in all the information about the terrorist groups that had targeted him throughout my childhood.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you understood this through your life?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, I was aware when I was growing up that we were bombed and that there were drive-by shootings in our house, and I lived in a constant state of siege, like a war zone. And Orlando Bosch —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about here in the United States, when you lived in Florida.

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Yes, that’s in Miami. And we were targeted by these people, the anti-Castro terrorists. And the two names, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know those names, because they were constantly being discussed. And one of the groups that targeted my father was under the umbrella terrorist group that Orlando Bosch headed.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Max Lesnik, as Vivien — in this film, The Man of Two Havanas, you, Little Havana in Miami and Havana, Cuba, as she tells the story, you were one of the revolutionaries with Fidel Castro. Describe your early years in Cuba before you split with Castro.

MAX LESNIK: I was a young leader of Ortodoxo Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Orthodox Party?

MAX LESNIK: Orthodox Party, the same party that Fidel Castro belong at that time. I met Fidel in the University of Havana, year 1949, where I was only 18 years old. Fidel was maybe 20, 21. Both together fought — not the revolution, but in some way I started with the student movement fighting for reforms and going to all — the way the student at that time in Cuba did, fighting the police.

Then happened something incredible. At that time, Cuba was a democracy, but with defects, corruption, but democracy like your organization Democracy Now! But that system was overthrown by Batista. He was a sergeant in the ’33 revolution, and then he took power by arms in 1952. Then happened to Cuba the worst thing that can happen in a democracy: the overthrow of the system by a military group of — commanded by Batista, that was a senator at that time.

Then after that, the only way to change the situation is through the arms, because Batista don’t permit any play in democracy or something like free expression. Then Fidel went to hills in Oriente province, the most — the Oriental section of the island. I was related to the group that went to the center part of the island, the Escambray Mountains, and by that time we fought for two years as guerrillas, combatant. Then, the first of January, Batista left the country, and the revolution took power.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the first person in Havana of the group?

MAX LESNIK: I was one of the first —

AMY GOODMAN: Before Fidel Castro got there?

MAX LESNIK: Before Fidel. Fidel arrived to Havana in January the 8th, but I was in Havana the day that Batista left, because I was going forth from the Sierra to the city to organize the clandestine movement, and then Batista left the night of January the 1st, and then I go openly to the radio station and television station. I suppose I was the one of those who appear on television telling Batista left and we are here. In reality, only were a lot of people like milicianos in the city of Havana, but the rebel army was in Oriente and in Las Villas. I was alone fighting the government, because they was afraid that it’s true that I say that we have an army here, that it’s [inaudible] in a way functioned the joke.

October 17, 2014

Nazi Germany and the Swedes

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Sweden — louisproyect @ 2:53 pm
Neutral on a Moving Train

Nazi Germany and the Swedes

by LOUIS PROYECT

In the course of researching my CounterPunch article on TV adaptations of Swedish Marxist detective novels, I became familiar with the looming presence of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden like the monstrous Vangers in Stieg Larssen’s Dragon Tattoo novels.

Just this week I viewed press screenings for two new films that focus in on another aspect of Swedish political history, the country’s longstanding neutrality that goes back to the early 19th century and that became widely known and respected during the Vietnam antiwar movement, when Prime Minister Olof Palme marched alongside the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan.

“Diplomacy”, that opened on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at the Film Forum in New York, is set during the final days of WWII when Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling tries to persuade Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz not to blow up Parisian landmark edifices. “The Last Sentence”, available as a DVD or On Demand from Music Box Films, is a biopic set during the later years of Torgny Segerstedt, a newspaper editor who was famous for excoriating Adolph Hitler until the Swedish prime minister, deciding that the country’s neutrality was being undermined, clamped down on Segerstedt, confirming the precept once again that truth is the first casualty of war.

read full article

trailers for films under review:

October 16, 2014

High Holy Days

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:54 pm

Over the past month I have had multiple occasions to partake in Jewish high holiday rituals even though I am what Isaac Deutscher called a non-Jewish Jew.

My first encounter was a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of my wife’s former student, a relatively observant Iranian émigré. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Unlike January 1st for non-Jews, our New Year has much more religious significance. It marks the beginning of ten days of introspection culminated by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I don’t remember much about Rosh Hashanah from my early years in a Jewish household but the service involves blowing a ram’s horn—the Shofar.

I wore a yarmulke throughout, a skull cap that is nowadays called a kippah—a word that I never heard many years ago when I was observant myself, mostly a result of parental pressure than anything else. The etymology of yarmulke is interesting. It means “rainwear” and comes from the Turkish word yağmurluk. Yağmur, pronounced yahmur, means rain, the “luk” is a suffix that in this instance means “intended for”. This is something I will have to mention to my wife’s nephew from Istanbul who came to the dinner with us. He had a bit of a grin on his face when he put the yarmulke on. Wait until he finds out that it was a Turkish cap, not necessarily a Jewish one.

In all my years growing up in a Jewish household, we never had a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Our host explained that this was customary in Iran although I suspect that it was something that also occurred in Jewish households more orthodox than ours. Our host led us in a ritual that consisted of taking bites from dishes that had some special significance like an apple dipped in honey, a pomegranate, and the head of a fish. After each food was sampled, a prayer was recited. It has been many years since I recited a Hebrew prayer but the opening words, common to nearly all of them, starts “baruch atoh adenoai elochaynu…” words affirming that God is the Greatest, tailored to the occasion upon which they are being invoked. I remember them all these years even though nothing else I learned in Hebrew school sticks with me.

A week after the dinner I went to Shaaray Tefila, the Reform Synagogue on Second Avenue and Seventy-Ninth Street, on Saturday afternoon for Yizkor services as I have done ever since my mom died in 2008. This is part of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that is the most solemn for Jews. I always go with an old friend from high school who first suggested that I join him back in 2009.

Yizkor services are for remembering a dead relative. At Shaaray Tefila, you get a mixture of Hebrew prayers that have been around for hundreds of years and modern verses composed by men and women with a flair for the moribund. The verses are essentially a statement about the fleetingness of life and the need to take consolation in the Lord, all in all evoking the Book of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

When I was a religion major at Bard College, I was convinced by a professor’s claim that Greek Stoicism influenced the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. From The Enchiridion by Epictetus:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views.

No matter how many times I hear such sentiments, it is hard for me to slough off the prospects of mortality, now much more immediate than ever as I approach my seventieth birthday dealing with one old man’s disorder or another, like hypertension. My old friend has a tougher row to hoe, a year into Parkinson’s disease. Death is “nothing terrible” when you are 30 or so but when you hit your seventies, you feel like you are walking in a minefield. They say that religion is mostly about getting a person to be reconciled to death through the promise of an afterlife. That’s little consolation to a hard-core materialist like me. The main thing I get out of prayers for the dead is a feeling that I am paying respect to my mom, who never found a way to make me more observant, even in the weak tea Reform Judaism she upheld.

Shaaray Tefila was in the news recently. The NY Times interviewed rabbis across the nation from Reform to Orthodox to see how they were handling the Gaza controversy. In almost all cases, a decision was made to not talk about it at all for fear of pissing off young antiwar Jews or old and well-to-do Zionists. The former rabbi at Shaaray Tefila weighed in:

“There is the sense that the ability to criticize Israel has been diminished because of the war, because of the atrocities that Hamas perpetrates among its own people, and because Israel needs our support since the international community is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a recently retired senior rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.

“The easy sermon for a rabbi to give this year will be on the rise of anti-Semitism across the world. That is a softball,” said Rabbi Stein, who is also the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents the Reform movement. “The more difficult sermon to give will be one that has any kind of critical posture.”

In keeping with the general thrust of the article, Stein made sure not to say anything demonstrating atonement for the deaths of women and children in Gaza.

That was a subject very much on my mind as I walked past the Chabad missionaries parked in front of my high-rise for the past few days celebrating Sukkot, a holiday that though proximate to Yom Kippur is tied to another Old Testament legend, the exodus of Jews from Egypt. Supposedly they lived in a kind of grass hut called a sukkah that serious Jews build for the occasion. They look like a tree house but sit on the ground. The holiday calls for eating your meals in a sukkah but hardly any of the Jews I grew up with built a sukkah let alone dined in them.

For some reason the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who are to the Chabad as Mormons are to their mandatory missionary service, are gung-ho on this holiday and implore apostates like me or simply secular Jews to take part in a ritual that involves waving a palm frond, the so-called lulav. The ritual is inspired by this verse in Leviticus:

On the first day, you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches, and willows [that grow near] the brook. You shall rejoice before God for seven days.

Of course, Leviticus has all sorts of strictures that might strike a sensible person as odd, especially when the punishment for violating them is death by stoning:

Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.

Two days ago, the last time the missionaries showed up in front of my building, one asked me if I was Jewish—the start of a pitch to get someone to wave the lulav. I told him that I used to be Jewish, but no longer. He reassured me that I would always be Jewish as long as I had a Jewish mother. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Me: So what defines a Jew, his bloodlines or his deeds?

Him: (Pretty much ignoring my question) You will always be a Jew. It is in your soul.

Me: If I kill someone, will that mean I am still a good Jew as long as I wave the branch and eat Kosher?

Him: Yes, your soul will suffer but in god’s eyes you will be Jewish.

That was enough theology to last me until next year. Back to the materialist grindstone.

October 13, 2014

Against football

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

For the past few months, there has been a steady barrage of news reports on the moral failings of football players with a tendency to put the blame on those in positions of responsibility both in the professional and amateur realms. But as you might expect, there has been an utter failure to put football into a broader social and political context, something I hope to do in this essay.

In early September, Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice knocked out his wife and then dragged her unconscious body from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel:

Roger Goodell, the CEO of the National Football League, then suspended Rice for two games—a decision that led to widespread disgust with both Rice and himself. Goodell has to walk a tightrope in such cases and other cases involving NFL accountability, such as the widespread incidence of brain damage in veteran players. He has to convince the media and the fans that he is for the integrity of the sport while making sure that the cash keeps flowing into the owners’ pockets. Ultimately he is responsible to them and not to society.

Ironically this balancing act was not much different than the one carried out by his father Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator who understood that NYers would not vote for someone too far to the right.

Not long after the Ray Rice incident broke the news, another scandal involving a NFL running back took place. Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings superstar, was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a branch he tore from a tree. Why, you ask? Apparently the kid pushed his brother while he was playing a video game. TMZ broke this story, just as it did when it published the Ray Rice video. Here’s the police photo of the child’s whipping marks.

Ray Rice was a star football player at Rutgers. This school was in the news a couple of years ago for the bullying behavior of its basketball coach who routinely called his players “faggots”, “motherfuckers”, etc. when he wasn’t throwing the ball at their head for mistakes made during practice. Apparently the football team had the same sort of culture. David Cohen, the defensive coordinator, was accused of bullying by defensive back Jevon Tyree who told the Daily News that Cohen called him a “pussy” and threatened to head-butt him.

I don’t know if there was much of a bullying problem at the University of Oklahoma but Adrian Peterson’s alma mater was host to a kind of Hells Angel clubhouse under coach Barry Switzer in the late 80s. In January 1989 cornerback Jerry Parks shot offensive lineman Zarak Peters in the chest during a drinking bout, only missing his heart by a couple of inches. When the players weren’t trying to kill each other, they were out terrorizing women. One week after the shooting sophomore running back Glen Bell, sophomore offensive tackle Nigel Clay and junior tight end Bernard Hall gang raped a woman on campus. Afterwards Switzer said on local television, “You can’t speak in general terms and say that these players are out of control. That’s totally ridiculous.”

This kind of behavior is fairly typical for the powerhouse football teams like the U. of Oklahoma and Florida State that got profiled in a long investigative piece that appeared in the NY Times on October 11th. Florida State first became part of the national dialogue on football criminality when its superstar quarterback Jameis Winston got kid gloves treatment by the local cops, their campus colleagues and the administration after a female student charged him with rape.

The Times article describes a widespread pattern of thuggish behavior sanctioned by the cops, who were major fans of the football team and benefited from part-time jobs at the arena, as well as malign neglect from the administration:

The cops received a 911 call in January:

“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”

But when the cops discovered that the man was a member of the Seminole football team (a name that dishonors the indigenous peoples just as much as the Redskins), they decided the charge of domestic violence was “unfounded”.

In June the cops got another call. Jesus (Bobo) Wilson had stolen another student’s motor scooter that supposedly he had permission to ride but whose last name he did not know. The cop decided not to arrest him because “he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.” A report surfaced today that cops are likely to kill a Black youth 21 times more frequently than a white. I guess the one way to avoid a bullet or an arrest is to get recruited to the Seminoles.

The team has a favorite form of recreation to relieve the stress that goes along with drills on the field and big-time games with other powerhouse teams. Players arm themselves with bb guns and ride around campus shooting at windows or students for target practice. When I was 11 years old or so I got shot in the leg with a bb gun. It won’t kill you but it hurts like hell. Also, you don’t want to get shot in the eye even if it amuses a jock.

The article also reported on how Jameis Winston is holding up to the rape charge:

Most recently, university officials suspended Mr. Winston for one game after he stood in a public place on campus and, playing off a running Internet gag, shouted a crude reference to a sex act. In a news conference afterward, his coach, Jimbo Fisher, said, “Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment and language and decision-making.”

A search of his public Instagram page would have turned up a similar display. Amid photos of himself with his coach, the comedian Will Ferrell and the former N.F.L. quarterback Archie Manning, Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song “On the Floor” by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking “no” for an answer from women:

“She said she wants to take it slow, I’m not that type of guy I’ll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.”

If the NFL is at the top of the food chain and the college is in the middle, then high school is where the minnows can be found. In a scandal that has New Jersey and the northeast doing some soul-searching, seven members of the Sayreville high school football team were arrested for sexual assault as NJ.com reported:

It came without warning.

It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.

In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.

Sayreville is one of the state’s football elites, sending players to Rutgers and other Division One colleges on a fairly regular basis. It is 67 percent white and a home to many working class ethnics who love their football. Commentators have asked, “Where were the authorities” when all this was going on. I strongly suspect that the coach knew about it and might have even encouraged it as a way of “toughening” up the players. Isn’t this in line with what happened to Miami Dolphin tackle Jonathan Martin? Richie Incognito might not have stuck his finger up his ass but he degraded him in other ways like calling him “my nigger” and warning him that he was going to go to his house and rape his sister.

In fact this pattern of abuse between players, between coaches and their players, and the players and innocent bystanders walking to class, is absolutely fundamental. This is a sport based on aggression. It is no accident that every Super Bowl is a Nuremberg rally for the American military.

If we ever have a socialist revolution in the USA, the first thing that should happen after the nationalization of the banks and the commanding heights of industry is the abolition of football, both professional and amateur.

A couple of months ago, Steve Almond’s “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” was published. It includes a chapter “All Games Aspire to the Condition of War”—that should give you an idea of where he is coming from. I am not sure if I will have time to read Almond’s book but would if I did based on an article that Almond wrote for the Village Voice a while back, one of the few worth reading in this putrid newsweekly.

The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.

It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.

At the same time, football has become the nation’s most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell’s stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald’s. College football has followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.

As might be expected, this popularity has been reflected in the volume of media coverage the sport attracts. In an era of dwindling resources for straight news, football has become a dependable cash cow and a driving force in the expansion of the ESPN brand and sports punditry, in general. The most popular radio programs are now broadcast live on television.

Read the full article: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/08/against_football_author_steve_almond.php

 

October 12, 2014

The tide turns against Political Marxism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Robert Brenner, the godfather of Political Marxism

One of the upcoming featured articles in the ISO’s International Socialist Review is titled “The poverty of Political Marxism”. Written by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, it will obviously be a polemic directed against the academic trend dedicated to applying the “Brenner thesis” to various historical events, including the American Civil War.

Briefly summarized, the Brenner thesis claims that capitalism developed originally in the British countryside in the 17th century as a result of the introduction of tenant farming that put a premium on competition. Once it took hold in Britain, it diffused to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, Political Marxism has a fairly strict definition of capitalism. Without free labor, it simply does not exist. So, in the case of the Southern slave states, you had something called “precapitalism”, according to Charles Post. Needless to say, this category was not very prevalent in a Marxism that continued to stress the need for identifying social relations more exactly. Wouldn’t there be a need to distinguish 19th century plantations in Alabama from slave labor during Nero’s age?

Although Brenner never wrote much about the bourgeois revolution—as far as I know—his followers developed a theory that no such thing existed, especially in France in 1789 when, according to Brennerite George Comninel, the monarchy was toppled by aristocrats rather than the bourgeoisie.

I first learned about the Brenner thesis from Jim Blaut in the mid-90s when he showed up on the mailing list preceding Marxmail urging people to read “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that was a reply in part to Robert Brenner. After reading it, I was motivated to begin writing my own articles on the Brenner thesis but from a somewhat different angle than Jim’s. As someone who remained very much committed to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, I wanted to try to evaluate the Brenner thesis in terms of my own education in the SWP. I might have rejected the group’s sectarianism but continued to value the emphasis it put on Trotsky’s writings that saw the tendency for feudal social relations and modern capitalist property relations to co-exist as they did in Czarist Russia on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

Starting in the late 90s, I wrote 32 articles on the Brenner thesis that can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm. Most were written after Jim had died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. At the risk of sounding either self-important or—more likely—like a crank, there was practically nobody criticizing the Brenner thesis except me. For the most part, this was a function of the thesis enjoying a kind of hegemony on the academic left. If you spent any amount of time on JSTOR as I did courtesy of my employment at Columbia University, you will discover dozens of articles paying tribute to Robert Brenner in the most glowing terms. What was the explanation for that? Jim Blaut tried to provide one in an essay on Brenner that was included in his follow-up to the Colonizer’s Model titled “Eight Eurocentric Historians”:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

What was badly needed at this juncture was a strong Euro-Marxist theory of the original rise of capitalism, a theory demonstrating that capitalism and modernization originated in Europe, and evolved thereafter mainly in Europe and with little influence from the non-European world and colonialism. The crucial questions were matters of medieval and early-modern history, of proving that Europe was the source of innovation back in those times, and so the modern European world (joined lately by Japan) is still, by implication, the main source of innovation. Robert Brenner supplied such a theory in two long essays in 1976 and 1977, followed by another in 1982.2 These essays are among the most influential writings in contemporary Marxist historiography, influential among conservatives and Marxists alike.

Over the past few years I have been gratified to see others wading in on the Brenner thesis, especially Henry Heller, the author of “The Birth of Capitalism”, a book that came out in 2011. Heller had two motivations in writing such a book: first, to prove that the lease farming analysis was false and second, to reestablish the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. Heller is also the author of “The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815”, a book whose title obviously indicates its theoretical orientation just as much as Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, another rebuttal to George Comninel and the Political Marxists.

I was also encouraged to see the Deutscher Prize awarded to Jairus Banaji in 2011 for his collection of essays “Theory As History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation”. It came out the same year as Heller’s and was chosen over Charles Post’s “The American Road to Capitalism”. To my knowledge, Banaji has never referred to Brenner specifically in his writings but given his commitment to Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, it was inevitable that he would implicitly challenge some of the basic precepts of Political Marxism by referring, for example, in one essay to the theses on the Eastern Question proposed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, where the colonial commission spoke of capitalism arising in the colonies on feudal foundations.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the new initiatives taken by younger scholars in the field, symbolized by the article by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu that will appear in the next ISR. Some time invested in a Google search revealed quite a rich vein of scholarly research carried out by these two and other like-minded critics of Political Marxism and that is available online. Let me review them now in the hope that you will dig in to this important theoretical question: how did capitalism arise?

1. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, “What’s at Stake in the Transition Debate? Rethinking the Origins of Capitalism and the ‘Rise of the West’”, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 2013 42: 78

Interestingly, the article is a defense of combined and uneven development from the charge of Eurocentrism mounted by Indian scholars and by John M. Hobson, the author of “The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics”, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation” and the great grandson of the man whose ideas on imperialism influenced Lenin.

The authors seek to resolve the contradiction between the “internal” explanation of capitalism defended by Brenner and the “external” (Italian city-state trade, Spanish plunder of the New World, etc.) defended by Sweezy and Wallerstein on a higher level. The article shows that the Ottoman Empire had a major role in creating the conditions for the rise of capitalism in Europe by undermining the possibility of European unity under the grip of an absolutist state:

Aside from these new commercial privileges, the effects of the Ottoman geopolitical buffer were especially pronounced in English intra-lord class relations and the peculiar development of the English state. A variety of authors have stressed the significance of England’s lack of involvement in continental geopolitical conflicts from 1450 onwards as a fundamental factor in its peculiar development of capitalism.

It also stresses the importance of the New World plunder that served as kind of supercharger for capitalist development internally:

In the first instance, the bullion confiscated in the Americas lubricated the circuits of capital accumulation within Europe as a whole, providing the liquid specie for Europe’s vibrant trade with the East. By 1650, the flow of precious metals from the Americas reaching Europe is estimated to have amounted to at least 180 tons of gold and 17,000 tons of silver. Between 1561 and 1580, about 85 per cent of the entire world’s production of silver came from the Americas. This provided the capital for European merchants’ profitable trade with Asia and East Africa in textiles and particularly spices.

2. Kerem Nisancioglu, “Before the Deluge: The Ottoman Origins of Capitalism”, a paper presented to a Millennium conference in 2012

This paper expands on the findings in the article cited above. I was particularly interested in this question since in prior discussions I have had with people on the Turkish left, including my wife, I always had the impression that the Ottoman Empire was certainly not capitalist, even if it was not exactly like European feudalism. What was it exactly? Nisancioglu characterizes it as being based on the tributary mode of production, a more general category that includes European feudalism. In the Ottoman Empire, the state was much more powerful than it was in Western Europe and hence far more capable of achieving control over a vast territory through internal financing for a standing army. In its confrontations with Europe, the Ottomans inadvertently created the conditions for the rise of capitalism that would eventually be their undoing:

The Euro-Ottoman relation was therefore marked by the relative backwardness of the European ruling classes, and the comparative weakness in its form of social reproduction. These European ‘privileges of backwardness’ encouraged and compelled its people – both ruling and ruled classes – to develop and adopt new ways of securing their social reproduction. At the same time, the relative strength of the Ottoman social form entailed a ‘disadvantage of progressiveness’, wherein the stability of social reproduction provided no immanent impulse for change or development. This relation of unevenness goes some way to explaining why the so- called miracle of capitalism would occur in Europe, and why it would not be repeated in Ottoman territories. That this divergence was a product of Ottoman progressiveness and European backwardness suggests that Eurocentric assumptions of historical priority need to be reconsidered.

3. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “Approaching ‘the international’: Beyond Political Marxism”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs

I suspect that this article anticipates some of the same criticisms that Anievas and Nisancioglu make in the upcoming ISR article, although given the venue it was obviously less polemical than what we can expect to see. As was the case with the previous articles, Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is invoked as a corrective to Political Marxism’s tendency to draw a sharp distinction between social relations dictated by the market and “extra-economic” coercion of the kind that existed under both feudalism and the absolutist states of the early modern era. That being said, I do find the article making concessions to Political Marxism that I would not have made. For example, they write:

Only under capitalist property relations do we see the structured differentiation of the political and economic into distinct institutional spheres as methods of surplus-extraction become uncoupled from ‘extra-economic’ coercive means. In other words, under capitalism extra-economic coercion (that is, state power) and economic coercion (the compulsion to sell one’s labour in order to access the means of production) are necessarily separate. ‘As in every other exploitative system’, Wood (2006, 15) writes, ‘there are two “moments” of exploitation: the appropriation of surplus labour and the coercive power that sustains it. In capitalism, however these two “moments”: are uniquely separate from each other’.

Unless I misunderstand them, they would put the plantation system of the old South outside the sphere of capitalist property relations since it rests almost exclusively on “extra-economic” coercive means. As I shall explain later, the most recent research demonstrates rather conclusively that the plantation system was fully integrated into the world capitalist system, thus restoring Eric Williams “Capitalism and Slavery”, an analysis based on the combined and uneven development principles Williams learned from CLR James, to its rightful place in the arsenal of Marxism.

4. Jamie C. Allinson and Alexander Anievas, “The Uneven and Combined Development of the Meiji Restoration: A Passive Revolutionary Road to Capitalist Modernity”, Capital and Class

If free labor is a sine qua non for Political Marxism, how does it explain the Meiji Restoration in which feudal relations in the countryside were used to reinforce capitalist property relations in the city? Easy…it ignores it.

Thanks to Allinson and Anievas, we get some insights into what happened in Japan and as it turns out Junkers Germany as well. They write:

This combined formation is not, however, to be grasped in a mechanical way but rather as emerging in the crises and responses of the actors in Japanese society. The Meiji reforms abolished the legal and economic basis of the samurai class and prebendal power over the direct producers. However, the abolition of the dues of the samurai class was achieved at the expense of the peasants, rendered notionally free but in fact still subject to ‘semi-servile’ agrarian relations (Hirano, 1948: 4). By this time, ‘Japan’s uneven development had produced a highly concentrated urban capitalist sector, contrasting sharply with conditions in the countryside that many Marxists came to see as vestiges of feudalism’ (Hoston, 1986: 9). The origins of Japan’s agrarian class crisis, which intertwined with industrial class struggle in the 1920s and to which ‘imperial fascism’ was a response, lay in this ramified social structure.

Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I wrote my first article on the Brenner thesis in which I came to similar conclusions:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

It is hard for me to understand why the Political Marxists are so little motivated to look closely at what might be called “capitalism from above”. Isn’t it about time that we concluded that even though Marx had good reasons to chronicle the origins of capitalism in Britain as it was the “purest form”, resting as it did on market forces rather than extra-economic coercion, this particular historical example was in many ways unique? After all, Marx told the Russian populists that Capital was not intended as a universal schema for social development.

A free market in labor developed in Britain because there was a surplus of labor generated by the enclosure acts that forced self-husbanding farmers to seek employment as wage workers. In the colonies, the Indians could not be relied upon since they would run away from a plantation and subsist as they always had through hunting and fishing. Naturally you would import slaves from Africa and keep them disciplined by the whip and the noose.

Two books came out recently that set a high bar for Political Marxists like Charles Post. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes trying to answer Walter Johnson and Edward E. Baptist who carried out rigorous research of primary material in order to make the case that slavery in the Old South was capitalist, even if it didn’t correspond to a schema wrenched out of V. 1 of Capital. I have Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” and Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” and can’t wait to sit down and work my way through them.

While there may be excerpts from Johnson’s book online somewhere, I think your best bet is to read Gilbert Winant’s review in N+1, a Marxist journal of the new generation. Winant writes:

For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.

I would only add that I found it most odd that Ellen Meiksins Wood regarded John Locke as the philosopher par excellence of the emerging capitalist system since he wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony that enshrined slavery as a natural right. That contradiction is, of course, for her and other Political Marxists to unravel.

If anything, Edward E. Baptist is even more emphatic on classifying slavery as part of the American capitalist system. I would refer you to Charles Larson’s CounterPunch review:

The men (often with a thousand pounds of iron connecting them) were part of a coffle, enslaved migrants walking seven or eight hundred miles, chattel property, being moved from the north to the south because the profits when they were sold to their new owners were one hundred percent. The slave trade in Africa no longer mattered because slaves in the more northern states (Virginia, especially, but also Maryland) were reproducing so quickly that they created an entire new source of labor. Baptist gives the year as 1805, and states that eventually a million slaves were herded this way to the South. Tobacco farming in the North was less profitable than cotton farming in the South. “The coffle chained the early American republic together.” Slaves walked and walked for five or six weeks, performing their ablutions as they moved. There wasn’t an iota of dignity for the men. Baptist refers to the entire procedure as a “pattern of political compromise” between the North and the South and notes that eight of the first twelve Presidents of the United States were slave owners.

Well, of course. Slave-owners led the American Revolution that Lenin considered to be an exemplary “revolution from below”. They were certainly the most consistent defenders of bourgeois prerogatives, including the right to own men and women as if they were beasts of burden. And after the Northern bourgeoisie reconciled with its Southern former enemies in 1876, “extra-economic” coercion was restored in the South and continued through most of the 20th century until Blacks mobilized to end Jim Crow just as they had in the 1860s to end slavery. And during slavery, Jim Crow and modern ‘free labor’ conditions (excluding the profit-making penitentiary system), it has remained capitalism all along. I will conclude with this thought. Capitalism is about commodity production for the purposes of gaining what Piketty calls “capital”—wealth in other words. Whether the labor that produces the wealth is in chains or “free” to be sold to the highest bidder makes hardly any difference at all, least of all to the bastards who rule the world.

 

October 10, 2014

Why you should junk Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm
And Start Watching Films with a Brain and a Heart

Why You Should Junk Netflix

by LOUIS PROYECT

If any further evidence of the uselessness of Netflix was needed, I refer you to the recently concluded four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who is to movies as Danielle Steel and Ken Follett are to the novel. Did you ever forget to bring a book with you on a long airplane trip and stop in at an airline terminal to look for something to read? Wall to wall Steel and Follett, right? Bummer. That’s the same reaction I have been having lately looking for something to watch on Netflix. That is not to speak of the cheesy menu that basically propagates the same junk across “Popular on Netflix”, “Recently Added” and “New Releases”. A quick look there turns up “Jackass presents: Grandpa” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Considering the fact that most Netflix subscribers have never heard of Kurosawa or Godard, it is quite a statement that “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner” only garnered one and a half stars, an inflated grade considering the fact that you can’t rate something as zero stars.

As a sop to the art house crowd, one supposes, Netflix is also releasing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a film that has all of the superficial characteristics of Hong Kong cinema but none of the substance, least of all the nimbleness of the classics like the 1978 “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. Ang Lee should have stuck to what he knows best, tales of anomie in the aging yuppie milieu.

I just checked the archives of the Marxism list and discovered a message I wrote in 2006 recommending Netflix followed by an enthusiastic New York Times article that compared the service favorably to Blockbuster. That was true. Of course a sharp stick in the eye would have been better than Blockbuster as well.

read full article

trailers for films discussed in the article:

Waiting for August

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

Opening today at the Quad in New York, “Waiting for August” is a cinema vérité Romanian documentary about seven children fending for themselves while their mother works as a housekeeper in Italy in order to provide the money the family needs to stay afloat. The father is unaccounted for—we don’t know if he is deceased or has simply bailed ship.

Like the best cinema vérité, especially early Frederick Wiseman, the film is making a point about society but without being too obvious about it. The subject under consideration is the precariousness of post-Communist Romania. At one point, just before Christmas, the children, who range from 15 to 4 by all appearances, are chatting about the upcoming holiday. One of the older children says that the TV will be showing pictures of that guy who was killed around Christmas time years ago. Who do you mean, asks the other? Ceausescu is the reply. He was the dictator under Communism when we had it so bad. You had to stand on line for bread rations. The irony is not lost on the audience who cannot help but be dismayed by the thin line that separates the seven kids from disaster. When you see a ten year old cutting potatoes for dinner, you wonder how long it will take for her to cut her hand. That is the feeling you are left with throughout the film. The suspense is whether they will all make it safely until August, when mom returns.

Seen in economic terms exclusively, a capitalist ideologue might argue that the film makes the case for capitalism since the kids use cell phones, watch cable TV, Skype to their mom on the family computer, and have the bare necessities for staying alive, including food, clothing and a roof over their heads. But crowded into no more than four rooms, their only pleasure besides their own companionship is watching soap operas on TV and passively taking in other electronic diversions on the computer. If Communist austerity was made possible by police repression, capitalist austerity is maintained by the free market—especially in labor as mom—like so many other Romanian parents apparently—is free to work in Italy to keep her children under the same roof. We learn that a nun who is aware of the family situation is on the verge of calling in the authorities to have the children put into an orphanage. It is not too hard to understand how so many young woman from Eastern Europe end up in the sex trade after seeing “Waiting for August”.

Not everything is grim in this documentary. In fact you are impressed with the strength and the love of the older children who function as surrogate parents. It can only make you feel, however, that they are losing the freedom of normal children who are able to make their lives their own growing up.

On the film’s website (http://waitingforaugust.be/), the 33 year old director Teodora Ana Mihai explains her motivation for making the film:

My parents fled Romania in 1988 and were granted political asylum in Belgium. I stayed behind as a guarantee for the secret services that my mom and dad would return: it was the only way for them to flee the country. In the absence of prospects, parents sometimes take risks whose consequences are difficult to calculate in advance. In the end I was lucky: about a year later, after some diplomatic interventions, I was able to leave Romania too and was reunited with my parents. But that one-year absence during my childhood left a significant mark on me.

I remain in close contact with my country of birth, intrigued and preoccupied by its current fate. It’s this connection with Romania that made me realize that, in a way, history is repeating itself there. The difference is that children are no longer left behind for political reasons, but for economic ones. The impact on the child though, remains the same.

The economic migrants are occasionally given a voice by the media, but we hardly ever hear from the young ones left behind. That is why I wanted to tell their story – the story behind the story.

But telling the story of children who are left behind by their parents is a delicate matter. It is a taboo in practically all cultures, as no one is proud of ending up in such circumstances. It was not an easy task to find a family who were not only expressive enough, but who also agreed to be filmed in an open, uncensored way.

As is the case with so many Romanian narrative films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, this documentary turns a gimlet eye toward the contradictions of post-Communist society. Is there an alternative to Communist police state austerity and the insecurities of capitalism? One imagines that director Teodora Ana Mihai hopes that her audience will be inspired to answer that question for themselves, a question that most of Eastern Europe and the entire planet ponders much of the time in an epoch of declining economic expectations.

October 9, 2014

Jews and the left

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

A few days ago I received this query:

Mr. Proyect,

     I’m seeking some reading suggestions about the historical involvement of jewish folks in socialist organizations/parties etc, everywhere really but especially in the U.S. Do you have any suggestions? I’d appreciate any you had! Really just curiosity on my part, although I am a socialist.

As is my customary practice, I will reply to this publicly.

I would start with Paul Buhle’s scholarship. He co-edited a book titled “The Immigrant Left in the United States” with Dan Georgakas, a collection of articles that includes his own “Themes in American Jewish Radicalism” that is about 90 percent complete on Google books. Just do a search on the book’s title and you will find it.

Next I would look at Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”. It has been many years since I read it but I am fairly sure that this study of the Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side will have a lot of material that you are looking for. Howe was a member of the Trotskyist movement in the USA who moved in a rightwing social democratic direction in the 1960s but I strongly recommend “World of Our Fathers”. I also recommend his memoir on life inside the Trotskyist movement titled “A Margin of Hope”. It is very much an examination of how Jews got involved with the left in the 1930s.

Speaking of the 1930s, I would also recommend the documentary “Arguing the World” that interviews Howe as well as a number of the CCNY students who became Trotskyists or Stalinists during the Depression. All of them were Jewish. The film can be seen on Amazon.com for a small rental fee.

Next there is Vivian Gornick’s “The Romance of American Communism”, an excellent study of the lives of ex-members, many of whom were Jewish. It has been many years since I read the book but consider it must-reading for trying to understand the CP experience.

It would also be worth looking at Walter and Mirian Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest”, a book on the Rosenbergs that mostly sought to refute the claim that they were Russian spies. Subsequently the Schneirs had to accept conclusive evidence that Julius was (but not Ethel) was a spy.  That does not invalidate much of their findings that the trial was a mockery of justice. The book has lots of interesting material on how Jews got involved with the CP. Like many Jewish members of the CP, the Rosenbergs remained culturally Jewish even as they adopted the atheism that goes along with Marxist politics. This is true of myself as well.

There’s also a magazine called Jewish Currents that has its origins in the Communist Party. (http://jewishcurrents.org/) The journal was edited for many years by Morris Schappes, who died in 2004 at the age of 97.

Moving a bit forward in time, there’s Mark Rudd’s article “Why were there so many Jews in SDS”. (http://www.markrudd.com/?about-mark-rudd/why-were-there-so-many-jews-in-sds-or-the-ordeal-of-civility.html). There’s also a chapter from the book “The Ballad of Ken and Emily: or, Tales from the Counterculture” titled “Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Growing Up as a New Left Jew” that should be of interest. (http://www.voicesfromtheunderground.com/articles/Abbie_Jerry.pdf).

That covers the American left. There’s also lots of interesting material about Jews and socialism in other countries. Fortunately Isaac Deutscher’s essay “The Non-Jewish Jew” can be read online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/deutscher01.htm. It would probably be worth tracking down Deutscher’s book “The Non-Jewish Jew” that has that article plus others that deal with Jews on the left.

Rosa Luxemburg and other Jews are discussed in Jack Jacobs’s book “On Socialists and ‘the Jewish Question’ After Marx”. Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor with radical politics who is also observant, brought Jacobs’s scholarship to my attention on FB, writing “I read the manuscript version of one of Jack Jacobs’s chapters and I found it totally riveting. So much new archival information in this book (especially about Fromm and Marcuse and their relationship to Israel; a lot more too but I was really surprised by these revelations). Will be of major interest to those interested in either the Frankfurters or in Jewish Studies.” He was referring to this book: “The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism”, which might not be of interest to you but deserves to be mentioned in light of Corey’s recommendation.

Finally, there are many articles on “Jews, Marxism and the Worker’s Movement” at the Marxism Internet Archives (http://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/) that should be useful to you. Finally, the Wikipedia article on Jews and the left should open up other possible reading material: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_left

Let me conclude with a few words on my own experience.

I am named after my grandfather, who died before I was born. He was the chairman of the Workman’s Circle in Woodridge, NY, a Jewish fraternal association that provided assistance such as insurance, burial costs, etc. to its Yiddish speaking membership. While not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, it was nominally socialist. I can’t be sure of this but my grandfather was also supposedly the chairman of the local Socialist Party.

I had very little communication with my father growing up but as I was about to go up to Boston to work with the local branch of the SWP in1970, he became sufficiently alarmed to warn me about “the commies”—as it turned out he was very unhappy that I had broken with Zionism. He said that he was a communist himself a long time ago. All that amounted to was a brief membership in the American Labor Party after WWII.

I grew up in the Borscht Belt, where many Jews from my father and grandfather’s generation joined the SP or the CP. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled “Borscht Belt Reds” that you might want to take a look at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Last year I interviewed a woman in her nineties who was very much in the heart of Jewish radicalism in my hometown. You can watch the video here: Jewish leftist chicken farmers of the Catskills. (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/01/jewish-leftist-chicken-farmers-of-the-catskills/).

I also put together a video on Fred Baker that might be of interest. He was a red diaper baby who had a career both as a pornographer and as a legitimate filmmaker. His “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is his most important work. Fred’s father opened up the Second Avenue Delicatessen after winding down his involvement with the CP. Fred never joined but was a lifelong radical. The video is here: http://louisproyect.org/2012/01/05/the-house-he-lived-in-conversations-with-fred-baker/.

Finally, my own experience is fairly typical of baby boomers that got involved with the left in the 1960s. By the time I was ready to join the SWP, I had pretty much stopped identifying as a Jew. I had residual Zionist leanings but they disappeared when I discovered that Israel supported the war in Vietnam. Over the years I have written a lot about Jewish culture because I think it is great, ranging from Larry David to Harvey Pekar. I would not be surprised that in 20 years or so being Jewish will mean being orthodox as more and more Jews become assimilated. Ironically, the two things that are accelerating that process is the savagery of Israel and the general acceptance of Jews into mainstream society wherever they live. Sooner or later secular-minded Israeli Jews will abandon ship and move to countries that are less oppressive, including—ironically—Germany, the nation that is regarded in some circles as the eternal foe of the Jew. In the final analysis, the Jews have more to worry about those who are supposedly their friends, like the Christian Fundamentalists whose Zionism rests on the notion that the Second Coming of Christ will rest on the universal acceptance of Jesus as redeemer.

 

October 8, 2014

How Alexander Cockburn’s ancestor torched Washington and freed 6,000 slaves

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

By Andrew Cockburn

On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”

(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)

October 7, 2014

Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia

Filed under: Film,Gay,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Thirty years ago when I was working closely with Peter Camejo on getting the North Star Network off the ground, I totally agreed with him that the left should not be divided on historical questions like when and if the USSR became capitalist. Or on international questions such as whether to support Eritrea or Ethiopia, etc. You can obviously have sharp differences that must be debated openly but they are not “split” questions as is the norm in the Trotskyist movement.

After watching “Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia”, I am not so sure any more, at least on the international question. This 48 minute documentary that can be seen on HBO Go, a streaming service available to HBO subscribers, left me in a complete state of rage both for what is happening to Russian gays but also for the open affection for Vladimir Putin that exists on wide sectors of the left.

Needless to say, the Western left would never support a politician who was responsible for fostering a war on gays in the USA or Britain. Furthermore, in all of the pro-Putin propaganda in the “anti-imperialist” left, you will never see him applauded for his anti-gay legislation that serves as legal cover for the vigilante movement exposed in the HBO documentary. That instead is what you will hear from the rightwing movements that also back the Kremlin, including just about every neofascist group in Europe, including Jobbik, Golden Dawn and the National Front in France. They love Putin because he stands up for “traditional values”. One imagines that in their heart of hearts, the “anti-imperialists” have no problems with crackdowns on NGO’s that defend gay rights in Russia since they are obviously a necessary defense against plots concocted in the basement of the State Department by George Soros, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Power. After all, if you were going to make a choice between gays being forced to drink piss by skinhead vigilantes and coming down on the same side of an issue as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, you’d naturally opt for gays drinking piss.

Fortunately, you can see the documentary as well on Youtube. This is identical to what is being shown on HBO but with a different narrator:

The film will give you a good idea why a sixteen-year-old gay youth sought political asylum in the USA. Here on an exchange program, the boy decided that he would stay in the USA rather than put up with the kind of bigotry seen in the film. Tass said that this was all the result of a gay cabal and Russia said it would no longer participate in the exchange program.

Directed by Ben Steele, the documentary takes a look at two of the major vigilante organizations in Russia, Parents of Russia and Occupy Pedophilia. Leaders of both groups were more than willing to allow the cameramen to film every one of their attacks. Naturally, this would be the case since the cops are their accomplices.

To give you an idea of how the cops operate in tandem with the ultraright, you see gay rights activist Yekaterina Bogatch hounded by the cops for simply standing on the sidewalk holding a sign calling for equal treatment of all citizens. If she had put the word gay on the sign, she risked arrest.

Parents of Russia is a group that is dedicated to exposing gays by putting information about where they live, etc. on the Internet. Yekaterina Bogatch, a schoolteacher, is one of their prime targets. They want her fired from her job even if she is straight. Gay teachers, who are not even involved with protests, have just as much to worry about since Parents of Russia deems them as pedophiles.

That is basically the strategy of the vigilantes, the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s base of support in elected officialdom. Although laws against homosexuality were lifted fifteen years ago, the attacks are mounted as against pedophiles rather than gays. Occupy Pedophilia is a prime example. It tells Steele that is only after pedophiles but in the one entrapment scene that involves their activists openly tormenting a gay man they have lured through the Internet, there is not the slightest evidence that pedophilia was involved.

I have often scratched my head trying to figure out the attraction that Putin has for the “anti-imperialist” left. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream” when Puck puts a potion in Titania’s eyes. Upon waking, she falls madly in love with Bottom, a man whose head has been replaced by that of a donkey. Who has put such a potion in the eyes of Pepe Escobar, Andre Vltchek and Michel Chossudovsky, I ask you?

For an unrepentant Marxist like me, the Russia I adore is the Russia of the 1920s when laws against homosexuality were not only lifted, there was a pervasive sense that sexual freedom and socialism went hand in hand. Ironically, despite the Workers World Party’s tendency to fall in line behind the Kremlin, one of their activists has written some very useful material on sexual freedom in the early USSR:

During the 1920s, in the first decade of the Russian Revolution, signs that the struggle to build socialism could make enormous social gains in sexual freedom–even in a huge mostly agricultural country barely freed from feudalism, then ravaged by imperialist war and torn asunder by civil war–were apparent.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

For example, author Dan Healey states, “The revolutionary regime repeatedly declared that women who sold their bodies were victims of economic exploitation, not to be criminalized, and campaigns to discourage them from taking up sex work were launched.” The growth of prostitution had of course been spurred by the chaos and dislocation of people accompanying war.

Historian Laura Engelstein summarizes, “Soviet sexologists in the 1920s participated in the international movement for sexual reform and criminologists deplored the use of penal sanctions to censor private sexual conduct.” (“Soviet Policy”)

In 1923, the Soviet minister of health traveled to the German Institute for Sex ual Science and reportedly expressed there his pride that his government had abolished the tsarist penalties against same-sex love. He stated that “no unhappy consequences of any kind whatsoever have resulted from the elimination of the offending paragraph, nor has the wish that the penalty in question be reintroduced been raised in any quarter.”

Also in 1923, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Soviet Hygiene, published a pamphlet titled “The Sexual Revolution in Russia.” It stated, “Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle: it declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, as long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.”

And the pamphlet spelled this out clearly, “Concerning homosexuality, sod omy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against public morality–Soviet legislation treats these the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

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