Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2017

Ben Norton throws a tantrum at Jacobin magazine

Filed under: Germany,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Last Wednesday someone on a pro-Syrian FB group posted a link to a vitriol-filled blog post by Ben Norton from November 30th titled “Jacobin, leading neo-Kautskyite magazine, whitewashes SPD, erasing murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht”. I hadn’t given much thought to Norton since the Trump presidency began since it was apparent that the ultraright president had provided much less fodder to professional Assadists like Norton and Blumenthal. It was a bit difficult to write Gray Zone articles about the danger of regime change in Syria when there was every indication that there was a commonality of interests between the White House and these two knuckleheads over the need to destroy ISIS, al-Qaeda and any bearded man with the temerity to shout “Allahu Akbar” after taking out a Baathist tank.

The fellow who posted a link to Norton’s post prefaced it with:

Ben Norton being a weird Leninist Polemicist. It appears his beef with Jacobin has to do with it publishing pro-Syrian-revolution stuff. It’s funny he accuses them of having this Kautskyist editorial line, when actually they pay $50 for articles and take stuff mostly from freelancers.

I’m not exactly sure what being paid $50 and Kautskyism has to do with each other but I heartily concur with the “weird polemicist” characterization. Leninist? Well, only in the sense that he sounds like ten thousand other Internet Bolsheviks who maintain Twitter accounts festooned with pictures of Stalin, hammers and sickles, and any other regalia from the 1930s. Such people are unlikely to get FBI visits as I did in the 1960s when being a Leninist meant going out and building demonstrations. Since Norton’s chief involvement with the left is writing for AlterNet, a magazine that is two centimeters to the left of MSNBC, I doubt that he has much to worry about.

To be a proper Leninist, even in the degraded sense of sects like the Spartacist League, you have to be a disciplined, dues-paying member with responsibilities. This describes Ben Norton about as much as the term virginal describes Harvey Weinstein. When you begin throwing around terms like Kautskyist, it is like going to a Halloween Ball disguised as Lenin. More to the point, Lenin’s polemics against Kautsky have to be seen in context. In Norton’s case, the only context appears to be Jacobin’s new line on Syria that closed the door on him and his Assadist pals, so much so that after Norton attacked an anti-Assad article in the Jacobin Facebook group, he was blocked.

Turning to the article itself, it is a broadside against “the pro-imperialist, social chauvinist, and historical revisionist editorial line of Jacobin”. One wonders why Norton didn’t throw in “petty bourgeois” while he was at it, the cherished term of all those who strike Leninist poses. It seems that the AlterNet staff member had gotten himself into a proper tizzy over a November 6th item titled “When Social Democracy Was Vibrant” that looked back fondly at the German Social Democracy of the late 1800s when it formed gymnastics associations and cycling clubs, choir societies and chess clubs. I can understand the spirit in which the article was written since I had the same feelings about the CPUSA of the Popular Front era when it was providing support for Orson Wells’s Mercury Theater and drawing composers like Aaron Copland into its orbit. You can make a distinction between such contributions like these and voting for Democrats unless you are incapable of dialectical thinking (hint, that is Norton’s Achilles Heel).

The article, written by Adam J. Sacks, includes this judgment on the SPD toward the very end of the article:

World War I ended all of that. Succumbing to the militarism sweeping the continent, SPD parliamentarians voted for war credits to fund the barbaric conflict. Though they initially tried to justify the war as an act of humanitarian intervention on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the tsarist regime — and an antiwar faction soon declared independence from the party — the decision signaled the death knell of the Second International. The leading light of socialism had turned its back on the bedrock principle of proletarian internationalism.

You’d think this would be enough to protect the author and Jacobin from Norton’s curses but anybody who has been following his deceitful, Judith Miller-type reporting over the past two years should be used to this by now. No, it wasn’t enough to denounce the SPD parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914. You also had to take a position on choirs, gyms, chess clubs and the like. Unless you took the correct position on the Ruy Lopez opening, you were providing cover for the SPD sending “millions of workers to die for capitalist empire in World War I.”

Since Sacks’s article begins by extolling an SPD rally from 1889, a date by which it had become beyond the pale of revolutionary socialism, you’d think that Norton might have taken the trouble to explain how the Erfurt Program adopted by the party just two years later could have had such a profound effect on Lenin. In 1899, Lenin wrote a draft program for the Russian Social Democracy that demonstrated him falling short of Norton’s lofty standards:

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

If you’ve read Lars Lih, you’re probably aware that Kautsky was the main inspiration for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and that Lenin continued to consider himself a disciple of Kautsky until the differences over the October revolution produced Lenin’s excoriating polemics. However, there are also indications that when it came to the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in the German Social Democracy, Lenin found himself on Kautsky’s side occasionally as pointed out by Leon Trotsky in a 1932 article titled “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”:

In Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky, especially in 1910–1914, an important, place was occupied by the questions of war, militarism and pacifism. Kautsky defended the reformist program, limitations of armaments, international court, etc. Rosa Luxemburg fought decisively against this program as illusory. On this question, Lenin was in some doubt, but at a certain period he stood closer to Kautsky than to Rosa Luxemburg. From conversations at the time with Lenin I recall that the following argument of Kautsky made a great impression upon him: just as in domestic questions, reforms are products of the revolutionary class struggle, so in international relationship it is possible to fight for and to gain certain guarantees (“reforms”) by means of the International class struggle. Lenin considered it entirely possible to support this position of Kautsky, provided that he, after the polemic with Rosa Luxemburg, turned upon the Rights (Noske and Co.).

Norton clearly has an inability to grasp things dialectically. He is much more comfortable seeing things in black and white. Not only was the Bolshevik Party a direct descendant of the German Social Democracy, the German Social Democracy itself had its own divisions in which Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg were on the same side against Eduard Bernstein, the father of the “revisionism” that is manifest today in the Swedish social democracy et al. Yet this same Eduard Bernstein was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program that Lenin imitated by his own admission.

In general, I find terms such as “Kautskyist”, “reformist” “revisionist”, “petty bourgeois” and “treacherous” a dead giveaway that those using them have an inability to develop a substantive critique of their opponents in a debate. Blanket characterizations generally reflect a preference for the cleaver–the preferred tool of the politically feebleminded–over the scalpel.

The question of German social democracy is complex. While those unfamiliar with German social democratic history like Norton tend to fixate on the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there were indications that the party was by no means as compromised as Norton would have you believe. In fact, his knee-jerk dismissal of the German social democracy is what was prevalent in the German Communist Party at the time when Lenin sought to bring the ultraleft back down to earth through the united front tactic.

In the Fall of 1923, Germany had entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation. The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing social democrat named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the German Communist press.

After he took office on October 10, 1923, Zeigner brought two members of the Communist Party into his government. Because of this, he was deposed 19 days later by Germany’s social democratic president Friedrich Ebert, the man Norton equates to Bhaskar Sunkara.

The Russians intervened in Germany to get the Communists to overcome their hatred of the social democracy and join with Zeigner’s forces to overthrow Ebert. Unfortunately, the workers were not so eager to join an offensive that was ill-prepared. It was over basically before it began. The German Communists, the Comintern, and the Social Democrats pretty much share equal blame. Today, there is a new accounting for this historic defeat that was an important part of Hitler’s rise. For those seeking to understand it, I strongly recommend Pierre Broué’s “The German Revolution, 1917-1923”, available from Haymarket.

It was the failure of the left to become unified in Germany in the 1920s that led to the eventual triumph of Nazism. We are dealing with terrible divisions today that must be overcome if we are to provide an alternative to the two-party system. Despite my criticisms of the Jacobin/DSA “inside-outside” electoral strategy, I regard the growth of a leftwing party made up of young people to be one of the most hopeful signs of an emerging revolutionary movement. I have no problems with criticizing the DSA or Jacobin but Ben Norton’s tantrum serves nothing else but his own fragile ego.

December 8, 2017

The life of Fidel Castro: a Marxist appreciation one year after his passing

Filed under: cuba,North Star — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

by IKE NAHEM on DECEMBER 8, 2017

 

“Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.

                                                        Fidel Castro

“[Humans] make [their] own history, but [they] do not make it out of the whole cloth; [they] do not make it out of conditions chosen by [themselves], but out of such as [they] find close at hand.”

                                                        Karl Marx

 

The Epoch of Fidel

Fidel Castro was one of the outstanding revolutionary leaders over the entire course of recorded world history. His astonishing and heroic life experiences are intertwined with the accomplishments, example, and practice of the Cuban Revolution that he was the central leader of.

The political and personal integrity of Fidel Castro stood rock-solid in the face of decades of tremendous, unremitting pressures directed by the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution (and him personally through murder).

The skilled resistance Fidel personified at the head of the politically conscious, organized, and mobilized Cuban masses gave him the moral high ground over decades in the treacherous waters of world politics in the “Cold War” era and beyond.

As I wrote in my October 9, 2017, essay Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution:

…During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel protests in 2017 Miami were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated ‘dictator.’ Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for ‘the undefeated’ Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The ashes of Fidel Castro on the way to Santiago de Cuba

Fidel and the enduring example of the Cuban Revolution consumed the US ruling class with an unrelenting scorn and hatred. They seethed at the sheer effrontery of the Cuban revolutionaries carrying out a socialist revolution in the interests of the working class, the peasantry, and the oppressed, that is, in the interests of the vast majority of the Cuban people.

This is the case, notwithstanding the mass migrations encouraged – and uniquely expedited legally to the United States – by Washington for decades. This reached 7-10% of the Cuban population, resulting in a kind of Cuban diaspora. This self-exiling was centered initially on the Batista-era police, army, and gangster personnel, followed by the Cuban ex-bourgeoisie and owners of expropriated latifundia, and, finally, as the political confrontation between revolutionary Cuba and the United States government intensely sharpened, quickly came to include broad layers (but by no means all) in the Cuban professional and middle classes, a relatively affluent small minority. For example, some 3,000 out of the 6,000 doctors in Cuba before the Revolution emigrated from Cuba to the United States in this period. Most Cuban workers and peasants rarely, if ever, saw a doctor their entire lives in “the good old days” when median life expectancy in Cuba was 52 (it’s now 78). For many years now, the island has produced some 10,000 Cuban doctors a year and, at the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world, has trained, free of charge, tens of thousands of doctors from all over the world who are now practicing in working-class and impoverished communities in their countries. Similar comparisons can be made for all other contemporary Cuban professions.

The special venom and hatred preserved for Fidel Castro by Washington and Wall Street, by all the representatives and spokespeople of world capitalism and imperialism, was, of course, a badge of honor for the Cuban revolutionary. Certainly, the once powerful virtual industry of anti-Castro misinformation and propaganda has been politically defeated worldwide. But it has resources and lingers on in the continued, weakened US anti-Cuba policy of economic war and political hostility, and in the renewed efforts by the Donald Trump White House to pressure and threaten socialist Cuba, following the establishment of formal Washington-Havana diplomatic relations in 2015.

Of course, genuine social and people’s revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution, inevitably generate bitter hatreds and resentments from the overthrown and vanquished ruling classes. The special hatred of the overturned Cuban ruling classes, allied with Washington and defeated in the course of the Cuban Revolution, toward Fidel, the personification of their social and political vanquishers, is of a piece with how the representatives and beneficiaries of the Confederate slavocracy in their era – and their dwindling band of political heirs, to this day – felt about Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and others, not to speak of revolutionary abolitionists like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Tubman.

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Dunkirk; Darkest Hour

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, December 7, 2017

Thanks to my membership in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I am the recipient of a virtual wheelbarrow of DVD’s sent out by studio publicists hoping to sway my vote for best movie at our annual awards meeting on December 9th. These are generally films I tend to avoid through the year so I look forward to seeing them if for no other reason to help me pass judgment on the likely finalists in our deliberations. No obscure neorealist, radical, foreign-language films are likely to make the cut.

It turns out that two of the films are set in 1940 and have to do with the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk, a city on the coast of France. The first is Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, a film that I would never spend good money to see since I detest his work. It is still playing in theaters everywhere. The second is “Darkest Hour”, a biopic about Churchill that opens on December 21. Like Nolan, director Joe Wright is English. After seeing the two films, the only award that I would consider making is for best work by a makeup artist. Whoever turned the lean and angular Gary Oldman into the spitting image of Churchill in Wright’s film deserves one. Needless to say, Oldman did not have to work too hard at conveying Churchill’s character since he is every bit as racist and reactionary, stating in a 2014 Playboy interview that Mel Gibson’s reputation as an anti-Semite was unfair but to be expected in a “town run by the Jews”.

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December 5, 2017

Can socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: third parties,workers — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Under the command of Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd Olson, the Minnesota National Guard holds back workers as it raids headquarters of Local 574 of the Teamsters Union in 1934

Yesterday Eric Blanc stepped outside of his “April Theses was not a break from Old Bolshevism” comfort zone and wrote an article for Jacobin titled “The Ballot and the Break”. The title of the article evoked Malcolm X’s 1964 double-barrel blast at the two-party system titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” but that speech was in marked contrast to Blanc’s argument that socialists can run in Democratic Party primaries to their own advantage, something he calls a “dirty break”. By contrast, Malcolm X and many Marxist dinosaurs like me call for a “clean break” from the two-party system.

The article is a stroll through the history of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in Minnesota that used to run candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Party primaries and eventually became the Farmer-Labor Party, which shunned such practices until it fused with the dreadful Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party in 1944. Blanc makes the case for such a pragmatic approach here:

The organization spread like a prairie fire, first in North Dakota, then across the Midwest, and even into Canada. Individuals joined by paying dues, which went towards financing farmer political candidates. And on an electoral level, the NPL took a novel approach: instead of building a new third party or allying with a “progressive” wing within the existing parties, the organization ran its own independent candidates within Democratic and Republican primaries. Since Republicans were dominant in Minnesota, the main battles took place within that party’s primaries, which were open to all voters.

Arguing that both parties were equally in the pay of big business, the NPL insisted on political and organizational independence from the leaderships of each. Nonpartisan League candidates pledged to uphold the group’s platform and were financially as well as organizationally dependent on the NPL during and after elections. Perhaps most importantly, when an NPL candidate lost the primary election, the organization nevertheless refused to support the party’s nominee in the general election.

Although the DSA is not mentioned once in the article, this excursion into American history from a century ago might be understood as giving its blessing to the group running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line. Blanc’s article takes exception to both the old guard DSA’ers who identify politically with Michael Harrington and to sectarians like me who oppose voting for the Democrats on principle. I gather that he is leaning toward the sophisticated “inside-outside” orientation of the Jacobin wing of the DSA. I should add that during the euphoria of the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara spoke much more as a Harrington disciple in making the case that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a winning party if it moved left and “embraced a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people.” Good luck with that.

For Blanc and Sunkara, work inside the Democratic Party is a tactical question rather than one of principle. Blanc’s research into the NPL’s history is obviously designed to reinforce the notion that such a tactic can be useful since it led to the formation of the Farmer-Labor Party that “captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement”. He does confess that relations between the party and militant workers were rocky–to say the least–during the Trotskyist-led 1934 Teamster rebellion.

I should mention that this not the first time I have run into people steeped in Leninist orthodoxy who advocate such an opportunist electoral approach. Seven years ago when the Kasama Project was still around, I made the case that Lenin was opposed to voting for bourgeois candidates as a matter of principle. Mike Ely, who founded Kasama, remonstrated with me: “Actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black Hundreds.” So if Lenin gave his benediction to this, why shouldn’t we back candidates like Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders? Or for that matter, run DSA’ers on the DP ticket? You can read my reply to Ely here if you are interested. It shows that I can dig as deep into the bowels of Bolshevik history as well as any other Marxo-Talmudic scholar, or even deeper.

Turning back to Blanc’s findings, there is one important thing that has to be stressed over and over. When NPL’ers ran as Republicans, this was not the party of Donald Trump–to say the least. In the days of Theodore Roosevelt, both parties had rebellious elements that had goals that sounded as if they were lifted from Green Party campaign literature. As the name implies, the Nonpartisan League sought to advance a program that spoke in the name of farmers, many of whom were Republicans angry about their plight. In many ways, they were the counterpart of Tom Watson’s Populists.

Arthur Townley, the founder of the NPL, wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to vote for one of his candidates:

Inasmuch as the lack of respect for farmer rights could be laid to neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party exclusively, we hit upon the idea of using a no-party or nonpartisan organization. It was to be an organization which both Democrats and Republicans who believed in certain principles could join without having to go all the way from one party to the other. To make the route of farmer union for political action easier we called the organization a League rather than a party.

To repeat, unlike today’s Republican Party, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt was suffused through the ranks of the GOP so much so that the most radical presidential campaign of the 20th century outside of  Henry Wallace’s was mounted by Robert La Follette who was the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906.

La Follette was the standard-bearer of the Progressive Party in 1924. The Socialist Party formally endorsed him at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed him as well. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to “discrimination between races” and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as “the arch enemy of the nation.”

There is little question that the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and La Follette’s campaign were giant steps forward for the left but were both eclipsed by FDR’s presidency that relied on the CP for both ideological justification and organizational muscle. No matter how many times Bernie Sanders or Bhaskar Sunkara use the word socialism, there is no doubt that their goal is to resurrect the New Deal. One only wonders what investment Eric Blanc has in all this.

Returning to the history of the NPL, it has to be emphasized that the tactic of running in bourgeois party primaries was short-lived. The NPL was formed in 1915 and was forced to abandon the tactic in 1921 when the Republican Party banned such “entryism”. That year, NPL’ers were forced to make a choice. Would they dissolve into the Republican Party or would they form a third party?

The farmer dominated NPL decided to team up with the Democrats in 1922 but the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) that was inspired by it but took the road of class independence. The WPNPL had been formed by Minnesota’s Socialist Party in 1919, dissolving itself afterward. With a larger working-class composition and ideology inherited from the founders, the party had much more of a class struggle orientation even if it “eschewed talk of violent revolution and dropped explicit Marxist rhetoric”, as Blanc puts it.

In 1922, the WPNPL gave birth to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party just as the SP had given birth to it. From the start, it was very successful. It elected Governors, Senators, and House Representatives as well as many municipal officials. It is easy to understand why it would fuse with the Democratic Party in 1944 since there was very little difference between the two programmatically. The main difference was over its institutional base, which like the British Labour Party, rested in the trade unions.

For revolutionaries, the attitude toward such a party must be grounded in dialectics. It is doubtful that any Labor Party that will emerge in the USA will come perfectly formed like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. If you keep in mind that Lenin recommended that Communists support British Labour like a rope supports a hanged man, what are the justifications for forming one in the 1920s or today for that matter?

Although the Farmer-Labor Party rested on a trade union base, the elected officials tended to be middle-class professionals backed by trade union bureaucrats who sought to rule on behalf of all classes in Minnesota rather than working stiffs.

The small-town lawyer Thomas Latimer became the Farmer-Labor mayor of Minneapolis in 1935. He was once the Socialist Party candidate for governor, an indication that it was a party that welcomed middle-class progressives. Whether Latimer was much of a progressive when he became mayor is open to question. When the workers at Flour City Iron Works went on strike, he marched with the chief of police to escort scabs into the plant. Later that day, the cops tear-gassed and shot pickets, killing two bystanders. Some years later, Latimer was invited to join the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky led by John Dewey, a mistake in my view.

He was cut from the same cloth as Floyd Olson, who Warren Creel, formerly the Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, described as “a capable, courageous and spectacular politician” in the Fourth International magazine in 1946 as part of an autopsy on Farmer-Labor. Olson, a lawyer who had run as a Democrat in the past, accepted the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Party in 1930 with the proviso that he be allowed to establish “Olson All-Party Committees” that would be free to include Republicans and Democrats, who naturally would be lured by the prospect of landing a state job through patronage.

Olson and his supporters vowed to run a campaign that would “slur over contradictions and differences” and “unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate clarification of their differences to succeed.” Hope and Change, 1930 style, in other words.

On July 17, 1934, the coal yard bosses refused to abide by the agreement they worked out with Local 574 a few weeks earlier. This meant that the strike was on again. Three days later, “Bloody Sunday” took place. Over a hundred cops fired on a mass gathering of workers that left two pickets, John Belor and Henry Ness, dead as well as wounding over 65 others, many of whom were shot in the back. The Minneapolis Labor Review reported a crowd of 100,000 people in attendance at Henry Ness’s funeral.

Olson then ordered 4,000 National Guard troops to enforce martial law in Minneapolis. He also banned picketing, which allowed scab-driven trucks that were issued military permits to begin moving again. On the night of July 31, the National Guard surrounded and then raided Teamster headquarters, arresting many strike leaders. The next day, after 40,000 strikers and their supporters marched on the stockade where they were being held, the leaders were released and union headquarters were returned to the workers. It was workers power that finally led to a victory in Minneapolis, not the “progressivism” of the state’s governor or the mayor.

Despite all this, Leon Trotsky recommended to SWP leaders that they support the Farmer-Labor Party or any other Labor Party that came into existence in a discussion that took place in 1938. Listening patiently to their criticisms of such formations, Trotsky replied:

Now we must not reckon by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today. American capitalism is very strong but its contradictions are stronger than capitalism itself. The speed of decline came at American speed and this created a new situation for the new trade unions, the CIO even more than the AFL. In this situation it is worse for the CIO than the AFL because the AFL is more capable of resistance due to its aristocratic base. We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.

What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised.

In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten – a hundred times faster than the speed of our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.

It is our fate today that at the very best, we don’t even have a reformist workers party to join. One was stillborn in 1996, for reasons put forward by its leader Mark Dudzic in an interview with Derek Seidman in Jacobin from 2015 that concludes:

In many ways it would appear that this is the perfect time for a labor party movement to revive. We are years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, working-class wages have stagnated for over a generation, inequality is at unprecedented extremes, and both major political parties are wedded to neoliberal and austerity politics. Working people are desperate for real solutions.

Yet there is not a single national union that would commit the resources and organizing focus to a labor party movement in the way that several unions did in the mid-1990s. The failure of the labor party movement is bound up with the crisis and decline of the organized labor movement. The labor party model remains the only plausible way to launch and sustain an effort for independent working-class politics. While the challenges are even greater today than they were twenty years ago, the need is also greater.

There are no shortcuts. The movement to build a labor party is inextricably linked to the project of transforming and revitalizing the entire US labor movement. It is inconceivable to envision almost any progressive initiative succeeding without the support and participation of a vigorous and engaged labor movement.

Today, such a movement’s very survival is at stake. As we work to rebuild it, we have an opportunity to correct the policies and strategies that contributed to its failure and to work to assure that a focus on independent working-class politics is part of its core identity.

I would agree with this and even more for the call for a revolutionary party that avoids the sectarian mistakes made by Leon Trotsky’s followers. The time to start work on this is yesterday.

December 4, 2017

Trump, Russia vs China and China Industrialization

Filed under: China,Trump — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

(I received this article from Lynn Henderson, a former member of the American SWP, yesterday. Henderson worked as a railroad brakeman/switchman for 25 years.  He was vice-president of United Transportation Union Local 1000, one of the largest UTU locals in the country.  He was editor of the Intercraft newspaper Straight Track and is currently a contributor to Socialist Viewpoint magazine.)

 

Trump, Russia vs China and China Industrialization

The following is a response to a 7/29/17 letter from Dave Gilbert who you may know is a political prisoner serving a long term in federal prison.  Over the past year Dave and I have been in a fruitful exchange of ideas, a recap of which was printed in the September/October 2017 issue of Socialist Viewpoint.   In his latest letter Dave posed a number of issues: the character of Trump’s role as leader of the America First/nationalist wing, the disputes in the U.S. ruling circles over Russia vs China, China’s industrialization, its future evolution and impact on relations with the “Global South” and William Robinson’s concept of a new transnational capitalist class (TCC).    Lynn Henderson Nov. 2017

Dear Dave,

Let me finally try to take up some of the points you raised in your 7/29/17 letter.  First, as I indicated in my short note last August, you are right in observing that Trump is hardly a “strategically coherent representative” for the emerging “nationalist” faction in the U.S. ruling class.  He is increasingly seen as erratic and unreliable, particularly lately with the growing crisis over North Korea.   Neither wing of the emerging split in the U.S. ruling class wants to stumble into another Asian war, let alone a nuclear war, over North Korea.  Steven Banning, who perhaps represents a more reality based strategy for the nationalist faction, argues that it’s now too late to prevent a nuclear North Korea.  Rather U.S. imperialism needs to concentrate on the real threat, the growing industrial power of China.

But it is Trump who got elected president proclaiming a return to an aggressive nationalist/ America First line, and successfully mobilized racist, anti-immigrant sentiment in support.  Whatever his other limitations, the coalescing nationalist wing feels stuck with him and they are falling in line behind him, at least for now.  Even more worrying for the nationalist/American First wing is their growing suspicion that Trump’s only real political commitment is to his own personal wealth and ego.  Bannon in an August interview with The Weekly Standard gives voice to this sentiment; “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.  We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency.  But that presidency is over.”

More broadly, most of the elected politicians in both capitalist parties are in confused disarray over the growing split in the U.S. ruling class.  They are not confident over how the division will play out, and what position will best serve their own political futures in the end.  As Marxists we, unlike bourgeois historians and political philosophers, adhere to the historical reality and validity of a ruling class. But this of course does not mean that any particular ruling class at any particular time is unified and in fundamental agreement.  Or even that a ruling class under all circumstances, especially under the stress of a real crisis, is capable of correctly assessing its own best interests.

China

I think the most pressing questions in your letter were those concerning China.  One — how did China, while using a market economy, become more of an economic threat than the USSR did?  And two – whether China is emerging as an imperial power and what does this say about the terms of their economic relationships with Third World countries?

To begin grappling with these questions we have to again go back to the world that emerged out of WWII, and its subsequent evolution.  As I previously wrote, U.S. imperialism was the completely dominant winner of WWII.  It won WWII not just against the Axis powers but against its own allies as well.  With the exception of the United States, the entire capitalist world came out of WWII in social, political and economic shambles.  The question then before U.S. imperialism was how should it proceed?

At the end of World War II, one option the U.S. government had was the unique opportunity to use its economic and military power to dismantle the major industrial corporations of its competitors. Under the so-called Morganthau Plan, Germany was to be forcibly de-industrialized and turned into a decentralized collection of agricultural states much like it had been in the middle of the 19th century. The U.S. also had similar plans for Japan. Indeed, why stop with Germany and Japan? Why not forcibly dismember the capitalist industry of all of the United States’ major potential competitors, including its so-called allies Britain and France? After all, the logic of capitalist competition among nation-states pointed in this direction.

If that had been done, U.S. corporations would have had the entire world market—both as buyers and sellers—for themselves. If the U.S. government had followed an “America First” policy in the years after 1945—and gotten away with it—it would have meant that the stock market value of U.S. corporations would have soared to vastly higher levels than is actually the case today. The U.S. would have been “great” indeed!  But as we know, the U.S. government didn’t dare attempt this, especially with the threat of the Soviet Union and the continued example of the 1917 Russian Revolution still before what would have been an increasingly impoverished and radicalizing European proletariat.

Instead, with the launching of the “Marshall Plan” Washington adopted a bi-partisan foreign policy, supported by leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties alike, buttressing a world empire in which the corporations of Britain; an economically resurgent Germany; and an economically resurgent Japan, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and so on could actually compete with U.S. corporations, cooperatively exploit the Third World, and appropriate a portion of the surplus value for their non-American owners (what you have labeled “free market imperialism”).  Things were made easier by the fact that the world market in the wake of the Great Depression and the massive physical destruction of WWII, had entered an extended phase of rapid expansion.

A key element in organizing this “New World Order” was the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference in which 44 nations met in New Hampshire to “negotiate” a new international monetary system.  No real negotiations took place.  A completely dominant U.S. imperialism, holding all the cards, could and did dictate the terms.  The alternative other participants faced was some version of the Morganthau Plan.

The lynchpin of the Bretton Woods system was the new privileged status for the U.S. dollar.  All international accounts and trade would now be settled in dollars.  Dollars that the U.S. Treasury could just print.  It was true that dollars could be converted to gold at a fixed rate of $35 per ounce, which was redeemable by the U.S. government.  But the U.S. government held most of the world’s official gold reserves, and what the rest of the world desperately needed and wanted was not gold but dollars to spend on American manufactured goods – cars, steel, machinery, etc.

However, as manufacturing began to recover in the rest of the capitalist world, resistance to the Bretton Woods system and the privileged position of the dollar began to grow. In Europe the Bretton Woods system began to be characterized as “America’s exorbitant privilege” — an “asymmetric financial system” where non-US citizens “see themselves supporting American living standards and subsidizing American multinationals”.  In February 1965 French President Charles de Gaulle announced his intention to exchange its U.S. dollar reserves for gold at the official exchange rate.  By 1970 other nations began to demand redemption of their dollars for gold.  Underlying this shift was the broader reemergence of international capitalist competition, especially in the sphere of manufacturing.  In 1950 the U.S. share of the world’s total economic output was a whopping 35%.  By 1969 it had dropped to 27%.  The U.S. economy was faced with rising unemployment (6.1% August 1971), recession and the threat of deeper recessions.

U.S. ruling circles became convinced that a policy of massive deficit spending and monetary expansion could successfully stimulate the economy and reverse its decline.  The 1960s represented the flood tide of neo Keynesian economics in both policymaking and academic circles. If there was one time in the history of modern capitalism when the academic and political mainstream believed that they could finally beat the “business cycle” once and for all, it was then. In 1971 President Richard Nixon was reported to say, “We are all Keynesians now.”   Even many Marxists seemed foolishly willing to accept these claims.

But implementing such a policy was impossible as long as the dollar was tied to gold, which would allow nations throughout the world to flee an inflating dollar by demanding the U.S. Treasury redeem their dollars for gold. On August 13,1971 fifteen high ranking White House and Treasury advisors met secretly with Nixon at Camp David and unilaterally abandoned the Bretton Woods agreement by suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold.  Historically this is known as the “Nixon Shock”.

While the rest of the capitalist world was certainly not happy with the unilateral ending of dollar/gold convertibility, nothing else was available to function as the world’s reserve currency and the essential vehicle for carrying out world trade.  In the final analysis, U.S. overwhelming military power enabled the U.S. to convert the dollar into a token currency with an internationally forced circulation.

Now that this “metallic majesty” had been overthrown, the U.S. government and central bank believed they could guarantee “effective demand” sufficient to buy the vast and ever-growing quantity of commodities U.S. capitalist industry was churning out.  Throughout the 1970’s these policies were now put into effect with massive deficit spending and aggressive monetary expansion.  But the results were not as expected and predicted.  Rather than stimulating the economy and returning the growth rates of the 50’s and 60’s, the result was sharply increasing inflation peaking at almost 15% by the spring of 1980.  This crisis required the coining of a new term in economic jargon – stagflation.

But stagflation was much more than a crisis for just the U.S. economy.  The rest of the world began losing confidence in the dollar as the reserve currency.  Even though the dollar was no longer officially convertible to gold, it began to be dumped for gold, whose price soared to over $800 an ounce.  Conversely the dollar’s value plummeted on the foreign exchange markets. While many capitalist countries have experienced runaway inflation or even hyper-inflation, runaway inflation has never hit the central or reserve currency. If the dollar succumbed to runaway inflation, it would drag down every other capitalist currency with it. If this were allowed to happen while the dollar remained the reserve currency, the result would certainly be by far the worst financial crisis—not excepting the super-crisis of 1929-33— in the history of capitalism.

U.S. imperialism was left with no alternative but to move aggressively to crush the dollar inflation it had inadvertently set off.  The job was assigned to Paul Volcker, a prominent investment banker who was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve.  Over the next two years he quickly more than doubled the prime interest rate to an unheard-of level of over 20%.  This harsh medicine, known as the “Volcker Shock”, brought inflation somewhat under control but not without significant costs, precipitating the sharp 1981 recession.

U.S. imperialism and its Federal Reserve, admittedly in a pragmatic and empirical way, learned that contrary to widespread hopes in the 1960s, replacing the gold standard with paper money does not enable capitalist governments and central banks to expand demand up to the physical ability to produce and thus abolish periodic crises of general overproduction under capitalism.

But beyond the 1981 recession there was another even more important consequence of the rise of the rate of interest above the rate of profit in the wake of the dollar crisis. The period of extremely high but declining interest rates that followed the Volcker Shock led to a massive destruction of heavy industry in the U.S., Great Britain and to a lesser extent Western Europe.  This occurred in two interrelated ways, the first was called “financialization”; the second, a particularly aggressive form of “globalization”.

Soaring interest rates made capital investment in the actual production of things less and less profitable, but investment in various forms of financial manipulation extremely profitable.  Capital shifted away from manufacturing to a proliferation of new (and often risky) exotic financial instruments – hedge funds, derivative securities, credit default swaps, securitized and bundled mortgages, etc.   Between 1973 and 1985, the U.S. financial sector accounted for about 16 percent of domestic corporate profits.  In the 1990s, it increased to 21 percent to 30 percent.  In the first decade of the 21st century it soared to 41 percent of all U.S. domestic corporate profits.  General Electric, for instance, became one of the nation’s posterchildren for this development, shifting from one of the premier U.S. manufactures to more and more a financial, money lending corporation.

Then as interest rates fell, and positive net profits in manufacturing returned, capital in the form of money and loan money capital was free to invest in new areas. It chose to do this not in the old industrial areas of Britain, the United States and Western Europe but in areas where the rate of profit was far higher, leading to what has come to be known as “globalization”.  No matter how much capitalists speak about “love of country” as the highest virtue, the capitalists themselves—whether they are American, German, Japanese, Russian or Chinese—put profit first, last and everything in between.

Two political changes that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s played a crucial role in making this aggressive globalization possible.  First, the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European “socialist” allies meant that capitalists of the U.S., Britain and Western Europe became much more confident that capital invested outside the imperialist countries would be safe.  It even raised expectations among many capitalist leaders—such as George W. Bush—that something like pre-World War II colonialism could be restored.  But this time it would be the U.S. empire rather than the British empire that would be the chief jailers of the colonized peoples.  It led to the Iraq invasion and other adventures in the Middle-East and now Africa.

The second crucial development was the outcome of the great Chinese Revolution of the 20th century. With the rise of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1978, the Chinese revolution had finally run its revolutionary course. Unlike in the Soviet Union however, in China while there was political reaction—epitomized by Deng’s “it is glorious to get rich” slogan—there was no similar counterrevolution.

When the dust finally settled after decades of revolution, civil war, counterrevolution, Japanese occupation, still more civil war, the liberation of 1949 when China “stood up,” and finally the Cultural Revolution, China emerged with a strong central government independent of western imperialism. The new government was eager to attract foreign capital and willing to respect bourgeois private property rights in order to achieve rapid economic development along capitalist lines—but on its own terms.  It was determined not to allow a repeat of what had occurred in the Soviet Union – the chaotic collapse of the Communist Party apparatus and a Western influenced privatization and deindustrialization of the economy.

The defeat of U.S. imperialism in the Vietnam war had led to yet another crucial development favoring China.  In the 1970s, unable to break the resistance of the peoples of Indochina, the Nixon administration finally decided the time had come to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, including, most importantly, allowing China access to the world market, something they never did with Russia as long as the Soviet Union existed.  Nixon-Kissinger had their own motives in this – driving a wedge between any existing and future Russia-China alliance – increasing long existing antagonisms between China and Vietnam – and also the possibility of opening China to U.S. investment.

Handed down from the pre-revolutionary past, the new China possessed a gigantic peasantry numbering in the hundreds of millions accustomed to a very low standard of living and hard manual labor. This peasantry served as the source for an industrial proletariat willing to put up with a much higher rate of surplus value than the workers of North—and even Latin—America, Western Europe or modern Japan.  Huge amounts of foreign investment, especially U.S. investment flowed into China.  What the United States—or rather the United States capitalists—wanted most of all from China was the lion’s share of the surplus value produced by the Chinese working class. Russian workers produce very little surplus value compared to what the U.S. capitalists could appropriate from Chinese workers in the form of profit, interest and dividends.

The problem from the viewpoint of the U.S. capitalist class and its political representatives—the Party of Order of both Democrats and Republicans and the emerging Trump America First gang—is that the U.S. capitalists in squeezing huge amounts of surplus value out of the Chinese have been forced to develop China’s productive forces at the same time.

As a result of the convergence of historical forces described above, including the failed attempt of capitalist governments and central banks to solve the problem of periodic crises of general overproduction through issuance of paper money, in an amazingly short period of time China emerged as the country with the highest absolute level of industrial production—though not on a per capita basis. Meanwhile, the imperialist countries of the U.S., Britain and Western Europe have become increasingly de-industrialized as result of the operation of the same economic laws.

In order to make the empire last for even 70 years—a very short period historically—the U.S. had to give up much of its domestic industrial production. This initially was no great sacrifice for the U.S. capitalists because in exchange they have, at least up to now, vastly increased their ability to exploit the industry and workers of other nations. Herein lies the answer to the riddle of why the U.S. stock market has been able to perform so much better after the “Great Recession” than was possible after the Great Depression, despite the vastly stronger recovery of U.S. industrial production during and after the Great Depression compared to the feeble recovery of U.S. industrial production since the Great Recession. But as U.S. post WWII hegemony continues to disintegrate, this becomes harder and harder to maintain.

The Trumpists fear that sometime in the not too distant future, the U.S. capitalists will have to be content with a far smaller share of the global surplus value produced. Among the consequences when this comes to pass will be that U.S. capitalists will have much less surplus value to maintain—actually bribe—a relatively large but already shrinking middle class, which includes the “aristocracy of labor” inside the U.S.  Therefore, Trump and his gang believe, the U.S. shouldn’t let itself be distracted by an avoidable war—or even war of words—with Russia. Trumpists believes that it is not Russia but China that must be confronted and must be confronted now.  (I should say here that throughout this analysis I have drawn heavily on Sam Williams excellent blog, “A Critique of Crisis Theory” and encourage readers to avail themselves of his monthly postings, past and future.)

China’s Direction and Future Evolution

The other crucial China question you raise is whether China is emerging as an imperial power, and what does this mean for their future economic relationships with Third World countries?

After the victory of Deng Xiaoping’s grouping within the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China in 1978, China has industrialized through the massive import of foreign capital, the development of capitalist industry, and a massive expansion of exports. The economic laws governing China’s rapid industrialization since 1978 have been the laws that govern the development of capitalism.

The Chinese Communist Party itself describes the current Chinese economy as a market economy and not a planned economy like was the case with the Soviet economy.  During Deng’s rule the Chinese Communist party developed the slogan “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” to provide an ideological footing for the Party’s embrace of market remedies.  At the just completed Communist Party Congress, which meets every five years, President Xi Jinping introduced a new slogan which was incorporated into the constitution; “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

While this rather clunky new phrase could be open to many interpretations it is clarified by the dominant theme of the Congress and President Xi’s repeated central goal — “Make China Great Again”.  And further, only the Communist Party of China can guarantee this “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.  This slogan seems to be an echo of Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, but in reality, the two slogans encompass diametrically opposed world strategies.

The Trumpists believe that to “Make America Great Again” U.S. imperialism must abandon the globalizationist strategies it followed since the end of WWII, including promoting “free trade” and multinational trade agreements which are no longer in its interests.  Rather the United States needs to return to a policy of aggressive U.S. nationalism, including, when necessary, protectionist trade policies.  From now on, the U.S. government should directly use its state power to enrich U.S. corporations at the expense of the corporations of other countries, including so-called “allies” just like was done in the “good old days” before 1945.  The U.S. is still the largest economy in the world and the planet’s overwhelmingly dominant military power.  Before China becomes any stronger it should use that leverage to impose its economic will.

China on the other hand, as the world’s most rapidly expanding manufacturing power, is now its strongest proponent for globalization, “free trade”, open markets and multinational trade agreements.  Under China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which is aimed at creating a modern version of the Silk Road, a network of trading routes from China to Africa and Europe, it has launched a massive economic outreach dwarfing even the Marshall Plan of U.S. imperialism following WWII.

A nervous May 18, 2017 New York Times editorial warns: “China clearly aims to dominate the international system… shaping how vast sums are spent and where, and which laws are followed or not – it could upend a system established by Washington and its allies after World War II.”

Through direct investments, loans, financial aid, construction and engineering expertise, China is penetrating the economies of numerous countries it considers among its geopolitical priorities.  One revealing example is the NATO member Greece.  China has poured money into its key Mediterranean port of Piraeus, considered the “dragon head” of China’s vast “One Belt, One Road” project.  “While the Europeans are acting towards Greece like medieval leeches, the Chinese keep bringing money,” said Costas Douzinas, the head of the Greek Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee and a member of the governing Syriza party.

And it is not just construction projects.  As Europe’s banks demanded the gutting of Greek pensions and sharp tax increases to guarantee repayment of their predatory loans, the Chinese offered to throw Greece a lifeline by buying toxic Greek government bonds.

Meanwhile China has transformed Piraeus into the Mediterranean’s busiest port, investing nearly half a billion euros through the Chinese state-back shipping conglomerate Cosco.  As a result, Cosco now controls the entire waterfront through its 67 percent stake in the port.  With a rueful chuckle, Mr. Douzinas comments; “It’s a kind of neocolonialism without the gunboats.”

Today the ruling Communist Party of China still proclaims its ultimate aim is to build a communist society in China, if only in a distant future.  But the party explains that to do this, China must go through a preliminary stage called –“socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or most recently — “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

While periodically the party does launch anti-corruption crack downs on individual capitalists, the size and weight of this sector continues to grow.  In his speech at the opening of the Communist Party Congress, President Xi proclaimed the party would “inspire and protect the spirit of entrepreneurship.”  China now has 647 billionaires in American dollar terms, according to The Hurun Report, which claims to track wealth in China.  Many of these billionaires began as members of the Communist Party, others later acquired party membership.  All of this poses the question, what is the probable future evolution of the China state and its economic relationship with other nations?

Any assessment of the future direction and evolution of China has to take into account the deep impact of Stalinist ideology on the Chinese Communist Party.  An impact that goes back at least as far as the slaughter of the Chinese urban proletariat in the 1927 counter-revolution lead by Chiang Kai Sheki, who had been made an honorary member of the Third International by Joseph Stalin.

The Stalinist bureaucracy and leadership that successfully displaced the original Bolshevik-Leninist revolutionaries in the Soviet Union had many reactionary characteristics – authoritarianism, opposition to worker’s democracy, oppression of national minorities, material privileges based on corruption, etc.  But the essence of Stalinism, the core of its counter-revolutionary character, was its abandonment of the Leninist commitment to international revolution, its abandonment of international class solidarity.  Under the new Stalinist rubric of “Building Socialism in One Country” the role of the world proletariat, and the task of Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union, was not socialist revolution, but reduced rather to that of border guards for the Soviet Union and its conservatized bureaucracy.

The People’s Republic of China today, with its access to the world market and its aggressive “One Belt, One Road” strategy, is penetrating and influencing the world economy in ways which were never available to the Soviet Union.  But like the Stalinized Soviet Union, in word and deed, the Chinese Communist Party makes clear its goal in this is not international class solidarity, let alone socialist revolution.  Rather its aim is restricted to developing political and economic accommodations with select capitalist and third world regimes that further its “silk road” trade expansion.

In the Soviet Union the left opposition to the consolidating bureaucracy and its developing counter-revolutionary politics originally centered on winning the party back to an internationalist revolutionary course.  But after the Stalinist role in the defeat of the 1927 Chinese revolution, followed by the victory of Nazi fascism in Germany, with no real fight from what was then the largest communist party in the world outside the Soviet Union — a Rubicon had been crossed.  Reform of the Stalinized Russian Communist Party was no longer considered a possibility.  Instead, what was required was a political revolution that would remove the Stalinist leadership and its bureaucratized base from power.  Leon Trotsky, the principal leader of the left opposition, summed up the situation in 1938 with his now famous prognosis: “There are now only two possible courses for the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. Either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

While China and its communist party has its own history, and is certainly not a carbon copy of the Soviet Union, I believe the prognosis and dichotomy laid out by Trotsky in 1938 very much applies to today’s China.  China in its amazing industrialization, even while carried out by capitalist methods, is creating a massive, modern proletariat, with tremendous revolutionary potential.  Counterposed to this is the increasing power of an internal capitalist class.  The eventual outcome of course remains an open question.  A successful socialist revolution elsewhere in the world, especially in an advanced capitalist country, would have a decisive positive impact on the outcome.

_________

 

In your 7/29/17 letter you refer to William Robinson’s concept of a new “transnational capitalist class”.  While thinking Robinson may go “too far” you believed the concept has some validity in understanding present day global capitalism.   Here I pretty much disagree.   I believe the concept of the Transnational Capitalist Class is shot through with fuzzy thinking which is only made possible by stripping the concept of the nation-state of any class character.  For Robinson, globalization is reactionary.  It is reactionary because globalization downgrades the institution of the nation-state.  Robinson believes it is only through intervention in the nation-state that the most anarchic and most destructive elements of unrestrained capitalism can be brought under some control.  Robinson explains, Neo-liberalism facilitated the rise of transnational capital, which breaking free of the confines of the nation-state, allows for unlimited concentration of wealth without any countervailing restraints.

But concentrations of wealth don’t automatically drop from the sky out of some abstract neo-liberalism – they require policies, actions, and the structure of a capitalist nation-state.  No capitalist enterprise no matter how large and globally oriented exists separate from and outside its particular nation-state in some kind of imaginary “Daddy Warbucks” universe.    Robinson’s confused view of the nation-state and TCC developed and acquire for some a seeming plausibility, only under the completely unique conditions of U.S. global hegemony following WWII.  A period (free market imperialism) in which U.S. capitalism found it was to its temporary advantage to used its overwhelming dominance to discourage aggressive inter-imperialist competition and instead organize a cooperative exploitation of the TW – which, at least initially, worked to its advantage.

A number of months ago Socialist Viewpoint was considering printing an article by Robinson entitled, “Capitalist Crisis and Trump’s War Drive”.   While in the past I have not reviewed or participate in selecting what articles appear in S.V. here they asked my opinion.  I separately include my response and recommendation.

Capitalist Crisis and Trump’s War Drive

Robinson makes the case that there is a growing world capitalist crisis fueling a Trump war drive.  He lists a series of points supporting this, many of which we would not necessarily disagree with.

  • S. rulers have often launched military adventures abroad to deflect attention from political crises and problems of legitimacy at home — Trump is facing challenges to his legitimacy and falling approval ratings.
  • Trump proposes an increase of $55 billion in the Pentagon budget and threatens military force in a number of hotspots around the world.
  • Cyclical crises, or recessions, occur about every ten years in the capitalist system and we’re due. Structural crisis occurs every 40-50 years and we’re due there also.
  • Capitalist globalization has also resulted in unprecedented social polarization worldwide. Given such extreme polarization of income and wealth, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy making a new crash practically inevitable.
  • The increased raiding and sacking of public budgets. Public finance has been reconfigured through austerity, bailouts, corporate subsidies, government debt and the global bond market as governments transfer wealth directly and indirectly from working people.

However, throughout his article is a confused analysis which draws heavily on the ideas of the anti-globalization movement of the past decade.  Robinson is particularly influenced by a wing of the anti-globalist movement that claims that globalization has produced a new stage of international capitalism in which the capitalist class no longer operates primarily through the institution of the nation-state but rather through huge international capitalist corporations that stand above and separate from the traditional nation-state.  He calls this new development the “transnational capitalist class (TCC)”. This leads him into all kinds of non-Marxist dead-end conclusions.

In the article Robinson claims for instance the structural crisis, of “the Great Depression of the 1930s, was resolved through a new type of redistributive capitalism, referred to as the ‘class compromise’ of Fordism-Keynesianism, social democracy, New Deal capitalism, and so on.”  And further: “Capital responded to the structural crisis of the 1970s by going global. The emerging transnational capitalist class, or TCC, promoted vast neoliberal restructuring, trade liberalization, and integration of the world economy.”

First, the structural crisis of the Great Depression, in so far as it was “resolved”, was not resolved by some “class compromise” but by the horrors of WWII.  His concept of an “emerging transnational capitalist class” represents a rejection of the Marxist concept of the nation-state as the chief instrument of a ruling class, and its government as essentially the executive committee of that ruling class. Robinson sees the nation-state and its government entirely differently.  He sees the nation state as an arena in which progressive forces have the possibility of curbing some of the worst abuses of unrestrained capitalism.  Globalization and TCC by downgrading the state is reducing that possibility.

A clearer and more detailed presentation of Robinson’s views are contained in his July 2014 interview for the publication Truthout:

How do we explain such stark inequality? Capitalism is a system that by its very internal dynamic generates wealth yet polarizes and concentrates that wealth. Historically a de-concentration of wealth through redistribution has come about by state intervention to offset the natural tendency for capital accumulation to result in such polarization. States have turned to an array of redistributive mechanisms both because they have been pressured from below to do so – whether by trade unions, social movements, socialist struggles, or so on – or because states must do so in order to retain legitimacy and preserve at least enough social peace for the reproduction of the system. A great variety of redistributive models emerged in the 20th century around the world, and went by a great many names – socialism, communism, social democracy, New Deal, welfare states, developmental states, populism, the social wage, and so on. All these models shared two things in common. One was state intervention in the economy to regulate capital accumulation and thus to bring under some control the most anarchic and most destructive elements of unrestrained capitalism. The other was redistribution through numerous policies, ranging from minimum legal wages and unemployment insurance, to public enterprises, the social wages of public health, education, transportation, and housing, welfare programs, land reform in agrarian countries, low cost credit, and so on.

But capital responded to the last major crisis of the system, that of the 1970s, by “going global,” by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation and undermining models of state regulation and redistribution. Neo-liberalism is a set of policies that facilitate the rise of transnational capital. As transnational capital has broken free of the confine of the nation-state, the natural tendency for capitalism to concentrate wealth has been unleashed without any countervailing restraints. The result has been this dizzying escalation of worldwide inequalities as wealth concentrates within the transnational capitalist class and, to a much lesser extent, the better off strata of middle classes and professionals.

I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by printing Robinson’s article.  If Socialist Viewpoint did print it, we would have to devote considerable space to answering his completely wrong theories of transnational capitalism and everything that flows from it, which when raised more than a decade ago was an extremely weak argument and today has become even more irrelevant.  Capitalists today are increasingly open about the need to aggressively use their own particular nation-state in the intensifying struggle of international capitalist competition. Ironically no one is more vocal in this than “America First” Donald Trump in his belligerent call for a more aggressive economic nationalism.

December 2, 2017

Young Assadist academics nursing their wounds

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Justin Podur

Max Ajl

One of the most depressing things about the six years of war in Syria, besides the obvious destruction of life and property, is the trail of intellectual damage left behind by investigative journalists, leftist leaders, and academics who bend the truth or outright lie in order to defend the mafia state. History will certainly remember people such as Seymour Hersh, Theodore Postol, and Tariq Ali as being ethically and intellectually challenged no matter how virtuous they were in the past.

While by no means as well-known as such figures, there are two young scholars who have been carrying Assad’s water since the war began. Justin Podur is an associate professor at York University, where he likely developed ties to Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin of Socialist Register. He has been an outspoken defender of the dictatorship and perhaps the person responsible for posting tweets in the name of Panitch and Gindin’s Socialist Project gloating over Assad’s recent military victories—or the victories of the Russian air force on his behalf. When I complained publicly about such vile material bearing the imprimatur of people like Panitch and Gindin, I was told by Gindin that I should have taken it up with him privately. Perhaps so, but I was deeply troubled by the failure of Socialist Project leaders to monitor a Twitter account in their name and implicitly their failure to stay on top of what was happening in Syria. It is regrettable that in six years of war, not a single article about Syria has appeared in Socialist Register, New Left Review or Monthly Review. Perhaps that is a blessing in disguise since if trouble had been taken to publish one, chances are that the analysis would have been amiss.

The other young scholar is Max Ajl, who is a Ph.D. student at Cornell and whose views on Syria are identical to Podur’s. The two are part of a loose network of Assadists made up of bright young things including Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, and Max Blumenthal. Unlike the latter two just named, Podur and Ajl never needed to cover their tracks. They have been ardent defenders of the war criminal and oligarch from day one.

Yesterday, in doing some research totally unrelated to Syria, I stumbled across Ajl’s name. Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what he was up to and discovered a truly eye-opening conversation that Podur conducted with him on April 29, 2017, as part of something called the Ossington Circle podcast series. It likely gets its name from an avenue in Toronto near York University.

As is the case with Khalek and Norton who have issued similar complaints, Ajl feels wounded by people like me calling him an Assadist. (Blumenthal could care less, probably because he is mostly into the Assadist thing for the money as the trip to Russia on RT’s dime might have indicated.) Podur has a caption at the beginning of the interview: “In this episode of The Ossington Circle, academic, activist, and editor at Jadaliyya Max Ajl discusses the destruction of Syria and the vitriol directed at leftists and Palestine activists who have opposed intervention in Syria.”

Opposed intervention? As I told a long-time Marxmail subscriber and member of the Israeli CP this morning who has the same Assadist POV as the two, “All of us oppose foreign intervention in Syria–starting with me. The USA has to stop bombing Iraq and Syria, as does Russia. Same applies to Israel. The Syrians have to determine their own destiny, not combatants from Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Or from ISIS’s foreign fighters. In fact, if Assad had to rely exclusively on Syrians to do his fighting–including jet pilots, he would have been toppled in 2012.”

It seems that Podur feels “guilty, muted, fumbling, silenced – about opposing imperialism, especially in Syria” and that it’s been “really confusing” for him. And who is responsible for him being hounded into oblivion like Leon Trotsky in the 1930s? It turns out to be Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

When Qatar launched Al Jazeera, who could have predicted that it would end up making life unbearable for the young associate professor and his dissertation student pal. You, see, there was a devious trick behind Al Jazeera. It gained admiration for its stance on Palestine but its real agenda was to advance the foreign policy goals of the reactionary oil sheiks against Syria, Libya, Iran and any other state in the region that dared to stand up to imperialism. Agreeing with Podur, Ajl offers this summary of what has happened:

And so, what we can see since 2011, are a variety of almost formulaic attacks on the left in Syria: “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”; “the left is all Putinites”; “the left is supporting genocide”; “the left has a double standard”; “the left should supply the same standard of Palestine to the Syrian conflict”; “the left is inadequately supporting the revolution”. And at the same time, we have so-called news coverage saying that whatever is occurring in Syria has no foreign help, is not getting support from the US government, there are no sectarian elements, and so forth.

When Ajl refers to news coverage not referring to foreign fighters in Syria, I wonder what newspaper he has been reading. Assuming that Cornell has Lexis-Nexis, he could have made a search on Syria and “foreign fighter” and discovered 990 articles. Here are 10 right off the top:

Assuming that Ajl is smart enough to have become accepted into a school as prestigious as Cornell, how could he come up with something so inarticulate as “the left isn’t doing this on Syria”? What is this supposed to mean? Doing this? Doing what? If he wanted to accurately describe what people like me have been writing, the words would have been: “The majority of the left has been writing propaganda for Assad”. For example, in a Telesur article Ajl wrote in 2015, he claims that “it is Europe which freely exports reactionaries to Syria.” At the time I responded:

I paused over this passage and wondered what Ajl had in mind. Was he saying that the European security forces were lining up fanatics to go build the caliphate that is beheading Christians? I tried to imagine a cop at the airport security gate in Orly spotting a guy in black fatigues with a turban on his head and a beard down to his belly-button. After he pulls him aside for interrogation, the guy shows him an official letter from the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure stating that he had been cleared to wreak havoc in Syria. After seeing this, the cop pats him on the back and sends him on his way.

Ajl complains about Al Jazeera’s bias. It opposed Assad but was “basically silent” about Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Just as you can check Lexis-Nexis on Syria and foreign fighters, you can go to Al Jazeera’s website and do a search on Bahrain and 2011. These are just some of the articles that show up:

I only hope he has more rigorous standards when it comes to his dissertation.

Ajl also resents how people like me (or perhaps me specifically) refer to Assadists like him viewing Syria within the context of a geopolitical chess game. Yes, it is true that this is exactly how most of the left approaches the dictatorship in Damascus. To paraphrase FDR, Assad might be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch if our means the BRICS, the good guys in the cold war, and the Manichean anti-imperialism of sects like the Party for Socialism and Liberation or the Socialist Equality Party.

That’s not the way Ajl sees things. Instead, “it’s about things like state sovereignty – that’s the entire framework of the post-Nazi international juridical order and it’s meant to actually prevent wars of aggression and to allow states to be sovereign, and for political movements to feel that that state sovereignty has social and political meaning.”

Sovereignty? Who the fuck is he kidding? Hafez al-Assad came to power through a military coup and a family dynasty has been ruling Syria since 1970. Yes, we oppose imperialism invading a country to topple a dictator like Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein but when an outside power like Russia shores up the Baathist family dynasty, how does that serve Syria’s sovereignty? For true sovereignty to have been respected, there should have never been outside powers meddling in Syria even if they were “invited in” by the dictatorship. That, of course, applied to South Vietnam in the early 60s just as much as it applied to Syria.

For Ajl, any talk about Russian or Iranian intervention in Syria being on the same plane as what the USA did in Indochina is to be rejected. Showing his deep grasp (at least in his mind) of Leninist theory, he writes:

To talk about who is or isn’t imperialist isn’t a question of describing who is or isn’t intervening in Syria, or if you don’t like them or don’t like the side they’re supporting. It should be a theoretical category. It should be a theoretical category that derives from what was going on before, and be used to interpret it and make sense of it, not just opportunistically deployed in order to justify whatever side one’s on.

 So one can go back to 1917 – or earlier – and talk about Lenin’s theory of imperialism or export of capital, and in that case, Russia is not exporting capital to Syria – at the current moment, Iran is expending capital in order to support the Syrian government: there’s loans, I think there are oil shipments that are ongoing. Both countries are supporting the Syrian treasury, extending large credit lines. Calling a post-colonial state – no matter what one wants to say about its political and social track record post-1970 – that called on allied forces to support the state institutions doesn’t strike me as imperialism by any understanding of the word, especially if one actually looks and tries to understand why both Russia and Iran have actually supported it.

The truth is that even if you accept Ajl’s rather superficial understanding of imperialism, this has little bearing on how to judge what Iran and Russia have been up to. For all of the talk about Syria’s sovereignty, there is zero engagement with the country’s class divisions. You really have to scratch your head when it comes to Podur and Ajl’s utter indifference to the economic structures in Syria that have fueled the rebellion. Since Ajl serves an editor at Bassam Haddad’s Jadaliyya, you’d think he might have taken the trouble to read what its founder once wrote about the material conditions that led to the revolt in a MERIP article:

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board. After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.

Maybe people like Podur and Ajl should reintroduce the term capitalism into their political vocabulary. After all, Lenin did not consider it as a system different from capitalism but only its highest stage.

I learned from the podcast how Max Ajl got the boot from Jacobin, another oozing psychic sore for the young scholar. It seems that when Ajl was the Mideast editor at Jacobin and responsible for the dreck that appeared there from people like Patrick Higgins and Asa Winstanley, he was being “pestered” by a Palestinian professor named Bashir Abu-Manneh to publish Gilbert Achcar. If I had known about this, I would have advised Bashir not to waste his time since this was equivalent to asking Rupert Murdoch to hire Robert Reich to write op-ed columns for the NY Post.

Supposedly this must have gotten Bashir so worked up that “he helped orchestrate a kind of soft coup d’etat” against him at Jacobin. Hmm. Interesting. I never knew the particulars on how Ajl got axed but I was glad to see him go. I obviously don’t have any inside knowledge about what happened there but I suspect that it was more likely that the ISO had influenced Bhaskar Sunkara to reverse the magazine’s rancid position on Syria. As you probably know, the ISO has had a significant presence on the magazine—and thank god for that.

Perhaps Ajl’s grudge got the better of him since he accused Bashir of ending his book on “The Palestinian Novel” with a call for rousing up “support for the US destruction of Syria.” That’s quite a charge but a false one as I found out from Bashir this morning after alerting him to this slander. He sent me a copy of the only reference to Syria in that chapter. You judge for yourself whether Ajl was correct or lying like a rug.

Ajl sees himself as a member of a bloodied but unbowed anti-imperialist minority that has been silenced by the pro-revolution left. As he saw it, his role was to identify what the American government was doing and come out against it. In doing so, he was accused of “denying Arab agency”.

Podur asked how it felt to be told to “shut up” by the likes of me. Ajl replied:

“Yeah, it means “Shut up”, and the people saying “shut up” have been emerging from the woodwork since 2011. They want people to shut up, and that’s the basic agenda.

You can only be left in utter astonishment by people like him and others (Rania Khalek in particular) sounding like they were Leon Trotsky trying to tell the truth about the USSR in 1939 against a sea of Stalinist lies. The truth is just the opposite. Except for Jacobin (which has pretty much dropped the ball on Syria), the ISO, New Politics, and my blog or Clay Claiborne’s, nobody on the left has supported the struggle against Assad.

Let me conclude with a list off the top of my head of magazines and individuals that agree with the two young and wounded academics. (I hope it isn’t fatal.)

  • The Nation
  • Consortium News
  • Alternet
  • Salon
  • Monthly Review
  • London Review of Books
  • New York Review of Books
  • Patrick Cockburn
  • Seymour Hersh
  • Theodore Postol
  • Robert Fisk
  • David Bromwich
  • Tariq Ali
  • Charles Glass
  • Jeffrey Sachs
  • Stephen Kinzer
  • Gareth Porter

I am reminded of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Princess and the Pea”. A prince was looking for a bride but only a true princess would do. So he had a test. He piled 20 mattresses on a bed and a pea underneath the one on the bottom. Princesses tried out the bed and those who slept soundly were cast aside. It was only the last one who complained about the pea making her so uncomfortable that she could not sleep that became his bride. He concluded that any woman with such a low tolerance for annoyance would be a genuine princess.

We are the peas and Max Ajl is the princess.

December 1, 2017

Sins of the Flesh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Is the appearance of distinguished Egyptian film noirs set during the Tahrir Square occupation but made only after the revolution’s collapse an anomaly? When you consider the origins of the genre in Hollywood, maybe not so much. A number of such films had heavy CP/leftist participation and reflected a mood of disillusionment over the failure of WWII to bring genuine peace. The Cold War was just beginning and Reds in the movie industry were apprehensive about the future. Given the trajectory of the Sisi regime, one can understand a similar mood overtaking the Egyptian intelligentsia, including its filmmakers.

Only four months ago, I reviewed “The Nile Hotel Incident” that was so immersed in the noir sensibility that I compared its hard-boiled detective lead character to his Hollywood forerunners:

With his basset hound features, Fares will remind you instantly of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum, two film noir icons who often played the same kind of role: a tarnished, world-weary detective walking a tightrope between the needs of honest citizens who have been wronged and the powerful elements of Egyptian society who use the state to protect their interests—including the cops.

This is a cop who starts off being just as venal as everybody else in the state apparatus but becomes transformed during a murder investigation that pits him against a top player in the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The film climaxes with Fares getting caught up in the Tahrir Square occupation. It can now be seen on Vudu and Amazon and well worth the $4.99 rental fee.

Directed by Khaled El Hagar, “Sins of the Flesh” is a dark and steamy love triangle as the title implies and a kissing cousin of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In that 1946 film, the ruggedly handsome CP’er John Garfield played a derelict who ended up working at a diner and falling in love with the wife of the older, genial and plump owner named Nick who the two decide to kill. That is the skeleton of the plot of “Sins of the Flesh” but one with much different muscle and flesh enclosing it.

As the film begins, we see a young man named Ali (Ahmed Abdala Mahomud) running as fast as his feet can carry him on a country road late at night. He and all the other prisoners have just been freed from prison by a truckload of anti-Mubarak rebels. It is March 2011 and the Arab Spring is on.

The breathless Ali finally reaches the farm where his cousin Hassan and his wife Fatma live and work. He begs his cousin, the counterpart of Nick, to let him stay on the farm and work alongside him. If he is caught as an escapee, he will be thrown back into prison or worse. Hassan reluctantly agrees to shelter him despite his and his wife’s worries that he will only bring them trouble as has always been the case.

That night as Hassan goes about setting him up in a spare room in their humble quarters that lack electricity and other modern conveniences, Ali takes the young and beautiful Fatma in his arms and kisses her passionately. Despite her very real commitment to her older and plain-looking husband, she cannot forget that Ali was her first love even though she’d rather have forgotten him after he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a local man who kept forcing himself on her.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the film as being more about a rectangle love affair than a triangle since there is one more side, an old man named Mourad who owns the farm and lords over the three in the same way that the rural landlords have ruled since feudalism. Hassan, Ali, and Fatma grovel before Mourad and call him “master” while he treats them with total contempt.

Mourad has other properties and lives in opulence not far from the farm where he visits occasionally to bark orders at Hassan and Ali. Fatma is treated differently because he lusts after her but is not sure how to find the opportunity to do a Harvey Weinstein on her. That day arrives when he spots Ali and Fatma making love from afar. He makes a mental note of that incident and only decides to exploit it after Hassan supposedly dies of a heart attack from an overdose of Viagra that Mourad has provided him. Cornering the submissive Fatma, he browbeats her into confessing that she and Ali suffocated him to death. Unless she submits to him, he will send the cops after Ali.

Mourad does not only dominate his farm laborers. He locks his college-age son and daughter so that they will be prevented from joining the Tahrir Square protests. At the dinner table, he warns them that the revolution will end badly. The more we see of Mourad, the more we realize why the Egyptian bourgeoisie stood behind Mubarak for so long, and General Sisi afterward.

The director’s statement in the film notes are worth quoting in toto:

Four characters live on a remote farm, away from the actual crises, and no actual realtime images of the revolution are shown. However, the events taking place at the farm reflect what is happening in the country.

The main character, Fatma, represents the struggle of Egyptians. She is torn between tradition, represented by her husband Hassan, the guardian of the farm, a need for rebellion and renewal represented by her lover Ali, Hassan’s cousin, who escaped from prison, and the corruption and greed of the rich elite, symbolised by the owner of the farm, Mourad.

The whole film was shot in one location, a farm in the desert and we used only natural lights like fire and lamps, no electricity. The film went through a rough time with Egyptian censorship for its political theme and was only allowed to be shown to audience 18 years and older. Since the film came out in Egypt last month, it has created huge outrage from some critiques and some audiences but also created lots of debates in Egyptian television and media regarding the rights of freedom of expression for artists, writers, film makers, etc… Five years after the Egyptian revolution, and these debates are still going on….

“Sins of the Flesh” opened today at the Cinema Village and is worth seeing both as a thrilling film noir as well as a study of class relations in Egypt. It is being distributed by ArtMattan, the same people who have been organizing African Diaspora Film Festivals in New York for about as long as I have been writing film reviews.

The 2017 film festival began on November 24th and is scheduled to continue until December 10th. I invite you to check out the schedule here that includes films like “Sins of the Flesh” as well as some other excellent works I have reviewed in the past, including “Gurumbe”, a film about Afro-Andalusian culture, as well as “Mama Africa”, a documentary about Miriam Makeba. Both are outstanding and representative of the sort of films that the good people at ArtMattan make available to New Yorkers in the know.

 

 

On the Other Side of Hope; Happy End

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 2:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 1, 2017

 

The films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki and Austria’s Michael Haneke have nothing in common stylistically but do share a loathing for European bourgeois society. Their latest films additionally share a concern about one particular aspect of that decaying world, namely the persecution of immigrants. Kauriskmaki’s “The Other Side of Hope” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York is about the struggle of a Syrian refugee from Aleppo to survive on the hostile streets of Helsinki. Haneke’s “Happy End” is mostly about a bourgeois household coming apart at the seams but the climax of the film includes African immigrants from the refugee camp near the Calais entrance to the Eurotunnel crashing a fancy banquet. The effect is the same that Buñuel sought in “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, an attack on the complacency and moral rot of the rich. “Happy End” opens on January 22nd at the Film Forum as well as the Lincoln Plaza in New York. Both films are artistic triumphs as well as devastating blows against a world that is rapidly going mad.

Continue reading

November 30, 2017

Gaddafi debunked

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Below, Nizar Mhani (Niz Ben-Essa) of the Free Generation Movement responds to common misconceptions relating to the Gaddafi regime …

There are no electricity bills in Libya; electricity is free for all its citizens.
Categorically untrue. Despite poor electricity infrastructure and poor coverage of electricity lines, even in the Capital, Libyan homeowners pay monthly/quarterly (area dependent) electricity bills based on meter readings. Electricity is cut off in instances of unpaid bills. Reconnection upon payment is not instant. The electric infrastructure is weak and some areas of Libya do not have electricity available at all.

There is no interest on loans, banks in Libya are state-owned and loans given to all its citizens at 0% interest by law.
Categorically untrue. Banks all over Libya have been giving out loans for years and years. There is a percentage rate charge on all loans, which is comparable to an interest rate, but in the spirit of ‘islamic ethics’ it is not called interest, it is called an ‘Administrative Expense’ – Masareef Edareeya.

A House is considered a human right in Libya
Gaddafi vowed that his parents would not get a house until everyone in Libya had a home. Gaddafi¹s father has died while he, his wife and his mother are still living in a tent.

Gaddafi abused this human right as much as he did other basic rights. It is well known in Libya that political opponents and successful businessmen/women had their homes confiscated and handed over to regime members, usually rewards for Free Officers – Dubat A7rar. Many farms and homes and businesses were confiscated during three infamous phases of Libya’s dictatorial history:

  • 1969 – The dreaded Green Revolution. Free Officers were rewarded land, homes, and farms that sometimes belonged to other people and the original owners were not compensated or asked if this was ok.
  • Late 70’s – The introduction of the law Albayt le Sakinehee – The Home Belongs to its Dwellers. As this law was passed overnight, thousands of homeowners instantly lost their homes, as tenants (those renting the homes) claimed ownership on account of being the ‘dwellers’. The law applied to homes, farms, shops, etc.
  • 90’s – The introduction of Purification Committees (Lejnat al Tatheer). This committee ran by the widely know slogan, ‘Min ayna laka hada?’ – “From where did you obtain this?”, a form of ultra-socialism where people’s possessions, including homes and businesses, were confiscated if seen to be ‘surplus to requirement’ or contributing to a ‘monopoly’.

Regarding Gaddafi’s ‘vow’: While Gaddafi waited for ‘everyone in Libya’ to be housed, he himself lived in a sprawling 6km square compound in the centre of the capital which was home to state of the art security and an underground network of rooms and ultramodern bunkers. He also had a vast and well-known farm on Airport Road in Tripoli. This, just in the capital.

All newlyweds in Libya receive $60,000 Dinar (US$ 50,000 ) by the government to buy their first apartment so to help start up the family.
This is a well-known rumour and a common joke in Libya. Whilst it may have been passed as official legislation, I know of not a single family who has been given this grant. The backbreaking bureaucracy associated with such grants and loans make them more or less impossible to obtain.

Education and medical treatments are free in Libya. Before Gaddafi only 25% of Libyans are literate. Today the figure is 83%.
Education and Health Care – Free does not mean adequate. It is well known that Libya’s standard of health care is nothing short of appalling. It is widely known that the majority of Libyans seeking medical care leave for neighbouring countries for treatment. Our Education system is no better. It is outdated, teachers are underpaid and under-trained and libraries are largely non-existent. The syllabus was constantly being revised and reviewed under direct instruction from the former regime e.g. banning English, changing Quranic verses, etc.

It is commonly said that Libyans would be happy to forfeit their ‘free healthcare’ and pay for a National Health Service if it was up to the required standard.

Should Libyans want to take up farming career, they would receive farming land, a farming house, equipment, seeds and Livestock to kick-start their farms all for free.
This has never happened, in addition to this many farms and homes have been confiscated by the government to build civil roads,

The Great Man-Made River and civil roads.
The owners of the land were only compensated if there was a covered structure on the land as the Gaddafi regime legally owned any land and the people were only allowed to build on it. When there was compensation offered it was nowhere near the actual value of the property and many waited years to receive anything if at all. This system was also rife with corruption many residents told they had to pay a bribe to receive what little they were given.

If Libyans cannot find the education or medical facilities they need in Libya, the government funds them to go abroad for it not only free but they get $2,300/month accommodation and car allowance.
Categorically untrue. If this was the case, the former regime would have been in receipt of 6 million application forms – one for every man, woman, and child who ‘cannot find education or medical facilities they need’. This grant does not exist for the mainstream public. There is anecdotal evidence of some medical grants being given but again, the system was corrupt and opaque.

November 27, 2017

Alex Pyron, the evolutionary biologist indifferent to extinction

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Alex Pyron

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post titled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution” has generated an extraordinary amount of comments, with most of those 3,279 being negative. If you were only going by the title, you’d think that it was written by someone like Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill or perhaps Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior who is bent on opening national monuments to drilling, or even Donald Trump’s feckless sons who are into big-game hunting.

Actually, it was written by R. Alexander Pyron, who is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University. You might wonder if Griggs was some ultraright Texas oilman (isn’t that redundant?) who donated $10 million to the school in order to provide a platform for the anti-environmental views of people like Dr. Pyron. As it happens, Robert F. Griggs was a botanist who led a 1915 National Geographic Society expedition to observe the aftermath of the Katmai volcanic eruption in Alaska. He became so passionate about the beauty and biodiversity of the affected area that his advocacy helped it become a national park of the sort that Ryan Zinke wants to turn over to ExxonMobil on a silver platter.

The first paragraph of Pyron’s article sets the tone by pointing out that during an expedition in Ecuador, he discovered a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad that was considered extinct. But even if it goes extinct, it will be replaced by hundreds of other amphibians. So, why get worked up?

Pyron argues that it is extinction itself that generates new species. He does have a point. When an asteroid plunged into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, it killed perhaps 75% of all animals, with dinosaurs bearing the brunt of the destruction. However, in its wake, it created an environment suited to producing new species such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish, and perhaps lizards also found the new environment amenable to their reproduction according to Wikipedia.

The professor also shrugs his shoulders about climate change. Except for Donald Trump it would seem, elected officials hope to keep the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Why bother, he asks since “the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years.” And furthermore, twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. Comme ci comme ça

Do his arguments remind you of anybody? For me, they suggest a biological counterpart to Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”. Yes, there might be an economic collapse but it always clears the ground for new growth. Yeah, it was too bad that 80 million people died during WWII but without Germany making a huge investment in achieving military superiority, we might not have ended up with rockets of the sort that Werner Von Braun invented. And without them, we might not have had all those satellites providing telecommunications that make globalization possible. And, if we end up seeing nuclear-tipped ICBM’s leveling New York, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, there’s always the possibility that newer and better cities will rise out of the ashes Phoenix-like. And, god forbid, if life on earth is destroyed, we can always count on Jeff Bezos to rescue the fortunate few as he finally realizes his dream, a humongous colony in outer space.

There’s no sense in worrying. It might be best to adopt an almost Hindu-like reincarnation philosophy in the face of impending doom. Just think. In 50 million years, Europe will smash into Africa and create a new supercontinent, destroying all sorts of birds, fish, and anything that gets in the path of this inevitable catastrophic event. But, have no fear, all sorts of new species will arrive, maybe even the dodo and the mastodon will return. By that point, Jeff Bezos will have left behind a brilliant team of scientists to accomplish almost anything even if long before that happens David Duke, the victorious Republican Party candidate in 2020, decides to unleash thermonuclear weapons against New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to destroy Satan in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior.

It is when I got to this paragraph that I wondered if Pyron had written an Onion-like spoof:

Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself; diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.

Has this professor ever read anything about the way that HIV got started? Most scientists believe that it was the human encroachment on the jungle that led to the first transmission of the virus from chimpanzees to human beings in the 1920s. Indeed, the National Geographic, the very magazine that funded the exploration led by the man that Pyron’s endowed chair is named after, published an article in June 2003 that states:

Scientists believe the encroachment by humans on nature also increases the spread of infectious diseases. The SIVcpz strain [that led to HIV] jumping from chimpanzees to humans likely occurred when humans hunted and butchered chimps for “bush meat,” something humans have done for centuries.

Increased human populations have increased the chances of a virus successfully propagating among humans once it has made the jump. The SIVcpz strain was probably transmitted to humans in previous centuries, but never established a substantial enough transmission chain among humans to cause a large outbreak.

There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins.

It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles.

For example, he refers to the “verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains” growing back in the past century with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity. Really? Does he have any idea how the Catskills got its name? This was the name Henry Hudson and his crew coined when they saw mountain lions teeming across the mountains overlooking the river. Kaat is the Dutch word for cat and kill means river. They, like the Monsee Indians that lived in the area, are gone forever. They were hunted to extinction just as the bison were in the Great Plains.

Does this make any difference as long as new toads and snake species crop up to take their place? Clearly, the question is nonsensical and is an unwarranted concession to the professor’s tendency to take into account the sheer quantity of species rather than their quality. If Bluefin tuna disappear, it doesn’t matter that 100 new varieties of sponges and jellyfish take their place or that if eagles and condors go extinct, there will be new varieties of crows, pigeons, and starlings to take their place.

The tuna occupies a place in the marine food chain that is indispensable. Its loss means that the natural balance of marine life is threatened. Once again, it is the National Geographic that provides the context that is so lacking in Pyron’s op-ed piece:

The Atlantic bluefin plays a significant role in the ecosystem by consuming a wide variety of fish—herring, anchovies, sardines, bluefish, mackerel, and others—and keeping their populations in balance. According to the WWF, “ecological extinction of this species would thus have unpredictable cascading effects in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems and entail serious consequences to many other species in the food chain.

It is entirely possible that Alex Pyron has not read much literature about ecology even though he is an evolutionary biologist who normally should be able to make such elementary distinctions. This is a man who started out as a child prodigy, entering college at the age of 12 and earning a Ph.D. by the time he was 22. Maybe he was too busy studying snakes in the field to read Plato, Leo Tolstoy, Immanuel Kant, William Blake or Henry David Thoreau.

His narrow focus on snakes and other amphibians would likely have also robbed him of the time needed to read people like Mike Davis, Donald Worster or Clive Ponting who are generalists in the field of ecology. Pyron wrote an article titled “Extinction, Ecological Opportunity, And The Origins Of Global Snake Diversity” for the January 2012 copy of Evolution that reflects his narrow vision. It begins by noting that “Many taxonomie groups comprise clades with vast disparities in species richness, even among closely related lineages in adjacent areas (Fischer 1960; Rosenzweig 1995). A prime example is Lepidosauria: tuataras are represented by only two extant species, while their sister group Squamata (lizards and snakes) contains nearly 9000 species (Vitt and Caldwell 2009).”

He extrapolates from his research that the rich variety of Squamata should be a mitigating factor against the threat of the extinction of wildlife at the top of the food chain, including polar bears, blue whales, Bluefin tuna, orangutan, gorillas, chimpanzees, wolves, grizzly bears, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, etc.

No thanks.

 

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