Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 23, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Rainbow Coalition

Filed under: two-party system — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

1988: Bernie Sanders and the man whose footsteps he followed

In 1984 Jesse Jackson gave a speech to the Democratic Party convention that called for a Rainbow Coalition:

Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. They, too, know the pain and hurt of racial and religious rejection. They must not continue to be made pariahs. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans who this very night are living under the threat of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill; and farm workers from Ohio who are fighting the Campbell Soup Company with a boycott to achieve legitimate workers’ rights.

The Rainbow is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all, a people with the greatest moral claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of their ancient land and claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of land and water rights, as they seek to preserve their ancestral homeland and the beauty of a land that was once all theirs. They can never receive a fair share for all they have given us. They must finally have a fair chance to develop their great resources and to preserve their people and their culture.

The Rainbow Coalition includes Asian Americans, now being killed in our streets — scapegoats for the failures of corporate, industrial, and economic policies.

As it happens, the original call for a Rainbow Coalition came from a Black leader who had little use for the Democrats, namely Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, a martyr to a Chicago Death Squad in blue uniforms. Hampton had reached out to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group inspired by the Panthers, and the Young Patriots, a group made up white former SDS’ers also adopting Panther politics even though they wore Confederate flags on their berets. Well, that’s the sixties for you.

After Hampton was killed, this Rainbow dissolved.

If violence snuffed Hampton’s coalition, Jackson’s was done in by his own reformist appetites. He merged it with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1996, a group committed to getting Black people a larger share of the American pie rather than replacing it with something much healthier—like socialism.

For much of the left, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was like a flame to a moth—completely irresistible. At the time I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and still—as before and afterwards—totally hostile to the idea of voting for Democrats. A lot of that had to do with the feeling of being betrayed by LBJ in 1965 when I had voted for him because he had said in a speech at Akron University on October 21st, 1964 that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

The NY chapter of CISPES and the national leadership were gung-ho. At the CISPES convention around that time, a proposal was adopted to support the Jackson campaign and to make CISPES a part of the Rainbow Coalition. Peter Camejo, upon whose advice I joined CISPES, wrote an article for the North Star Network on October 1, 1984 that reflected this trend: “A great deal of rethinking has been going on in the left in the United States in recent years. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of solidarity with Central America as well as the massive impact of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition electoral campaign.”

In the NY chapter of CISPES, one of the most ardent supporters of the Rainbow Coalition was Ron Ashford, an African-American member of the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved a year after Jackson’s speech. (This was the group whose members were gunned down by the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.) Another contingent in CISPES that backed this orientation was called Line of March, also a Maoist group. They too dissolved themselves not long afterwards. For Ashford, the work in the DP produced results even if it did not produce socialism, let alone a reversal of the neoliberalism associated with Carter and subsequent DP Presidents. Today he is a HUD official in Washington, DC, a position he has held since 1995.

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Frankly, I never bothered to ask Ashford or the LoM people whether they thought the Rainbow Coalition could become a third party with radical politics. I suspect that for most of them, anything that could stop Reagan, the Donald Trump of his day, was worth supporting. When Jackson lost the primaries in 1984 to Walter Mondale, you could be sure that the Maoists saw the need to back him as a lesser evil in the same way that Noam Chomsky and others are voting for Hillary Clinton today. It is worth mentioning that Camejo also backed Mondale in 1984, probably the last time he made such a mistake. After reflecting on the futility of voting for Democrats, he wrote a resolution for the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP, urging it to break with the Democrats—a proposal even more futile than a Mondale vote. Camejo moved on to build the Green Party, an action much more consistent with his entire political career.

Jackson ran again in 1988 in a way that foreshadowed Sanders bid this year. Jackson referred to his candidacy as an “endless campaign” that would serve to pressure the DP to the left. One politician liked what he saw, according to Mother Jones:

Jackson’s presidential bid was a transformative political development for the Vermont senator, then in his fourth term as mayor of Burlington. Never before had Sanders actively participated in a Democratic Party nominating contest. And until this year, he hadn’t done so since. But Sanders threw himself into the task of getting Jackson elected with the zeal of a convert, and in the process demonstrated a political dexterity that would later pave the way for his own unorthodox presidential campaign.

Even if it meant getting slapped in the face.

Initially, Sanders and his progressive allies in Burlington wrestled with the idea of whether to back Jackson’s candidacy. On the one hand, they considered Jackson’s organization, the Rainbow Coalition, a model for what they were trying to accomplish in Vermont—a lefty group that changed the political system from outside the party structure. Jackson, for his part, was an unabashed liberal who had no problem taking positions his more seasoned opponents wouldn’t touch. His platform even resembled the one Sanders would roll out during his own presidential run more than a quarter-century later—especially on such issues as income inequality, universal health care, education funding, and cracking down on big corporations.

On the other hand, Jackson was a Democrat. Sanders, a lifelong critic of the two-party system, had started off as a member of the third-party Liberty Union before becoming an independent. In 1986, he summed up his disdain for the Democratic Party: “The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city is that the Democrats are in insurance…and the Republicans are in banking.” He had endorsed Vice President Walter Mondale for president in 1984 in the least enthusiastic way possible, telling reporters that “if you go around saying that Mondale would be a great president, you would be a liar and a hypocrite.”

Ultimately, Sanders decided that Jackson’s candidacy was just too revolutionary to ignore. He invited the reverend to Burlington, where they toured a child care center together, and Sanders endorsed him in front of a raucous crowd in Montpelier. As the campaign progressed and Jackson picked up steam, Sanders became more active. One month before Vermonters were set to cast their primary votes, he held a press conference to announce that he and his fellow Burlington progressives would be doing the previously unthinkable: attending the Democratic Party caucus.

“It is awkward—I freely admit it,” Sanders told the assembled reporters. “It is awkward for me to walk into a Democratic caucus. Believe me, it is awkward.”

So in many respects Our Revolution, the new organization launched by Sanders, is simply a continuation of the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and will amount to the same thing. In an epoch of capitalist decline, the notion of piecemeal reform produced by the election of progressive Democrats—the declared intention of the Sanders machine—is far more utopian than any program put forward by the Spartacist League.

In the 1930s, the New Deal and the Swedish Social Democracy were able to produce substantial reforms that benefited workers because capitalism was still rooted in the national soil and because the capitalist class had to deal with a workforce that was necessary to produce cars, steel, and all the rest. Those days are long gone.

Capitalism today has no need to placate the working class. With the disappearance of the USSR, there is no pressure on the bourgeoisie to prove that its system works better than one based on planning, even on an inefficient basis. With Bernie Sanders organizing young people to ring doorbells for liberal candidates in the hope that it can transform the DP into an instrument of change, you can be sure that his operation will have about the same shelf life as the Rainbow Coalition.

In fact, fissures have already appeared, according to Politico. It seems that younger, more grass roots oriented Sanderistas are unhappy with Jeff Weaver’s fundraising strategy:

Weaver said he had a vision that included more traditional — not just grassroots — fundraising, the person familiar with the situation said.

“It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads,” said Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organizing director of the campaign and the organizing director of Our Revolution (whose entire department of four left) before quitting. “That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit.”

There’s really no point in me taking sides in this quarrel. I have no dog in this fight. If Sandberg had prevailed, it would still be the sorry, time-wasting, demoralizing slog through the sewer of DP electoral politics. If this is supposed to be a “revolution”, then the word has about as much meaning as it has in TV commercials for some brand-new detergent, car or any other commodity. No thanks, I’m not buying.

August 21, 2016

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

Among the motivations given for writing such a book in the preface, McKenna refers to an interview featuring “a cultural commentator of the left.” (I am pretty sure you can guess who this is.) Since an image of Stalin accompanied the interview, McKenna was prompted to consider the implications: “Now, if this same person had been snapped before a picture of Adolph Hitler – Stalin’s contemporary and fellow student of mass murder – there would have been, I suspect, a universal clamour of outrage, and quite rightly so. But the fact that he was posing before a picture of Stalin went rather unremarked upon, at least on the part of the left.”

While reminding young activists, especially those with misplaced USSR nostalgia, about how Stalin’s record violated the fundamental principles of socialism, the overarching need for such a book is to help us understand why class exploitation is deeper now than it has been since the Great Depression. In the movement that developed against the “one percent”, it is useful to understand how the capitalist class got a free hand in pushing the economic program of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the hilt and that held sway in 2011. When “state socialism” became discredited and so dysfunctional in the 1980s that working people rose up to dismantle it, often under the leadership of former Soviet officials who hoped to impose Milton Friedman’s economics on an unsuspecting nation, there is a need to get to the roots of how this turn of events was possible. As McKenna makes abundantly clear, this was a function of the infant Soviet republic’s weaknesses that were deepened by an imperialist invasion and Stalin’s adroit ability to exploit them to his own bureaucratic advantage. A degenerated bureaucratic system simply lacked the leadership to inspire and guide revolutionary movements in Spain, Germany and elsewhere. It is a depressing tale but one utterly necessary to absorb.

Using that part of his brain that feeds off of his novel-writing ambitions, McKenna hones in on Stalin’s character development. If you are going to write about a villain, you need to render his or her psychological complexity. That is the difference between Melville’s portrait of Captain Ahab and 98 percent of the novels on display in airport bookstores except, of course, for Stephen King.

Joseph Stalin was a product of Georgian peasant culture, a proud and ancient civilization that has been dominated by Russia for centuries both under Czars and the Kremlin, including both under Stalin and under the capitalist “reformers” who have prevailed since 1990. A product of extremely repressive seminaries, Stalin rebelled against his background and searched for any trends in opposition to the stifling status quo. For youths over the past 150 years, this has often led to Marxism.

In Stalin’s case, the materialist strain in Marxism was most welcome since it was the dialectical opposite of the Christian theology being forced down his throat. But without a broader cultural leavening, such materialism can often devolve into a vulgar Marxism in which the entire world is reduced to base economic motives and self-interest. McKenna writes:

In Stalin, then, an intransigent, faithless materialism was first translated into the ideological contours of a Marxism which preserved the flavour of a religious scholasticism albeit one voided of God; such a political education was then crowned by a first-hand masterclass delivered by the authorities on the mechanics of repression. How to exert pressure when required or how to maintain a secretive and implacable demeanour, to cajole and flatter, while seeking to undermine – all in the pursuit of a brutal naked control.

Most of us who have a modicum of familiarity with Stalin’s career know that he was involved with bank robberies to help fund the Bolsheviks. But the facts are that he never participated in the robberies themselves; he only orchestrated them. This was consistent with his tendency to remain in the background where he was more comfortable. When debates were taking place about revolutionary perspectives following the 1905 revolutionary dress rehearsal, Stalin not only became restless but felt alienated from the working class movement itself. It was too disorderly and unpredictable. Stalin always had a preference for order, even if it was to be imposed from above.

The disdain for the mass movement was a hallmark of Stalin’s career in the Bolshevik party. Never a leader of the working class after the fashion of Zinoviev or Kamenev, his preference was managing internal party affairs, a role that would prepare him ideally for the retreat of the mass movement in the aftermath of the Russian civil war.

When he became Commissar of Nationalities in 1918, he took the steps that alienated Ukrainians and that led to the smoldering resistance that both sapped the Soviet Union’s defense as well as thwarting the possibility of a revolutionary Ukraine that would stand shoulder to shoulder with other Soviet republics. Although Lenin’s policy was not without its flaws, they were far better than those of Stalin who remarked dismissively of Ukrainian aspirations: “Enough playing at a government and a republic. It’s time to stop that game; enough is enough.”

Within seven years, the growing strength of the bureaucracy, the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph in Western Europe, and the general exhaustion of the most conscious ranks of the working class created a framework for the triumph of Stalinism and the adoption of “socialism in one country”. In describing this process, McKenna uses an analogy that both describes its inner logic and displays his literary imagination:

In the natural world there are several species of wasp that have happened upon a unique incubation system for their young. The adult insect waits until it finds another creature – a fat, healthy caterpillar, for example – before stinging its target, and secreting its egg inside the caterpillar’s body. The egg, over time, hatches, and the larva begins to develop, gorging itself on the healthy, pliant flesh of its host; effectively consuming the creature from the inside out. First the non- essential organs are nuzzled upon, and then, eventually, the larva works its way through the caterpillar’s fundaments, until what is left is merely the husk of the former creature, barely clinging to life, before the fledgling wasp bursts out through the shell of its body destroying it once and for all. The bureaucratic tendency within the Bolshevik Party was so powerful, was so resilient, for it developed in much this way – incubated in the life forces of the party itself, emerging from the inside out, enfeebling its host, draining it of its resources.

In the conclusion to “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine” there is an analysis that to my knowledge has never been advanced before. While most writing on Stalin and Stalinism are focused on the USSR and its retrograde impact on the world revolutionary movement, McKenna takes a step back and puts into the context of the challenges standing in the way of making a socialist revolution. In essence, the analysis evokes Gramsci’s observation that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

In the conclusion McKenna grapples with the disappointment the left experienced when Syriza capitulated to European bankers and when Jeremy Corbyn failed to use his power as Labour Party leader to force his MP’s to vote against the Conservative Party’s motion to take military action against ISIS in Syria. These defaults of leadership prompted him to summarize that “In both cases the decisions that were finally enacted favoured the proclivities of a small elite; the modes and forms of democracy, then, had proved to be profoundly undemocratic.”

Why was the will of the majority thwarted in each case? Why do politicians continuously disregard the wishes of those who elect them? For McKenna, the key to understanding this is within the nature of representative democracy, a form of government that we tend to forget as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions.

We are, through the very forms and structures of social existence, acculturated into the belief that the essence of democracy – the only possible kind of democracy – consists in voting for a selection of besuited, immaculate wealthy figures whose discussions about our future take place in vast regal buildings fortified by every level of security. Such individuals and groups are elected every four or so years to act as our political guardians, but their lives and their interests seem so remote from our own. And yet, it seems to us this is what democracy truly is.

This was a departure from the original understanding of democracy that existed in Athens under Pericles. Even if there was slavery and many other abuses, there was rule by the people (demos) that prefigured Marx’s largely misunderstood or outright misrepresented dictatorship of the proletariat.

By effectively destroying Soviet democracy, Stalin made it possible for bourgeois democracy to get a new lease on life. Without mentioning Gramsci, McKenna virtually quotes him at the end of this passage that occurs close to the end of his book:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nationally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light.

Of course all this leads to the inevitable question of what is to be done. Familiar with the Trotskyist movement that made rejection of Stalinism the centerpiece of its program, McKenna finds it wanting even though much of his analysis is based on Trotsky’s writings, as well as that of Isaac Deutscher, the most respected defender of his ideas outside the ranks of the Fourth International.

What kind of party do we need? What are the parameters of its program? Who are its allies? What is the kind of global framework that will advance the cause of worldwide revolution, the perspective advanced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that Stalin rejected?

If I may be permitted to offer my own views, I would argue that a new approach to revolutionary struggle must be adopted, one that is much more in sync with that understood by the movement’s founders. While often seen as a second fiddle to Marx, I think that Engels summed up the need perfectly in an 1847 article titled “The Principles of Communism” that was structured as replies to various questions, including “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” Engels’s reply:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.

It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.

While it is unlikely that the final struggle will take place in my lifetime, I am positive that capitalism has entered a critical phase when those nations that Engels refers to as “civilized” will be reaching such a barbaric stage that working people will be forced into collective action spanning borders for the simple reason that the existing social system will have become an existential threat. The constant harping on borders, the rise of fascist-like movements from the USA to Hungary, the growing assaults on the environment, the threat of nuclear war, nihilistic terrorist attacks fed by desperation, and a thousand other threats to humanity and the natural world lead to a call for action. Under such conditions, we must build a movement that is hostile to the “organization men” like Stalin and that attracts the best of the class-conscious working class fighters. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Lenin advocated in “What is to be Done”.

August 19, 2016

N+1, Syria and the Democratic Party

Filed under: journalism,Syria,two-party system — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Nikil Saval, N+1 co-editor

Although not so nearly as well-known as Jacobin, N+1 has been mentioned in tandem with it as the voice of millennial hipster Marxism. For example, Columbia PhD student Timothy Shenk, who is intimately familiar with the terrain, wrote an article in the Nation Magazine titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that states:

Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.

Well, who wouldn’t want a career as a Marxist intellectual unless you were someone like the young Max Horkheimer who wrote: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief”? The older Horkheimer, of course, discovered that banquets and honorary titles were not so bad after all.

While the Nation and Dissent could not be possibly be mistaken as millennial, they certainly have provided a roost for that contingent of young journalists trying to make careers as Marxist intellectuals. Furthermore, as should be obvious by the time you finish reading this article, young and old Marxist intellectual careerists making the rounds in the four magazines are in total agreement over Syria and the Democratic Party.

As readers of my blog will certainly know, Jacobin has been a primary venue of Assadist propaganda. In numerous articles, there are warnings about “regime change” in Syria that would have you believe that Barack Obama was getting ready to intervene in Bush-like fashion to put the rebels in power. Does it matter that it only took three months after Bush and his gang began talking about the need to invade Iraq in January 2003 for the invasion to take place while a war in Syria now goes on for more than five years and no such action has occurred under Obama? Probably not.

Unlike Jacobin, N+1 has been pretty good on Syria with a 2011 article making the case that a genuine revolution was unfolding and one four years later that put the blame on the Baathists for the suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk. They are both very much worth reading and did not prepare me for an article that appeared in the Spring 2016 edition titled “Bernie’s World”. Stung by what struck me as the kind of material that would appear in Jacobin, I wrote a blog post and cc’d the editors who asked if they could print an edited version as a letter in the Fall 2016 edition with their reply. I am now reproducing excerpts from “Bernie’s World”, my edited reply, their rejoinder and concluding with my rejoinder to theirs.

1. Bernie’s World

(The full version of the N+1 piece can be read at https://nplusonemag.com/issue-25/the-intellectual-situation/bernies-world/. Emphasis added throughout).

But on one significant topic — American foreign policy — Sanders has remained flat-footed. In December, after the shootings in San Bernardino by self-declared supporters of the Islamic State returned the war on terror to the center of the campaign, Sanders refused to answer questions about ISIS and seemed annoyed that reporters had raised the issue at all. On the Syrian conflict he has been at sea. At that month’s Democratic debate he bizarrely referred to Jordan’s King Abdullah as a “hero,” and in January he called Abdullah “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.” One doesn’t often hear democratic socialists go out of their way to praise hereditary dictators. Sanders has gone further out of his way, repeatedly suggesting that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “They have got to start putting some skin in the game,” he said in one debate, the theory being that these countries will put up the money and the troops needed to combat extremism in the Middle East, diminishing the American role and thus the opportunity for American malfeasance. Of course the problem is the opposite: both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the US’s strongest and least salubrious allies, are already putting lots of money into the Syrian conflict, much of it going to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.

What’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.

ONE REASON WHY the Sixties antiwar movement continues to be a source of both nostalgia and inspiration for the left is that it had genuine radical potential. Having begun as a movement to stop a war, it nearly became a wholesale revolution that reshaped American politics and foreign policy. It was John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, who best summed up the movement’s aims: “So when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.” That turning never took place: thirty years after Kerry’s speech, the war on terror commenced in earnest. Kerry voted in 2001 along with his colleagues Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to invade Afghanistan, and in 2002 with Clinton again to invade Iraq. Just as Kerry abjured his antiwar past as the 2004 presidential candidate — he ran as a war hero, not an antiwar hero — the movement, in the long run, fell far short of its hopes.

But as Daniel Schlozman details in When Movements Anchor Parties, the antiwar movement failed both to anchor itself within the party structure and to create a lasting alternative coalition. No national elected official came out of the movement. On its own, the movement fragmented and radicalized, beset by Nixon’s repression on the one hand and by faltering strategies on the other. The distinction from the labor movement in the 1930s is enormous. At that time, organized labor, gaining in strength and numbers, weighed working outside the Democratic Party against negotiating with the party for legislative gains and legitimacy. Labor chose the latter strategy. The result was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the election of officials who declined to send in troops when workers occupied factories. (This is not to diminish the costs, over time, of being so close to the Democratic Party and blandishments of power, but the benefits were significant.) Nothing comparable occurred with the antiwar movement. By the time its electoral reforms delivered a candidate — George McGovern of McGovern-Fraser — it was too spent a force to work with the candidate. In 1972, McGovern suffered what was then the worst electoral defeat of the postwar era, until Mondale outdid him in 1984.

2. My letter

(I should start off by saying that N+1 butchered my original blog piece to such an extent that it was practically robbed of its meaning. I suppose that they did this to save space and admittedly it was my mistake to give them permission to run the letter but I urge you to read the original here.)

Dear Editors,

I was rather disappointed with your editorial statement on foreign policy (“Bernie’s World”), which repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, who would want to be associated with a struggle against Bashar al-Assad, who in his genial clean-shaven and well-groomed manner seems to be much more like us than the unfathomable, bearded Allahu akbar–yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance? If Vogue was willing to run a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.

The editors are generally OK with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are major donors to “the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.” In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if the group severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the US backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding came from US citizens, living especially in Boston’s South End. Nor does the US support al-Nusra. The country has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan — a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch September 11–type attacks in America.

The editors also criticize the Vietnam antiwar movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure,” a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic party. In 1937, when Chicago steelworkers went on strike, Mayor Edward Kelly — a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers — ordered an attack by the cops that left ten people dead. The antiwar movement kept the Democratic party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers party, who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. The CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the Democrats’ lead. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.

— Louis Proyect

3. The editor replies

Louis Proyect writes that we and others on the left are insufficiently willing to confront Bashar al-Assad because we have been duped by his haircut and a Vogue puff piece that described the dictator and his wife as “wildly democratic.” Not only do we not think that “being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals” — we don’t think this of Obama, either — we can’t find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial.” With their profile, Vogue’s editors executed a flawless caricature of themselves as clueless fashionistas, and that is how the profile was received everywhere. The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the piece was taken down from the magazine’s website.

Is the idea that we are “appeasing” Assad? That was the idea the last time the US foreign policy establishment began to dream of ousting a Middle Eastern dictator. In a kind of ritual humiliation, liberals and leftists were required, like kids reciting the Bill of Rights in class, to demonstrate that they understood Saddam’s crimes against humanity before they could voice any objection to America’s military involvement in the region. That we might still be subject to this ritual isn’t surprising, but it is a bummer.

That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion. Alternately supporting and attacking various groups and figures (among them, Saddam Hussein) is a recurring motif in the history of US’s military involvement in the Middle East. And while Qatar may also have had a falling-out with the group in 2015, a report from last December described a prisoner swap between al Nusra and Lebanon that Qatari officials encouraged by giving al Nusra $25 million. The US has also tracked shipments of Qatari arms directed to the Islamist groups that further destabilized Libya in the wake of the Western intervention there. Qatar’s relationship with al Nusra has had its ups and downs, but the country has long served as a key source of funds and materials for extremists in the region.

With respect to Bernie Sanders, Proyect does not voice an objection to our claim that for all the candidate’s galvanizing rhetoric on domestic policy, there remains too little distance between his foreign policy views and those of the Democratic party mainstream, especially with respect to the use of force. His efforts to make the party platform use the word occupation when discussing Palestine are welcome, but in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, his campaign tweeted, “From what is now known, this was a terrorist act by an ISIS sympathizer. That despicable and barbaric organization must be destroyed.” But Omar Mateen had no real connection to ISIS — he sympathized with the group like Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” sympathized with Satan. To watch Sanders fall back on this bogus war-on-terror logic is to see the full impoverishment of the Democratic party’s foreign policy thought. Proyect says that the Vietnam-era antiwar movement had good reasons to keep its distance from the party, that to engage more fully would have prevented even a single mass demonstration from taking place. That may be true, and yet the movement’s failure to make a more permanent place for itself in the country’s party politics during the postwar years is a failure — one we hope can be remedied soon.

4. The last word

Perhaps as a result of being fatigued from having made the same arguments dozens of times over the past five years, I did not develop them this go round to the extent where the N+1 editor understood what I was driving at. So let me try again.

The Vogue article was scheduled to appear in the March 2011 issue, the very month when the protests began taking place and when Hillary Clinton was disposed to call Assad a “reformer”. As it happens, the only place where it can be read now is on Gawker, reason enough to hate Peter Thiel for destroying such a fearless website.

It was unfortunate that I focused on the appearance of the Assads when the article was much more about their supposed political assets:

Neither of them believes in charity for the sake of charity. “We have the Iraqi refugees,” says the president. “Everybody is talking about it as a political problem or as welfare, charity. I say it’s neither—it’s about cultural philosophy. We have to help them. That’s why the first thing I did is to allow the Iraqis to go into schools. If they don’t have an education, they will go back as a bomb, in every way: terrorism, extremism, drug dealers, crime. If I have a secular and balanced neighbor, I will be safe.”

When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.

“My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ ”

“Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.

“So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?

That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.

The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”

In fact, Vogue was simply expressing the dominant viewpoint of the mainstream media in the years just prior to 2011 when Assad unleashed the dogs of war. For example, on March 6, 2009, the Guardian reported:

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has good reason to be pleased. Barely a day goes by without a western politician or envoy knocking on his palace door. Europeans, led by the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy, have been doing it for months. News that two high-level representatives of the Obama administration are heading for Damascus means that Assad’s visitors are getting steadily more important.

Hillary Clinton’s announcement of the impending arrival of officials from the state department and national security council (message: they’re on the same side under this president) was the moment the Syrians have been waiting for – more than the secretary of state’s carefully choreographed public handshake with the influential foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, at the Gaza donors conference in Egypt this week.

In terms of  N+1 being unable to find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial”, maybe it is better to analogize the Syrian civil war with the 2016 American elections, one in which the choice is between a “lesser evil” and the dreaded alternative. It is doubtful that anybody on the left, at least that part of it occupied by N+1 and Jacobin is concerned, would consider Hillary Clinton as the second coming of FDR as Obama was mistakenly heralded in 2008 but she is accepted as the lesser evil to Donald Trump unless you are like some CounterPunch contributors such as Andre Vltchek or Paul Craig Roberts.

Essentially, this is how Assad is regarded, as a lesser evil to the Syrian rebels who are reduced to a homogenous glob of Sharia-law supporting head choppers. If Stephen Kinzer would likely never apply the adjective “genial” to Assad, he is still capable of writing articles with the title “On Syria, Thank You Russia” on February 12, 2016. Charles Glass has a particular skill at articulating the lesser evil perspective and even verges on accepting Assad as the greater good in the NY Review of Books, a journal that caters to elite liberal opinion:

The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities—including Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yazidis, and Kurds, along with Alawites and Sunni Arabs—its heritage of ancient monuments, its ancient manuscripts and Sumerian tablets, its industrial and social infrastructure, and its tolerance of different social customs. “The worst thing is not the violence,” the Armenian Orthodox primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, told me. “It is this new hatred.”

You get the same sort of thing from Jeffrey Sachs and David Bromwich but there’s no point in citing them since I don’t want to induce the same sort of fatigue that I experience writing about Syria.

The N+1 editors feel that I am subjecting them to some sort of ritual in which they are required to denounce Assad, like a “moment of hate” scene from Orwell’s “1984”. If they got that impression, I must apologize since that was not my intention. I only wanted to take exception to their notion that Turkey and Saudi Arabia were backing al-Nusra and ISIS.

I don’t want to waste any bandwidth in exploring this topic at any length and would simply refer you once again to Sam Charles Hamad’s article that I cited in my blog article and repeat what I wrote:

I recommend two new books on Syria that will clarify the role of such jihadist groups in Syria. One is titled “Burning Country” co-authored by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami. The other is “Khiyana”, a collection of articles including one by me but the more relevant one is titled “The Rise of Daesh”, written by Sam Charles Hamad. His research is thoroughgoing and essential for getting past the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia being Dr. Frankenstein to the monster of ISIS:

One of the forces that received generous Saudi funding was the secular nationalist FSA-affiliate Liwa Shuhada Suriya (Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade) led by Jamal Maarouf. Far from Saudi’s funding Daesh when the FSA and Qatar and the Turkish funded Islamic Front launched an offensive against Daesh it was led by a FSA coalition called the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front led by Jamal Maarouf. The weapons they used against Daesh on the frontlines were paid for by Saudi Arabia.

The only hard line Salafist group that Saudi has funded is Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) which was a merger of several different Salafi forces initiated by Saudi’s to attempt to deflect both Syrian and foreign Salafi recruits away from the growing threat of Jabhat an-Nusra (which at that time was still what Daesh called itself in Syria before its split). The reason for this was that Jabhat al-Nusra, as with all al-Qaeda ‘franchises’, espouses a virulent and violent anti-Saudi theology and politics.

By snipping this material, N+1 lets itself off the hook with a breezy reassurance that “That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion.” Whatever. Just tell that to the people of East Aleppo who are now being bombed by F-16s according to some reports because they are harboring the rebranded al-Nusra in the same way that Israeli F-16s bombed Gaza’s schools because they were a haven for Hamas.

Finally, let me turn to the question of the Democratic Party. I have no idea who wrote the reply to my letter but there is a good chance that it was co-editor Nikil Saval, who wrote a book titled “Office Space: The Cubicle Dweller’s History of the American Workplace”.

It seems that Saval was a big-time Sanderista, reporting on his volunteer work for the campaign in the same issue where my letter appeared. Dated April 5th, it is a 7000 word (!) journal titled “Canvassing” about his experiences going door-to-door for Sanders in Philadelphia, where he makes his home.

Saval writes that Sanders is “the first candidate in two generations who is not a neoliberal, the first in decades to call himself a socialist, running as a Democrat but, bless him, not one”. In fact, Sanders registered as a Democrat in 2015 but why quibble. With respect to him calling himself a socialist, so did François Hollande who runs France in the same way that Hillary Clinton will run the USA. It was pretty much precluded that Sanders would ever get the opportunity Hollande got to impose a neoliberal agenda but at least he has the distinction of endorsing Clinton’s right to do so. Everybody knows that allowing Goldman Sachs to have its way beats the gas chambers Donald Trump has in store for Marxist intellectual careerists.

Saval also admits to canvassing for Obama but can’t remember what he said in his favor. Hmm. Repressed memories?

Saval seems to have a thing about the appearance of the people he is canvassing. Is that why he was so insistent on clearing the air on the Vogue article? I hope not. He refers to an elderly woman sucking “from a limp cigarette”, her “open mouth revealing a stretch of missing teeth.” He also meets a “75-year-old toothless Italian American with a buzz cut.” Jeez, I am glad I got a dental implant before going out to Brooklyn for an N+1 cocktail party. The buzz cut, however, I’ll stick with.

After putting up with some frustrating experiences, Saval hits pay dirt:

A 75-year-old white woman who arrives at the door with her two East Asian grandchildren, whom she asks to let me know who she voted for. “BERNIE SANDERS!” they cry in unison, and mawkishly enough I choke back tears. I suddenly feel as if an era of my life were passing. I leave half my packet unfinished and head back to the house.

Well, not being in a position to know the publication schedule of N+1, I wonder if Saval would be as thrilled today as he was when he wrote this article. The Sanderistas gave their hero a hard time at the Democratic Party convention last month for kowtowing to the Clinton campaign. I won’t begrudge Saval for sticking with the Sanders “political revolution” to the bitter end. If it brought him tears of joy, god bless him. It is hard enough being a revolutionary socialist so I can empathize with someone seeking change through the Democratic Party, a fool’s errand if there ever was one.

August 15, 2016

Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx?

Filed under: Academia,liberalism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Gareth Stedman Jones

Gareth Stedman Jones is a 73-year-old professor of history at the University of London who was educated at St. Paul’s and Oxford. This, plus a brief infatuation with Marxism in the 1960s, was just the ticket for landing a seat on the editorial board of New Left Review where many editors and contributors over the years share the same kind of background.

In a 2012 interview, Jones described his eventual breach with the far left, especially its Trotskyist component, as a result of being put off by the idea of a “revolutionary Europe”. Instead he realized that unlike his erstwhile comrades, he really was a “crypto-Fabian”.

For most people who have a youthful fling with radical politics, this is something easy enough to put behind them. I am acquainted, for example, with a man who was my YSA organizer in NY in 1968. He dropped out of the movement about 5 years later, moved out to California, and started a very profitable company that sold and installed industrial carpeting in office buildings. When I visited his ranch about 15 years ago, the last thing he was interested in was politics. He much preferred to drink cognac, smoke cigars and talk about the horses he was breeding.

In my view, that man does a lot less harm than Gareth Stedman Jones who has carved out a very successful career at elite British universities, including Cambridge, teaching young people all about working class history and what’s wrong with Marxism. On his webpage at the U. of London, he names his PhD students including one Kate Connelly, whose dissertation is on “Marx, Engels and the Urban Poor”. As is commonly understood, dissertation students make sure to hold views in sync with their adviser so we can assume that she will disorient her future students in the same way Jones disoriented her.

One of the most ironic contradictions of Marxism is that some of its most diehard critics speak in the name of Marxism. With the intellectual clout they might gain from serving on the NLR editorial board and having written a rafter of books with titles like “Outcast London”, a 1971 Verso book that was an exercise in E.P. Thompson “history from below”, people such as Gareth Stedman Jones can speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is for the working class in a charitable Dickensian fashion but against it becoming the ruling class.

In his latest exercise in undermining Marx while praising him, Jones just came out with a 768-page book titled “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” that has been reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough states that “Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them.”

In a nutshell, Jones argues that the 20th and 21st century Marxist understanding of socialism is influenced much more by Engels than Marx. Bullough explains: “Stedman Jones argues that much of what we now think of as Marxism – and, thus, much of what went on to inspire socialist and communist parties – was the creation of Engels, who codified Marx’s theories after his death, thus making them palatable for people unable or unwilling to wade through his dense texts.”

The idea that Engels was somehow to blame for the bastardization of Marxism and even partially responsible for the Stalinist travesties of “dialectical materialism” is part of the arsenal of people like Gareth Stedman Jones, even though there is little basis for this.

Mark Mazower, a Columbia University professor, wrote the FT review titled “The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world”. As I have noted in the past, the FT has published a number of articles, especially during the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, arguing for the relevance of Karl Marx even if his call for the abolition of capitalism was all wet.

Relying on Mazower’s reading of Jones, we are expected to believe that Marx neglected to deal with the problem of state power:

At the same time he continued his voluminous reading, in particular of Ludwig Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel and the thinker who did most to point Marx towards the idea of man as an alienated being who thrived best as part of a larger collective. It was this conception that allowed Marx to imagine the future as one great human society, and to relegate to an entirely unimportant position the state itself, which had been so potent in Hegel’s thought. One consequence of this downplaying of the state was that Marx developed his entire critique of capitalism with almost no reference to the role of the state: the upshot was that after 1917, when his Russian followers found themselves running the government of a very large country, they had a free hand to invent a role for the bureaucracy and ended up creating a polity in which the state played a greater role than ever before or since.

Speaking of neglect, it is obvious to me that Jones failed to take into account one of Karl Marx’s most important writings on the state—“The Civil War in France”—that was the basis for Lenin’s “State and Revolution”. I understand that Gareth Stedman Jones has more awards than Heineken beer but if he can’t make the connection between Marx and Lenin on the theory of the workers state, then he has no business teaching about Marx. But then again, the people who hired him for his various august positions saw this inability to make such a connection essential to training the future leaders of bourgeois society who might dismiss Marxism while wisely praising Marx as an important 19th century thinker.

In 2002 Penguin came out with a version of “The Communist Manifesto” with a 185-page introduction by Jones, three times the length of the Manifesto. Among the spurious points made in the introduction is that the manifesto and much of 19th century socialism was a quasi-religion. This, of course, is another key talking point against Marxism that I personally first heard in junior high school back in 1958 or so. It was “the god that failed”, a “secular religion” that replaced heaven with the communist ideal. This is a rather banal interpretation and exactly what you would expect from someone like Gareth Stedman Jones.

In a shrewd review of Jones’s packaging of The Communist Manifesto for the New Left Review, Jacob Stevens wrote:

Stedman Jones’s organizing thesis—that Marxism is another form of religion—is, of course, one of the oldest tropes of Cold War literature, predating even the equation of communism and fascism as two sides of the totalitarian coin. During the thirties, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin argued that Marxism and Nazism caricatured the fundamental patterns of religious belief, diagnosing the resulting immanentist heresies as by-products of secularization in a decadent world, fuelled by Enlightenment myths of social transformation. After World War Two, Jules Monnerot’s Sociology of Communism (1949) explained that Bolshevism was a ‘religious sect of world conquerors’ that should be viewed as a ‘twentieth-century Islam’. Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) offered a fully fleshed-out analogy with Christianity: the ‘sacred history which Marxism extracts from the penumbra of plain facts’ offers a messianic role for the Party.

For Jones the last important work of Marx was “The German Ideology”. Apparently everything went downhill afterwards. Perhaps Jones might have done less harm if he had simply focused on social history and not written counter-revolutionary drivel. This part of his legacy might have inspired another of his dissertation students to have chosen a topic like “Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery”, one that thankfully will not carry his adviser’s ideological baggage.

Then again, that might be problematic given Jones’s attempt to purge class from the history of the Chartist movement. Once again doing his best to obfuscate revolutionary history, he claims that it was liberalism rather than socialism that fueled the growth of this movement. Crypto-Fabian indeed.

In 1983, Jones came out with a book titled “Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982” that included a chapter titled “Rethinking Chartism”. It turned language into a fulcrum of analysis rather than class dynamics. The speeches and articles of Chartist leaders that reflected a commitment to traditional values of bourgeois democracy were taken at face value by Jones whose words reflected the baleful influence of post-structuralism:

What both ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ conceal – at least as their usage has evolved among historians- is the problematic character of language itself. Both concepts imply that language is a simple medium through which ‘experience’ finds expression- a romantic conception of language in which what is at the beginning inner and particular struggles to outward expression and, having done so, finds itself recognized in the answering experience of others, and hence sees itself to be part of a shared experience. It is in some such way that ‘experience’ can be conceived cumulatively to result in class consciousness. What this approach cannot acknowledge is all the criticism which has been levelled at it since the broader significance of Saussure’s work was understood – the materiality of language itself, the impossibility of simply referring it back to some primal anterior reality, ‘social being’, the impossibility of abstracting experience from the language which structures its articulation. In areas other than history, such criticisms are by now well known and do not need elaboration. But historians – and social historians in particular – have either been unaware or, when aware, extremely resistant to the implications of this approach for their own practice, and this has been so most of all perhaps when it touches such a central topic as class.

So interesting to see how Gareth Stedman Jones is inclined to draw upon intellectual traditions hostile to Marxism in an effort to simultaneously speak for the left while undermining it. If the essay on the Chartists was filled with intellectual hijinks like this, the next chapter “Why is the Labour Party Such a Mess?” was refreshingly straightforward even if the ideas were just as repugnant. It seems that the solution to the Labour Party’s problems in post-Thatcher England was to ditch the “homogeneous proletarian estate whose sectional political interest is encompassed by trade unions.”

In 2004, Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian titled “Tony Blair needs a big idea. Adam Smith can provide it”. It is a totally ahistorical think piece that abstracts Adam Smith from his contemporary context and urges readers to appreciate that Smith’s “original reputation was that of a progressive whose work provided the foundation of the radical critique of aristocratic monopoly and of the bellicose state that protected it.” He adds, “But an accurate account of this period shows that the pursuit of equality can be conceived in terms quite other than those of socialism.”

What that has to do with the 21st century when capitalism had become so decadent that it was capable of fomenting two world wars is anybody’s guess. It seems that despite his formidable reputation as a historian, Jones’s grasp of history is rather weak. Adam Smith was an enemy of state monopolies like the East India Company. How would that exactly translate into Labour Party policy? In the late 18th century, Britain was on the verge of an industrial revolution that combined with its overseas empire could turn it into the wealthiest nation in the world. Adam Smith was the prophet of that trend. But in 2004 England was deep into deindustrialization that both Labour and Conservative politicians were either enthusiastic about or reconciled to. One supposes that Gareth Stedman Jones lacked the intellectual and political insights to grasp this.

I am sure that none of my readers would waste $35 on his worthless book but for those with a morbid curiosity I would urge you to read an interview with him that is a transcript of a 2005 PBS show called “Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism” that was hosted by Ben Wattenberg, an obnoxious neoconservative. As should be obvious from the title of the program, Jones must have jumped at the opportunity to chat with Wattenberg since they agreed that socialism was a kind of religion.

It is a pile of shit from beginning to end but reached the deepest level of shittiness when Wattenberg posed the question: “Did the writings of Lenin change people’s ideas about Socialism?” Jones replies:

Well, it absolutely moves the center of gravity from the idea that socialism is something which is going to come through the development of capitalism at its highest point, something which all socialists have believed before 1914 to the idea that building socialism in the primitive country, ninety-percent of whose population were peasants and so on, the point from which he had to redefine socialism.

Lenin tries to do so by his famous arguments that capitalism is as strong as its weakest link, and pre-revolutionary Russia has presented it as being the weakest link. So really he cuts through this whole argument about whether there are enough workers as a proportion of the population to produce a viable socialist society. Clearly, there weren’t and the Soviets learned to their costs. I mean, the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. And of course it changed the image of socialism ever afterwards to that of being a very top-heavy, authoritarian, ruthless state machine, which was if anything, the opposite of what people would have thought socialism was meant to be in the mid-nineteenth century.

So the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. Very interesting. Speaking of brute force, does Jones have any idea of what kind of brute force was deployed against Russia in 1918 when 21 invading armies sought to destroy the socialist experiment?

About 8 million people lost their lives during the Russian Civil War. Wikipedia also indicates the crushing of the industrial infrastructure:

Estimates say that the war cost the Soviet Russia around 50 billion rubles or $35,000,000,000.00 in today’s price. Production of industrial goods fell to very low level. For example, The Soviet Union was producing only 5 % of the cotton, and only 2 % of the iron ore, compared to the production of 1913. Generally, the production had fallen to 20% of the production of 1913.

The counter-revolutionary war had the intended effect even if “socialism” survived. The loss of Bolshevik cadre led to the rise of Stalinism, and after that the rise of fascism since the working class in Europe lacked the revolutionary leadership that could have blocked the victory of both Hitler and Franco.

As Perry Anderson pointed out in “Considerations on Western Marxism”, it was such terrible defeats that led to a retreat from revolutionary socialism among a class of intellectuals who, anticipating Gareth Stedman Jones, began to criticize Marxism from within the academy. The only thing that will reverse this trend is a new upsurge of the working class that will inevitably be produced by the irrationality of the capitalist system. Even though Gareth Stedman Jones disparages The Communist Manifesto, it is worth quoting on this point:

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

August 12, 2016

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Filed under: feminism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Opening today at the Village East theater in NY and the Arclight in Los Angeles, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is as the title indicates a documentary that consists entirely of interviews with women from Missouri who have been forced to get an abortion in Illinois because of restrictions in their own state. Under the impact of conservative legislators, Missouri only has one abortion clinic now and forces women to go through a 72-hour waiting period before undergoing the procedure and does not even make an exception for rape or incest.

Although Republican Party legislators justified passing the law in September 2011 on the basis that it would facilitate reflection on the part of the pregnant woman about going through with an abortion, the real impact is economic coercion. Such laws, which exist also in Utah and South Dakota, force women to travel long distances and take time off from work to reach a clinic. Right now the only one is in St. Louis. Since economic hardship is one of the main driving forces behind getting an abortion, the loss of a couple of day’s work can create havoc for women, especially those without a partner. The anti-abortion movement cynically calculates that some women will decide to have the baby and give it up for adoption, a hollow victory except if your belief system rests on the idea that heaven and hell exist, with angels, devils and all the rest.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, who hails from Missouri but lives now in California, filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Illinois. Her interviews were not only with women from Missouri who have made the trek but with a wide range of women connected to the clinic in various capacities. That includes not only the medical staff but the security guard, an African-American female who can barely contain her disgust with the protestors who haunt the clinic, including a Black pastor who she gives hell to. As is the case with most of these clinics outside of sinfully enlightened metropolitan centers like Manhattan, the fetus fetishists, who get equal time in Tragos’s film, are a permanent fixture like a chronic disease such as herpes. The Illinois clinic relies on a volunteer group of escorts who help the anxious women make it past the screaming, beady-eyed zealots.

Tragos’s emphasis is on the “stories” as she makes clear in the press notes:

I have met women contemplating abortion who have tremendous potential and who deserve dignity and respect: a student who wants to stay in school; a mother who is doing the best she can to care for the children she already has; a woman who is carrying a fetus that she very much wants, but would never live outside the womb; a young mother who believes abortion is wrong, but whose life is in danger if she carries her pregnancy to term. I have met a woman who stands on a street corner and prays, who believes that “God is amassing an army” to save babies in utero. As sharp as her rhetoric is, she is lonely and welcomes conversation and companionship on a cold winter day. I have met a woman frustrated by the lack of unity in the reproductive rights movement, who desperately wants to change the conversation but feels powerless to have an impact. I have met the pregnant doctor who performs abortions, despite danger and threats.

My only regret is that the film lacked commentary from experts who have been tracking the origins and goals of anti-abortion movement. It is understandable that Tragos’s had a specific focus but the viewer is left wondering what forces are assembling nationally to ensure that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.

For example, the structure of the film excluded a discussion of the campaign against Planned Parenthood that became front page news a year ago when secretly made videos supposedly proved that fetal tissues were being sold for profit. So outrageous was the right wing intervention that even Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said that Planned Parenthood was innocent of the charges being made against it.

To give you an idea of the bogus credentials of Rand Paul, who is beloved by some “anti-imperialists”, he had legislation prepared in advance to defund Planned Parenthood. Who knows? Maybe he has been inspired by Putin’s Russia that has banned all abortions after 12 weeks.

As might be expected, Hillary Clinton was a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood but given the steady erosion of abortion rights over the past eight years, one wonders how much confidence we can have in an administration correctly understood by both her and her critics on the left as a continuation of the status quo.

Clinton’s VP candidate is the first concern. Timothy Kaine, a Catholic, is anti-abortion but supposedly respects the Roe V. Wade decision. That is a bit hard to square with his past support for the Hyde amendment that bans federal funding for abortions. On July 27th he changed his mind and said he would support its repeal. For those concerned about how politicians change positions in the way some people change a hairdo, keep in mind that in 2012 Hillary Clinton, who has somehow earned the reputation of being for regime change in Syria, stated that the rebels were basically al-Qaeda.

Like Clinton, Barack Obama makes all sorts of statements about a woman’s right to choose but somehow that didn’t inspire him to issue an executive order that would have made it possible for federally funded humanitarian aid agencies to provide abortions to women raped in zones of conflict. The Helms amendment of 1987 excluded such a possibility but Obama could have easily superseded it. Sierra Sippel of CHANGE issued this statement: “As long as President Obama continues to walk away from women raped in conflict, his legacy on gender equality is incomplete. To remain silent and fail to act is unconscionable, deadly and damages his legacy.” I would quibble with this. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely consistent with his legacy.

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 11:13 am

Tyrell Wellick, evil corporate character from E Corp on the USA Network series “Mr. Robot”

 

Donald Trump Jr., evil corporate character

 

August 10, 2016

Jill Stein, the South Front and the lesser evil

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:58 pm

For the past month or so, I have seen vitriolic attacks on Jill Stein from people I am close to on the question of Syria. I have already dealt with the question of whether Syria should be a litmus test for the Green Party but want to look at the question from a different angle now, namely how it is that she came to embrace a position that my pro-Syrian revolution friends label as “pro-fascist”. Like the friends of the Hillary Clinton campaign pouring over every Jill Stein speech looking for “anti-science” pandering, there is now a concerted effort by Syrian solidarity activists to discover evidence of this “pro-fascism” in her every utterance. The latest discoveries are that she attended an RT.com conference in Moscow in December, had dinner with Putin when she was there, and that her VP candidate has been writing some truly awful stuff about Syria.

With respect to RT.com, it has published 105 articles in praise of Jill Stein so naturally she might have accepted an invitation to their conference. Since she has given no evidence that she has a mastery of the Syrian struggle and only reflects the left consensus, it is probably unrealistic to think that she would have turned down the invitation.

As for Ajamu Baraka, my guess is that he will be speaking mostly about domestic politics rather than Syria in his various speaking engagements but that can’t be guaranteed. However, it is quite likely that if he says anything about “regime change” and the jihadist threat, he will be preaching to the choir. Is there any reason to think that there will be people in the audience who have somehow learned to think outside the box when it comes to Syria, especially when their understanding of the country is likely drawn from The Nation, ZNet, Salon, CounterPunch, Consortium News, WBAI news, and countless other zines and print publications that have been making the same points as Baraka for the past five years? It baffles me that anybody could think otherwise.

I was reminded of how left opinion is shaped when I stumbled across a website called South Front this morning when trying to find out the latest news about the battle for Aleppo.

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In a nutshell, this is just one more website that is pushing the Kremlin/Baathist agenda. The first thing I did was look up the domain. Unsurprisingly, it is registered in Russia.

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But what is somewhat surprising is how a website based in Russia can put out a product that is so professional looking and whose articles are obviously written by people whose first language is English. And if it is not the case, it written by Russians who have been trained to write exactly like they were.

For most people unfamiliar with the logistics and economics of websites, it might be easy to take South Front for granted but I can tell you that this is an expensive proposition both in financial and human resources terms. The website would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to maintain, if not more. Meanwhile, pro-Syrian revolution websites are run on a shoestring and count on people like me to supply content. If some rich bastard in the USA had given me that kind of money back in 2011, I could have put together a website that might have not only competed with the Baathist amen corner but crushed it. But what is the likelihood that a hedge fund billionaire would have funded a website that took up the cause of scruffy, bearded, Quran-citing, poverty-stricken rural folk who fight alongside al-Qaeda militias when it suits them? This is not to speak of the American government whose main goal was to keep the rebels on a tight leash so that a neoliberal government sans Assad could be cobbled together in Syria as Michael Karadjis pointed out in an essential article in the New Arab.

I am afraid that those who are so ready to dismiss Jill Stein as “pro-fascist” have delusions that Hillary Clinton would step into the breach and come to the aid of the Syrian rebels. People somehow have forgotten that Clinton is a cynical politician who counts Henry Kissinger as a major source of wisdom on foreign policy. She does not act on principle but on the dictates of the billionaires who run the country who paid her handsomely for her tawdry speaking engagements. She will say and do things for their benefits, not for those of the Syrian people. To get an idea of how “flexible” she is, all you need to do is pay attention to what she said in a February 26, 2012 interview with CBS’s Wyatt Andrews:

WYATT ANDREWS, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the violence continuing in Syria and Assad refusing to allow medicine to reach the injured, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview with CBS News argues the United States is doing what it can, but within limits.

CLINTON: I am incredibly sympathetic to the calls that somebody do something, but it is also important to stop and ask what that is and who`s going to do it.

ANDREWS: What to do about Assad was supposed to be answered last Friday when a global conference called “Friends of Syria” again demanded that Assad step aside. But several Arab countries starting with the Saudis argued for action to arm the Syrian resistance. The Obama administration is resisting that.

ANDREWS: The U.S. has repeatedly said that it`s reluctant to support the direct army of the dissidents, why?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, we really don`t know who it is that would be armed.

ANDREWS: Specifically, the administration fears that arms will wind up in the hands of terrorists including al Qaeda.

CLINTON: We know al Qaeda, Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition, are we supporting Hamas in Syria?

So I think, Wyatt, you know despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad. If you are a military planner or if you are a secretary of state and you`re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, we don`t see that.

In contrast to Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein stakes out positions on the basis of principle even if unfortunately the position is based on an incomplete understanding of history and politics. If you spent five years reading Salon, Counterpunch and The Nation and had never heard of Robin Yassin-Kassab or Idrees Ahmad let alone read them, what are the chances that you would have developed an analysis that favored a rebel victory over Assad?

Back in 1965, when I first faced the draft, my thinking on the Vietnam war was foggy at best. I hated Communism, or at least what I had been told about it, but never considered the possibility that the NLF’s cause was just. It took a full year of debate and discussion with an SWP member at the New School in New York to convince me that the USA had violated the Vietnamese right to self-determination and that the NLF were patriots fighting an occupying power.

And then it took another year for him to convince me that socialism was a more rational and just system than capitalism. What if I had not run into him? There was a good chance that my ideas about Vietnam and socialism would have remained as they were, even if my mind would have never been changed on the existential question of staying out of the army. My main goal in life was to read novels, smoke marijuana and listen to jazz. Politics? No thanks.

I really wonder whether most of my pro-Syrian revolution comrades have given much thought to how their thinking evolved about Syria. It is obvious that someone like Robin Yassin-Kassab, who is Syrian, would have come to the right outlook since he knows people from his homeland who were being brutalized by the dictatorship and could read authoritative analyses in the original Arabic.

Speaking for myself, it took a while to wrap my head around this question since I had, like most CounterPunch readers, seen American intervention in the Middle East after 2011 in the same way I saw Iraq in 2003—just another case of meddling that had to be resisted. I should add that I remain anti-intervention but along a different axis, namely opposed to CIA efforts to keep MANPAD’s out of the hands of the rebels.

Accepting the self-evident bankruptcy of the Green Party’s official position on Syria raises the question of its relevancy to the ongoing struggle to create a party of the left in the USA. For some of the British comrades who are outspokenly against Jill Stein, there seems to be little interest in the key question facing the left in the USA, namely how to build a party of the left. If Syria is a litmus test, then we have to wait until the Greens adopt a new position that is unlikely to happen given the ideological balance of forces in the USA, to a large extent one that has the Kremlin’s fingers on the scale. For all of the uproar over a “new McCarthyism” about Trump and Putin, there is plenty of evidence that the Kremlin does use RT.com, South Front, and other outlets to shape American public opinion.

In the long run, the only way to combat these ideas is to build a left that is predicated on the idea of working class internationalism and solidarity with the oppressed. Unfortunately, the left has been afflicted by a tendency to consider the nation-state as an instrument of struggle rather than the working class and its allies. Someone like Jill Stein’s vision of peace and global progress is based on the idea that Russia is a lesser evil to the USA. How ironic that a politician who has so effectively rebutted the idea that we need to choose a lesser evil on election day can turn around and apply in effect the same discredited logic to vote for Vladimir Putin.

August 9, 2016

Homage to Abbas Kiarostami, part one

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Introduction

Abbas Kiarostami

Jean-Luc Godard has said: “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” According to Martin Scorsese, “Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” When these words are quoted at Kiarostami, he winces most charmingly. “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead,” he says.

That’s from the April 16, 2005 Guardian. Since Kiarostami died on the fourth of July this year, it seems appropriate to now state one’s admiration—not that I would put myself in the same league as Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese.

For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my discovery of Kiarostami came fairly late in life. I have been a cinephile since 1961 and began writing film reviews as a member of New York Film Critics Online about 20 years ago but saw my first film by the Iranian director and screenwriter only two years ago when I reviewed “The Wind Will Carry Us” for CounterPunch. Jeff St. Clair titled the review “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” and the answer to that rhetorical question was answered positively in my article.

“The Wind Will Carry Us” had been shown in a revival of the 1999 film and I had attended a press screening. In my review I wrote:

The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.

If most of my readers live outside of New York where such revivals are commonplace, I can reassure you that while the “latest technologies” might have thwarted the character in Kiarostami’s film, who was arguably a stand-in for himself, they fortunately make it possible for you to see “The Wind Will Carry Us” and just about every major work by the World’s Most Talented Film-maker as I have done over the past week. They can be seen either on commercial venues like Hulu and Amazon or on free outlets like Youtube and Daily Motion. The goal of the series of articles that follow this introduction will be to acquaint you with the art films of a deservedly acclaimed artist as if you were in a cyberspace equivalent of the art theaters that flourished in New York in the early 1960s when each week a new film by Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray, Buñuel, Antonioni, Visconti or Truffaut premiered.

Part of the explanation for so much of Kiarostami’s work being available as VOD is his existence in a kind of limbo for most of his career. While never persecuted like his colleague Jafar Panahi, the Islamic Republic did not allow his films to be screened for a ten-year period. With no apparent interest in exploiting them commercially, Iran never stepped in to demand that the films be removed from Youtube.

Despite the restrictions he had to put up with in Iran, Kiarostami always felt rooted in the country and never made polemical films like Panahi. That being said, he was deeply concerned about social inequality and the clerical authoritarianism that helped to sustain it despite the “anti-imperialist” image the mullahs tried to cultivate.

This side of Kiarostami might not have been obvious in the films he directed but it was so in the screenplay he wrote for “Crimson Gold”, a film directed by Panahi. In my 2004 review, I referred to the main character Hussein, a pizza deliveryman who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war suffering from poverty and PTSD:

Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Teheran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen-year-old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.

Like other directors operating outside the commercial dictates of Hollywood, Kiarostami can be seen as a link to the golden age of the art film on a number of levels. To start with, his works are imbued with a humanism that has virtually disappeared over the past 25 years. This is not just true of Hollywood but Western Europe as well, which has tended to compete with it on its own terms. For example, French directors have become enamored of Tarantino type violence even though its origins were in Hong Kong gangster films that he was recycling. By the time the gunplay conventions reached France, they had lost their initial impact and grown stale. In the 44 films made by Kiarostami, there is not a single act of violence and the closest we come to seeing one is a rock thrown through the window of an elderly professor by a young man who suspects him of sleeping with his fiancée, a call girl. It is so unexpected that you almost feel inclined to duck and cover like the professor.

For the most part, a Kiarostami film consists of people talking to each other, and frequently inside a car. By daring to keep a conversation going on for ten minutes or longer, he defies the conventions of Hollywood and most independent films as well where dialog is limited to two or three minutes and functions mainly as exposition. A classic example would be a scene from a Scorsese film in which the characters argue with each other about one thing or another. The tension of the dialog is designed to set up the physical confrontation that is almost inevitable.

In a Kiarostami film, the conversations are often about the universal questions of life and death and that have no other purpose except to get us thinking about how they relate to our own existence. In “A Taste of Cherry”, a depressed Tehran upper-class man drives around the outskirts of the city trying to find a man willing to help him kill himself—or more exactly to throw dirt in the hole in the ground where he will take an overdose of tranquilizers the night before. The film consists nearly entirely of conversations in the main character’s car as he tries to persuade various men he picks up to serve as his assistant with a sizable payment. One, a clerical student from Afghanistan, refuses insistently even though he is impoverished. They argue about how the Quran views suicide and fail to agree.

The humanism of Kiarostami’s films can obviously be traced to the work of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray who had compassion for the lives of ordinary people like the peasants in “Seven Samurai” or in the Apu trilogy. Kiarostami preferred to work with nonprofessional actors who he claimed kept him honest, especially when they were cast as the kind of characters they were in real life. He stated that they would stubbornly resist saying things that were not likely to come out of their mouths. In “Through the Olive Trees”, a film within a film, a character based on Kiarostami himself is making a film about the impact of the 1990 earthquake on the lives of rural Iranians. He has a bit actor named Hossein (actually a rural Iranian working class man) being filmed repeatedly in one take after another because he keeps screwing up. He is supposed to say that he lost 65 relatives in the earthquake but it always comes out as 25. The director, driven to distraction, asks him why keeps refusing to say 65. The answer: “Sir, I only lost 25 relatives.”

As I watched one Kiarostami film after another this week, it became clear to me that not only was he the greatest director of our generation but a major influence on other important directors in the region, including one who I consider as on the same level—Turkey’s Bilge Nuri Ceylan. Ceylan and Kiarostami’s films tend to have the same venues, the various film festivals in places like Cannes or New York and the art houses with their limited distribution. Like Kiarostami, Ceylan has uncompromising artistic integrity and an affinity for the common people of his country. The influence can also be seen in the work of Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish director whose “Jiyan” (Life) echoes “The Wind Will Carry Us” through its interaction between an educated and urbane Kurd (like the director) who visits Halabja with the intention of building an orphanage. Is there a common thread that unites Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish films such as these? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the dislocations of traditional societies under the impact of globalization that is common to the three nations.

I must introduce a note of caution in watching a Kiarostami film. If you are expecting a plot that has a logical ending that conveys some eternal verity, you will be disappointed. As a screenwriter who directs his own work, he avoids pat narratives that operate off audience reflexes built up by a lifetime of watching genre films. He even shuns film scores since they are meant to stroke one’s emotions during the course of a film in a manipulative fashion. He will have none of that. For Kiarostami, watching a film is a kind of interactive process in which you are practically challenged to supply your own conclusion.

For example, in the conclusion to “Through the Olive Trees”, when the aforementioned Hossein is trailing after the woman of his dreams through a grove of olive trees to persuade her to marry him, we watch them becoming smaller and smaller as they move out of the range of the camera toward the horizon. At the last minute, Hossein bolts away from the object of his affection and begins running toward the camera at full tilt. Is he running away from her because he is crushed by her refusal or is he ecstatic because she has said yes? That is up to you to figure out.

It is not just the conclusion to his films that is open to interrogation. There is an ambiguity that prevails through almost his entire work that prevents you from settling into preconceived ideas about how the characters are expected to act. It is often the case that the characters are not clear themselves about their innermost feelings. This gives the films a kind of contradictory momentum that keeps you off-balance and unsure about what will happen next.

The complexity of a Kiarostami film is related to the modernist sensibility that was general throughout the New Wave of the 1950s and 60s that came relatively late to Iran. It is akin to Godard but filtered through the sensibility of Iran’s religious and artistic environment. Over the next few weeks, I will expand on this in an attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half-century.

August 8, 2016

From an interview with Abbas Kiarostami

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:13 pm

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BC: It seems difficult for many artists today to treat individual psychological truth, sociopolitical reality, and artistic form with equal seriousness, with equal commitment. Is that a reasonable statement?

AK: I completely agree. As I have implied, moviemakers are always being pushed to focus on the excitation and manipulation of the audience. The question to which I don’t know the answer is whether or not the viewer wants to be manipulated. I don’t know anyone who says, “Instead of letting me see reality, manipulate me. I would prefer it.” This is an illness that comes from somewhere in society—maybe from escapist movies themselves.

BC: You yourself are choosing to make films about ordinary people, poor people. That itself is quite rare today.

AK: I get my material from all around me. When I leave my house in the morning, those ordinary people are the ones I come into contact with. In my entire life I have never met a star—somebody I have seen on the screen. And I believe that any artist finds his material in what’s around him. Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film.

BC: How can film art in general contribute to the lives of ordinary people?

AK: The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary, day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad to him that, as a result of his newfound awareness, he may decide to change his life.

BC: A related question. Humanity has suffered a great deal in the past and continues to suffer. How do artists treat such a situation honestly without surrendering to fatalism or pessimism?

AK: It’s a difficult question and I cannot answer precisely how artists do that, but the ones who do are the artists, the ones who accomplish the task of turning that painful experience of humanity into art Without becoming cynical. Making it possible for everyone to get some pleasure out of pain, making beauty out of ugliness or desolation. And the painful experience of human-ity, be it in Iran, Africa, or the United States, isn’t going to change any time soon. In my relatively short lifetime, I haven’t experienced a reduction of injustice anywhere, let alone in my own country. And never mind a solution to the problem of injustice. People keep referring to the “global village,” but in Africa, in Uganda, I watched as parents put the corpses of their children in boxes, tied them to the backs of bicycles, and pedaled away—barefoot. I’m quoting an author 1 don’t know who said that, by the twenty-first century, humanity will only be four years old. I think that applies. Humanity today, in 2005, is just about at the stage of a four-year-old. So we’ll have to wait a long time before humanity even reaches the maturity of an adolescent.

BC: Doesn’t the future of cinema also depend on an improvement in the social and political atmosphere?

AK: 1 don’t think so. I actually sometimes think that, at least in my country, art has grown the most when the social situation has been the worst. It seems to me that artists are a compensatory mechanism, a defense mechanism in those kinds of unfavorable circumstances.

August 7, 2016

The Battle of Aleppo

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

In my review of Gilbert Achcar’s “Morbid States”, I referred to the imminent fall of East Aleppo—an event that would likely mean that the war would end on terms favorable to the Baathist dictatorship. Just three days after posting the article, I was quite surprised and elated to discover that the battle had turned against the Baathists. In a surprise attack on the Ramosa military base, an alliance of rebel groups gained control of its weaponry and opened up a corridor that will allow food and medical supplies to be shipped in to the besieged slums.

Essentially Assad and Putin were carrying out the same strategy that was used in 1999 against the people of Grozny in Chechnya, almost to the last detail. Putin had leaflets dropped on the city announcing a safe corridor for civilians just as was the case in East Aleppo. And as they began leaving in trucks, the Russian air force bombed them. That is probably one of the reasons the people in East Aleppo decided to take their chances on staying put.

And those that stayed put had to face the same kind of criminal attacks that the Chechens faced in 1999:

At least 10 explosions devastated a downtown market and maternity hospital in Grozny, Chechnya, on Thursday evening, according to accounts from the breakaway Russian republic.

The explosions reportedly killed scores of people and injured hundreds more in a scene of panic and horror. Chechen officials told The Associated Press that at least 118 people died and more than 400 were injured, although the number could not be confirmed.

Ultimately, the Chechens could not withstand such attacks and a puppet government was installed that rules in mafia style to this day.

Aleppo has been a microcosm of the war in Syria with seemingly unresolvable contradictions. In 2012, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the legendary communist opponent of Baathist misrule who was imprisoned for 16 years for the crime of writing critiques of the regime, touched upon some of these contradictions in an article titled “Aleppo: a tale of three cities”.

The first two Aleppos were in the regime controlled western part of the city and the third was in the east that has proven indomitable up to this point, about which Saleh noted:

The third Aleppo, the one now in open revolt, started from the rural parts and from the most marginalized slums: Salahuddin, Alsakhur, Alklaseh, Bab Alhadid, Al Shaar, Al Zabadieh…. As if these neighborhoods had retained their spirit and personality while the major districts had become devoid of them, with the state having sizable presence, capital and domesticated religiosity.

When it comes to the spirit and personality of a city, the regime exhausts itself trying to eliminate them and pursue their ghosts. When it feels endangered, it kills. It has already killed Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and nothing will deter it from killing Aleppo if it could. If left alive, this wild monster will kill all of Syria.

I remember when the better-off parts of Aleppo were reported to be disturbed by what they saw as revolutionary invaders from the “rural parts”. Edward Dark, who washed his hands of the revolution when it proved too crude and unruly, could barely contain his disgust with the riffraff. In a 2013 article titled “How We Lost the Syrian Revolution”, he accused them of betraying the original goals of the revolution:

They were the underprivileged rural class who took up arms and stormed the city, and they were out for revenge against the perceived injustices of years past. Their motivation wasn’t like ours, it was not to seek freedom, democracy or justice for the entire nation, it was simply unbridled hatred and vengeance for themselves.

Extremist and sectarian in nature, they made no secret that they thought us city folk in Aleppo, all of us, regime stooges and sympathizers, and that our lives and property were forfeit as far as they were concerned.

Using a pseudonym, a young educated Aleppoite who left Syria, echoed Dark’s complaints in a Vanity Fair article from July 2015 :

But most of Aleppo regarded the Arab Spring with indifference. When the revolution broke out in earnest later that year, much of the city distanced itself from the turbulence. Demonstrations remained confined mostly to slums like Al-Saladin, Bustan Al-Qasr, and Al-Marijah. Protests were brief, with demonstrators chanting before running from the security forces.

In Aleppo, the revolution gives the impression that it is a revolt of the poor. When rebel groups from the northern countryside pushed towards the city, these slums were the first that welcomed them, unlike the richer neighborhoods, which, instead, remained in the hands of the regime.

Despite this, the author captures the spirit of solidarity that exists in the slums:

The Syrian air force has a habit of following their first barrel bomb with a second. People say this is to kill first responders. (The government still denies that it uses barrel bombs.)

Despite this, the crowd did not run away. They dug in the rubble with their bare hands—old men, Civil Defense volunteers, and militants alike—all except the media activists shooting video. When they found a victim, they gathered to help snatch them out, screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they did. Once they laid the victim in an ambulance, they began to dig again.

“If you see a body lying down, are you going to hesitate? Even when you know that if you stop to move it away, the sniper is going to make them two?,” a shopkeeper in the Al-Qasr neighborhood once asked me. “No! Your conscience wouldn’t let you walk away.”

Steps away from the scene, neighbors thanked God for safety.

In the best of all possible worlds, Bashar al-Assad might have been less savage and less determined to turn the country into a sectarian battleground. He would have actually protected his own class interests by stepping down and allowing some rich Sunni to take his place in the same way that the English-speaking ruling class of South Africa persuaded or coerced the Afrikaners to allow Nelson Mandela to become president.

This would have allowed the democratic opposition to organize itself into an effective movement capable of convincing people like the better-off Aleppoites to make common cause with the rural poor. Clearly, the university students were in the vanguard of the protests and most educated and professional Syrians would have preferred to live in a country where you didn’t have to worry if a loved one was going to be tortured or killed just for demanding change.

But Assad was a master strategist understood in narrow terms. He polarized the country along Sunni and non-Sunni lines and militarized the conflict so that those that had access to money and arms could dominate the opposition. If you had co-thinkers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, you could rely on them for support even if they had no interest whatsoever in democracy or socialism—god forbid.

The net effect of all this was to give added weight to Islamist militias in East Aleppo, including al-Nusra that was critical to the breaking of the siege. It was their suicide bombers that were critical in storming the Ramosa military base. Speaking of al-Nusra suicide bombing, it is worth mentioning that it bears little resemblance to ISIS terrorism. The targets are always military as a search in Google would reveal:

Aleppo: Jabhat Al-Nusra Suicide Bombing Leads to Fierce Clashes in the North (March 2015)

A Turkish suicide bomber from the Syrian Al-Qaeda group “Jabhat Al-Nusra” attempted to drive his vehicle into a National Defense Forces barricade at the village of Deir Zeitoun in northern Aleppo; however, the vehicle was allegedly destroyed before it could reach its destination, according to a military source.

The suicide bomber was identified by Jabhat Al-Nusra social media pages as “’Usama Al-Turki” – a Turkish “Mujahid” carrying out his “martyrdom” operation for the militant group’s offensive that directly followed his death on Monday night.

Syria’s Nusra Front stages deadly suicide bombing in Aleppo (July 2015)

A suicide bomber from Syria’s al Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front blew himself up in a Syrian army outpost in a contested neighborhood in the divided northern city of Aleppo and killed at least 25 soldiers and allied militia and injured scores, a monitor said.

For the past year or so, there has been a rapprochement between the USA and Russia over the need to prioritize attacks on ISIS in Syria even to the point of the Pentagon having demanded that rebels sign a contract agreeing that any arms they receive will only be used against ISIS and not the Baathist military.

Over the past few months, Russia has escalated its demands. It insists that the rebels separate themselves physically from al-Nusra so that its bombers can destroy the group and presumably any civilian that backs it. In other words, Grozny deux. Consider what this would have meant for East Aleppo. To start with, if it was risky for civilians to exit the slums, what would have happened to anybody considered a fighter? Which for all practical purposes would have meant men between the ages of 16 and 60. And those that remained behind? If you consider what has happened in Aleppo over the past 5 years, the results would have been horrific.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. Without a doubt, al-Nusra and probably most of the militias that defended East Aleppo over the past five years would seek to impose their vision of an Islamic society. But  we can all agree that it would be a step forward if it allowed the population relief from barrel bombs, Russian missiles and the various militias intent on killing anybody who dares to oppose Bashar al-Assad. Well, maybe not Patrick Cockburn or Seymour Hersh who must be wearing sackcloth and ashes since the recent turn of events.

When asked for what he saw as a solution to the Syrian misery, Yassin al-Haj Saleh offered the following. Needless to say, a precondition for it taking place is an end to the war and the sectarian impasse that the demon of Damascus created:

One could think of a historical compromise that ends the war, guarantees full withdrawal of foreign forces, and is the basis of a wholly different political landscape in the country. A sustainable solution can only be built on a new political majority. This cannot be achieved through facing Da’esh alone or the regime alone. A new Syrian majority requires a substantial political change that is impossible to envisage without putting a full-stop to the rule of the Assad dynasty that has been in power for 45 years, a dynasty responsible for two big wars in the country: 1979-1982 and 2011-…

This change is the political and ethical precondition for a war against Da’esh with the broad participation of Syrians. The global powers have so far been putting the cart before the horse by targeting Da’esh only, ignoring the root cause of the militarisation, radicalisation, and sectarianisation that has occurred over the past five years, namely the Assad regime. This is a short-sighted and failing policy, not to mention unethical. It is a prescription for an endless war.

The new Syria could be built on a number of essential principles: decentralisation; thinking of different ethnic, religious and confessional communities as equal constituent communities; full equality among individual citizens (Arabs, Kurds and others; Muslims, Christians and others; Sunnis, Alawites and others; religious, secular and others). It is not acceptable to talk about Syria as a secular state, as the Vienna document of 30 October 2015 states, when the same document says nothing about justice and accountability, and avoids the word democracy. Lecturing about secularism reminds one of the worst traits of the colonial discourse.

What a terrible shame that so many on the left, including Jill Stein I am sad to admit, were indoctrinated by the writings of Patrick Cockburn and Seymour Hersh, et al without ever having the opportunity or the desire to track down the writings of a Syrian revolutionary anti-capitalist.

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