Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 23, 2016

Marx and the Russian Revolution

Filed under: Academia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm


Dear Professor Peter E. Gordon,

3 years ago in a New Republic review of Jonathan Sperber’s bio of Karl Marx you wrote:

It is sobering to recall that throughout his life Marx looked upon Imperial Russia as the most reactionary state in all of Europe. The outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control.

Today you reviewed another Marx biography in the NY Times, this time by Gareth Stedman Jones, that has a different take on Marx and the Russian Revolution:

After 1870, however, Marx relaxed these strictures, in part because the failure of the Paris Commune left him dismayed at the prospects for a Communist revolution in the West. This change of perspective brought a new openness to the possibility of revolution in Russia and the non-European world. In 1881, Marx answered a query from Vera Zasulich, a Russian noblewoman and revolutionary living in exile in Geneva. Pressed to explain his views on the Russian village commune, Marx agonized over his response — his letter went through no fewer than four drafts. Though still insisting that the isolation of the village commune was a weakness, he granted that the historical inevitability he had once discerned in the process of industrialization was “expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe”.

Perhaps in the period between the two reviews you had a chance to read Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Revolution”. If so, I commend you.

I suppose we long-time Marxists who have risked arrest and worse for our beliefs can be grateful that the review was not written by someone like Ronald Radosh, now that the book review section is no longer edited by neocon Sam Tanenhaus.

But I find it hard to believe that Stedman Jones has “written the definitive biography of Marx for our time.” You do allow that “Stedman Jones is not always sympathetic to his subject.” Well, that goes without saying. He is on record as stating that Marx’s last important work was the German Ideology, which strikes me as preposterous. You certainly wouldn’t agree with that, I hope.

It is also a bit difficult to figure out whether you are speaking for yourself or Stedman Jones when you write: “In his early writings and well through the 1860s, Marx propounded a theory of history that extolled the heroic achievements of the bourgeoisie as the collective agent of global change.”

Where did you get the idea that Marx thought the bourgeoisie was “heroic”? In fact, he got off that tack just two years after the Communist Manifesto was written, arguably the only work where the term “heroic bourgeoisie” might be applied even if inaccurately. Perhaps you had in mind what Marx wrote in the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.” I suppose it is a bit easy to confuse the terms “heroic” and “revolutionary” but Marx was referring primarily to the overthrow of feudal social relations rather than, for example, French workers defending the Paris Commune.

Returning to the question of what Marx thought only two years after the Manifesto, I would refer you to the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. Although it was written in March 1850, it looks back at 1848 as a year of bourgeois vacillation if not open counter-revolution:

We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true. It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself. (emphasis added)

Finally, returning to the Russian question, I am afraid your last paragraph lacks clarity:

Just a year before his death and gravely ill, Marx wrote with Engels a short preface to the Russian edition of the ‘Manifesto.’ It entertained the prospect that the common ownership system in the Russian village might serve as “the starting point for a communist development.” Three and a half decades later, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and by the late 1920s the government commenced its brutal collectivization of agriculture. Like all intellectual legacies, Marx’s work remains open to new interpretation. But it seems clear that the man himself would never have accepted the inhumanity undertaken in his name.

One cannot be sure whether you are drawing an equation between Marx’s hopes for the rural communes and Stalin’s forced collectivization. If so, you are entirely mistaken. Marx saw a peasant-led revolution as merely the first step in a European wide revolution that would have a more proletarian character in the industrialized West while Stalin collectivized agriculture as part of “socialism in one country”, a project 180 degrees opposed to what Marx discussed with Vera Zasulich.

I hope this helps.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism list

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.


There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

October 21, 2016

The numbers game in East Aleppo

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm


Last night I attended a panel discussion on the siege of East Aleppo that left me depressed and angry, especially as its participants spelled out the terrible beating that hospitals are taking. The event started with a video narrated by Dr. Hatem who is the Director of the Independent Doctor’s Association’s Children’s Hospital. It is not easy to look at the footage of wounded children whose only offense was being forced to live in a city that Assad deemed filled with terrorists. It gave me the same sinking feeling I used to get when I worked at the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital in the 1980s. When you see a 3-year old kid walking around with a medication bag attached to his or her arm, you wonder how anybody can believe in god. After watching this video about Russian and Baathist atrocities, you can easily end up believing in the existence of Satan.

Now living in the USA, Dr. Abdulaziz spoke about his experiences working as a pediatrician in East Aleppo where the day begins at 7am and ends at 9pm. Doctors not only have to cope with shortages of medication and supplies, they anxiously await the next Russian bunker-buster bomb that can penetrate into a building’s basement, where all medical facilities operate now.

This video conveys the kind of information that was provided by the speakers:

With all of this weighing heavily on my mind this morning, I probably should have not read Pepe Escobar’s article in today’s Counterpunch that argued about the need to throw caution to the wind in the siege of Aleppo since “no more than 30,000 or 40,000 out of an initial population of 300,000” are living there. And since all the rebels in East Aleppo are jihadists, Escobar urges that the final assault on East Aleppo become “hardcore” as if he is describing a Metallica concert rather than blowing up pediatric hospitals:

The SAA, once again, is tremendously overextended. Thus, the method to reconquer East Aleppo is indeed hardcore. There is a humanitarian crisis. There is collateral damage. And this is only the beginning. Because sooner or later the SAA, supported by Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias, will have to reconquer East Aleppo with boots on the ground as well – supported by Russian fighter jets.

Would it matter to Escobar if there were 300,000 to 400,000 people living in East Aleppo rather than 1/10th that number? Probably not. This is a guy who would probably be okay with killing 3 to 4 million if it advanced the cause of the BRICS or whatever the fuck ideology this mutt believes in. It certainly isn’t socialism.

But how did that 30,000 to 40,000 number come up in the first place? Even Martin Chulov, who has written useful reports on Syria, accepted that number as a given in a Guardian article: “Those who remain in eastern Aleppo, roughly 40,000 from a prewar population estimated at about a million, have been without electricity or running water for more than a year.” I get how you can ascertain whether there is electricity or running water but was a census taker going door to door to collect such data?

Moon of Alabama, a website that has the same indifference to human suffering as Escobar, makes a point about population reduction as well:

In other siege areas where the rebels gave up to the Syrian government the numbers of people coming out of them were much smaller than the original inhabitants. The numbers were also smaller than all prior estimates. Daraya, near Damascus, originally had some 80,000 inhabitants. The numbers of besieged people in Daraya the UN had given were variously between several ten-thousands and down to 8,000. When the evacuation of Daraya started the Syrian army estimated that 800-1,200 fighters and 4,000 civilians would come out. In the end the numbers of leaving fighters was some 600-700 and less than 2,000 civilians turned up to leave. The area was searched and all had left.

Maybe the best thing would be to rely on the word of Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who surely would agree with Escobar and MofA on the paltry numbers of people living in East Aleppo. As it happens, Churkin sees it differently. On the inimical RT.com, which surely is as reliable as Escobar and MofA, Churkin is quoted on the numbers game: “Over 200,000 residents of Aleppo are hostages of the Al-Nusra Front and groups allied with it.” Now if you can’t believe the Russian Ambassador to the UN, who can you believe?


October 20, 2016

Eric Draitser’s mea culpa

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

One cannot exactly be sure why Eric Draitser wrote an article titled “Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence” but it probably marks the first acknowledgement that there are people who oppose the pro-Assad articles that he, Mike Whitney, Pepe Escobar, John Wight, Andre Vltchek, Diana Johnstone, Rick Sterling, Gary Leupp, Jeff Mackler, Paul Larudee, Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett and others have been writing for the past 5 years.

In a refreshing break from the “Assad or the country burns” mentality of the ultra-Baathist stance of someone like Bartlett or Sterling, Draitser issues a mea culpa:

But what does it mean to oppose the war? Does it mean that we should be opposing just Russian and Syrian bombs being dropped? Does it mean that only US-Saudi-Turkey-Israeli supplied weapons are doing the killing? Sadly, these too are not rhetorical questions as so many on the Left, including many self-described anti-imperialists, have positioned themselves as hawks in a war that has utterly devastated the country. It seems that many, myself included up to a point, have gotten so enveloped in the embrace of partisanship in this war that we have forgotten that our responsibility is to the people of Syria and to peace and justice.

If you’re supportive of Assad then it’s a certainty that you’ve chosen to ignore or downplay the horrific violence of the bombings, the brutality of the torture chambers, and other unspeakable atrocities (I admit that I have often strayed too far into the latter) out of a desire to uphold the nominally anti-imperialist position.

And how about the refugees? I’ve seen the fascist talking points spouted by many fake “anti-imperialists” who with one breath proclaim their commitment to peace and justice, and with another demonize and scapegoat Syrian refugees whose politics don’t align with the pro-Assad position. Words like “traitors,” “cowards,” and “terrorists,” are shamefully applied to ordinary Syrians fleeing to Europe and elsewhere in hopes of saving their families. Indeed, it is precisely this narrative that is at the core of the white supremacist, fascist ideology that underlies a significant amount of the support base for Assad and his allies (see David Duke, David Icke, Alexander Dugin, Brother Nathanel, Alex Jones, Mimi al-Laham, Ken O’Keefe, and on and on and on). I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true, and too many of the pro-Assad camp have willfully ignored this fundamental point.

I ask these questions as someone who took a firmly pro-Assad position from the very beginning, someone who felt (as I, and many others, still do) that Syria, like Libya, was a victim of US-NATO-GCC-Israel imperialism and that, as such, it should be defended. And while I still uphold that resistance, I also have enough humility to know that, in doing so, I abandoned other core beliefs such as defense of ALL oppressed people, including the ones with politics I reject.

The questions alluded to in the paragraph immediately above are as follows:

  • Were this the 1980s one wonders whether they’d be saying the same things about the “revolutionary” contras in Central America who, like the so-called rebels in Syria, were also backed with US weapons, money, and training. How about the mujahideen in Afghanistan?
  • And what about those foreign fighters fleeing Syria? Are they revolutionaries when they go back to Libya and engage in human trafficking for profit? Or to Chechnya to smuggle Afghan heroin? Or to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else?
  • What will you be doing when Hillary’s fire burns and cauldron bubbles? Will you continue to ignore the material reality of this war in favor of the chimera of a revolution betrayed? Put simply: will you be supporting US imperialism in the name of the “revolution”?

As it happens, I am pretty well qualified to answer the first question about the contras since I was the president of the board of Tecnica that supplied volunteers to Nicaragua including the engineer who supervised the repair of the electrical grid that contras were continuously blowing up. After another engineer named Ben Linder was murdered by contras in 1987 while working on a small-scale hydroelectric dam in northern Nicaragua that was a Tecnica-sponsored project, our volunteers took over for Ben after his death. So I know a thing or two about opposing the contras.

However, there is a big difference between the Nicaraguan contras and the FSA. The contras were trying to return Somoza type rule to Nicaragua while the FSA was trying to overthrow Syria’s Somoza. I choose my words carefully here since the crony capitalism of Bashar al-Assad has much in common with Somoza’s dictatorship in which connections to the dictatorship could have enormous economic rewards.

Unfortunately, Draitser has a very poor grasp of class relations inside Syria and like many of his cohorts prefers to write about the conflict between hegemonic blocs rather than about Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who controlled 60 percent of the Syrian economy and bled dry the nation’s poor workers and farmers just as Somoza’s cronies did in Nicaragua. It was the greed of men like Makhlouf that caused the uprising not a Western plot to undermine the BRICS–his primary worry.

Speaking of the BRICS, Draitser has called attention to the “destabilization of the ANC-led government in South Africa” that “continues as political forces align to remove President Jacob Zuma” in a Global Research article (where else?). If “stability” means gunning down striking workers in Marikana, I am all for “destabilization”. Indeed, you might as well ask if the striking workers were like the Nicaragua contras since apparently any challenge to oligarchies within the BRICS hegemonic bloc is tantamount to supporting imperialism. Does this kind of Manicheanism have anything to do with Marxism? With the zero engagement with class relations in the articles of people like Mike Whitney et al, apparently not.

In terms of “foreign fighters fleeing Syria”, I suppose this is a reference to ISIS since by all accounts every other armed group is made up of people born and raised in Syria. Oh, just to clarify. I exclude the government’s armed groups that now consists of Hizbollah from Lebanon, Iranians, Russians, Iraqis Shia militias and impoverished Afghans who became mercenaries out of desperation.

This sort of baiting question is what you might expect from someone like Draitser who obviously has a need to make an amalgam between ISIS, al-Qaeda and the admittedly wide range of rebels in Syria who, excluding the FSA, to one degree or another incorporate Islamist politics. Speaking of the FSA, Draitser has referred to it as being composed of “terrorist elements” so perhaps it is only logical that he lumps it in with ISIS. I should add that except for this rather unsubstantiated claim, he has never written anything about the FSA or the wide range of unarmed groups that remain in the country fighting for democracy and social justice. That would only interfere with his geopolitical chess game narrative that reduces them to pawns.

Finally, on the question of American imperialism and “regime change”. Like Ashley Smith, I am opposed to American intervention period, which includes no-fly zones. I am opposed to Western air attacks in Syria, Yugoslavia, and Iraq. Furthermore, I would have even been opposed to them in Germany during WWII, no matter that Draitser’s co-thinker John Wight supported barrel bombing as the moral equivalent of bombing Dresden–god help us.

My opposition to aerial bombing and US military boots on the ground flows from my analysis of American imperialism that remains one of my lingering Trotskyist influences. James P. Cannon and other SWP leaders went to prison in 1941 for opposing WWII and their example still inspires me. Beyond that, I view bombing as a war crime in and of itself as I pointed out in an article about Sven Lindqvist’s “A History of Bombing”. Lindqvist wrote:

The first person to step forward and openly acknowledge what the others were hiding was the Italian Giulio Douhet. He arrived as a young cadet in Torino, the capital of the Italian auto industry, and wrote his first book on the military use of motor vehicles (1902). In 1910 he published a book on the problems of the air force, and in 1912 he was appointed chief of the newly formed air squadron in Torino. The next year he and Gianni Caproni constructed the first heavy bomber, a tri-engine monster created to make bombardment from the air the dominant form of attack.

When the World War broke out, Douhet became famous for his criticism of the way the war was conducted and his impassioned pleading for the use of the heavy bomber. The generals were enraged, and Douhet was relieved of his post and court-martialed.

Following the Italian brass, I advocate that any head of state that uses aerial bombardment be put in prison. This includes Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. It also includes Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton if she uses American air power to enforce a NFZ.

Let me wrap up with some questions to Eric Draitser:

  1. After Assad bombed a Douma marketplace in August 2015 that resulted in the death of more than 100 civilians, you wrote an article casting doubt on the Syrian dictatorship’s culpability.  You pose an “alternative theory”, namely that “the Syrian military carried out an airstrike in the rebel stronghold town of Douma, and that the strike hit its target, a building housing a terrorist faction long since known to be in the city.” If the target was a building where a terrorist faction hung out sort of like Hamas in Gaza, how do you explain the photographs and video below? If there was pinpoint targeting, it must be same kind the IDF uses in Gaza.

  1. As someone who claims that the rebels gassed themselves in East Ghouta as a false flag operation to provoke regime change, how do you explain the failure of such cold-bloodedly devilish counter-revolutionaries to launch Sarin gas attacks on Damascus or any other government-controlled areas henceforth? These are obviously powerful weapons so why have they failed to exploit them? Are they afraid of being denounced by Vanessa Beeley?
  2. Finally, in August 2013 you wrote an article linking the “red line” rhetoric over the Sarin gas attacks as the opening salvo of a proxy war on Iran. Surely, you have become aware that at exactly the time that Obama was warning Assad about an intervention, he was in the first stages of a rapprochement with Iran. In fact, despite your frequent warnings about regime change, even as late as August 2016, there is ample evidence that this was never Obama’s intention as the NY Times reported on October 22nd 2013, just when the “red lines” rhetoric had fooled everybody writing for Counterpunch or Global Research except maybe me. The Times article stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

So my question is why you continue to write articles about “regime change” after nearly six years of Assad’s scorched earth policies that goes unanswered by the USA. Isn’t it possible that Obama had simply acted on the recommendation of the RAND corporation that “Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests”?

October 18, 2016

A letter to a Bard College Center for Environmental Policy professor

Filed under: bard college,Ecology — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

Dear Gidon Eshel,

Let me start off by introducing myself. I graduated Bard College in 1965 and blog as the Unrepentant Marxist. In that capacity, I have written 91 articles on ecology since 1991 (just a coincidence) mostly triggered by a talk that Joel Kovel gave at the Brecht Forum in NYC a few years earlier where he likened capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. Does the name Kovel ring a bell? He used to teach environmental studies at Bard College until Leon Botstein fired him in 2009 for his anti-Zionist writings.

When I am not writing about politics, I review films—mostly documentaries such as Leo DeCaprio’s “Before the Flood” that I saw at a press screening last night. Among the Green activists and thinkers he spoke to in the course of his travels around the world was you. In making the case for eating less beef, you raised very important questions about the impact cattle have on climate change both through the clearing of forests for grazing, the discharge of methane and the unconscionable waste of water that raising such animals requires.

When I saw you identified as a Bard professor, a lot of memories I have had about the institution rose to the surface like the ‘madeleine moment’ in Proust. To start off, I could not help but remember the first encounter I had with Botstein a few years before I got on the Internet and that was conducted by snail mail. When I discovered that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees, I reminded Botstein that he had been stumping for aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the New Republic, in contradiction if you will to the values Bard College stood for. I asked Botstein how he could defend the values of a liberal arts education when Peretz called for the funding of counter-revolutionaries who burned schoolhouses to the ground in Nicaragua.

You may or may not be aware that the Sandinista revolution to a large extent was fueled by the displacement of small farmers from their land, which was to be used instead for cattle ranching as Robert G. Williams pointed out in “Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America”. This occurred in places like Matiguas, a “municipo” of Matagalpas where some 30 percent of the land had been covered by forests, but by 1976 deforestation had leveled 95 percent of the land. Where 8 percent of the land had been used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later. All that dispossession so that fast food restaurants could be supplied.

Speaking of Peretz and the Bard College board of trustees, I see that he remains a life trustee. I suppose being a life trustee goes hand in hand with Botstein being a president-for-life. I have no idea what Peretz brings to the table except deep pockets since it is evident that as New Republic publisher/editor, he had the same kind of understanding of ecological issues as the Koch brothers who were lambasted in DeCaprio’s film. He allowed contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook to write articles that were a slap in the face not only to Leo DeCaprio but professors like you who were hired out of the funds that Peretz coughed up. In many ways Easterbrook’s global warming skepticism was far more harmful than Rush Limbaugh’s since he carried the imprimatur of a liberal magazine–liberal at least by reputation. For example, there was a cover story in the May 1998 New Republic by Easterbrook that included this priceless observation:

So far, greenhouse gas emissions have not caused temperatures to increase as much as scientists and their computer models predicted. Over the course of the twentieth century, the mean global temperature has risen only about one degree Fahrenheit–not a number worth losing any sleep over.

As it happens, Peretz is fairly typical of the people Botstein has added to the board who combine liberal and even Green pretensions with a record that contradicts the values of your department. Like Peretz, Stewart Resnick is a life trustee and also like Peretz has the kind of deep pockets that have allowed Botstein to expand Bard College to the point that it is no longer recognizable to me as a graduate of the little red whorehouse on the Hudson as Walter Winchell once put it. The Resnicks put up the funding for a new science laboratories building but that funding was only made possible by Stewart Resnick’s plundering of the poor and the vulnerable. Of course, that goes with the territory as recent research on how slavery benefited Ivy League schools.

I would refer you to a Mother Jones article written in August about the Resnicks that should be required reading for you and everybody else in your department. It is titled “Meet The California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined” and begins:

Rafaela Tijerina first met la señora at a school in the town of Lost Hills, deep in the farm country of California’s Central Valley. They were both there for a school board meeting, and the superintendent had failed to show up. Tijerina, a 74-year-old former cotton picker and veteran school board member, apologized for the superintendent—he must have had another important meeting—and for the fact that her own voice was faint; she had cancer. “Oh no, you talk great,” the woman replied with a warm smile, before she began handing out copies of her book, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business. “To my friend with the sweet voice,” she wrote inside Tijerina’s copy.

It was only later that Tijerina realized the woman owned the almond groves where Tijerina’s husband worked as a pruner. Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation’s largest flower delivery service; Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water; Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand; Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties; and Wonderful Pistachios, with its “Get Crackin'” ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world’s biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America’s second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.

The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what’s used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.

Finally, there is George Soros who while not being a board member (his ex-wife of course is) symbolizes more than anybody on the planet the dichotomy between professed values and action. I am sure you are aware that his millions were critical in transforming Bard College into what it is today, a major institution with satellites across the world carrying the Bard brand name.

As it happens, Soros is demonized by the rightwing press for his funding of the Tides Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund but as is the case with the Resnicks, a lot of the money comes through investments totally at odds with the stated values of such groups.

For example, the Guardian reported on August 19, 2015 that Soros is pumping money into coal companies:

Billionaire climate philanthropist George Soros invested more than $2m (£1.3m) in struggling coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal in recent months, despite having once called the fuel “lethal” to the climate.

Filings with the Securities and Exchange commission show that between April and June this year Soros Fund Management (SFM) bought more than 1m shares in Peabody ($2.25m), the world’s largest private coal company, and 500,000 shares in Arch ($188,000).

The firm, which Soros chairs, bought the large stakes for bargain prices. Peabody and Arch are giants of the US coal sector but have suffered massive declines in recent years, losing more than 98% of their value. SFM made a similar move in 2014 by investing $234.4m in coal and gas company Consol. Those shares were sold off after a few months as gas prices continued to fall.

Soros is not only into coal. He is also apparently into fracking as the Huffington Post reported on November 3, 2014:

One of the world’s legendary investors is upping his bet on Argentina’s shale oil and gas industry in a show of confidence for shale production in South America’s largest unconventional prize — and a big boost for both supermajors and smaller players making big waves in the heart of new discovery areas.

George Soros has doubled his stake in YPF SA, the state-owned oil company in Argentina, which sits atop some of the world’s largest shale oil and gas resources, and is about to get even larger following a new discovery over the last couple of weeks of a second key shale play.

Argentina holds an estimated 27 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 802 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas, much of it located in the Vaca Muerta, an enormous shale formation in the Neuquen basin — the second-largest shale gas deposit and the fourth-largest shale oil deposit in the world.

As you may or may not be aware, DeCaprio weaves in some interesting information into his documentary about the very fine film he made last year called “The Revenant”. He thought it was important to make a film that showed the despoliation of nature carried out by those who colonized North America. You can see him and the director studying a 19th century photograph of a small mountain of pelts with a grinning hunter in front of it, about which he commented that these men took no moral responsibility for the world that they would leave their descendants.

It turns out that “The Revenant” ran into some major problems in filming on location in northern Canada since there had been no snow to speak of in an unseasonably warm winter. (Today in NYC the temperature will be going up to 85.) So they had to pick up the cameras and the rest of the gear and fly 9000 miles to Argentina where deep snow could be found. Who knows? Maybe by the time YPF SA gets finished, that snow will be history as well.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

October 17, 2016

Last Statement to Socialist Alternative Leadership

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

This document was the final official communication between myself and members of the Socialist Alternative Executive Committee before the Austin branch formally voted to split from the formation an…

Source: Last Statement to Socialist Alternative Leadership

October 16, 2016

Saudi Arabia, Syria and the smoking gun

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:48 pm

For those on the left who have taken up the cause of Bashar al-Assad’s survival, the universal tactic is to make the rebels seem so awful that he becomes a “lesser evil” by comparison in the same way that Hillary Clinton is in the 2016 elections. And for that tactic to succeed, it is essential to play up the alleged Saudi and CIA connections to the Syrian rebels and downplay to the vanishing point any of the goals put forward by the overwhelmingly peaceful and democratic opposition of early 2011. Most of all, you have to search for that secret document that proves once and for all that the Syrian revolution was no revolution at all and merely a proxy war by Washington and its Wahhabi allies against a secular state that despite its authoritarian tendencies was far better than al-Qaeda or ISIS. Wikileaks becomes a primary resource for the search for a smoking gun, the latest instance of which is a 2014 Hillary Clinton email that was cited by both Ben Norton and Patrick Cockburn.

Norton’s Salon.com article is titled “Leaked Hillary Clinton emails show U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported ISIS”. He writes:

A recently leaked 2014 email from Hillary Clinton acknowledges, citing Western intelligence sources, that the U.S.-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported ISIS.

“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” the document states.

This adds to a growing body of evidence that theocratic Gulf monarchies have helped fuel the surge of extremist groups throughout the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Cockburn writes an article titled “We finally know what Hillary Clinton knew all along – US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding Isis” for The Independent, referring to the same email:

It is fortunate for Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the furore over the sexual antics of Donald Trump is preventing much attention being given to the latest batch of leaked emails to and from Hillary Clinton. Most fascinating of these is what reads like a US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, on the appropriate US response to the rapid advance of Isis forces, which were then sweeping through northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The memo says: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.” This was evidently received wisdom in the upper ranks of the US government, but never openly admitted because to it was held that to antagonise Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey and Pakistan would fatally undermine US power in the Middle East and South Asia.

Here’s what can be established. An email from John Podesta to Clinton dated August 27, 2014 replied to her earlier email with a one-liner: “Syria elements are vexing”. You can read the entire thread on Wikileaks with its “smoking gun”, a State Department memo stating that “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.”

Now if you are going to come up with smoking guns, you might as well quote the Vice President of the USA who not only said the same thing as the August 2014 email but openly at a Harvard University meeting that Norton referred to in his article: “They [Turkey and Saudi Arabia] were so determined to take down” Assad that they “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaida, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”

Now I wouldn’t put much stock in anything Biden says, especially when he refers to al-Nusra and al-Qaeda as independent entities. This is like referring to ISIS and the Islamic State or Louis Proyect and the Unrepentant Marxist. But the more important question is whether the words coming out of his mouth or in the Podesta-Clinton email exchange truly represent the connections between Saudi Arabia and either ISIS or al-Nusra. It is entirely possible that both Biden and the State Department memo quoted in the email are nonsense.

To start with, there is an important question that seems to be of little interest to either Norton or Cockburn. Does the Saudi royal family support the goals of ISIS or al-Nusra? Let’s take a look at al-Qaeda, the sponsor of al-Nusra.

In February 2006 al Qaeda organized an assault on a Saudi refinery that was thwarted by security forces. Al Qaeda issued a statement hailing the abortive attack: “With grace from God alone, hero mujahideen from the squadron of Sheikh Osama bin Laden succeeded today (Friday)…in penetrating a plant for refining oil and gas in the town of Abqaiq in the eastern part of the peninsula, and then allowed two car bombs in driven by two martyrdom seekers.” Six years later the campaign was continuing as the BBC reported:

Saudi Arabia’s continuing campaign against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism has enjoyed considerable success. The atmosphere in the country is noticeably more relaxed than it was a few years ago when the kingdom was buffeted by several major suicide bombings.

But the arrest earlier this month of eight men accused of plotting terror attacks in Riyadh and Jeddah is proof that the campaign is not over. As one Saudi newspaper editorial put it: “Renewed vigilance is required.”

Of the eight men arrested in the latest sweep, two were Saudis and the other six were Yemenis. There seems little doubt that the terror plot was hatched in Yemen.

So it doesn’t matter apparently that al-Qaeda not only calls for the overthrow of the Saudi government but acts on it. What about ISIS? Surely the Saudi state so committed to Wahhabist beliefs would support the Islamic State, even though the call for a caliphate involves the abolition of all Arab states run either by Sunnis or Shiites.

Like al-Qaeda, ISIS has declared the royal family to be infidels and has already launched armed attacks from within Iraq. You can read about the growing threat to the Saudi establishment by recruits to the Islamic State who are killing wantonly as the March 31, 2016 NY Times reported:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is so spooked by such attacks that it has begun constructing a six-hundred-mile wall on the border of Iraq just to keep out such jihadists as the Christian Science Monitor reported on January 15, 2015—just the sort of thing that would turn Donald Trump green with envy:

The main function of the barrier will be keeping out ISIS militants, who have stated that among their goals is an eventual takeover of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which lie deep inside Saudi territory, according to United Press International.

This past week, a commander and two guards on the Saudi-Iraq border were killed during an attack by Islamic State militants, the first direct ground assault by the group on the border.

“It is the first attack by Islamic State itself against Saudi Arabia and is a clear message after Saudi Arabia entered the international coalition against it,” Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, told Reuters.

But what really puts the cork in the barrel of the smoking gun is the all-important question of whether ISIS ever needed support from Saudi Arabia to begin with. It is common knowledge that the group seized weapons from those left behind by fleeing Iraqi soldiers as Amnesty International reported in December 2015. I invite you to read the entire report but if you don’t have the time or inclination, this snapshot should give you an idea of how ISIS armed itself with obviously no help from Saudi Arabia that sought nothing less than a wall of separation to keep the jihadists out.


Finally, there’s the question of financing. Was ISIS dependent on hand-outs from ultra-Wahhabist millionaires? Even if you accept (and you should) the obvious mutual hostility between the Saudi rulers and ISIS, should that rule out  the possibility that dissident Saudi millionaires were the main base of support for the “regime change” operation in Syria directed at Assad, the Islamic Republic in Iran and—who knows?—maybe Russia down the road?

The truth is that ISIS never needed a penny from wealthy Saudis or any other state in the region. In 2014 the RAND corporation reviewed 200 documents captured from ISIS and concluded that five percent of its revenues came from foreign donors. Mostly it relies on the following sources:

  • Proceeds from the occupation of territory (including control of banks, oil and gas reservoirs, taxation, extortion, and robbery of economic assets)
  • Kidnapping ransom
  • Material support provided by foreign fighters
  • Fundraising through modern communication networks

Wikipedia reports:

In mid-2014, Iraqi intelligence obtained information from an ISIL operative which revealed that the organisation had assets worth US$2 billion, making it the richest jihadist group in the world. About three-quarters of this sum is said to be represented by assets seized after the group captured Mosul in June 2014; this includes possibly up to US$429 million looted from Mosul’s central bank, along with additional millions and a large quantity of gold bullion stolen from a number of other banks in Mosul.

So that’s how ISIS became such a powerful factor in Iraq and Syria. It was not funded by the USA or Saudi Arabia or Qatar. It financed itself by exploiting Sunni grievances to the point where it was able to capture huge swaths of Iraqi territory and the wealth contained therein. Once it became the effective state in Sunni regions, it colonized Syria and began carrying out the same game plan. Unlike Iraq, there are militias in Syria that regarded it very early on as an enemy of their own project and sought to prevent it from getting a foothold. ISIS began slaughtering these fighters with their advance weaponry at the same time the Baathist air force was bombing them. Why people like Ben Norton or Patrick Cockburn would write such bullshit about ISIS and Syria is anybody’s guess, especially since they are effectively legitimizing the Baathist killing machine. Do they really believe that they are doing the job of an investigative journalist? Sadly, one of the greatest collateral damages of the nearly six-year war in Syria is the intellectual, moral and political decay of such men and women who have decided for reasons known only to them and the devils they worship the reason why.

October 14, 2016

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: drugs,Fascism,Film,Jewish question,prison — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

If there is any justification at this point for continuing a Netflix membership, it is the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s new documentary about volcanoes on October 28th, which will be opening the same day at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “Inside the Inferno” and produced by Netflix itself, it is echt Herzog and qualified on that basis alone for putting it on your must-see list.

The film is co-directed by Clive Oppenheimer who is one of the world’s leading volcanologists and a constant presence throughout the film as he visits villages near major active volcanoes around the world, including Vanuatu, a group of islands about 1000 miles east of northern Australia. Oppenheimer alternates with Herzog in interviewing village elders who maintain prescientific notions about spirits dwelling within the volcanoes. The co-directors have an uncanny ability to accept those beliefs in a respectful manner.

Speaking in terms of auteur theory, this documentary is obviously connected with Herzog’s major preoccupation—living at the edges of society and often in the face of some peril. If his “Grizzly Man” was an object lesson in getting too close to bears in the Alaskan wilderness, his latest is a reminder that scientists like Oppenheimer take as big a chance with their lives in their own pursuit.

In one of the more gripping scenes, we see the final moments of husband-and-wife volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as an avalanche of lava comes pouring off Mount Unzen in Japan toward them on June 3, 1991. Herzog took considerable risks in making the film himself, at one point filming on the precipice of an active volcano that erupted as the cameras rolled, thankfully beneath life-threatening levels. As you would expect, the cinematography is breathtaking. If there is anything that evokes Inferno, it is the roiling crimson flames in the bowels of an active volcano.

The good Werner Herzog relates to volcanologists in more or less the same manner as he did to the computer scientists in “Lo and Behold” that pioneered the Internet. His interest is less in how volcanoes came to be in scientific terms but how they feel about what they are doing. With his raspy voice and quizzical tone, he is perfectly suited to playing the role of an interlocutor seeking deeper wisdom about the human condition.

As a perfect complement to its dazzling cinematography, “Into the Inferno” features a perfectly matched soundtrack consisting mostly of liturgical chorale music, including from the Russian Orthodoxy. When you hear “Dies Irae” as lava pours down the side of a mountain, the hair on your arms will stand up.

In a perfect Herzogian moment, the crew goes to North Korea where they film military cadets marching and singing on their way to Mount Paektu, an object of veneration by the family dynasty as a base for the revolution. When Herzog asks a North Korean volcanologist in his pricelessly raspy voice about the significance of the volcano, he replies in what can only be described as a quasi-religious tribute to the rulers of this sad but intriguing nation. You can’t escape feeling that there is not much difference between him and the chieftains in Vanuatu.

In the press notes, there’s an exchange with the 74-year old director who shows no sign of slowing down. It is about as revealing a look into his artistic psyche that can be imagined.

You recently said of yourself, “I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything.” Given that you could have made a film about anything at this point in your career, why volcanoes?

There’s a long prehistory. In 1976, I made a film on La Soufrière, the volcano in the Caribbean that was about to explode. At that time I was not so interested in the volcano itself but in the attitude of one single poor farmer who had refused to be evacuated. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated but he stayed behind. He was somehow defiant and had a different attitude toward death. And then the second part of the prehistory is the film I made ten years ago, Encounters at the End of the World. I was in Antarctica and up on Mount Erebus and that’s where I ran into Clive Oppenheimer, and we became friends and kept talking that we should do a film about volcanoes. And also what pushed it a little bit was his book Eruptions That Shook the World. So it was step by step into this film.

What was the most interesting thing about volcanoes that you learned as you were making Into the Inferno?

Scientifically, that the atmosphere that we are breathing was created by volcanoes. As far as I understand, the earth’s atmosphere was methane and it changed into what we are breathing today because of volcanic activity.

The most surprising thing about volcanoes?

That they’re more unpredictable than I would admit. We were in some danger in a volcano in Indonesia, which exploded only a few days after we were filming there, and seven farmers were killed pretty much where we had had our camera.

How did you feel when you heard that that had happened just a week after you’d been there?

What can I say? I just knew we were lucky. When you are working with the camera you believe you are safe, as if the camera is a perfect shield against all sorts of mishaps.

When I got the press release for “Trezoros”, the Ladino word for treasures, I hesitated about getting a screener since I tend to avoid holocaust type films:

Imagine a vibrant community of people getting along for centuries – Christians, Jews, others, – until the onset of WW II. Even under the Italians, the Greek Jews of Kastoria enjoyed a simple life. However, once the Italians left and the Nazi’s took over, Kastoria’s Jews became victim to the same fate as many of their fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. Of the 1000 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazi’s, only 26 returned and it marked the end of this community. Director Larry Russo’s family was impacted by this and his is one of many stories in this film.

Thank goodness I overcame my doubts that were largely influenced by the Spielbergian idiom that such films, either narrative or documentary, usually adopt because of their manipulative predictability.

What makes “Trezoros” so exceptional is its ability to tell the story of how Jews and Christians lived in complete harmony in Kastoria, Greece in the years before fascism. Kastoria was a small city near the border with Albania that incorporated the ethos of the Ottoman Empire that left its stamp on Greece from the period of its rule from the mid-15th century to the formation of the modern Greek state in 1832. Despite its imperial grip on subject peoples, the Ottoman rulers were much less interested in imposing religious and cultural orthodoxy as was the case with the British or lesser European colonial powers. In practice this meant that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together in harmony as Mark Mazower pointed out in his “Salonica, City of Ghosts”.

Kastoria was virtually a pint-sized version of Salonica. Christians and Jews got along famously as the elderly Greek Orthodox citizens and Jewish survivors attested to director Larry Russo, who is descended from a Jewish family in Kastoria. The Jews of Kastoria were mostly shopkeepers or in the fur business, in other words the same kind of occupations they held in most of Europe with one difference, however. The Kastorian Jews came as a result of the Spanish expulsion during the Inquisition when they streamed eastward toward nations that were far more tolerant, especially those ruled by the Ottomans. These so-called Sephardic Jews did not speak Yiddish. Their native tongue was Ladino, a language close to Spanish that was written in Hebrew letters.

In a stunning display of vintage photographs and home movies that Russo dug up, we are brought back to Kastoria in its halcyon days. It brings Greece of the early 20th century alive in a way that I could not have dreamed possible. For example, we not only learn that Kastoria relied on a town crier, who happened to be a long-bearded Jew, but see him on his daily rounds. Amazing.

The harmony of Kastoria was broken by the rise of fascism but ironically not under Italian rule. Interviewees give the Italian fascist troops credit for not victimizing Jews. However, after Mussolini was overthrown, the Nazis took control of Greece including Kastoria. As this was the period following the Wannsee Conference with its “Final Solution”, it did not take long for the thousand Jews of Kastoria to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Among the survivors, we hear from brother and sister Beni Elias and his sister Lena Russo who is the director’s aunt. They speak with great dignity and emotion, not once forgetting how much they loved Kastoria.

“Trezoros” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and I recommend it highly.

Finally, there is “Incarcerating US”, a documentary about how the “war on drugs” has resulted in a massive expansion of the prison population. It is available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of leading edge documentaries and narrative films that makes them available at reduced rates to activist and grassroots groups. It can also be seen on VOD for $9.99 from the film’s website.

“Incarcerating US” would have the same audience as Ava Duvernay’s highly regarded “The Thirteenth” that premiered recently on Netflix. While her film is focused on the racism and economic exploitation inherent in the prison-industrial system, this one takes aim at the mandatory minimum sentences that were the legacy of a vain attempt to make America “drug-free”. As Richard Van Wickler, the astonishingly enlightened Superintendent of the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections, points out, the net effect of the crackdown is only to encourage more crime as was the case during Prohibition. Without a ban on alcohol, there would be no Al Capone. Without a ban on drugs, there would be no Mexican drug cartels nor heroin overdoses that have become an epidemic in the USA. And most of all, there would be no victims of 5-year and upwards mandatory minimum sentences such as Tracy Syphax, an African-American man whose story about imprisonment and eventual redemption speaks volumes about the insanity of our drug laws.

Directed by Regan Hines, whose extremely powerful film is his first, it benefits from a very astute cast of interviewees consisting of critics of the drug laws and their victims. Among the critics is Eric Sterling, who as a young lawyer helped to draft the mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s. So shocked was he by how they victimized casual users, he resolved to overturn the laws, one of the primary goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation that he founded in 1989. We also hear from Julie Stewart who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991.

On the FAMM website, Stewart describes how she decided to become an activist. In 1990, she was public affairs director at the Cato Institute (a libertarian outfit that unlike most on the right is an opponent of the draconian drug laws) when her brother was arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State. The website states: “He pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced by a judge to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but said he had no choice because his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress had passed.”

This essentially is what happened to my cousin Joel Proyect who spent close to five years in prison even though he never had been arrested ever before and even though he was the president of the Sullivan County Bar Association in August 1991, when the cops stormed the home he had built with his own hands in Parksville, NY. After he was sent to prison, I visited him on several occasions and used to keep up a steady correspondence. Here’s how the NY Times reported on his case nearly a year later:

NY Times, July 12, 1992
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story

SOUTH FALLSBURG, N.Y.— By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.


October 13, 2016

Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

The other day I got a FB message from a comrade in Pakistan:

which reminds me, comrade, i wanted to ask you about Timothy Snyder’s work and some related issues

i read your critique very carefully (or at least i hope i did), and i do have his book – i haven’t read it in its entirety, but im familiar with his main framework

my question mainly is along these lines:

if we are to come to grips with the legacy of Stalinism, how do we do it?

where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?

and can we sustain such a damning indictment, as communists, while still salvaging ANY progressive/radical/revolutionary/virtuous/politically-worthwhile elements from the Bolshevik experience and the soviet union’s history?

or is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

i remember a discussion with xxx at one point, where he was basically saying (unless i got him wrong) that he agrees with Snyder’s framework broadly and that we cannot underestimate the brutality of soviet domination of the ‘eastern bloc’

can you point the way to some sort of way to approach all this?

To start off, I should mention that I launched a Yahoo listserv called The Soviet Legacy that was devoted to discussing exactly such questions. The list withered on the vine mostly for the right reason–namely that people got tired of trying to figure out when and why things went sour in the USSR. In fact I created the mailing list to shunt such conversations off of the Marxism list where I try to emphasize current events. It is not that I am averse to discussing Soviet history, only averse to hearing the usual litany from sect members bent on foisting their analysis on the rest of us.

For a different approach, I’d recommend Tony McKenna’s new book on Stalin titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this year.

It benefits from a wide range of sources both left, center and right. For me, it was a real eye-opener since my understanding of Stalinism emerged out of a fairly narrow part of the political spectrum, namely Leon Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher who the American Trotskyist leader regarded as a kind of crypto-Stalinist despite his obvious Trotskyist sympathies.

In terms of Snyder, I have to confess that I have never read any of his books. Some people who I have a lot of respect for speak highly of “Bloodlands” but I doubt that I will ever find the time or motivation to read it even though it obviously has a lot of scholarly material on the Ukraine, a subject that like Syria is of interest to me. I make a point of reading everything that Snyder writes about Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, where he is a regular contributor, but tend to rely more on my own interpretation of the Euromaidan drawn from reporting in the bourgeois press and Marxists both inside and outside of Ukraine such as Chris Ford.

But let me hone in on your key question: “is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?”

This is probably the most complex question of the 20th century and one that piles contradiction upon contradiction as you begin to study the effect that the USSR had on world politics. For example, in the late 80s I was involved with a project called Tecnica that sent programmers and other skilled professionals and tradespeople to Nicaragua and then expanded into a program for Africa focused on the ANC, which was then in exile.

In the 1980s the USSR was supplying Nicaragua with most of the military aid it needed to fend off the contras who relied in turn on Reagan’s “legal” and illegal support network. Without such aid it is likely that the Sandinistas would have been ousted from power a lot sooner than 1991. That military aid helped the government defend clinics and schools that were designed to eliminate poverty in the countryside.

When the USSR began implementing “perestroika”, the first thing to go was solidarity with Nicaragua as I pointed out in an article I wrote about 20 years ago:

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

Analogously, when I traveled to Zambia in 1991 to consult with the ANC over the feasibility of Tecnica expanding into Africa, I was struck by the evidence of Soviet assistance to the liberation struggle that was mostly manifested by young members relating to our team about the education that they had received in Soviet colleges.

But in addition to the engineering and medical training they got there, it was obvious that they also got an education in class collaboration that facilitated the neoliberal turn of the ANC. So you get a bundle of contradictions. Soviet aid made it possible for apartheid to be abolished and for Jonah Savimbi’s contras to be defeated in Angola while at the same time it helped to consolidate a state power in South Africa that dispatches mostly Black cops to kill unarmed workers.

In the early 90s, the wing of the left that was most committed to “socialism from below” formulae saw the end of Communism (or Stalinism, if you prefer) to be an unqualified good. Susan Weissman wrote an article for Against the Current titled “The Russian Revolution Revisited” that epitomized this outlook:

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable. Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes. On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force. With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return. Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist? Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism. It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution. It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

I do not agree first of all that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist and find such comparisons invidious whether they come from a Marxist like Weismann or a liberal like Timothy Snyder. The key criterion is mode of production. Nazi Germany operated on the basis of a capitalism that required forced labor and totalitarian rule. In the 1930s the USSR had some of the same features but once WWII came to an end, many of the worst features of Stalinism began to decline and deepen further after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev was committed to eradicating the worst features of the system while maintaining its underlying distortions that were necessary to ensure bureaucratic privileges. Could anybody imagine a softer and kinder Nazism? I can’t.

Gorbachev hoped to go even further. He conceived of a Soviet state that would resemble the Scandinavian system even though he never really came to terms with how it was based on its integration into the world imperialist system as I tried to point out in a series of articles on Sweden.

Even though Perestroika was responsible for the sell-out of the Nicaraguan revolution, I can easily imagine Gorbachev being far more responsive to the just demands of the nationalities Snyder writes about in “Bloodlands”. It was American imperialism that helped to create the economic disaster under Yeltsin that sapped Russia’s morale and led to the rise of Putin. This is not to speak of the encroachments of NATO that despite my identification with the Ukrainian struggle were provocations that enabled Putin to portray himself as a defender of Russian sovereignty.

The problem with the Assadist/Putinite left, of course, is that it can’t see the conflict between the USA and Russia dialectically. Because Ukraine now seeks closer ties to NATO (in the years before Euromaidan all Ukrainian politicians opposed joining NATO), the “anti-imperialist” left justifies Russian troops operating in Luhansk and Donetsk. A more nuanced analysis is required.

Let me conclude with a passage from the conclusion to Tony McKenna’s book that I urge everybody to read:

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 nation- ally 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. The “white” counterrevolution, aided and abetted by the powers of the capitalist West, was sufficiently strong such that it could drag the Soviet democracy into the mire, that it could drown it in blood – by decimating the proletarian masses who had provided its backbone in the fury and frenzy of civil war; but at the same time the revolutionary movement, the child of the new epoch, still had enough vim and vigour in its organism to kick out and push back its antagonists. Reaction was unable to restore the old regime, but revolution was unable to secure the new one. The Bolshevik Party had remained in power, had survived the civil war, but was now bereft of the living proletarian democracy which had breathed life into it; hence the party structures, bled dry of the social substance which once infused them, immediately began to ossify. A bureaucratic caste began to develop which was in some way able to raise itself up above the competing class interests of the revolutionary proletariat and bourgeois and feudal reaction – interests which had fought each other to a standstill.

This then, was the historical genesis of Stalinism; it was the effects of the counterrevolution channelled through what was left of the beleaguered structures and remnants of proletarian power which then, in a truly necrotic fashion, began to revive and assume new form; the sclerotic, remorseless, murderous aspect of a zombified bureaucracy. I have also hoped to demonstrate, in the course of this book, that Stalin’s political persona cannot be apprehended outside this context.


Really popular leaders

Filed under: crime,disasters,Fascism — louisproyect @ 12:45 am





Hat tip to John Oliver on this.

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