Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 24, 2017

Stone and Putin discuss the problem of gays in the shower room

Filed under: homophobia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Over the past week or so as I watched Oliver Stone’s interviews with Vladimir Putin, I took copious notes. I originally wanted to answer Putin’s propaganda on Ukraine and Syria but decided instead to hone in on the appalling exchange the two men had in a hockey rink about homosexuality. It is as much a commentary on Stone as it is on Putin. In a somewhat lame attempt to show that he didn’t care for bigotry, Stone included footage of gay rights supporters getting hassled by the Russian police but that hardly made up for him asking Putin about being on a submarine with a known homosexual. “Would there be any problem with that?”, asked Stone. Putin replied, “Well, I prefer not to go in the shower with him. Why provoke him?”, laughing heartily. He added, “But you know I am a judo master and a SAMBO master as well.” When I saw the reference to SAMBO, I wondered if first the Russian president was referring to the racist children’s tale but it turned out to be the acronym for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya, which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons”, a martial arts practice the Red Army inaugurated in the 1920s.

What was Putin trying to say? That if some gay sailor tried to make a pass at him in the shower, he’d use his martial arts mastery to protect his heterosexual manhood? It reminds me of the old Burns and Schreiber taxi cab skit. Burns is a very macho passenger and Schreiber a typical Jewish cab driver back in the day when they were common. Somehow, the subject of ballet comes up and Burns assures Schreiber if he ever ran into a ballet dancer, he’d punch him out. This skit was from the early 60s and a pointed commentary on the bigotry that was universal at the time.

And why the fuck would Stone even ask such a stupid question to begin with? This is the same thing you heard to justify keeping gay and lesbian soldiers in the closet. And then after that, excusing professional sports homophobia. Scott Cooper, an out of the closet college football player, showed how absurd these worries were in an article on Generation Outsports:

Let’s first talk showers and football, since that seems to be a big concern for some players, especially in light of Michael Sam coming out. I played high school football for four years, and college football for three, and I was out to my teammates in college. After hours of hard practice in 105-degree August heat, I was hot, sweaty, sore, bruised, tired and hungry. Hitting on my teammates was the last thing on my mind. Never mind that they were like my brothers and weren’t my type; I just wanted nothing more than to rinse off the turf and sweat and get some Gatorade and grub.

Putin takes great pains to point out that there is no persecution of gays in Russia but defends the law that bans homosexual propaganda since it is meant to prevent teachers and the like from converting their students to an “alternative” life style in the same vein as Communist teachers being fired in the 50s so their students wouldn’t stop believing in capitalism. What stupidity. A 14 year old boy or girl knows what their sexual preferences are at that point and would not be susceptible to “propaganda”. And what would that mean, anyhow? Assigning them Allen Ginsberg poems?

Putin lays it on the line. As head of state, he sees his duty as upholding traditional values and family values. When asked by Stone what that entails, he replies that same-sex marriages will not produce children. “God has decided, and we have to care about birth rates in our country. We have to reinforce families.”

In a lame attempt to entice Putin into sounding less disgusting, Stone refers to the possibility that in a society with “dysfunctions”, there might be children in orphanages who need a more supportive environment, even if it is gay or lesbian parents that adopt them. He replies, “I cannot say our society welcomes that, and I’m quite frank about that.”

For me, the whole Russiagate question is a joke. I say that as someone who is sympathetic to Putin pointing out in the fourth and final episode of the interviews that the USA has meddled in Russian elections ever since the fall of the USSR, not to speak of a country like Nicaragua whose elections the CIA, the NED and other American agencies subverted with impunity.

However, what troubles me greatly is that many of the people who scream the loudest about the investigations pushed by the Democrats are aligned with Stone on the need to defend Putin tout court.

Why would the left find Putin so attractive? I think to some extent it is his animal magnetism that must have drawn Stone to him as well. When he is not asking Putin softball questions of the sort that Charlie Rose might ask Barack Obama, he is oohing and aahing over Putin’s physical assets. It resonates eerily with Ronald Reagan’s popularity among college boys who kept posters of the Gipper chopping wood at his ranch on their dormitory walls.

Is it possible that Oliver Stone has a thing about gays? Remember “JFK”, his dramatically compelling but ideologically nonsensical film blaming the “deep state” for killing his idol? One of the co-conspirators, according to Jim Garrison, was Clay Shaw who was played by Tommy Lee Jones as a stereotypical flamboyant homosexual. He and two other in the cabal are portrayed as “a trio of debauched New Orleans homosexuals who dress up like Marie Antoinette and Mercury and flog one another with chains” as John Weir pointed out in a NY Times article about Hollywood gay-bashing.

This homosexual phobia did not always exist in Russia. The late Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian and transgender activist who was a member of the Workers World Party that unfortunately veers toward Putinphilia, was an expert on the changes produced by a proletarian revolution.

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

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

All that changed under Stalin, who recriminalized homosexuality in 1933 with punishments up to 5 years. My friend, the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, wrote a book titled “Moscow” that incorporated a letter from a British CP’er named Harry Whyte that challenged the anti-homosexual laws that can be read on Ross Wolfe’s website. Whyte was quite eloquent:

But science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals. Research has shown that homosexuals of this type exist in approximately equal proportions within all classes of society. We can likewise consider as established fact that, with slight deviations, homosexuals as a whole constitute around two percent of the population. If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as the March 7 law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?

Just as the women of the bourgeois class suffer to a significantly lesser degree from the injustices of the capitalist regime (you of course remember what Lenin said about this), so do natural-born homosexuals of the dominant class suffer much less from persecution than homosexuals from the working-class milieu. It must be said that even within the USSR there are conditions that complicate the daily lives of homosexuals and often place them in a difficult situation. (I have in mind the difficulty of finding a partner for the sexual act, insofar as homosexuals constitute a minority of the population, a minority that is forced to conceal its true proclivities to one degree or another.)

I accept that many on the left admire Putin but I am content to be in a minority opposing him, especially since he has described Lenin as the worst thing that ever happened to Russia and because he has presided over a revival of Stalin-idolization in Russia that goes hand in hand with his ties to the Russian Orthodoxy. My idea of socialism owes a lot to the early days of the USSR when all sorts of social norms were being challenged, just as they were when I was in my 20s and the USA was boiling over with challenges to sexism, homophobia, racism and war. I can understand why Putin would be an object of Stone’s affection. There is a deep need for a father figure on the left in a time of great turbulence and that is certainly what Putin projects. For me, the 1950s and early 60s was a dreadful time when television shows like “Father Knows Best” were popular and when you could routinely hear men being referred to as “faggots”, even at a place like Bard College. I don’t care if I am the last person on the left to find Putin a symbol of bigotry and medieval backwardness. At this stage of the game, if I haven’t reached the point of having self-confidence in my own socialist values, I might as well cash it in.

June 23, 2017

Hitler and the Lone Wolf Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 23, 2017

Before the opening titles roll for “13 Minutes”, we see a kneeling man in a suit and tie holding a flashlight in his mouth crouched down in some kind of tunnel, looking for all the world like an engineer fixing a faulty electrical circuit. We soon learn that he had gained access to the inside of a hollow pillar at the rear of the stage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany where Adolf Hitler launched his abortive “beer hall putsch” in 1923. The man was connecting a detonator to a massive pile of explosives and his goal was to blow Hitler to kingdom come during his speech later that day commemorating the putsch.

The date is November 8, 1939 and Georg Elser is a factory worker from an impoverished background preparing to do what the students of the White Rose group and the Operation Valkyrie Generals failed to do: overthrow the Nazi system. My first reaction to the film was to see it as a more nuanced and realistic version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” but was stunned to discover after consulting Wikipedia 10 minutes into the film that it was based on historical events. George Elser was a real person and the attempt on Hitler’s life did take place. The führer managed to avoid being killed only because transportation snafus made it necessary for him to leave Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the bomb went off.

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Cinema: Past and Present

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

A speech given by Andrzej Wajda at a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001

As I thought about my speech for today, I chose not to give a lecture. Never in my life have I confronted so many experts on my work and I do not think it will happen to me again. So my anxiety is greater than ever and I have decided this should not be a speech but a confession.

I shall try to answer the question, what is national cinema today? Everything seems to show that national cinemas will survive and I have no doubt they will. But can they replace American cinema? For sure the influx of American film makes all European artists uneasy … but I do not think it can be replaced. American cinema will continue to play the same role it always has. Can national cinemas, then, develop alongside it? I think they can. And I believe they will survive. What makes me think so? First of all, production techniques have advanced and are much easier than they used to be in my day. It is impossible now to erect barriers of any kind preventing people from making films they want to make, whether it is through studies in film school, problems of financing or censorship. Anyone, director or cinematographer, can get a digital camera and make a film, just as the principles of Dogme95 proclaim, on what is happening around them. If what they have to say turns out to be interesting, the film will be distributed, maybe only to a handful of cinemas, but experience teaches us that such cinemas still want to show such films.

Since such a film will be shot in the native tongue, does language therefore play a fundamental role? This is another problem that should be considered for I have an impression that the world will not successfully unite through one language. People want to speak different languages, and attempts to impose a common language have been futile. Poland regained independence in 1918. The three partitioning powers taught in two languages. Some officers in the army — I still remember that — spoke two foreign languages. This entire body switched to Polish in no time, and it was not a problem to create a Polish administration. Our historical experience proves that a language cannot be imposed. Tradition and literature encourage people to watch national films, in national languages. I do not think, however, that we in Poland want to make amateur or semi-amateur films that are shown for a small audience in a few cinemas. I believe we should aim higher than that. Polish cinema after the war won the recognition of the world. Could it be similarly successful now? I have an impression that time, if you like, has formed a loop since 1945 and we have returned to the starting point. The Polish cinema of the last decade is in my opinion a bit like pre-war cinema. This judgement may be a bit harsh but since I make films too and my perception of my work over the last ten years is similar, please g make such a comparison. It is so easy to compare Quo Vadis (2001) with Josef Lejtes’ pre-war picture Under Your Protection (1933). Cezary Pazura’s role in contemporary cinema is parallel to that of Adolf Dymsza’s before the war. There are no films about elegant salons, but then there are no elegant salons. Instead, there are gangsters and films about gangsters nowadays in a way that corresponds to pre-war films about elegant salons.

So if this situation is typical, then is it indeed our desire to make national films, shown only in one country, for the people who want to see themselves on the screen and to hear their own language? Interestingly, the French, whose minds are much more Cartesian, have chosen not to defend national cinema on the principle of the free market but on the principle of a language quota. A bill has been adopted stipulating that only 60 per cent of all distributed films can be in any one language. The language was not specified but the 60 per cent restriction sets up a distinct barrier. Yet any attempt to restrict the role of the English language fails and I refuse to believe it can succeed. At the same time, when I look at united Europe and all its activities, I see a new Tower of Babel with a confusion of languages coming into being. Sometimes I have an impression that all Eurocrats get together at night, speak English and agree on what they will say in their native tongues in the morning. This means that national cinemas will continue to exist. The war in the Balkans, internal conflicts in various countries prove that people still want to speak languages that no one else knows and they believe it is of utmost importance.

Lately attempts have been made, especially because such things are profitable, to make films in co-operation with other countries: Germany and France, France and Poland, Poland and someone else etc. Special EU legislation has allowed for joint financing of such movies, yet also permitted their release as films of a given country. Soon, however, such films were being dubbed `Euro-puddings’: a kind of meal that is totally unpalatable. I have wondered whether the problem is that actors in such films often speak a language that is not their own. It seems to me, however, that we have a different problem here. It is not the problem of the language in which the actors speak but the language in which the director thinks. The director loses his footing when he is outside his own world and his own circle. He does not know whom he is talking to, does not know what his audience thinks. If I think in Polish, then I try to make what I do coherent. In a nutshell: I want to talk about myself. I have an impression it is the only way for the art of film.

Let me tell you briefly what the world was like when I was a child. It was very different. Constructivism and Futurism, great artistic movements, thrived; avant-garde art groups like Rytm and Blok were active. Representatives of these movements believed that they would root out irrationality, introduce sense into human existence and create a better future world. Yet soon after World War One, the demons of Fascism emerged, quickly followed by Stalinism, which did promise a better future though real life soon shattered such hopes. I am proud that Polish cinema addressed these two matters. It spoke out against the Nazi war and made films that challenged the lie of Stalinism. Let me tell you what my generation concentrated on. I remember that Jerzy Andrzejewski,2 who was always interested in all sorts of catchphrases and used them for his works, drew my attention to a saying that was popular in 1955 and 1956. When asked ‘How are things?’ you’d answer `Disastrous’. Our cinema made a subject out of those disasters. Let me quote Alfred de Musset’s poem Ode to Poland at this point:

Until that day, brave Poland, when you show us all some disaster greater than all
the ones before and wake us up — Poland, you will not find strength,
you will not wipe out indifference from our face.
It is your time, heroes, but fight on your own,
Europe never seems too eager to give help,
It prefers excitements that do not haunt at night,
Then fight, Poland, or perish — we are blasé.

I experienced this blase indifference when my second film, Kanal (1957), was shown at Cannes. The festival was very different from what it is now. The resort was half empty in the spring season before the summer influx began, and the festival had to attract rich, suave French audiences. Unlike today when no uniform style is required, ladies had elegant dresses and diamond jewellery; men wore dinner jackets. This was the audience who saw my film. What appeared in the Nice Matin newspaper the following day was more of a warning for the festival organisers than a critical review. The reviewer claimed that films in which people waded in the sewers must not be shown. The festival was addressed to elegant people who wished to see great art and did not want to wade in the sewers with Polish insurgents. The poem just recited and this story complement each other. We simply believed that as long as we had a message for the world, we had to expose our wounds, and to make it the subject of our films.

What did we think of pre-war cinema? We already knew what to think about it when we were at Film School. We still did not know what films we wanted to make but we knew full well we did not want to make the films that had been made before the war. We rejected the cinema represented by Dymsza or other pre-war trends on all counts, and we viewed critically the people who had created Polish pre-war cinema. I am thinking here about Wanda Jakubowska and Aleksander Ford:3 we perceived them as pre-war directors, not to mention Allan Starski’s father,’ who wrote scripts for Dymsza. We chose to create cinema from scratch. Of course we had our models. We watched the films of Italian Neorealism and were inspired by them. That was the world we wanted to show on screen, the world of poor people, because we were poor. It was very important that our voice was heard on the other side of the Iron Curtain too. We felt then that the Polish cinema had a duty not only to speak about itself but also to communicate with those on the other side in the Cold War. We wanted to speak with the voice of our neighbours who then still did not have their own cinemas or at least were not yet accorded recognition. I think our mission succeeded. Our war films showed the truth about the Polish `October’ in 1956 to those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and later our films in August 1980 let the world know that something fundamental was happening in Poland.

The rhythm of a film was another thing that seemed important to me as a young director. We did not like Soviet cinema, not because of what it said but because of its slow tempo. Polish audiences felt the same. Unfortunately, great Soviet cinema, born in the 1920s, did not develop in the way its great directors expected it to. Hence we wanted our films to adopt the rhythms of Western films, because we thought it would keep us alive. And that is why Western audiences could watch our films — the rhythms were more animated and they captured the reality of our lives. Our national cinema was greatly supported at that time by other national cinemas or by outstanding people who had begun to create world cinema. American cinema was not at the top of all great achievements then. Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa were the big names, and we watched their films wanting to find their Polish equivalents. The audience for our films was the intelligentsia, the highly educated, as it was for the films of Bergman and Kurosawa. Even if someone like me did not have a full education, he tried to catch up by seeing those films. Communication was easy because our shared knowledge allowed us to make easy reference to history or to Greek mythology. There was a high degree of understanding between artist and audience. I have an impression things are different today, and it is more difficult to ascertain how to communicate with an audience. Then we reached out to the world, the world reached out to us, and intellectual audiences were the basis of our communication, and the aspirations of Polish cinema at that time clearly reflect this. In the 1960s Jerzy Kawalerowicz made Pharaoh (1966), a beautiful, original film which won worldwide acclaim, while Wojciech Has made The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), which Bunuel considered to be one of the best films in the world. There was a kind of community of cinephiles — film-makers and audiences alike who sought to understand the world. We worked hard for such an audience then and, unless one realises this, it is difficult to understand the situation of the cinema of that time.

Today most national cinemas are partly financed by the state. Even though funds may be rare, all European countries with their own film industries operate some system of subsidy. It is interesting that often the state used to have specific requirements in return for its money. Today, on the whole, the state gives the money but does not demand anything. Things should be better but, strangely, they are worse. What is more, cinema is at the mercy of television, which produces films but then relegates them to off-peak viewing times. On the one hand, it assists cinema: on the other its assistance is inadequate. The success bestowed by film festivals and awards, increasingly numerous, is illusionary. More and more frequently, films with awards are not put into distribution and there is no chance for audiences to see them. Next, more and more films are made in unknown or almost unknown languages, which breaks up even further what used to unite world cinema. Cinema has become a pastime. In Poland, young people between 15 and 25 are the largest audience. Those people are generally contented. They do not go to the cinema to share their pain in the way that the Polish intelligentsia of the previous generation watched our films. They are not burdened with the past. It is difficult to make historical films because these young people hardly have any sense of the past and are surprised to learn about some of the things their parents experienced. These young people have been brought up stress-free. But, equally important, cinema tickets are expensive so only the prosperous go to the cinema. A film about social problems requires a large audience because one would like to appeal to as many people as possible and to move them. But why should anyone make a social problem film today if only the well-heeled go to the cinema? To tell them that poverty exists? They know that and will not be moved by it. A new audience has arisen, creating a new kind of situation.

Let me move onto the saddest thing I want to say today. It turns out that Poles prefer to go to movie theatres in city centres. There is, for instance, a very good cinema dating back to the 1950s in Nowa Huta but no one goes there because everyone goes to see a film in one of the movie theatres in the centre of Cracow. But this cinema must bring in money, just like a supermarket, because otherwise the cinema will be knocked down and a supermarket will be built in its place. So if cinema owners want to stay on in the market, there is no way out for them. It is not only the matter of their personal preferences or that they do not like our films: if they want to have a cinema theatre in the city centre, and people only go to such cinemas, they must show films that would attract audiences. Meanwhile, let me return to the more general problem. The intelligentsia is in retreat. The ethos of the intelligentsia is disappearing. Educational qualifications are also different and require something different from young people. They do not unite them in the way they united us. Cinema for the well-heeled is a pastime and does not draw on the past or history. But this only means that things have become normal. This is what cinema audiences should be like. So why are we resentful then? Isn’t it what we fought for? I wonder, however, whether we have come back, so to speak, to the beginning, to the starting point. I wonder, and it is a sad thought, whether the Polish film school in 1956 came into being only to settle the accounts with the past and whether this painful confrontation about which the poem earlier speaks is not the only way for the art of Polish cinema; whether the disasters and suffering of our nation are not the only subject that we can share with the world outside and grab its attention? Yet maybe Polish cinema was born only to speak about the disasters of this nation.

I must say a few words about American cinema, even applaud it, as I think a war with American cinema is based on a misunderstanding. Firstly, the term ‘American cinema’ should not be used at all because it is too general. Americans make a great deal of films that may have something in common; some are splendid, magnificent productions whose message appeals to us all, while some are pure entertainment. I do not think those two trends should be confused. We should draw our own conclusions from it. American cinema has united that big country. Its diversity has made it possible to show individual endeavour and the need for self-reliance. It has illustrated the slogan ‘Act or perish’. Yet at the same time, American cinema also takes in European ideas. I can see references to European literature and thought in Spielberg’s latest film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). The fairytale magic that he exploits so beautifully also has European roots. This film is for me, I am ashamed to say, more European than Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2000). American films teach me one important lesson: the audience may disagree with the concept that the director offers but they must understand what the director has to say. Unfortunately, a great majority of European films are lost somewhere along the line between director and screen because the director thinks that his confused, unintelligible language is part of his message. In fact, it makes it impossible to understand the director’s ideas and as a result we only know that he is desperately trying to tell us something. That is why when I started working on Ashes and Diamonds (Popiot i diament, 1958), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was my inspiration. Few remember this film now but it is worth seeing. These were the films we wanted to make. It was beautiful; we were impressed by it. The final scene, when the gangster on the run returns home, lies down on the grass and the grazing horses come near him, is brilliantly unique. I have never seen such a scene. But I also mean the entire film, the way it was made, the inspiration it gave me. That is why I believe that I have to applaud American cinema — I owe it a great deal.

Let us, however, return to the situation at home. I have read Ryszard Kapugcirlski’s essay in Gazeta Wyborcza. Kapugchiski writes, ‘Man cannot live in the atmosphere of marginalisation, contempt, sense of inferiority but has the need for identity, identification, which is, in turn, difficult in a world that enforces migration as a result of inequality.’ Later on he says, ‘Our world is at a crossroads. A certain tendency seems inevitable: we will live in a multicultural world.’ In a way, we have always lived in a multicultural world but we were not aware of it because never before has the system of communication — via television, telephone or the internet — been so efficient. I draw a certain conclusion from the quotations I have given. As long as we really want to hold onto our place and our language, we must not renounce national cinema…

Cinema is not only spoken language. It is also an art of images. Here is an example I frequently use: the sequence showing Maciek Chelmicki’s death on a rubbish tip brings Ashes and Diamonds to a close. I have often been asked how it was possible that the film was released at all. Jerzy Andrzejewski’s party membership definitely helped; it would not have been possible otherwise. Regardless of that, for the censors who examined the film the message in the final scene could well have been that whoever rebels against the communist authorities ends up on the rubbish dump of history. Yet when the film was distributed the audience may well have thought, ‘Who are these authorities who kill our boy, a resistance fighter, on a rubbish tip? This isn’t right.’ Both interpretations were possible and that is why the film was released with this amazing scene. Still, a censor phoned me early in the morning of the release of Ashes and Diamonds and suggested the sequence should be cut out. I knew, however, that I could hold out a few more hours and then we, would see. We made it, the sequence stayed. I am saying this because I believe it is proof that national cinema, which speaks a verbal language no outsider would understand, may speak a language of images with such force that even censorship could not cope. I believe that the cinema of our times, a digital camera in the hands of the director, the Dogme rule that demands a film be contemporary and speaks to the living moment, the quest to use naturalistic language, are all powerful and make sense. Monopolies of both the state and the film industry lose their meaning as this contemporary type of film production develops. Our hopes for European cinema must surely go in this direction. This cinema will not become homogeneous because the audiences will remain diversified and certain films will be addressed only to certain groups. So original, often strange films will be made because artists will want to make them. Language will not play a major role because a film addressed to everyone will be in English, just as it was with Joan of Arc (1999) by Luc Besson, the French director who made his film in English to ensure a large audience. On the other hand, it is interesting that Schindler’s List (1993) is the only film about the Holocaust that has been seen throughout the entire world. We in Poland had made films about the same subject much earlier. They may not have been that bad and may have seized the attention of their audience but only a film made in English could give the world an abiding image of the Holocaust.

So what do I hope for as my life is coming to an end? I believe we should work on European films, national films. Ryszard Kapugciliski says that our European world will grow old but young, healthy barbarians will learn our language, fall in love with our past and our culture, and because of them our work is worth our while. As long as we bequeath to them what we should, those barbarians will create beautiful Polish art. I wholeheartedly count on it…

 

June 19, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and terror: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Islamophobia,terrorism — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

John Wight channeling the Henry Jackson Society

In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in London, you could hardly tell the difference between what Douglas Murray, the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s ultraright tabloid “The Sun” and John Wight’s article in CounterPunch. Murray is the author of the 2005 Neoconservatism: Why We Need It and a brand-new book titled The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam that can best be described as even more nativist than the National Front. As for the Henry Jackson Society, this is a think-tank that became infamous for its all-out support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Murray’s article is patented “they hate us because of  our freedom”, a genre that blossomed fulsomely after 9/11:

At Wahhabi schools — known as madrasas — in the UK paid for by the Saudis, students are taught to hate the modern liberal West.

They are taught to despise and look down on us and our freedoms. The same message is taught at Wahhabi mosques across the world. The Saudis pay for the buildings and appoint the clerics.

Today across Europe there are thousands of such institutions of education and religion which exist because they are paid for by the Saudis.

We should have stopped the Saudis being allowed to spread their hatred here a long time ago. But a combination of greed for oil and fear of false charges of “Islamophobia” have stopped any British government to date from confronting this.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of where this disgusting ideology can lead. Perhaps now we can finally face it down. For all our sakes.

Here is John Wight doing an impeccable Douglas Murray impersonation in his June 6th article titled “London Terror Attack: It’s Time to Confront Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia”:

It is time for an honest conversation about Wahhabism, specifically the part this Saudi-sponsored ideology plays in radicalizing young Muslims both across the Arab and Muslim world and in the West, where in the UK people are dealing with the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack in which innocent civilians were butchered and injured, this time in London.

The most concerning development in recent years, however, vis-à-vis Saudi influence in the West, is the extent to which Riyadh has been funding the building of mosques as a way of promoting its ultra-conservative and puritanical interpretation of Islam, one completely incompatible with the 21st century.

In 2015 Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came out in public and accused the Saudis of funding mosques in which extremism is regularly promoted. In an interview with the German magazine Bild am Sonntag, Mr Gabriel said, “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

We can assume that Wight must also endorse Gabriel’s January 19, 2017 call: “Salafist mosques must be banned, communities dissolved, and the preachers should be expelled as soon as possible.” What better way for public security to be guaranteed than to dissolve communities? One can imagine both Murray and Wight leading a throng of torch-bearing Christians determined to send the riffraff back to where they came from.

You might have noticed above that Gabriel refers to Salafist and Wahhabist mosques without bothering to distinguish between the two belief systems. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, it is worth making a distinction. Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and activist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived through nearly the entire 18th century. It was similar in spirit to Hasidism for Jews and Calvinism for Christians, a literalist interpretation of sacred texts that demanded an austere lifestyle. Ironically, despite its medieval character, Wahhabism was seen as a “reform” movement in Islam that opposed the de facto sainthood of its leaders that involved pilgrimages to their tombs, etc. Long before the state of Saudi Arabia was created, the Saudi princes adopted Wahhabism as their official religion and imposed its rules on its subjects after taking power in 1932.

Salafism emerged at around the same time as Wahhabism and derives its name from advocating a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). Scholars tend to believe that Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, just as the Lubavitchers are a sect within Hasidism. For most Salafists, their religion is just a way of living a “holy” life. If Hasidism requires men to wear black suits and side-curls to enter heaven, Salafism has its own strictures such as forbidding tobacco, alcohol, playing cards and listening to music.

In its early years, Wahhabism was just as bloodthirsty as ISIS. In 1801, the Wahhabis sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq and acting as infidel-purging takfiri left 4,000 Shia Muslims dead. Of course, the Christians were no slouches themselves. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Orthodox Christians were persecuted across Eastern Europe. Polish Catholics killed up to 80,000 of their fellow Christians who did not follow the Pope. So cruel was the crusade against the infidels that the leader of the Orthodox church declared: “God perpetuate the empire of the Turks for ever and ever! For they take their impost, and enter no account of religion, be their subjects Christians or Nazarenes, Jews or Samaritians; whereas these accursed Poles were not content with taxes and tithes from the brethren of Christ…”

In the 20th century, religious wars became far less common. Mostly, they were about defending the “nation”, an act that cost far more lives even if the justifications were based on Enlightenment or even Marxist values. When it came to Saudi Arabia going to war to defend Wahhabist values, you’ll find little evidence of that. The wars had nothing to do with eradicating tobacco and everything to do with keeping the oil wells flowing such as when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. With little interest in the  Sunni faith it shared with the Iraqi rulers, some of whom have reappeared as ISIS members, Saudi Arabia supported George Bush’s war to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

If you do a search on “Wahhabi” and “terror” in Lexis-Nexis, you will get links to 997 articles. All but 9 of them are dated after September 11th, 2001 and of those 9, not a single one refers to Saudi-sponsored terrorism. Three do refer to Russia’s justification for its war on the Chechens but I will cover that matter in a separate post dealing with Oliver Stone’s moronic interview with Vladimir Putin.

When 15 of the 19 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi citizens, the left—especially Michael Moore—jumped to the conclusion that the royal family was behind 9/11. This conspiracy theory was not driven by a class analysis of the Saudi state and its deep tentacles in the imperialist system both economically and militarily but by a kind of amalgam between the Wahhabi beliefs of the men who carried out the attack and their patron Osama bin-Laden.

What complicates this interpretation is the fact that despite their Saudi citizenship, they were from Yemenite tribes whose territory was seized by Saudi Arabia in a 1934 war having more to do with state formation than religion. Like the Mexicans who lived in the southern part of Texas, the people of this region resented the powerful nation that had absorbed it through military conquest. Although most of the story is reported in Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I wrote about last year in a piece titled “Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?”, you can find other references that bear this analysis out such as an article that appeared in the March 3, 2002 Boston Globe. Despite the title (“Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers”), the article makes clear that 12 of the 15 Saudis were from the southwest region of Asir that manifested “deep tribal affiliations” and suffered “economic dis-enfranchisement”. Reporter Charles M. Sennott describes life in Saudi Arabia’s hinterlands, which have very little to do with the opulence of those who ruled over it no matter the shared Wahhabi faith:

The path to understanding this culture which bore the hijackers – almost none of whom had any deep links to Islamic militant movements much before Sept. 11 – lies somewhere along this road. On maps it is ”Highway 15,” but to Saudis it is commonly known as ‘”The Road of Death.’” Stretching south from the lowlands around Mecca into Taif and the woodlands of Al Baha province, and then climbing up to the mountains of Asir, it is considered the most dangerous road in a kingdom which officials say has an extraordinarily high rate of fatal car crashes. Highway 15 alone claims hundreds of lives every year, and thus its name.

It has become known as a strip of asphalt where disaffected, middle-class Saudi youth climb into large American-manufactured Buicks and Chevrolets and race at speeds over 120 miles per hour. They say it is a way to vent their rage against the limited economic opportunities in the kingdom as well as the crushing boredom and confining strictures of life under Saudi puritanism.

Interestingly enough, the pilot of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon was exactly the sort of Saudi youth who was trying to lift himself up out of this morass. Hani Hanjour was 29 years old when he took part in the 9/11 attack but his flying skills originally had nothing to do with jihad. He was a frustrated young Saudi who trained to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline but could not land a job. Sennott reports:

His frustration at failing to get the job he dreamed of derailed him for nearly a year, his friends said. He spent hours online at a family-owned Internet cafe. He read voraciously about piloting, and increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers.

Al Watan, a newspaper in the Asir region, was far more probing than the mainstream press in its investigative reports on the local youth who joined the 9/11 plotters. It is to Sennott’s credit to cite Al Watan’s reporting and how bin Laden tapped into the deep-seated resentments of the Asiri tribes that were as ready to make war on Riyadh as they were on Washington, even more so:

US and Saudi officials say they believe bin Laden exploited the Saudis, paying particular attention to their tribal backgrounds, and convincing them that they would be making their tribes proud in the jihad against America. On the videotape, bin Laden pointedly boasts of the names of the tribes, repeating the name Alshehri seven times, and also the Alghamdi and Alhazmi tribes on several occasions.

Bin Laden knew that selecting these families from the southwest would send a message to the monarchy and the ”Naj’dis” – elitist families from the center of the country who savor their connections to royalty and tend to look down upon the southwest’s tribal culture as primitive. US and Saudi officials suggest that bin Laden was letting that elite know he had deep support in the southwest for his jihad against the United States. But more ominously for the palace, the sources add, bin Laden was letting it know he had support for his oft-stated desire to dethrone the House of Saud, because of what he sees as its corruption and its treasonous ties to the United States.

Not only did bin Laden disavow the Saudi rulers politically, he had built a network called al-Qaeda based on the religious and political beliefs of a man that built a movement regarded as their mortal enemy. With all the facile attempts to blame Wahhabism for the 9/11 attacks, there is overwhelming evidence that it was inspired by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian poet and Islamist theorist who led the Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s. Qutb was devoted to the idea that Muslims had to launch a jihad against its enemies. When he came to study in the USA in 1948, he was repelled by the churches that he saw as “entertainment centers and sexual playgrounds.” I guess he had the foresight to anticipate Jimmy Swaggart et al.

He returned to Egypt in 1951 where he joined the Brotherhood. In 1954, he and his comrades were rounded up by Nasser just as has happened under General al-Sisi more recently. Qutb spent 10 years in prison. After being released in 1964, he was rearrested in 1965 after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser. He was tortured before being brought to trial and then hanged on August 29, 1966.

Qutb was above all political. He was for Salafist values but that was not enough. If you were a devout Muslim, you had struggle against the corrupt oil sheikhs and nationalist dictators, either Wahhabist like the Saudi royal family or secular like Nasser or al-Assad. In an article on Qutb that appeared in the October 31, 2001 Guardian, Robert Irwin described bin Laden’s attraction to Qutb’s idea of jihad:

In the context of that global programme, the destruction of the twin towers, spectacular atrocity though it was, is merely a by-blow in al-Qaida’s current campaign. Neither the US nor Israel is Bin Laden’s primary target – rather it is Bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia. The corrupt and repressive royal house, like the Mongol Ilkhanate of the 14th century, is damned as a Jahili scandal. Therefore, al-Qaida’s primary task is to liberate the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from their rule. Though the current policy of the princes of the Arabian peninsula seems to be to sit on their hands and hope that al-Qaida and its allies will pick on someone else first, it is unlikely that they will be so lucky.

As for the spate of ISIS-inspired or sanctioned terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA, there is little connection to al-Qaeda, which has not been known in recent years for the sort of atavistic attacks on civilians that occurred on 9/11. In 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any ties to ISIS and its franchise in Syria has had numerous armed confrontations with the group, especially in Qalamoun where dozens of ISIS members were arrested or killed in May, 2015.

This leaves us with the question of ISIS’s ideological roots. It combines Qutb’s apocalyptic worldview with Salafist orthodoxy but its wanton terrorist attacks on civilians has little to do with Islamist groups in the Middle East except for Hamas that used to set off bombs in Israel restaurants and buses in an ill-conceived response to Israeli state terror.

To understand ISIS, you simply have to extrapolate its tactics in Iraq during the American occupation when suicide bombers were targeting Shia mosques on a regular basis. These methods were associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who sought to turn a war against American occupation into a Sunni-Shia war. It was his barbarian beheadings, car bombs and other forms of terror that made it impossible for anti-imperialist fighters to build a united front. It was al-Zarqawi’s ruthless occupation of Sunni cities following the same pattern as ISIS today in Mosul and Raqqa that made it possible for the American military to persuade tribal leaders to join General David Petraeus’s Anbar Awakening.

Like many of the low-lives who have stepped forward to knife people out for an evening stroll or to drive vans into their midst, al-Zarqawi had nothing in common with a figure like Sayyid Qutb. In a profile for Atlantic magazine, Mary Anne Weaver reported on his youthful days in Jordan:

Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan.

Although al-Zarqawi left all this behind when he arrived in Afghanistan to join the jihad, there is little evidence that he ever became much of a Wahhabist except to follow the same austere strictures as everyone else. Mostly his ambition was to be a fighter and in this he  succeeded. Based on his military prowess and leadership abilities, he was able to put together one of the more formidable anti-occupation militias called al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. This group undoubtedly spawned ISIS as should be clear from this incident reported by Weaver:

Al-Zarqawi courted chaos so that Iraq would provide him another failed state to operate in after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He became best known for his videotaped beheadings. One after the other they appeared on jihadist Web sites, always the same. In the background was the trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi’s newest group: al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. In the foreground, a blindfolded hostage, kneeling and pleading for his life, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit resembling those worn by the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Zarqawi’s first victim was a Pennsylvania engineer named Nicholas Berg. In the video, five hooded men, dressed in black, stand behind Berg. After a recitation, one of the men pulls a long knife from his shirt, steps forward, and slices off Berg’s head.

What accounts for such madness? Is it Wahhabism or is it the brutality that became so universal in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of which did not take the form of beheadings but Russian and American air power that dropped high explosives on lightly armed fighters and civilians with impunity? In Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, he explains Pol Pot as the logical outcome of dropping more tons of explosives in Indochina than the total dropped by the combined air forces during WWII:

This bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing…and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

Social science might look for patterns in these sorts of genocidal spasms that coincide with an all-out war when civilized norms go by the wayside. That might explain the Khmer Rouge as well as setting off a bomb while teenaged girls are leaving an Ariana Grande concert.

Appendix:

Just about 10 years ago, CounterPunch published an article titled “The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/10/27/the-wahhabis-are-coming-the-wahhabis-are-coming/) that holds up rather well. It makes a rather good retort to John Wight, who has succumbed to the Islamophobia the author was diagnosing. Here are the more salient points but I urge you to read the entire article.

Although I will not suggest that this rhetoric is hegemonic, there can be no doubt that the idea of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against the ‘West’ has, since 9/11, become lodged in the colloquial psyche of many in the US and beyond. The collective argument, however, can be reduced to three pieces of ‘evidence’:

1) Usama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 highjackers were Saudi Arabians;

2) Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi madrasas (schools), masjids (mosques) and imams (preachers) from South East Asia to Europe and North America, creating an ideologically and operationally coherent ‘network’ in which Al-Qaeda plays a leadership role; and,

3) Wahhabism is not only ‘puritanical,’ it is ‘militantly anti-Western.’ In short, Wahhabism is identified as the theology behind ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Yet, there are a number of glaring omissions in this perspective, beginning with the fact that the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia–the sole state sponsor of Wahhabism–routinely issue decrees condemning jihad against the European and North American states, while Usama bin Laden has vociferously castigated renowned clerics (including Wahhabis) as ‘slaves of apostate regimes’ like Saudi Arabia.

As well, although Saudi Arabian funds have been used to establish various religious institutions across the globe, not only are they in the minority from state to state, but the most militant madrasas, etc., are not Saudi funded or Wahhabi in intellectual orientation. For example, in Pakistan (noted by the above governmental, media and pseudo-academic sources as a breeding ground for militant Wahhabism), an International Crisis Group study conducted in 2002, found that ninety percent of the madrasas catering to one and half million students, were proponents of South Asian ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Barelvi’ thought, while the remaining ten percent could be shared between ‘Jama’at-i Islami’ (Maududian), ‘Shi’a’ and Wahhabi organizations. The handful of madrasas promoting militancy (including the Taliban Movement) are not Wahhabi, but Deobandi, and their initial funding came from the US during the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), extending to textbooks produced by USAID and Ronald Reagan’s reference to their students as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America].’ Even a recent USAID report (2003) acknowledges that the link between madrasas and violence is ‘rare,’ and the same perspective has been forwarded to the US Congress in at least two Congress Research Services reports updated in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

The most damning indictment of the non-scholarly perspective, however, is the fact that Al-Qaeda’s leadership is well known in scholarly circles to have been largely inspired by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb (d.1966), a late leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while within the ‘Salafi’ fold, the Brotherhood, Wahhabism, Qutbism, Deobandism and Maududism, differ on issues as fundamental as the defensive or offensive nature of jihad, the legitimacy of ‘suicide bombings’ and civilian targets, the status of women, the legitimacy of electoral politics, nationalism, Pan-Islamism, Shi’ism and Sufism in Muslim society.

June 18, 2017

Qatar: The strange fall guy for the regional counterrevolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Source: Qatar: The strange fall guy for the regional counterrevolution

June 17, 2017

Did the Kaiser fund the Bolsheviks?

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

The short answer: no, he did not

Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review had something on Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train that I doubt could add anything to Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”, especially since the last paragraph contained this well-worn verdict: “It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies.”

But what really caught my eye was something else. Merridale’s book supposedly provided evidence that:

Lenin, moreover, had accepted the kaiser’s money — “German gold” — to help finance Bolshevik propaganda and amplify his strident appeals against the provisional government and anyone, Bolshevik or otherwise, who thought of cooperating with it.

That was in the back of my mind when I spotted her book being reviewed by Sophie Pinkham in the latest Nation Magazine, along with two other books about the Russian Revolution (neither of which was written by China Mieville—no surprise there). It too referred to German gold but from another author under review, Sean McMeekin, who wrote “The Russian Revolution: A New History”. He is utterly dismissive of the Bolsheviks and says that without German gold, they’d be a footnote in history:

Dismissing him as “out-of-touch,” McMeekin argues that Lenin would have had “little impact on the political scene had he not been furnished with German funds to propagandize the Russian army.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks, he adds, “played no role worth mentioning in the fall of the tsar.”

Now, nobody can deny that the Germans helped Lenin enter Russia obviously intending to weaken the Czarist war drive—thank god. But what about the German gold? Was there any merit to that? I could not see myself bothering to take Merridale or McMeekin’s books out of the Columbia Library, let alone wasting good money on them but I was curious to see what the evidence was. It would seem that everything you needed to know about this could be retrieved from Google books entry on Lenin on the Train:

There can be no doubt that Germany was pouring money into Russia. In just one instance, on 3 April 1917, the German foreign ministry approved a grant of five million marks for propaganda purposes, much of which probably passed to Parvus (who always refused to sign receipts). While Lenin’s cheap seat on the sealed train had been a gamble on the part of a small group in Germany’s civilian government, other departments and agencies had budgets of their own. The military might have been counting on its submarines to throttle and defeat the enemy, but it still ran a lavish propaganda campaign on the eastern front throughout 1917. As the British War Cabinet noted in April, “German agitators and German money would seem to be having much to do with the unrest in Russia.” The idea of a ‘vast spying organisation’ was fanciful, but with large piles of foreign notes in circulation, many of them forged, it was a challenge to work out who was bankrolling whom.

Exactly how that cash flowed east remains a matter for speculation. It is entirely reasonable to suppose that some of Parvus’ German millions reached Lenin’s fighting fund. It is possible that the big man used his research group in Denmark to channel money to the Bolsheviks, a course he could have sorted out with Radek at their secret meeting in April. Some researchers have named the likely handler as a confidential agent called Vladislav Shatsenstein. The other route for moving cash may have been through Stockholm. The most convenient intermediary would have been the firm that Fiirstenberg managed for Parvus and his German friend Georg Sklarz, which ploughed some of its profits back into trading but may have used the rest for political operations in Russia. The file is open, although many of the documents have disappeared. What is beyond doubt is that Lenin accepted 2,000 rubles from Fiirstenberg in April 1917 when he was planning his journey to Russia, and he took 800 more for Zinoviev. He did not balk at that variety of German gold. For those who still refuse to credit that the greatest socialist on earth could ever lie about a wad of German notes, the alternative is to concede that he subsidized himself with profits from the war’s black-market trade in lead Pencils and condoms (with teat end).

Note carefully the words that Merridale uses to make her case: “probably passed”, “German money would seem”, “remains a matter for speculation”, “the likely handler”, “would have been the firm”, “may have used the rest”.

In other words, everything is conjecture except for this: Lenin supposedly accepted 2,800 rubles from a man who worked for Parvus. To give you an idea of how much money that was in 1917, a NY Times article from September 27, 1917 reported that laborers unloading wood from barges in Petrograd were making 43 rubles a day so that the “German gold” amounted to one week’s pay for ten manual laborers. And that supposedly was the factor that allowed the Bolsheviks to take over? You got to be fucking kidding me.

The story of German gold is a very old one. In fact Leon Trotsky devoted the entire chapter 27 to it in The History of the Russian Revolution, most of it focused on the aforementioned Parvus who was born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand to a Jewish family in Belarus in 1867. He also happened to be the Marxist who conceived of permanent revolution before Trotsky and became his tutor.

Parvus was something of a hustler, with some of Donald Trump’s genes apparently. He produced Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths but walked off with the play’s proceeds amounting to 130,000 German gold marks, a lot more than what the Bolsheviks ever got.

His next shady deal was becoming an arms trader in Istanbul, which helped him become wealthy during the Balkans War. While he was in Turkey, he met with and became friends with the German ambassador. Parvus developed the idea that if Germany funded the Bolsheviks, it could help to usher in the socialist revolution. Obviously seeing himself as a middle-man in the operation, he hoped to do well by doing good—at least that must be what he told himself. Wikipedia doubts that these plans ever materialized:

Some accuse Parvus of having funded Lenin while in Switzerland. Historians, however, are skeptical. A biography of Parvus by the authors Scharlau and Zeman have concluded that there was no cooperation between the two. It declared that “Lenin refused the German offer of aid.” Parvus’s bank account shows that he only paid out a total of 25,600 francs in the period between his arrival in Switzerland in May 1915 and the February Revolution of 1917. Parvus did little in Switzerland, historians conclude. Austrian intelligence through Parvus gave money to Russian emigre newspapers in Paris. But when the sources of this funding became clear in the beginning of 1915 and more widely understood—Lenin and the emigres in Paris rejected such support. Harold Shukman has concluded, “Funds were plainly not flowing into Lenin’s hands.”

The paragraph above links to a JSTOR article titled “The Myth of German Money during the First World War” by the late U. of Wisconsin history professor Alfred Erich Senn for the January 1976 Soviet Studies. He would seem to be up to snuff as a scholar with 8 books and 168 JSTOR articles under his belt.

The article dismantles all the “German gold” claims, especially the idea that Lenin had any use for Parvus:

Parvus is probably the best known, and his relationship with Lenin  seems clear. Scharlau and Zeman have produced an interesting  biography, and have concluded that there was indeed no cooperation  between the two. It is clear, they declared, that ‘Lenin refused the German offer of aid’. Myths, however, die hard, and other writers,  while admitting that the evidence shows no agreement between Parvus  and Lenin, nevertheless go on to draw contrary conclusions.

(Drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com if you’d like to read a copy.)

But better yet, you can read Trotsky on this for free, plus he was directly involved in all this:

However, when people seek long, especially if they are armed with power, they find something in the end. A certain Z. Burstein, a merchant by official calling, opened the eyes of the Provisional Government to a “German espionage organization in Stockholm, headed by Parvus,” – a well-known German social democrat of Russian origin. According to the testimony of Burstein, Lenin was in contact with this organization through the Polish revolutionists, Ganetsky and Kozlovsky. Kerensky wrote later: “Some extraordinarily serious data – unfortunately not of a legal, but merely of a secret police character – were to receive absolutely unquestionable confirmation with the arrival in Russia of Ganetsky, who had been arrested on the border, and were to be converted into authentic juridical material against the Bolshevik staff.” Kerensky knew in advance into what this material would be converted!

The testimony of the merchant, Burstein, concerned the trade operations of Ganetsky and Kozlovsky between Petrograd and Stockholm. This wartime commerce, which evidently had recourse at times to a code correspondence, had no relation to politics. The Bolshevik party had no relation to this commerce. Lenin and Trotsky had publicly denounced Parvus, who combined good commerce with bad politics, and in printed words had appealed to the Russian revolutionists to break off all relations with him. But who was there in the whirlpool of events who had time to look into all this? An espionage organization in Stockholm – that sounded plain enough. And so the light unsuccessfully ignited by the hand of ensign Ermolenko, flared up from another direction. To be sure, here too they ran into a difficulty. The head of the Intelligence Service of the general staff, Prince Turkestanov, to the query of an investigator into the especially important affair of Alexandrov, had answered, “Z. Burstein is a person not deserving the slightest confidence. Burstein is an unscrupulous type of business man, who will not stop at any kind of undertaking.” But could Burstein’s bad reputation stand in the way of an attempt to besmirch the reputation of Lenin? No, Kerensky did not hesitate to recognize the testimony of Burstein as “extraordinarily serious.” Henceforth the investigation was off on the Stockholm scent. The exposures of a spy who had been in the service of two general staffs, and an unscrupulous business man, “not deserving the slightest confidence,” lay at the foundation of that utterly fantastic accusation against a revolutionary party which a nation of 160 million were about to raise to the supreme power.

Ironically or maybe not so ironically, the myth of German gold is being floated now a hundred years after the Russian Revolution and for the exact same reason: to discredit movements for revolutionary change.

Merridale is not a serious scholar. She writes for a popular audience that likely would find her smears of Lenin comforting. Maybe she might send Vladimir Putin an autographed copy in light of his statement that Lenin “planted an atomic bomb under the structure called Russia, and it then exploded.”

As far as Nation Magazine reviewer Sophie Pinkham is concerned, she would seem to be far more open to the idea that the Russian Revolution was a good thing, especially since the magazine had a long-time affinity for the USSR even if it was at times tainted by Stalinism. Why would she be so credulous as to take McMeekin’s business about German gold at its word without doing a bit of fact-checking?

As it happens, Pinkham writes for n+1, a fine Marxist journal I agree with 90 percent of the time. She is also the author of Black Square, a book about “adventures in post-Soviet Ukraine” that appears to be rather shallow if you take the NY Times review at its word: “A glibness, too, can crop up. Pinkham dispenses with the natural-gas wars that have dominated Russo-Ukrainian relations in the post-Soviet era in a half-paragraph — and, within it, glosses the Holodomor, the murder of untold millions of Ukrainians during the collectivization of the 1930s.” A half-paragraph? What the fuck?

I imagine that Pinkham, like Merridale, writes to make a living. Black Square is not interested in Ukrainian history but her story as a feminist who worked for George Soros and then went to Ukraine on an adventure. God bless her. I don’t mind her making a living writing travel books or even concluding her article with the claim that October 1917 represented the “dangerous magnetism of power and violence.” What I would urge her to do in the future is to take fifteen minutes to make sure that she wasn’t spreading Kerensky’s lies 100 years after the fact.

Finally, on the question of the Germans putting Lenin on a sealed train for the obvious intention of helping to end Russian participation in WWI. Edmund Wilson wrote that this did not sit well with his comrades:

In the train that left the morning of April 8 there were thirty Russian exiles, including not a single Menshevik. They were accompanied by the Swiss socialist Platten, who made himself responsible for the trip, and the Polish socialist Radek. Some of the best of the comrades had been horrified by the indiscretion of Lenin in resorting to the aid of the Germans and making the trip through an enemy country. They came to the station and besieged the travelers, begging them not to go. Lenin got into the train without replying a word.

Was there a question of principle involved in using the German state in this fashion? Was it much different than accepting German gold? These are the sorts of questions revolutionaries are forced to confront in today’s geopolitical divide. For example, in 2011 Syrians who wanted to defend their friends and neighbors from being killed by Baathist snipers had to choose between the “principled” tactic of only using weapons seized from Baathist armories or from accepting them from “the bad guys” as Donald Trump might have put it. Does using an automatic rifle sent by Saudi Arabia ipso facto make you a tool of American imperialism and its proxies? This is an easy question to answer from people like Mike Whitney or Andre Vltchek, who have as much of an understanding of Marxist politics as I do of particle physics. But what about people like John Rees and Tariq Ali, who were educated in Trotskyist politics that even with its flaws represented classical Marxism?

I always come back to Trotsky’s “Learn to Think”, which is a lucid guide to handling what Mao might have called multiple contradictions:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

June 16, 2017

The Perils of Sectarianism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

Throughout the Middle East, sectarianism is a problem that has existed for decades but more recently has reached catastrophic dimensions with ISIS declaring just about ever religious rival as a takfiri. This has led to stoning, beheadings, the rape of Yazidi women and an iron enforcement of sharia law that makes every person living under its sway worried about becoming the next victim of its religious enforcers.

While ISIS was a virulent strain of sectarianism from its outset, you also see a level of brutal and relentless warfare between the majoritarian Sunni sect and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unknown in the past, no matter how sharp the differences over who inherited Mohammad’s mantle of authority. For people who have more than the usual interest in Syrian politics, the problem of sectarianism is particularly acute since the early days of the revolution were largely devoid of such conflicts.

Addressing the need for serious scholarship on the origins of these seemingly intractable fissures, Nader Ashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of articles by experts in the field that is must reading for both those within the academy and those working for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Ashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Postel is the Center’s Assistant Director. I have been in contact with the two authors over the past six years and have had a high regard for their scholarly integrity and even more so after reading their Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

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June 14, 2017

Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

“Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is now the third full-length documentary I have seen on Syria and the one I now regard as the best introduction to the conflict. Unlike “Return to Homs”, “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo” that were directed by Syrian partisans of the revolution, “Hell on Earth” is co-directed by Sebastian Junger, an American, and Nick Quested, a Briton, whose emphasis is primarily on the humanitarian disaster but within the context of a powerful attack on the Baathist dictatorship. They made the wise choice of drawing on analysis from Robin Yassin-Kassab who offers a running commentary in the film on how Assad used extreme violence and sectarianism to help subdue a popular movement. Yassin-Kassab co-wrote “Burning Country” with Leila al-Sham, a book that is the film’s counterpart. If I were asked by someone trying to puzzle out the six year war in Syria, I would recommend both “Burning Country” and “Hell on Earth”, a film that is now available as VOD (sources at the end of the review.)

The film provides extensive evidence of the mass character of the protest movement in Syria that began in March 2011, with a close look at the victimization of 15 teenage boys who were arrested after painting graffiti on the walls of Daraa, a city widely viewed as the birthplace of the revolution: “As-Shaab / Yoreed / Eskaat el nizam!”, which means “The people / want / to topple the regime!” One of the youths walks through the streets of Daraa showing where they had used spray paint to demand Assad’s fall. He, like the others, had been tortured in jail for a month and then released to his parents who were part of the Sunni tribal network that was the sinew of Daraa. Their suffering, including having their fingernails torn out, incensed their parents and most of the city’s residents who began to protest in the streets raising the central demands of the movement: for justice, for dignity and for freedom. As could have been expected, Assad’s snipers began firing on the demonstrations, footage of which is included in the film.

This pattern was repeated across Syria–in Homs, in Aleppo, in Hama and in the suburbs of Damascus. Continued armed attacks on peaceful protests finally reached the breaking point when soldiers began to defect and form militias to defend the people both in the streets and in their homes. We hear from a number of the men who helped to form the FSA in 2011, an armed movement that had no political agenda except to “topple the regime” as the 15 boys from Daraa had hoped.

Within two years, the regime had adopted genocidal-like tactics including barrel bombing and other forms of aerial attacks against which the rebels had no defense. Syria was rapidly becoming a hell on earth, as Yassin-Kassab put it at one point in the film, hence its apt title.

In August 2013, the dictatorship used sarin gas against the people of East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb composed mostly of the Sunni working poor, many of whom were formerly small farmers driven to leave drought-stricken land when government support dried up as well. The film takes a close look at Obama’s failure to take action against Assad despite his “red flag” warnings. While it is reasonable to assume that Junger and Quested would have agreed with John McCann and Dennis Ross, who are among the film’s imperialist-minded enemies of Assad, that Obama betrayed the Syrians by not following through with a military intervention, there was likely little chance of this happening. By this point, Obama was well on his way to developing rapprochement with Iran and the last thing he needed was to deploy American power on behalf of the “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” he derided. All that was really needed was to remove the CIA agents from the Syrian border who had been stationed there to prevent the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya to the rebels who needed them desperately. I am sure that a pharmacist with sufficient training could have put a Russian-made SA-7 to good use taking down the helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and everything that moved in places like East Aleppo.

What sets “Hell on Earth” apart from the standard Frontline type documentary on PBS is the inclusion of two brothers and their families who had fled East Aleppo to get away from the constant onslaught of Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment. Radwan and Marwan Mohammed were given video cameras by Junger and Quested so they could describe what it was like to be part of the half of the Syrian population that had been displaced from their homes. Crowded into what looks like a concrete shed, they are caught in limbo since they are now in ISIS territory. Like the Syrian refugees in “Lost in Lebanon”, they are motivated primarily by the need to survive rather than to take part in an armed struggle. (The film explicitly refers to the war as a necessary step taken by Assad to preempt the possibility for peaceful reforms.)

The two brothers are probably like most Syrians today, people longing for peace and normalcy. In choosing to impose the law of the jungle on a preeminently civilized and peaceful society, Assad has nearly won but at what price? He has carried out what Tacitus once described: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The second half of the film deals with the rise of ISIS and is exceptionally good. It is the first attempt I have seen to describe the origins of the death cult in terms of the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq. “Hell on Earth” comes pretty close to the version of events presented in Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS.

If the beheadings carried out by ISIS in the Middle East and the knife attacks by its supporters in Europe lend themselves to hysterical news reports in the West, the film reminds us that torture and ghastly executions took place in civilized England as well. If you were convicted of treason in 13th century England, punishment took the form of hanging (almost to the point of death), emasculation, disembowelment, beheading and being chopped into four pieces. The remains of the body were often displayed on London Bridge. Maybe that’s where the ISIS supporters got the idea for stabbing people at random on the same bridge.

Drawing upon ISIS’s own recruitment videos, “Hell on Earth” makes it clear that the message is much more evocative of video games and Hollywood action movies than Wahhabist theology. In fact, even though the film does not specifically state this, you can only conclude that the jihadists must have studied the recruitment commercials for the Marines that crop up during football games. For an 18 year old man, testosterone speaks much louder than longings for a Caliphate.

Director Sebastian Junger is a capable writer as well as a filmmaker. “The Perfect Storm”, his book about swordfish fishermen killed in a freak gale, was a best-seller and made into a very good film starring George Clooney. He also directed “Restrepo”, a documentary about the futility of the American intervention in Afghanistan, where “isolationist” Donald Trump has provided a blank check to the military to increase its numbers.

To watch “Hell on Earth”, there are various options. If you have basic cable, go to the National Geographic website and play “full episode”. You will then be prompted to sign in to your cable provider, such as Verizon, and watch the film for free.

If you don’t have cable, you can now buy the film for $9.99 on iTunes or Youtube and for $11.99 on Amazon. ITunes states that the film will be available for rent on June 20th, which probably means $4.99. I assume that it will be rentable on Youtube and Amazon on that date as well. In any case, this is a film you should recommend to friends and co-workers who have not really been following events there for the past 6 years. While the film is not agitprop by any stretch of the imagination, you will be left with the conclusion that Assad, Putin and their allies in Iran and Hizbollah are carrying out the dirtiest war of the 21st Century. How things will eventually play out in Syria cannot be determined at this point but it is in the interests of peace and social justice for as many Americans to know the truth about Syria just as it was for us to know about the origins of the war in Vietnam just over a half-century ago. The days of the teach-in might be long gone but a film like “Hell on Earth” serves the same purpose: to educate people so they can take intelligent action.

 

June 13, 2017

Theodor Bergmann, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 12:23 pm

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Theodor Bergmann 1916-2017

I received word this morning that Theodor Bergmann has died, just a month before his 101st birthday.

I am sad to inform you that Theo has passed away.

Hinrich

13. Juni 2017
Mario Kessler / Redaktion Sozialismus
Die Stärksten kämpfen ein Leben lang: Theodor Bergmann (7.3.1916 – 12.6.2017)

http://www.sozialismus.de/nc/vorherige_hefte_archiv/kommentare_analysen/detail/artikel/die-staerksten-kaempfen-ein-leben-lang-theodor-bergmann-731916-1262017/

http://www.sozialismus.de/kommentare_analysen/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/

http://www.vsa-verlag.de/nc/autorinnen/?tx_wtdirectory_pi1%5Bshow%5D=647&tx_rggooglemap_pi1%5Bpoi%5D=647

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Bergmann_(Agrarwissenschaftler)

I met Bergmann in New York, when he was in town to speak at the Brecht Forum (see below). He was the long-time editor of Sozialismus, a German magazine that published a couple of my articles in the early 90s. I have vivid memories of his recounting the divisions in the German left and his support for the right opposition in the CP. Back then, this meant being aligned with Bukharin, a Marxist whose ideas Bergmann defended in many venues, including a book titled Bukharin in Retrospect (Socialism and Social Movements) that was co-edited by Moshe Lewin, another heterodox Marxist I respect highly. The collection was the product of an international conference held in the autumn of 1988, around the time Nikolai Bukharin was officially rehabilitated during glasnost.

Theodor Bergmann speaks on Rosa Luxemburg

Last night I heard a lecture at the Brecht Forum in NYC on “Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Revolution” by Theodor Bergmann, the co-editor of the journal Sozialismus. He was a member, along with Brandler and Thalheimer, of the German Communist Party Opposition during the Weimar Republic.. He has written a history of this organization and also has written a number of books on agrarian questions. His introduction to farming matters came about in a most unusual manner. He went into exile in Sweden after the rise of Hitler and became a farm laborer. Hence his interest in agrarian questions! The lecture was an analysis of an unfinished article by Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian revolution. Bergmann argued that many of Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik rule anticipated the subsequent rise of Stalinism and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. What he was also anxious to make clear was that Luxemburg’s criticisms were offered in the context of support for the revolution and in solidarity with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself. Bergmann cites Leo Jogiches, a German Communist leader and close ally to Luxemburg, as having even more sympathy for the Bolshevik project than was indicated by this late article. If she had lived, there is little doubt that she would continued to deepen her understanding of the Soviet experiment and play a critical role in the fight against Stalin. Bergmann stated that Luxemburg resisted Kremlin control when the Communist Party of Germany was formed.

Now this was in the period that Trotsky was barking orders to the infant French Communist Party from his desk in the Comintern. It would have been interesting to see what Luxemburg would have told the Comintern brass around the time Zinoviev put through his “Bolshevization” measures at the 5th Congress.

This was the question I in fact put to him. I asked if there had ever been a critique of the “organization” question within the ranks of the German Communist Party Opposition. Since the Opposition was strongly influenced by Luxemburg’s ideas, wasn’t there resistance to the super-centralist model put forward by Zinoviev? He replied that indeed there was and that Thalheimer had written a lengthy criticism of the “Boshevization” turn. This is just the item I was looking for to complete my research on how Lenin’s free-wheeling Bolshevik party became turned into the grotesque “Marxist-Leninist” model adopted by Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist alike.

Louis Proyect

June 12, 2017

An uncommon life in Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL)

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

In many ways, the best thing about the NY Times is the obituary since it amounts to a small-scale biography. If given a choice between a documentary and a narrative film, I generally lean toward the documentary because the real lives of people are far more interesting than what a screenwriter can think up. The same thing is true when it comes to a biography versus a novel. Why would I want to read something written by Jonathan Franzen when my time could be better spent on a biography of Ho Chi Minh or John Brown, just two that are sitting on my bookshelf right now?

On June 4th, the obituary for Jean Sammet appeared. Although I am pretty familiar with the lives of people who took part in the information revolution, I had never heard of her before. She was one of the six people who got together in 1959 to write the Common Business-Oriented Language, more familiarly known as COBOL. This was a language I used from 1970 until 1995 or so when I switched over to a Unix platform at Columbia University developing client-server systems in perl and java.

Jean Sammet, who brought computing into the business mainstream, at the University of Maryland in 1979 to deliver a lecture. Credit: Ben Shneiderman

From 1970 to 1978, I used my COBOL skills to facilitate moves from one city to another during my time as an SWP member. In those years, being a qualified COBOL programmer could usually land you a job within a week after moving to a new city. Furthermore, it enabled you to change jobs every 2 years or so with a 10 percent salary increase. And most importantly, it allowed you to exist in the corporate world without having to become part of the machine. Even after leaving the SWP, my computer skills continued to pay off, even at a place like Goldman-Sachs. The job served my ends just as much as it did my employer. This might have been obvious as indicated by a Newsday article about the Nicaragua solidarity movement in New York:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

It was in another computer magazine that he learned of the shortage of computer programmers in Nicaragua, because so many of the skilled middle class were leaving:

“This neon sign kept on in my head: ‘Nicaragua Needs You.’ This was using skills I had always taken for granted.”

He went to conduct a two-week workshop in computer programing as part of TecNica, a national organization which in the last two years has sent to Nicaragua about 50 New Yorkers, mostly computer programmers, some engineers, and one typesetter, one medical lab technician, one boiler mechanic, one travel agent. “Most are not hot radicals,” Proyect says. “They’re people very much like Ben Linder, taken up with the idea of helping the poor.”

I would go so far as to say that maybe half the people who went on TecNica delegations had more in common with Jean Sammet than they had with me. Born in 1928, she graduated from Mount Holyoke with a mathematics degree. Enrolled as a math grad student at the U. of Illinois in 1949, she ran into her first computer that revolted her. She said, “I thought of a computer as some obscene piece of hardware that I wanted nothing to do with.”

It was only when she ran some punch cards through a computer that she was transformed. “To my utter astonishment. I loved it.”

This exactly how I reacted when I started off as a programmer trainee at Metropolitan Life in 1968 using a COBOL-like language developed in-house called English Language. When I discovered that testing software was like doing puzzles, I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid to have fun. Here in a nutshell is what a COBOL programmer does. The code has been simplified but not by much.

Open input employee_file.
Open output check_file.
01 employee_record.
03 Employee_ID  picture x(10).
03 First_Name  picture x(30).
03 Last_Name  picture x(30).
03 Wage_amount  picture 9(5)v99.
03 Hours_worked picture 999.
01 check_record.
03 Pay_to_first_name  picture x(30).
03 Pay_to_last_name  picture x(30).
03 check_amount  pic zzzzz.zz.

P1.
Read employee_file into employee_record at end go to End_job.
Move First_Name to Pay_to_first_name.
Move Last_Name to Pay_to_last_name.
Compute check_amout = Wage_amount * Hours_worked.
Write check_record.
Go to P1.

End_job.
Close employee_file.
Close check_file.
Now all of this might seem quite mundane. The program reads through a file, calculates the wage and then writes a check. Except the program would not work. Take a minute to see why. Done? It won’t work because I spelled “amout” rather than “amount” under P1. You might understand what I meant but not a computer!

American corporations have been running payroll applications like this since the 1960s but in a place like Nicaragua most businesses, many of which were owned by Somoza before 1979, did not have computers. Someone had to sit down with a calculator and do all of this manually, including the signature on the check. In the TecNica video, one volunteer recounts how the introduction of a modest computer cut the time for a state-owned enterprise dramatically. My time spent in Nicaragua convinced me that automation made socialism possible for the first time in human history, something that cybernetics expert Stafford Beer hoped would help transform Chile. It was only Nixon and Reagan’s intervention that showed how difficult it was to build socialism, even with the best of intentions by the government and having leading-edge technology at its disposal. A counter-revolutionary army supported by the most powerful capitalist nation in history was capable of stopping even the most determined movements for change.

The obit described the cultural environment for professional programmers in the early 50s:

In the early 1950s, the computer industry was in its infancy, with no settled culture or rigid career paths. Lois Haibt, a contemporary of Ms. Sammet’s at IBM, where Ms. Sammet worked for nearly three decades, observed, “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women.”

While by the time I entered the field it could no longer be described as in its “infancy”, it was nothing like today when most programmers have little interest except in making big money. Goldman-Sachs is now looking for computer science graduates who more likely than not have never read a single novel in their life except “Atlas Shrugged”. In 1970, computer science was barely getting off the ground. Most programmers I worked with back then were people who fell into it like me. With a liberal arts degree, it was very tempting to take a job as a programmer trainee that expected very little from you except to be competent in your trade (it could hardly be called a profession.)

When I went to work for the First National Bank of Boston in 1970, some of my co-workers had been affected by the student movement to some degree or another. There was a guy who had just graduated Dartmouth who had very poor work habits and spent most of the day talking about the Grateful Dead to anybody who listened. I sat next to a guy named Richard who worked there as a consultant. He was very knowledgeable about the arts and politics and someone I spent much of the day wasting time with chatting about socialism, 12-tone music and Godard films. Another consultant was a Harvard graduate who was about 5 years older than me and skeptical about radical politics to say the least. I dragged him once to see Camejo speak and he summed him up as “too febrile”. This was around the time I began to realize that not everybody was open to socialism.

I never met the guy at the bank who probably had more guts than me. There was a whiteboard in the cafeteria that was used for design sessions but someone had the brilliant idea to write something like this on it when nobody was looking: “The capitalist system is destroying the United States while it is killing countless Vietnamese peasants. Now is the time to demonstrate your opposition to such a monstrous system.” And beneath it in capital letters and underlined, you could read: “DO NOT ERASE”. People working for banks are so used to authority that the agitprop stood up until late in the morning when security guards got the okay from upper management to erase it.

From Boston I went down to Houston, Texas in 1973 and went to work for Texas Commerce Bank. I reported to Billy Penrod, a guy who looked and talked like a cowboy and who was a former Texas A&M running back from Gonzalez, Texas. Like most people in Gonzalez, Billy  was a racist. He once described Gonzalez as a sundown town, even though he didn’t use that term. He put it this way, “Colored people understood that they shouldn’t get caught in Gonzalez after dark.” Despite his retrograde views, I learned to admire Billy as the consummate systems analyst. We were developing a personal trust system that kept track of the estates owned by the oil millionaires. Billy was from Jean Sammet’s generation and got started out wiring IBM tab machines, used for accounting systems before there were computers. He got so good at managing them that he went to work as an IBM consultant implementing tab-machine based accounting systems around the country.

In 1975, I moved back to New York to work on automating the SWP headquarters, including the Militant newspaper and Pathfinder. This was the first time I began to suspect that I had joined a cult. The in-grown, zombie-like atmosphere at West Street made me feel ten times more alienated than I ever felt in a bank.

I went to work for Salomon Brothers during the day while doing West Street systems development by night. I didn’t stay long at Salomon but long enough to work with Michael Bloomberg who had me and a business analyst automating SBIL, their branch office in London. I rather liked Bloomberg even though he was an even bigger skunk than Billy. He was a sexist and racist pig who once yelled out “Look at the tits on that broad” when a Latina was delivering coffee on the trading floor.

When I got a mediocre review at Salomon, I went out and found another job in a week with ACI (Automated Concepts, Inc.), one of many “job shops” that hired programmers for very good salaries in the 1970s and 80s before they went to work for themselves as a contract programmer making even bigger money. One of my last jobs was as a self-employed contract programmer making $500 per day. This was in 1989 just when the job market was tightening up irrevocably and when those asshole libertarian smart-ass computer science majors were taking over.

ACI was a fun place to work. I got a big kick out of the CEO Fred Harris who was into EST, a self-improvement cult not nearly so bad as Scientology but pretty bad. Fred didn’t quite know what to make of me but he appreciated the fact that I had a rather “elevated” mind as well as being a crackerjack COBOL programmer. I have no idea whatever happened to ACI and Fred Harris but I used to dream about going up to their offices on 386 Park Avenue South getting my next assignment.

One of my last consulting assignments with ACI introduced me to Gabriel Manfugas, the son of a former Batista soldier who had fled to the USA in the early 60s. Gabriel and I became fast friends even though he had no use for my politics. We used to smoke pot, even during lunch, as we walked around mid-town. I got to know his friends, who were upwardly mobile Latinos from Washington Heights and programmers like him. By this time, programmers—including them—were computer science graduates but nobody could mistake them from the jerks I used to run into at Goldman-Sachs. Mostly, they were looking for angles to make them wealthy like starting their own consulting company. I was 20 years older than all of them, who saw me as a father figure—subversive politics and all. I enjoyed plenty of cocaine binges with them in the 1980s and have fond memories of all of them who are now in senior management positions at various corporations.

 

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