Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 25, 2020

The Sinking Middle Class

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 25, 2020

On September 22ndPolitico reported on how rank-and-file union members were snubbing Biden for Trump. Perhaps inadvertently, the second sentence reveals what kind of trade unionist this means: “To rank-and-file members in some unions, especially the building trades, it doesn’t matter. They’re still firmly in Donald Trump’s camp.” Historically, construction unions have operated as a white-only job trust and would be naturally part of Trump’s hard-core support. While Anthony DiMaggio debunked the myth of Trump’s “blue-collar” populism in CounterPunch, Democratic Party pundits insist that unless it connects with these types of workers, it will lose to demagogues like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Just hot off of OR Books press, David Roediger’s “The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History” digs deep into the origins of this line of thinking and concludes that it is time to put it to rest. Despite the book’s title, the subject is a demographic that academics and journalists describe interchangeably as the middle-class or the white working-class. Since Black people tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party politicians, Roediger’s chief concern is to interrogate how this obsession developed.

Roediger has been writing about race and class in the U.S.A. ever since his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” that paired him with Theodore Allen and my good friend, the late Noel Ignatiev. For these three scholars, the task was to explain how the white working-class could identify with ruling-class values. Speaking for myself, I always attributed that to the phenomenon Karl Marx described in “The German Ideology.”

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

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September 21, 2020

The Swerve; We are Many

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

In 1995, before my unpaid career as a film critic began, I saw Todd Hayne’s “Safe”. It told the story of a conventional middle-class housewife played by Marianne Moore, who decays both physically and psychologically from an unspecified illness related to the environment. Since “Safe” is set in Los Angeles, it rang true. Moore was unforgettable as a woman trying to hold it together. As the film progresses, the symptoms become more and more severe. Although I saw the film 25 years ago, the nightmarish scenes remain vivid.

Yesterday, I saw “The Swerve”, a film that also depicts the physical and mental breakdown of a middle-class woman. It has the same mixture of horror and personal drama as “Safe”, as well as a stunning performance by Azura Skye as a high school teacher whose life begins falling apart at the seams. In this instance, it is not the environment that is sickening her. It is her family that is the toxin.

Skye plays Holly, a woman in perhaps her early 40s who teaches high school English in some unidentified American city. Her husband Rob has a floor manager job at a supermarket who is anxious to find something better. Rounding out the family are two teen-age sons who seem normal enough even though their potty-mouth tendencies and their readiness to mouth off to her might be just corrosive enough to explain the pills she takes each morning presumably for her nerves.

Like most women, she has two jobs. In the morning and evening, she has to prepare meals. She is also responsible for keeping their respectable two-story house neat and clean. Although the film does not try to connect her plight to broader social questions, you can’t help but feel that her two jobs, one paid and the other unpaid, were enough to make her “go postal”. The conclusion of the film depicts her violent revolt against myriad assaults on her well-being without any commentary from a cop or a doctor surveying the wreckage. Unlike Moore’s character in “Safe”, who simply withdraws into herself at the film’s end, Holly goes ballistic. Literally.

One day as she is puttering about in her kitchen, she is startled to see a mouse running across the floor. This has an unsettling effect disproportionate to the actual threat of a relatively harmless creature. She almost sees it as threatening as a rat and even becomes convinced that a small bite from the creature will lead to rabies.

As for human vermin, she has plenty on her hands as well. Her husband has been cheating on her unabashedly. She catches him making out with one of the supermarket women and suspects that he is also sleeping with her sister, who is younger and more attractive than her—as well as being even more psychologically troubled. While Holly is passive aggressive, her sister Claudia is simply aggressive. At a dinner at their mom’s house, Claudia wisecracks about Holly’s weight issues in high school without a care about the pain she is causing. Meanwhile, Claudia has her own problems as an alcoholic who has undergone repeated rehabs and two failed marriages.

Nothing seems to bring joy to Holly, not even a fling she has with one of her students who works in the same supermarket as her husband. After the boy is caught drawing sketches during her class, she seizes the sketchbook and sends him to the principal. At home, she becomes mesmerized by the skillfully drawn erotic drawings, including one of her. As problems deepen at home, sex with the teen becomes a lifebelt but hardly enough to keep her afloat.

The film was the first feature ever directed by Dean Kapsalis and certainly merits my nomination for debut director if NYFCO can ever get it together during this pandemic to have our awards meeting. “The Swerve” is every bit an achievement as Todd Haynes’s “Safe” and might even get my nomination for best picture of the year as well. As for Azura Skye, she gets my nomination for best actress hands down. I am usually not into award ceremonies but I look forward to casting my vote for an outstanding indie film. Hollywood might be dead in the water but a film like “The Swerve” convinces me that VOD more than makes up for it.

In the press notes, Kapsalis names his influences. I can only say that if he continues to make films such as this, he will get the same kind of recognition as they did:

I drew on mythology and tragedies in literature to give narrative shape and tension to Holly’s psychological desolation and longing. Through her, what I felt emerge was a view of a society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it sleepwalks. We go on about our daily lives, our routines, often unaware (or willfully ignorant?) that the people around us can break at any moment.

Similar to the female protagonists of the classic tragedies, Holly is a dutiful wife and mother, underappreciated and overlooked for her efforts. But as she goes on, and as we settle into her world, the cracks in her already damaged psyche give way.

Many artists inspired me along the way. Filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. Photographers William Eggleston and Gregory Crewdson. Playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. Poets Dante and Shakespeare. But in a way, it was the ancient Greeks that proved to be the most inspirational.

Starting tomorrow, the film can be rented from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and Amazon. It is not to be missed.

Starting tonight at 8pm EST, there will be a virtual cinema premiere of “We are Many”, a documentary about the massive antiwar protest that took place on February 15, 2003. Directed by Amir Amirani, it allows leaders of the peace movement such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Leslie Cagan in the USA to describe what amounted to the largest single-day protest in history ever to take place.

For people such as myself, there’s a sense of déjà vu. At the time, I was keenly aware of the opposition to George W. Bush’s pending invasion of Iraq as well as the lies that were used to justify it. In addition to the activists, Amirani gets members of the elite to look back in anger at a war that might have cost the lives of a million Iraqis. We hear from U.N. Arms Inspector Hans Blix as well as Patrick Tyler, who covered the war for the N.Y. Times. Unlike Judith Miller, Tyler probably opposed the war at the time even though he was forced to echo the paper’s ambivalent attitude toward the build-up to the war. Surely, the publisher must have known that Judith Miller was lying like a rug.

The film will be especially interesting to people who were too young at the time or even not having been born. The film joins Robert Draper’s recently published “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq” as an autopsy on an imperialist onslaught that has had a lasting effect on American politics. You might even say that some of the votes for Donald Trump in 2016 reflected his demagogic disavowal of the war just as Hillary Clinton’s vote for the war cost her about the same number.

The film grapples with the problem of how Bush was able to continue the war despite worldwide opposition. Why did the movement collapse like a cheap suitcase after the initial days of “shock and awe”?

None of the interviewees have an answer for that except to say that we should have done more. There is an implicit case made that demonstrations alone could not have stopped the war but another explanation could have sufficed. We used to hear the same frustrations during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Why should we keep going on peace parades when Nixon ignores them?

To start with, there was no alternative to mass action. In the USA, the antiwar movement was led by United for Peace and Justice that was all too ready to switch gears in 2004 to unseat George W. Bush just as their counterparts are eager today to unseat Donald Trump. It would have taken nonstop opposition to the war to have an effect but the coalition was far too connected to the Democratic Party to sustain a non-electoral strategy.

It is also important to acknowledge the difference between the Sunni opposition to the Shia puppet government installed in Baghdad and the NLF. While many Sunnis simply wanted to drive the USA out of Iraq, a significant minority were committed to a holy war against infidels. The car bombings that killed Shias inside or nearby a mosque were enough to make many Americans consider Iraq as a place where solidarity could only go so far. By contrast, the Vietnamese were in constant contact with American peace activists in the 60s and 70s and helped stiffen our backbone.

Director Amirani tries to take the sting out of our failure to preempt Bush’s war by pointing to Obama and the British Parliament’s opposition to a Bush-style invasion of Syria. As should be obvious from the last 10 years of “anti-imperialist” opposition to a repeat of the Iraq war, there was very little interest in opposing Assad’s war on his own people and the lethal assistance he got from Putin, whose hands were still bloody from hiswar on Chechnya. You had the spectacle of the Stop the War Coalition organizing a conference with Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix as an invited speaker. Mother Agnes was an outspoken defender of Assad’s savage war on his own people and was only disinvited after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones said they would not speak at the meeting if it meant sharing a platform with Mother Agnes.

Notwithstanding these qualms, I recommend the film since it does at least point to the kind of power in the streets we need to take on the Republicans and the Tories who are waging war on their own people right now.

September 20, 2020

Notes on the passing of Stephen F. Cohen

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

This article will be a political assessment of Stephen F. Cohen, who died of lung cancer two days ago rather than an obit. I am including the NY Times obit at the end in order to put my remarks into context. My advice is to read the NYT obit first since it overlaps to some extent with my own attempt to assess his contribution to Marxist scholarship and the left.

In 1980 or thereabouts, when I had some time on my hands, I attended the deliberations of the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Because of Watergate and outrage over FBI harassment, the party filed suit against the FBI for $40 million in damages and an end to Cointelpro, which caught a small fish like me in its net. Cointelpro, which was short for Counterintelligence Program, was used to disrupt socialist and other radical organizing efforts. Supposedly, the government was trying to forestall the violent overthrow of the government but the real intention was to weaken civil rights, antiwar and other social struggles.

I can’t pin down the exact day but I happened to hear the SWP’s star witness that day, Stephen F. Cohen. I had no idea who he was other than that he was a Princeton University expert on Soviet Russia and apparently on the left. Our attorney was Leonard Boudin, the most respected constitutional lawyer on the left. He sought to make the case that the SWP was exercising its constitutional rights as a legitimate political party in the same way the party tried (and failed) in 1940 when the leaders were charged with violations of the Smith Act.

You can read a summary of the case here. We never got the $40 million, which Barnes might have stashed in a Swiss bank anyhow, but Griesa ordered the FBI to stop harassing us. Our victory was instrumental to putting an end to Cointelpro. If you want to find out more about this struggle, you can read Ward Churchill’s book about it here. Although it only has a single reference to Cohen, you can assume that his role was very important for the SWP victory.

Trotskyists argue that the undesirable features of Soviet government are largely the fault of Stalin, Trotsky’s rival. However, realizing that the establishment of the totalitarian state and the suppression of democracy occurred under Lenin, with the assistance of Trotsky, the Trotskyists contend that the anti-democratic developments were forced upon the regime by the civil war which broke out in 1918. Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton testified at the trial and advanced this view.

Against the charges that the SWP was plotting a coup, Cohen testified for the plaintiffs that the Russian Revolution was a democratic movement against a minority that was determined to use violence against the soviets to preserve the status quo. He was so brilliant that Judge Griesa, a life-long Republican, kept overruling objections being made by the FBI attorneys.

Not long after listening to Cohen’s testimony, I grew disaffected from the SWP and hooked up with Peter Camejo whose opposition to sectarianism convinced me to catch up on readings that were outside those blessed by the SWP. I took out a subscription to The Nation, which proved to be a great asset when I got involved with Tecnica in 1986 during a visit to Nicaragua. We used to run ads in the back of the magazines that helped draw in many talented technicians anxious to support a revolutionary society. With my subscription, I used to look forward to Cohen’s articles since they made the case for Gorbachev who most people on the left supported, even if his goal was hardly consistent with Marxist ideology.

In 2002, I married a Turkish graduate student and went to meet her parents in Istanbul a year later. I brought some books along with me to read on the plane and in her home in-between socializing. One of the books was Cohen’s “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution” that floored me in the way that Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” did. It opened my eyes to Bukharin’s brilliance and allowed me to forgive his unfortunate alliance with Stalin. I recommend Tendance Coatsey’s blog on Cohen’s passing that is mainly about the book. He writes:

It is both a study of Bukharin the theorist of Imperialism and World Economy (1917) and political career from left-communism, alliance with Stalin against the left, champion of the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some private business to continue, and then, the last independent figure to Stalin He emerges as a figure  both accommodated to the Egocrat and, finally, pushed to resisting, tried to mitigate the worst. Fully aware of the depths of mass killing and famine that went with forced collectivisation, Bukharin was, he argued, a far more formidable opponent to Stalin that Trotsky, who had been exiled without great difficulty from a party which did not hold him in high regard.  Out of power the one-time ‘darling of the party’, continued to offer an alternative to totalitarian rule by forced labour and mass murder, a (relatively) moderate ‘right’ Communism.

With the arrival of Perestroika, Cohen became an informal adviser to Gorbachev largely on the strength of his book. For Cohen, it must have seemed like a return to the NEP policies with Gorbachev keeping it together, a task that was beyond any Soviet leader’s capability in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, they were just as doomed as they were in the 1920s when a layer of the former bureaucracy conspired with Western imperialism to turn the USSR into a Wall Street banker’s wet dream. Using Jeffrey Sach’s shock therapy, Yeltsin made plutocrats wealthy and the rest of the country miserable.

The best thing would have been a worker’s revolution against Yeltsin but, as so often turns out, you only had a reversal of the worst aspects of the Yeltsin years but within the overall neoliberal framework. Tony Wood described this evolution in his “Russia Without Putin” that I reviewed in CounterPunch:

What about Sachs’s shock therapy? Would a nationalist like Putin make sure to secure a social base for his new administration by easing up on the working class? Wood debunks the idea that Putin was a left-populist back then or ever for that matter:

Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised “Russia’s flat tax miracle”, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of “this capitalist thing”, urging readers of the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin”. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.

While I am not privy to the particulars, it soon became obvious that Cohen began to support Putin as a lesser evil to Yeltsin and the West. Like liberals in the USA, this meant downplaying the evil, even if it was lesser. If Trump is evil incarnate, shouldn’t the left support Biden? If the CIA and the IMF were evil incarnate, shouldn’t internationalists rally behind Putin? It should be added that Cohen was not the only prominent and highly respected people in the West who followed this logic. The list is endless: Tariq Ali, Robert Fisk, David Bromwich, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, ad infinitum.

Once I figured out that Cohen was committed to this kind of bastardized anti-imperialism, I had no choice other than to call him out.

In 2014, I wrote an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen is not the man he used to be” that was focused on his support for Russian intervention in Ukraine. I wrote:

I was terribly disappointed to hear Cohen making the case for Putin the other night on George Noory’s “Coast to Coast” radio show on WOR, an AM talk radio station in NY that is now home to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. There was a time when Cohen’s usual venue was someplace like the PBS News Hour or Charlie Rose. How the mighty have fallen.

Cohen told Noory that people had to understand that Russia was the only nation in the world that had suffered two collapses in the 20th century, one in 1917 and one in 1990. I could understand the reference to 1990 but 1917? I wonder if the SWP filed suit this year instead of in 1981 whether  Cohen would be such a reliable witness. The only thing that collapsed in 1917, after all, was Czarist oppression.

Noory’s show is just one small step above Alex Jones. I usually turn it on for a minute or two late at night to hear some guest talking about vapor trails, flying saucers or why global warming is a myth. I invite you to check out the website for Coast to Coast and see for yourself. There’s a story on “Polaroid Ghost Pictures” and one on Noory’s appearance at a UFO fest.

In his zeal to defend Putin of all charges, Cohen went on John Batchelor’s AM radio show on a regular basis. Batchelor is the author of “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?: A Short History of the GOP” and a solid supporter of Donald Trump, even if his rhetoric is not as inflammatory as Tucker Carlson’s. During the years that Cohen was a weekly guest on Batchelor’s show, the only other men who made an equal number of appearances were Malcolm Hoenlein and Gordon Chang. Hoenlein is a member of the Israel lobby as hateful as Abraham Foxman, while Chang is an advocate of economic warfare against China and North Korea that makes Donald Trump pale in comparison. I should add that in all the years I’ve been monitoring the Batchelor show, I’ve never heard a single African-American guest, not even a righwing one.

One of Cohen’s appearances on the Batchelor show was so appalling that I was forced to correct the record in an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen on the 2001 Ukrainian shoot-down of a civilian airliner”:

If you don’t have the time (or the motivation) to listen to the podcast, let me summarize Cohen’s “high” points.

    1. “Some people” say that the men seen firing the missile were in Ukrainian uniforms. I wonder if these Ukrainian men were the same ones that Parry reported as being surrounded by empty beer bottles. Of course, the use of unnamed sources allows Cohen to play the same game as Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh—to raise suspicions without the need for evidence.
    2. He reminds listeners that in 2001 Ukraine accidentally shot down a Russian jet filled with Jews headed for Israel. So clearly the country has a record of incompetence when it comes to deadly firepower.
    3. He advises that when such incidents occur, the first thing to ask is cui bono; he uses the words “who had a motive?” but he means the same thing. If you Google “MH-17” and “cui bono”, you will get 59,500 results—the top of which is Michel Chossudovsky’s website. Now there’s a big surprise. Just as was the case with the sarin gas attack in Syria, the Putinite left takes the position that a “false flag” operation was required to deepen the war on Russia.
    4. The US has been in a new Cold War with Russia since the proxy war in Georgia of 2008, which the conflict in Ukraine continues.

You get the picture, right?

The 2001 shoot-down was news to me. This morning I did a little bit of checking. It turns out that it took weeks for Ukraine to fess up that it was at fault, even though it was obviously just an accident as is obviously the case with MH-17.

In 2001 the president of Ukraine was one Leonid Kuchma. Remember him? He was widely regarded for improving Russian-Ukrainian ties in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence. He won office in 1994, mostly on the basis of strong support from the Russian-speaking East of the country. His prime minister was Viktor Yanukovych. Like Yanukovych, Kuchma favored co-integration with the EU and the Russian trading bloc.

Kuchma, like Putin, was not the sort of ruler to put up with critical reporters, including Georgiy Gongadze who was kidnapped and then beheaded in 2000. Four cops were eventually arrested and found guilty.

It was this abuse of power and rampant corruption that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004. For Cohen the Orange Revolution had lots in common with Euromaidan, a movement that resulted in a “coup” that overturned the democratically elected Yanukovych government. In 2005 he referred to “very large and well-organized pro-Yushchenko crowds in the streets” who “intimidated the Supreme Court into ruling in his favor and the Parliament into changing the electoral laws while the electoral process was still under way.” I guess the CIA must have manipulated them into taking to the streets after an investigative reporter was kidnapped and beheaded, the filthy imperialist tools. Didn’t they understand that Kuchma was defending the nation against imperialist predators?

On October 13, 2001 the NY Times reported on how Kuchma had finally come around to admitting his military’s responsibility.

In strained language that acknowledged only a ”tragic coincidence,” Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, stated today that he accepted investigators’ preliminary finding that his military accidentally destroyed a Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week with an errant missile.

Kuchma’s written statement, released tonight, did not explicitly state that the military was at fault. ”Obviously, final results of the commission’s inquiry will be known after experts complete their in-depth investigation and make appropriate assessments public,” he said. ”But even today it can be said that a big tragedy took place.”

But of paramount interest is this:

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials insisted for days after the crash that a Ukrainian missile could not possibly have been involved. Ukrainian military experts said a re-examination of data from the launchings for that day showed that all missiles had been accounted for and that none had flown more than 25 miles off the Crimean coast before plummeting into the sea.

Kuchma called an accidental aircraft strike impossible. Mr. Tkachyov said all Ukrainian data showed that a missile could not have struck the plane. Relying on these assurances, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, dismissed speculation about a missile strike as a ”so-called” theory.

Cohen was right to bring up the 2001 incident but obviously not in the way he intended. I think the facts will bear out that not much has changed when it comes to the Kremlin and its stooges’ tendency to dig in their heels when involved with such gross displays of incompetence.

I was not the only person who found Cohen’s evolution inexplicable. In 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?” that chronicled his descent. It was quite damning:

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

Since the Chronicle article is behind a paywall, I include just below the NYT article.


Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

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In Moscow he was befriended by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who invited him to the May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. There, at the Lenin Mausoleum, Professor Cohen stood with his wife and son one tier below Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to view a three-hour military parade. He later spoke briefly on Russian television to a vast audience about alternative paths that Russian history could have taken.

Loosely identified with a revisionist historical view of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen held views that made him a controversial public intellectual. He believed that early Bolshevism had held great promise, that it had been democratic and genuinely socialist, and that it had been corrupted only later by civil war, foreign hostility, Stalin’s malignancy and a fatalism in Russian history.

A traditionalist school of thought, by contrast, held that the Soviet experiment had been flawed from the outset, that Lenin’s political vision was totalitarian, and that any attempt to create a society based on his coercive utopianism had always been likely to lead, logically, to Stalin’s state terrorism and to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

Professor Cohen was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gorbachev, who after coming to power in 1985 undertook ambitious changes to liberate the nation’s 15 republics from state controls that had originally been imposed by Stalin. Mr. Gorbachev gave up power as the Soviet state imploded at the end of 1991 and moved toward beliefs in democracy and a market economy.

Mr. Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with his biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin.

A prolific writer who mined Soviet archives, Professor Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” a biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin, who envisioned Communism as a blend of state-run industries and free-market agriculture. Critics generally applauded the work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award.

After Lenin’s death, Mr. Bukharin became a victim of Stalin’s Moscow show trials in 1938; he was accused of plotting against Stalin and executed. His widow, Anna Mikhailovna Larina, spent 20 years in exile and in prison camps and campaigned for Mr. Bukharin’s rehabilitation, which was endorsed by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988.

Ms. Larina and Professor Cohen became friends. Given access to Bukharin archives, he found and returned to her the last love letter that Mr. Bukharin wrote her from prison.

In “Rethinking the Soviet Experience” (1985), Professor Cohen offered a new interpretation of the nation’s traumatic history and modern political realities. In his view, Stalin’s despotism and Mr. Bukharin’s fate were not necessarily inevitable outgrowths of the party dictatorship founded by Lenin.

Richard Lowenthal, in a review for The Times, called Professor Cohen’s interpretation implausible. “While I do not believe that all the horrors of Stalinism were ‘logically inevitable’ consequences of the seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party,” Mr. Lowenthal wrote, “I do believe that Stalin’s victory over Bukharin was inherent in the structure of the party’s system.”

As Professor Cohen and other scholars pondered Russia’s past, Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to power and his efforts toward glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) cast the future of the Soviet Union in a new light, potentially reversing 70 years of Cold War dogma.

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As Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Washington for his 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan, The Times wrote, “With an irreverence for precedent and an agility uncommon in Soviet leaders, he has disrupted old assumptions about Soviet impulses, forced reappraisals of Soviet purposes and rendered less predictable the course of East-West competition.”

To widen the focus, Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel published “Voices of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers” (1989).

Professor Cohen affirmed his support for Mr. Gorbachev in a March 1991 Op-Ed article in The Times. “He has undertaken the most ambitious changes in modern history,” he wrote. “Their goal is to dismantle the state controls Stalin imposed and to achieve an emancipation of society through privatization, democratization and federalization of the 15 republics.”

As 1991 ended, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, giving way to Boris N. Yeltsin’s tumultuous elected presidency. Mr. Yeltsin tried to transform the state economy into a capitalist market by imposing a “shock therapy” of nationwide privatization without price controls. Inflation and economic calamity ensued.

Credit…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

By 1997, as Professor Cohen saw it, the Russian economy had become “an endless collapse of everything essential for a decent existence.” He became a persistent critic of Mr. Yeltsin, who survived an attempted coup and tried to promote democracy but resigned in 1999 amid growing internal pressures. He was succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Putin.

In his book, “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia” (2000), Professor Cohen laid the blame for Russia’s post-Communist economic and social collapse on the United States, for providing bad advice; on academic experts, for what he called “malpractice throughout the 1990s”; on Western journalists; and on Mr. Yeltsin, for a range of sins: abolishing the Soviet Union, creating a bureaucratic vacuum and generating hyperinflation with his economic shock therapy.

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“Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s first democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in fact, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times review. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as overly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian cities, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

Stephen Frand Cohen was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1938, the older of two children of Marvin and Ruth (Frand) Cohen. His father owned a jewelry store and a golf course in Hollywood, Fla. Stephen and his sister, Judith, attended schools in Owensboro, Ky., but Stephen graduated in 1956 from the Pine Crest School, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He loved the novels of Hemingway. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he went to England on a study-abroad program. He had saved $300 for a side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But an advertisement he saw for a 30-day, $300 trip to the U.S.S.R. changed his life.

Back at Indiana University, he gave up plans to be a golf pro and took up Russian studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy in 1960 and a master’s in Russian studies in 1962. In 1969, he received a doctorate in that subject from Columbia University.

Professor Cohen’s marriage in 1962 to the opera singer Lynn Blair ended in divorce. He married Ms. vanden Heuvel in 1988. In addition to her, he is survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Alexandra Cohen, from his first marriage; another daughter, Nicola Cohen, from his second marriage; a sister, Judith Lefkowitz; and four grandchildren.

His Columbia dissertation on Mr. Bukharin’s economic ideas grew into his first book, copies of which reached Soviet dissidents, the K.G.B. in Moscow, and eventually Mr. Gorbachev, who put Professor Cohen on his guest list for the 1987 Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Washington.

Professor Cohen taught at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, rising to full professor of politics and Russian studies, and at New York University thereafter until his retirement in 2011. His last book, published in 2019, was “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”

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Many journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed democratic freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for ordinary Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as rising prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this obituary, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds views that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I defend, not Putin.

“From the moment Yeltsin came on,” he continued, “Americans thought the Cold War was over. There was disappointment with Putin as a more rational leader. I see him in the Russian tradition of leadership, getting Russia back on its feet. He frightens some of our observers, but I didn’t see it that way.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?

How Stephen F. Cohen became the most controversial Russia expert in America

The Winter 1

VLADISLAV DOKSHIN

Here is a picture of Gorbachev with Steve. Here is another picture of Gorbachev with Steve, this one with some Russian dissidents. And look, there is one of Gorbachev and Katrina, Steve’s wife, holding their infant daughter. There is even a Gorbachev magnet on the refrigerator.

Walking around this book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on an August evening, it is almost as though the man with the world’s most famous birthmark is the third partner in the marriage of Stephen F. Cohen and The Nation editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

For more than four decades, Cohen has been a leading voice on Russian affairs, pinballing between the academy, where he is now emeritus at Princeton University and NYU, and the media, influencing world events along the way. Few scholarly works can be said to have equaled the direct political impact of Cohen’s 1973 biography of the Soviet founding father Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf) didn’t just suggest a new understanding of the Russian Revolution when it was released in the middle of the Cold War — it profoundly affected the course of that war. Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev wrote, “Some of us had already read the book, and we encouraged Gorbachev to do so. He took the book on vacation with him. He read it closely and kept quoting it to me. … The re-evaluation of Bukharin’s role and personality opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.”

Gorbachev’s affection for Cohen’s ideas — and for Cohen himself — turned a lowly scholar of the Russian Revolution into an intellectual VIP who sat in meetings with heads of state. Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and a Nation columnist who has known Cohen for decades, calls Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution “one of the most consequential books of the past century.” It realized “the dream of all writers to have an effect not only on world leaders but also on history itself.”

But these days, Cohen is better known for his views on a different Russian leader. In his columns and media appearances in recent years, he has become perhaps the most prominent defender of Vladimir Putin. “Putin is not a thug,” he declared on CNN. “He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” The defense extends to the U.S. president, who has had some nice things to say about Putin. “The number-one threat to the United States today,” Cohen told Fox News, is the continuing investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia: “There is no evidence there was any wrongdoing.”

Perspectives like that have attracted the ire of a wide array of critics. Writing in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called Cohen “Putin’s American apologist.” Jonathan Chait in New York magazine labeled him a “dupe” and “a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism.” Cathy Young in Slate said Cohen was “repeating Russian misinformation” and “recycling this propaganda.” And there are many others who share those views, even at the magazine his wife runs.

Cohen’s ideas about Russia, which once got him invited to Camp David to advise a sitting president, now make him the most controversial expert in the field. His enemies and friends ask the same question: What happened to Stephen F. Cohen?

When Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution was published, détente between the United States and the Soviet Union was well underway. But Russian studies was still dominated by the view that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, immune to reform because the logic of total control was embedded in the Soviet DNA. “The Western view [is] of Stalinism as the only outcome of Bolshevism,” Cohen wrote.

His book exploded that notion. It showed that Bukharin, a Marxist theoretician and member of the Russian Communist Party, offered a programmatic Soviet alternative to the Stalinism that eventually triumphed. “It was a huge statement,” says Eugene Huskey, a political scientist at Stetson University. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution did what scholarly history should do: Use primary source materials to revise the understanding of the past. But it had obvious implications for the present and future as well. If the Soviet Union had become a tyrannical regime as an accident of history rather than as the inevitable end of a deterministic ideology, then perhaps reform was possible.

The book might have remained merely well regarded if not for Gorbachev. For those Russians looking for an alternative between capitalism and Communist dictatorship — and members of Gorbachev’s cabinet were foremost among those who were — Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution suggested one. “During the years of perestroika, many of my acquaintances were literally engrossed in reading his book,” Gorbachev wrote in an essay that was included in an anthology featuring 35 prominent Russian political, cultural, and media figures marking Cohen’s 70th birthday. “I remember that this book, which in many respects resonated with the social changes of that time, became a best seller in the Soviet Union.”

There was a brief, glorious period in the late 1980s when humane reform of Russia seemed possible, and Cohen was a hero to Gorbachev and his fellow reformers. He was seen as a man who offered an intellectual blueprint for a democratic socialism that could save Russia. Cohen visited Camp David at the request of President George H.W. Bush, squaring off against Harvard’s Richard Pipes in a scholarly battle to influence U.S. foreign policy and determine the course of the Cold War. He wrote frequently for The New York Times, almost leaving Princeton to become the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent.

But that was decades ago. Gorbymania is passé. Now it’s Putin. Putin, Putin, Putin. And Cohen is not friends with Putin, though he downplays the Russian leader’s failings. Presidents are no longer interested in the opinions of Cohen. But at least he can do his best to ensure that what he has for years been calling a second Cold War does not become a hot war. Cohen thinks we are closer than we have ever been, closer than we were during even the Cuban missile crisis or Able Archer. And the idea that he is unable to stop the downward spiraling of U.S.-Russian relations is nothing short of agonizing. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States is his biggest fear. (Well, that and irrelevance, if you believe his critics.)

Not that any such anguish is immediately evident when we meet in his apartment. He’s from Kentucky, he says, and retains “a skepticism about everything except horses and bourbon.” Dressed in jeans and a black-and-gold shirt, he smokes Marlboros on his living-room couch. The view of Central Park from here is of green treetops at sundown. At 78, he is still handsome, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Vanden Heuvel, who walks in and out of the room, is 20 years younger and looks like a dark-haired heroine out of Tolstoy.

Cohen spends much of his time writing for The Nation. Their daughter, Nicola, who is here for dinner tonight, attends Columbia Law School, going into criminal-justice reform. Which, if you had to guess what a child of Cohen and vanden Heuvel would be doing with her life, is pretty much what you would come up with. “I’m very proud talking about my daughter’s passion for justice,” he says, listing off her accomplishments. It’s not a bad life.

But the attacks in the media have stung. Vanden Heuvel can recite the worst of them. And they have also started to come from inside The Nation, where editors and reporters wonder if Cohen’s influence is responsible for the country’s leading left-wing magazine taking the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on U.S.-Russia policy.

In academe, Cohen gets more regard. He has a chest of good will stored away, for his Bukharin biography primarily, but also for his essays on Russian history, collected in books like Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives (Columbia University Press, 2009). “He’s well-respected as a sort of historical political scientist,” says Ronald Suny, a Russianist at the University of Michigan.

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

“I would say he’s not in the mainstream,” says Huskey. “He’s clearly an outlier” in absolving Russia for its military excursions and electoral interference. “Many have the perception that his comments make him out to be an apologist for Russia.”

That perception has tarnished Cohen’s name. In 2014, vanden Heuvel initiated discussions with the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies on funding a dissertation fellowship named after Cohen and his mentor, Robert Tucker. But the association delayed approving the fellowship when some board members complained about establishing one with Cohen’s name. Stephen Hanson, the group’s president at the time, told The New York Times, “It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies around Professor Cohen. In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”

Cohen and vanden Heuvel withdrew the offer. The association later asked if the couple would take Cohen’s name off the fellowship but still provide funding, a request that further insulted them.

In January 2015, David Ransel, an Indiana University professor and former editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a letter to the association, saying that its handling of the matter “reeks of a censuring of public discourse and should be regarded by all decent people as a profound embarrassment to our association.” It was signed by more than 60 scholars. A few months later, the group finally approved the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship Program, which is still in existence.

The affair left Cohen dismayed. “I went ballistic,” he says. Vanden Heuvel calls it “a poke in the eye.” Cohen thinks that young scholars are afraid to voice views similar to his. He says he gets email to that effect. “They’re going to be careful. And you can’t be a good scholar and be careful.”

On a Tuesday evening, Cohen arrives at the WABC studios in midtown. He appears weekly on The John Batchelor Show, a talk-radio program, for a 40-minute discussion, highlights of which are summarized on The Nation’s website. He sports a light beard (the legendary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once called Cohen’s facial hair a “rusty, biblical unshaveness”), and he smokes from a vaporizer on the elevator up to the studio.

Winding our way through the halls, he brings up several times appearing on the show with Oliver Stone to discuss Putin. “It was shown all over the world,” he says. For his segment, a giant image of Putin is displayed on the studio wall. Cohen, fluid and articulate, is comfortable here, cracking jokes with the host. He was a CBS commentator during the 1980s and appeared regularly on television. His smooth, deep voice, the product of decades of cigarettes, is made for broadcast. Vanden Heuvel shows up and lovingly takes a few photos of Cohen before scrolling through her emails.

On the show, Cohen unleashes the opinions that have turned him into one of the least popular Russia experts in America. Speaking about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to Russia’s invasion, he asks: “If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, and you see this as surreptitious NATO expansion, and Ukraine, which is virtually a kinship of Russia, do you do nothing?” Putin “is reacting. … He had few alternatives.” He continues: “If we’re going to ask who undermined Ukrainian democracy, it wasn’t Putin.” It was Western leaders.

He similarly blames America for panicking about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Why did America embrace what is clearly, or seems to be, a fiction for which there is no evidence?” He speculates on the answers: Putin was an obstacle to global American hegemony. Another scenario: “Sinister forces, greedy forces, high in our political system and in our economy, need Russia as an enemy because it’s exceedingly profitable.” U.S.-Russian relations “didn’t go wrong in Moscow.” They “went wrong in Washington.”

Not many scholars concur with those views. But even those who think Cohen is wrong now have to acknowledge that he has been right about a lot in the past. In addition to his views in the 1970s on the possibilities of Soviet reforms, he was proved correct in his assessment in the late 1980s that Gorbachev was a genuine democrat, in contrast to those who, like Richard Pipes, believed he was merely a kinder, gentler Soviet apparatchik. In the 1990s, Cohen was among the first to identify Boris Yeltsin as someone doing deep damage to Russia through his corruption. “Much of the academy were pro-Yeltsin,” recalls Suny. And Cohen was prescient in observing that post-Cold War NATO expansion would revive Russian nationalism.

Suny says Cohen “tries to fight all windmills at once” but adds that he is “rather courageous” and “covers for more timid colleagues” in countering the standard U.S. narrative about Russia. Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political scientist, says serious Russian experts “see him as wrong, but not as a traitor.” He notes, “Anybody who thinks he’s a tool of the Soviets or Russia is a fool.”

Vanden Heuvel offers her own frame: “If you have to define Steve, he’s an alternativist. This idea of don’t accept — seek the alternative.” Cohen’s views have made life difficult not only for him but also for vanden Heuvel. With his support of Putin and Trump (at least on Russia) “now there’s double toxicity” regarding him, as he puts it.

Staffers at The Nation are openly revolting against the magazine’s pro-Russian tilt. “There is a widespread feeling that he has always been involved and had lots of influence on vanden Heuvel, but that it ratcheted up with [the Russian invasion of] Crimea,” says the longtime Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. “He has a view that we are on the edge of World War III, and it’s not a view that I or other people hold.”

Vanden Heuvel points out that Cohen’s tenure at The Nation preceded hers and finds claims of his control over her insulting. But it is undeniable that the flagship magazine of the American left supports the Russia policy of Donald Trump. In June, some Nation writers told vanden Heuvel in a letter that “the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions.”

Cohen is insouciant about the controversy, except insofar as it hurts vanden Heuvel. His time working with Russian dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s inspired his nonchalant attitude. “There’s no real price for dissent in America compared to what it was in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I’m emeritus at two universities. That means I’m old and I got a lot of health care. What are they going to do to me?”

But the flashes of defiance can’t obscure the heartbreak. The tragedy for Cohen is that Gorbachev’s democratic Soviet alternative never materialized. Instead he lost control of the Soviet empire, and Yeltsin came to power, dissolved the Soviet Union, and oversaw a transition to a country based on hyper-capitalism devoid of the rule of law. And then Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor. None of the rest is history.

As I left their apartment, Cohen gave me a copy of his book The Victims Return (PublishingWorks, 2010), about survivors of Stalin’s gulags. On the train ride home, I looked at the inscription he wrote inside:

For Jordan —

Wishing you a happier fate.

Steve

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-PresidencyHis writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineThe Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

September 18, 2020

Review of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Working my way through John Bellamy Foster’s magisterial “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology,” it dawned on me that there was a gap in my knowledge. I knew that Marx and Engels were consumed with ecological problems, even though the word wasn’t in their vocabulary. To a large extent, my awareness came from reading another great Foster book, “Marx’s Ecology.” However, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that in between Marx/ Engels and Rachel Carson it was mostly a blur. The failure of the socialist states to support Green values reinforced that feeling. From Chernobyl to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, there was not much to distinguish capitalist and socialist society.

After finishing “The Return of Nature,” that blur gave way to clarity. Foster’s intellectual history shows a chain of thinkers connecting Marx/Engels to today’s greatest ecological thinkers, from Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner. To use a cliché, they stood on the shoulders of giants.

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September 17, 2020

The Julius Krein/Adolph Reed Jr. Correspondence

Filed under: Adolph Reed Jr. — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

September 16, 2020

For They Know Not What They Do

Filed under: Film,Gay,religion,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

After having reviewed well over a dozen narrative and documentary films over the years making the case for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, none has moved me as much as “For They Know Not What They Do” (Jesus’s words at his crucifixion) that opened yesterday on iTunes, Amazon and virtual cinema. The documentary tells the story of four young people growing up in strict Christian households, who face both opposition from their families and society as a whole. They say that the key to a successful documentary is choosing subjects that an audience can relate to. That being the criterion, director Daniel Karslake, a gay man, is a pure genius. We meet in turn:

  • Linda and Rob Robertson, fervent evangelicals who put their 12 year-old son Ryan into conversion therapy.
  • Life-long Presbyterians, David and Sally McBride, who were shocked when their youngest boy came out to them as a transgender female.
  • Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child suffered endlessly until they accepted her transitioning to a male identity.
  • Victor Baez and Annette Febo, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican family values put them at odds with their gay son Vico, who was one of the survivors of the homophobic mass murder of people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” His classic novel created fictional characters whose pain spoke for the human condition universally. Karslake’s film speaks to the particular pain of both parents and children coping with the contradictions between the religious beliefs that sustain them and the right of their children to live as fulfilled human beings.

In 2007, Karslake directed “For the Bible Tells Me So” that covered the same territory. It featured interviews with several sets of religious parents with gay children, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, and the parents of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Robinson is featured in “For They Know Not What They Do”, making the case for tolerance. Robinson is famous for being the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in a major Christian denomination, in his case the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Although the film says nothing about his background, one gleans that Robinson’s class background disposed him toward a genuine Christian sensibility based on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth. His parents were poor sharecroppers working the tobacco fields in Kentucky. Wikipedia reports that the family used an outhouse, drew water from a cistern, and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Although I found the story of all four families compelling, Sarah McBride’s store brought me close to tears. Born as Tim McBride in 1990, he sat at his computer when he was 12 years old sending an email to his mother announcing that he wanted to be a girl. Despite society’s animosity toward trans people that the film rightly likens to the attitudes gay people had to put up with before Stonewall, Sarah was self-assured and willing to put up with abuse. While the abuse hurt, it even hurt more to be trapped in a body that does not feel you belong in.

McBride is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Today the New York Times reported that she is set to be the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official, having won a primary for a safely Democratic seat in Delaware. As much as I detest the Democratic Party, I was happy to see footage in the film of her  being the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention in 2016. Hint, it wasn’t the Republican convention.

The film includes a segment that would likely inspire guffaws from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. While working at the Center for American Progress, McBride met a staff lawyer named Andrew Cray who she felt attracted to and vice versa. As it happens, Cray was born a female and transitioned into a male. When you watch the two walking hand in hand, you wonder what makes people like JK Rowling tick, whose new novel makes an amalgam between crossdressing and its main character, a serial killer. Not long after the two were married, Cray developed multiple forms of cancer and died in 2014. Just before his death, the two got married with the ceremony led by Bishop Gene Robinson.

There was a time when Hollywood made movies about gay people, largely as a nod in the direction of diversity. None were any good, no doubt a function of the dominance of straight people in the driver’s seat either as director, screenwriter or lead actor. It takes a documentary like this to not only do justice to gay and transgender identity but to tell a totally involving story. Not to be missed.

September 13, 2020

Why Julius Krein was ready to pay $2,000 to Adolph Reed Jr. for a book review

Filed under: Adolph Reed Jr. — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

Julius Krein

On September 9th, Useful Idiots podcaster Katie Halper featured Michael Moore and Adolph Reed Jr. as examples of cancel culture victimization. Only a Reed fan like Halper could have seen an equivalence between corporate Greens trying to suppress “Planet of the Humans” and Reed begging off a Zoom talk because some DSA members opposed to his views on BLM might stress him out.

A brief moment in Reed’s segment with Halper revealed a most peculiar incident. He said that he had been approached by Julius Krein, the editor of American Affairs, to write a book review for $2000, which is a hefty amount. Initially, Reed assumed that Krein was “a Jew” living somewhere out in Brooklyn who had been involved with Partisan Review. Pretty good stereotyping from a Marxist professor, no? Eventually, he learned that Krein was an 18-year old from South Dakota, who went to Harvard and was a “Nazi basically.” Odd that an 18-year old would be a Harvard graduate, let alone being the editor of a magazine in a position to pay Reed $2,000. It turns out that Krein is 34 years old and hardly a Nazi.

All Reed drew out of this encounter was that Krein was trying to sow discord on the left by seducing an “iconoclastic” Marxist to write for his magazine, just as he had done with Angela Nagle who wrote her infamous nativist screed on American Affairs in 2018, titled “The Left Case Against Open Borders”.

Reed evidently didn’t want to be associated with a magazine that published Nagle but did not dwell on why Krein set his sights on him. The answer is simple. Having Reed as part of his burgeoning stable of left-of-center contributors will deepen his influence. Despite Reed’s disparaging of Krein as a Nazi, his politics overlap with Bellows, a self-described Marxist magazine that published an article arguing “You can either have open borders or a welfare state. You cannot have both.” Krein is likely smart enough to recognize that if Bellows could do a softball interview with Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, he might be enticed into connecting with American Affairs, especially for $2,000.

It is not as if American Affairs has anything in common with a real neo-Nazi website like UNZ Review, where the only leftist articles are written by schmucks moving rapidly in Unz’s direction like Mike Whitney and C.J. Hopkins. A brief survey of American Affairs indicates the political breadth. There’s an article co-written by Peter Juul and Ruy Teixeira titled “Toward the Next Frontier: The Case for a New Liberal Nationalism” that starts off sounding as if it could have been written by Reed, whose main lesson for the left is that it took a wrong turn in the 60s by embracing Black Power rather than sticking with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin:

When labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin put forward their ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans in 1966, they couched their political argument in the powerful idiom of liberal nationalism. “For better or worse,” Randolph avowed in his introduction, “We are one nation and one people.” The Freedom Budget, he went on, constituted “a challenge to the best traditions and possibilities of America” and “a call to all those who have grown weary of slogans and gestures to rededicate themselves to the cause of social reconstruction.” It was also, he added, “a plea to men of good will to give tangible substance to long-proclaimed ideals.”

To the detriment of the nation as a whole, the Democratic Party and left-wing political elites abandoned the successful and compelling idiom of liberal nationalism espoused by the likes of Randolph and Rustin, as well as by political leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert H. Humphrey. Instead, party and intellectual elites have retreated into an ideological hall of mirrors that has left them adrift at a critical time in the nation’s his­tory. They lack the political language required to move the United States beyond the rolling crisis it finds itself in as it barrels toward the 2020 presidential election.

Juul and Teixeira are long-time liberal on the staff of the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think-tanks. Like Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, they view “identity politics” as a dead end. They write:

Yet the multicultural Left somehow deludes itself into believing that it can cobble together a winning political coalition by encouraging identity-based segregation and deploying empty academic jargon. This is incorrect; strong majorities of Americans dislike political correctness and oppose extravagant demands associated with the multi­cultural Left, such as reparations for the descendants of slaves, de­criminalizing the border, and defunding the police.

The rest of their crappy article is a paean to FDR, using language associated with the Sanders campaign even though they showed disdain for “democratic socialism” in the article. The best way to understand Juul and Teixeira is as the advance guard of the Biden campaign trying to turn the wretched neoliberal candidate into potentially the most progressive president since FDR, a ridiculous notion that Sanders himself took seriously.

Like Ron Unz, Julius Krein is a man on a mission. He is no neo-Nazi, however. Politically, there’s not much to distinguish him from Bellows or Quillette, two other contrarian websites that endeavor to amalgamate left and right politics.

He launched American Affairs in 2016 to serve as an intellectual handmaiden to the Trump administration. At the time Krein, had some years behind him in finance, including for the Blackstone Group, run by the swinish Stephen Schwarzman. One supposes that he felt an affinity for Trump’s white nationalism like fellow financier Peter Navarro but bailed out in 2017 when it became obvious that Trump was not acting in the national interests of the USA despite his “America First” rhetoric. He wrote an op-ed for the NY Times on August 17, 2017 titled “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It” that included conventional Mitt Romney type talking points.

Krein fancies himself some sort of intellectual. These financiers read a bit here and there, then spew their nonsense far and wide. You got that from George Soros and Felix Rohatyn before him. In an article titled “The Real Class War”, Krein dismisses the working class as being decisive in shaping politics for the foreseeable future despite its downward mobility. Instead, it will be up to the “elite” to shape policy. Those elites have nothing to do with Marxist class analysis, even if this birdbrain has read Marx. He writes:

The socioeconomic divide that will determine the future of politics, particularly in the United States, is not between the top 30 per­cent or 10 percent and the rest, nor even between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The real class war is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent—or, more precisely, between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on professional labor.

This might sound familiar. What Krein calls the “elites”, other politically confused people refer to as the Professional Managerial Class or PMC, a term coined by John and Barbara Ehrenreich in the 1970s. They theorized a social class that through its control of production processes through superior management skills was neither proletarian nor bourgeois.

This crap is pretty familiar. I used to hear it all through the early 60s at Bard College that despite its radical reputation was no place to learn about Karl Marx. Ironically, the most sophisticated version of this theory came from someone with a past in the Trotskyist movement. In 1941, James Burnham wrote a book titled “The Managerial Revolution” that saw similarities between FDR, Hitler and Stalin. Like Burnham and countless other sociologists obsessed with the white-collar middle-class, Krein does not understand how capitalism works. The class struggle is muted because the working-class, unlike the ruling class, does not see itself as a class. The whole point of the socialist movement is to help serve as a midwife to the birth of that recognition. Krein writes:

At bottom, the economy that has been constructed over the last few decades is nothing more than a capital accumulation economy. As long as returns on capital exceed returns on labor, then the largest capital holders benefit the most, inequality rises, and wealth becomes more and more narrowly concentrated. Labor—including elite labor—is inevitably left behind. Marxian thinkers have been analyzing these dynamics for almost two centuries, but they have often misread the political effects of these developments, which play out primarily among the elite managerial class, rather than within the binary of capitalists and proletarians.

Well, he’s dead wrong. It is within the “binary of capitalists and proletarians”. This might have been easier to miss when he wrote this preposterous article but it is becoming clearer every day with mass evictions, hunger, destructive wild fires, floods, war, wage stagnation and unemployment. Someone like Krein, who must have made millions as a financier, must understand that this is a class-divided society. Like other magazine owners desperate to paper over class distinctions, he has to work much harder nowadays as the curtain concealing the Wizard of Oz drops to the floor. When he tried to line up Adolph Reed Jr., he pinned his hopes on using Reed as another prop, even more effectively than Juul and Teixeira. After all, there’s no greater authority on Marxism than Adolph Reed Jr. Just ask him.

September 11, 2020

Biden’s transition team: neoliberalism incarnate

Filed under: Biden,Counterpunch,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 1:04 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 11, 2020

On September 5th, Joe Biden added four new members to his transition team, which was not really a team. It consisted only of Ted Kaufman, the 81-year old Democratic senator from Delaware. Considering Kaufman’s reputation as a deficit hawk and his advanced age, Biden had to cover his left flank and give the appearance of diversity.

Nobody would see his choices as going overboard. There’s only one new member who has the appearance of being progressive enough to get Bernie Sanders salivating: New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. She’s a Mexican-American that Daily Kos described as “the TYPE of VP candidate that could rally all of us together — progressives, mainstream Dems, working class, suburbanites, people of color, etc. — to take back our country.”

Joe Monahan, who blogs about New Mexico politics, was less impressed. In an article that had her hanging on her own petard, we learned of her disgust with Green New Deal type activists in the Democratic Party. “They’ve lost their minds. We’re the third-largest oil producer in the country. I’m going to get a benefit from that.” With fracking polluting the state’s water, a dubious benefit, Lujan blithely gave the green light to the oil and gas industry. The Santa Fe-New Mexican reported, “Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told an energy conference Tuesday that her administration aims to work with oil and gas on key issues, a message that appeared to delight industry representatives.”  This must have recommended her to Biden, who said the following in a Pittsburgh speech, “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking. No matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”

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September 9, 2020

Ecology between Frederick Engels and Rachel Carsons

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

For me, ecology began with Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring” in the 1962 New Yorker, continued with Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” in 1971, and finally reached full bloom with a torrent of books soon afterwards touching on global warming, desertification, species extinction, water and air pollution, etc. I, of course, knew about Engels’s observations in “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” about the pine forests in the Alps but between Engels and Rachel Carson, it was a bit of a blur.

Among the great accomplishments of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature” is filling in the gap between Engels and Rachel Carson. Chapter Eight, titled “Ecology as a System”, deals with ecological writing in England in the late 19th to early 20th century. Among the revelations is his discussion of a 1,400 page book co-authored by Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells and Wells’s son G.P. Wells titled “The Science of Life”. As you will see below, the three men were writing about things that continue to confront us today. It is not surprising that they were men of the left. As Foster points out, H.G. Wells’s novels are filled with dystopian visions of a future that came about because of a refusal to follow Green principles. It’s tragic that we are faced with the same crisis today.


The ecological problem facing humanity then becomes a question of releasing nature’s locked-up powers, avoiding leakages in energy flows, and ensuring that humanity does not heedlessly cross natural limits or break nature’s laws. Evolution is presented as a slow, inherently progressive process. Humanity is able to speed this process, but it is also faced by ecological contradictions of its own creation. The final section of the chapter “Life Under Control,” [in “The Science of Life”] titled “The Ecological Outlook,” explores the problem of anthropogenic ecological crises and the possible means of addressing them. Thus, we are told, in line with Lankester [a friend of Karl Marx committed to ecosocialism], that civilization’s spread has been accompanied by a “trail of plagues.” Colonization has gone hand in hand with the intended and unintended spread of invasive species, crowding out and killing off native habitat and species. Industrial agriculture leads to the systematic disruption of the soil cycle, robbing the soil of its nutrients. “To make good these losses of the soil, he [the human being] has crushed up the nitre [nitrates] of Chile, the guano of Peru, the stores of phosphate rock in various parts of the earth’s crust. But these too are [natural] capital and the end of them is in sight. Linnaeus gave man the title of Homo sapiens, Man the Wise. One is sometimes tempted to agree with Professor [Charles] Richet, who thinks that a more suitable designation would have been Homo stultus, Man the Fool.”

Describing this folly, Wells, Huxley, and Wells wrote:

In the last couple of centuries he [humanity] has accelerated the circulation of matter—from raw materials to food and tools and luxuries and back to raw matter again—to an unprecedented speed. But he has done it by drawing on reserves of capital. He is using up the bottled sunshine of coal thousands of times more quickly than Nature succeeds in storing it; and the same rate of wastage holds for oil and natural gas. By reckless cutting without re-afforestation, he has not only been incurring a timber lack which future generations will have to face, but he has been robbing great stretches of the world of their soil and even of the climate which plant evolution has given them. .. .

By over-killing, man has exterminated magnificent creatures like the bison as wild species. Less than a century ago herds numbered by the hundred thousand covered the Great Plains. Buffalo Bill killed 4,280 bison with his own rifle in a year and a half; and that was far from being a record. The United States Government detailed troops to help in the slaughter, in order to force the Indians, by depriving them of their normal subsistence, to settle down to agricultural life on reservations. Today there remain a few small protected herds.

By over-killing, he has almost wiped out whales in the northern hemisphere, and unless some international agreement is soon arrived at, the improvement of engines of destruction is likely to do the same for the Antarctic seas. If he is not careful, the fur-bearers will go the same road; the big game of the world is doomed to go, and to go speedily, unless we take measures to stop its extinction. By taking crop after crop of wheat and corn out of the land in quick succession, he exhausted the riches of the virgin soils of the American west; and is now doing the same for the grasslands of the world by taking crop after crop of sheep and cattle off of them.

The essential problem in all of this was the human economy, its speed of expansion, its ruthless acquisitiveness, its waste of resources, and its lack of planning. In the final section of the chapter on “Life Under Control,” titled “The Ecological Outlook,” the three authors argued:

The cardinal fact in the problem of the human future is the speed of change. The colonization of new countries, the change from forest to fields, the reclamation of land from sea, the making of lakes, the introduction of new animals and plants—all these in pre-human evolution were the affairs of secular time, where a thousand years are but as yesterday; but now they are achieved in centuries or even decades. One cannot estimate such changes exactly, but we shall not be far out if we say that man is imposing on the life of the world a rate of change ten thousand times as great as any rate of change it ever knew before.

Human beings were able to transform nature radically in the interest of the expansion of the human economy, but they did so under conditions in the dominant economic order, conditions that were unplanned and that showed a lack of concern and foresight for the long-term ecological consequences of such actions. Humanity is “very unlikely by the light of nature to see all the multifarious consequences” of such economic actions, “and too often the consequences will be quite different” from what was anticipated.

From the standpoint of biological economics, of which human economics is but a part, man’s general problem is this: to make the vital circulation of matter and energy as swift, efficient, and wasteless as it can be made; and since we are first and foremost a continuing race, to see that we are not achieving an immediate efficiency at the expense of later generations.” The issue then became one of long-term sustainable development.

Wells, Huxley, and Wells explained that due to agricultural chemists such as “Liebig, Lawes, and Gilbert, the employment of chemical fertilizers has become almost universal. But up till quite recently man has taken little thought for the morrow beyond the single crop. It is true . . . that he has been forced by the demands of his wheat and corn to let his land lie fallow from time to time, or to introduce nitrogen-catching crops, like clover or lupins, into his rotation; but that is only a beginning.” Nitrogen-based fertilizer was now available in unlimited supplies, making the loss of Chilean nitrates no longer a problem. But other limits were quite severe. They wrote: “We are using up our coal and oil.” Fossil fuels would eventually have to be replaced by alternative energies: “Water-power is always with us, and there are tide-power and sun-power and wind power for us to tap. We are using up our oil; but sooner or later we shall replace it satisfactorily by power-alcohol made from plants.”

The most serious problem was phosphorus:

Phosphorus is an essential constituent of all living creatures. It is, however, a rather rare element in nature, constituting only about one seven-hundredth part of the earth’s crust… . From the soil of the United States alone the equivalent of some six million tons of phosphate is disappearing every year; and only about a quarter of this is put back in fertilizers. Meanwhile the store of fertilizers is being depleted, and man … is sluicing phosphorus recklessly into the ocean in sewage. Each year, the equivalent of over a million tons of phosphate rock is thus dumped out to sea, most of it for all practical purposes irrecover-able. The Chinese may be less sanitary in their methods of sewage disposal, but they are certainly more sensible; in China, what has been taken out of the soil is put back into the soil. It is urgently necessary that Western “civilized” man shall alter his methods of sewage disposal. If he does not, there will be a phosphorus shortage, and therefore a food shortage, in a few generations. But even if he does that he will still have to keep his eye on phosphorus; it is the weak link in the vital chain on which civilization is supported.

The conclusion was that “man’s chief need to-day is to look ahead. He must plan his food and energy circulation as carefully as a board of directors plans a business. He must do it as one community, on a world-wide basis, and as a species, on a continuing basis.”

September 8, 2020

Assessing David Graeber’s legacy

Filed under: anarchism,Kurd,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

David Graeber, 1961-2020

I was as shocked by David Graeber’s death as everybody else. As was the case with Michael Brooks, this was a case of dying much too young. Both men were beloved by their respective constituencies. Brooks, a Sandernista, was mourned most deeply by his colleagues in and around Jacobin Magazine after he died of a blood clot at the age of 36 on July 20th. Like Brooks, Graeber also died unexpectedly from a blood-related illness—internal bleeding from an unspecified cause. An autopsy will likely provide the exact nature of his untimely death.

Graeber, who was 59 when he died, was far better known than Brooks as obituaries in the leading newspapers would indicate. He was primarily known as an anarchist bien pensant but also as an author of best-selling books such as “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” that like Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” broke through to a larger audience. In addition, Graeber was considered an innovative thinker by his peers in the academy even though (or, maybe, because) his articles were far removed from the minutiae typical of JSTOR articles.

After seeing numerous tributes to him on Facebook, I thought twice about writing anything critical since it might be regarded as a gratuitous Marxist attack on a revered figure. I suppose I was waiting for someone to write such an article but could only find the same kind of tribute in Marxist magazines that he received from his anarchist and academic comrades and colleagues. For example, Left Voice—a rock-ribbed Trotskyist journal—spoke of him as “more than just a visionary academic.” Perhaps the author’s past encounters (or lack of encounters) helped shaped her article: “When I was a student at the London School of Economics, I tried to get into his public lectures and was unsuccessful. The lines stretched across courtyards and snaked through lobbies as students lined up far in advance to see him in action.”

Seeing nobody else willing to write a balance sheet on his career as an activist, I guess I’ll have to fill the bill until someone more qualified comes along. Maybe with my bad reputation in certain places on the left, I have nothing to lose. Those who hate me for criticizing Graeber will have to stand on line behind the people who hate me for a thousand other offenses. (Not having read his best-sellers, I will of course have nothing to to say about them.)

I hadn’t paid much attention to David Graeber after his well-known political firing from Yale University in 2007. But it was difficult not to miss his meteoric rise as the chief ideologist of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. At the time, I was very impressed with the role of anarchists in the struggle as was my friend Pham Binh, who had a Marxist background like me but could understand anarchism’s importance in this struggle. In a guest post on my blog, he wrote, “Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.”

Graeber’s role was not to help organize the occupation, which admittedly eschewed any kind of organization except providing mutual aid, but to both theorize and popularize it. As for popularization, his description of Occupy as fighting for “the ninety-nine percent” was brilliant and helped shape the thinking of the Sanders campaign that battled conversely against the one-percent.

Unfortunately, Graeber’s narrowly constrained anarchist concepts helped to derail the movement in the long run. To start with, Graeber was opposed to the movement adopting demands. When he learned that there were plans to march on Wall Street with predetermined demands, Graeber and his small group created their own general assembly, which eventually developed into the New York General Assembly. This was a pyrrhic victory since the General Assembly forestalled the possibility of a mass movement fighting for structural changes that could have truly benefited the 99 percent, such as nationalizing the banks.

He was also wrong to fetishize the physical occupation of public spaces such as Zuccotti Park in New York, which were supposed to “prefigure” the future anarchist world. By not being more flexible, the movement could not project a future plan of action after the cops systematically removed activists everywhere from parks, plazas, etc. This is not to speak of the exclusion of people from the ostensible heart of the movement because jobs, family responsibilities, age and infirmity made sleeping out in the cold in a sleeping bag impossible. As is so often the case with anarchist activism, the masses are supposed to function as if observers at a sporting event, cheering on the participants.

I haven’t paid much attention to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, but this strikes me as the latest example of the “prefigurative” dead-end. The NY Times reported on the experience of coffee shop owner Faizel Khan:

Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Mr. Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected.

“They barricaded us all in here,” Mr. Khan said. “And they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.”

Finally, Graeber defended the idea of consensus rather than taking a vote. This might have been the worst idea of all since it paralyzed the movement. In an interview with Platypus, Graeber tried to defend the practice:

…you’ll only get broad and tepid solutions if you bring everything to the General Assembly. That’s why we have working groups, empower them to perform actions, and encourage them to form spontaneously. This is another of the key principles in dealing with consensus and decentralization. In an ideal world, the very unwieldiness of finding consensus in a large group should convince people not to bring decisions before this large group unless they absolutely have to. That’s actually the way it’s supposed to work out.

This strikes me as muddle-headed nonsense.

I’ve often considered the possibility that anarchism is as dogmatic in its own ways as “Leninism”. Even though it does not operate under democratic centralism, you get a cult-like devotion to some of its core ideas, especially the “propaganda of the deed” that included bombings in Czarist Russia and, more recently, the black bloc.

On February 6, 2012, Chris Hedges wrote an article for Truthdig titled “The Cancer in Occupy” that began:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists — so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property — is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Hedge’s article pissed Graeber off enough to make him write a reply titled “Concerning the Violent Peace-Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges” in New Inquiry. Graeber’s defense was one I heard a thousand times. The Black Bloc was not a group but a tactic, as if the people carrying it out weren’t part of the same affinity group.

For Graeber, the black bloc is a form of horizontalist direct democracy that is based on consensus rather than majority vote. Yeah, who needs a cumbersome and verticalist procedure such as voting that would only get in the way of a determined horizontalist bunch of people wearing bandannas over their faces intent on raising Cain.

Essentially, the black bloc is as elitist and verticalist in its own way as the self-declared vanguard groups of the Leninist left that aspire to control mass organizations. Groups like the American SWP that I belonged to for 11 years used to caucus before a meeting to make sure that the membership followed a predetermined line before a critical vote even if in the course of discussion they decided that the SWP was wrong. Meanwhile, the black bloc does not bother with votes at all. This is a Hobson’s Choice, if there ever was one.

Finally, there was Graeber’s efforts to persuade the left that Rojova was the ultimate “prefigurative” experiment. He never bothered to write about the relations between the PYD and the Syrian rebels who in their own way created “prefigurative” liberated territories all across the country until aerial bombardment, chemical warfare and starvation sieges preempted the possibility of them becoming as ideal as Rojova. Trying to apply Murray Bookchin’s theories to a place like Homs was dead on arrival.

For Graeber, Rojova’s reliance on co-ops made it superior to Marxist-style central planning. You can find an interview with Graeber on Co-Operative Economy, a website that describes itself as follows:

The co-operative movement in North Syria, known colloquially as Rojava (meaning “West” in Kurdish) is thriving.

In Rojava, a revolution is taking place, based on the political model of Democratic Confederalism, and within this system, co-operatives play an integral part in reshaping the economy. People here are taking collective control of their lives and workplaces.

In Bakur, (the predominantly Kurdish region which lies within Turkey’s border) co-operatives have been set up within a similar model of democratic autonomy, despite the ongoing military repression by the state of Turkey.

Anticipating his 2018 best-seller, Graeber said, “And in fact, my father was in Barcelona when it was run by an anarchist principle. They just got rid of white collar workers, and sure enough they discovered these were basically bullshit jobs, that they didn’t make any difference if they weren’t there.”

Well, I was in Nicaragua in the late 80s—a country trying to implement socialist policies under very difficult conditions—and can assure you that engineers, programmers, economists and other white-collar professionals were desperately needed. If they were doing “bullshit jobs”, that was not what we heard from Daniel Ortega. One supposes that Nicaragua would have been better off it had tried to implement Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism rather than state ownership and planning but then again Somoza would have thrown the practitioners out of helicopters before they got very far.

Graeber has a rather quaint way of expressing the difference between Marxism and anarchism. People like Somoza or Assad don’t mind if Marxists say things like “I hate you, I want to overthrow you” nearly as much as what the anarchists say: “You guys are ridiculous and unnecessary.” Gosh, where did I go wrong? Instead of joining the SWP in the (vain) hope of making a revolution in the USA, I should have gone up to Vermont and started a maple syrup co-operative. That would have saved me the trouble of reading all that stuff about revolutionary struggles in Cuba or Vietnam and eventually figuring out that the SWP was right in its ultimate goal but totally fucked-up in the way it went about it.

Showing that he has read his Bakunin, Graeber puts it this way: “When those Marxists come, the police will still be there. There are probably going to be more of them, right? Anarchists come, the whole structure will be changed. People will be told that it’s completely unnecessary.” Oh, I see. With Rojava chugging along, the police will disappear. What a relief to everybody except the families of the 13,000 men who were secretly hanged in Syrian prisons without even a trial.

Here’s Graeber summing up the Rojava experiment:

They run the cities. It’s a country of a real economy; it’s a poor one and they’re under embargo. But there are people driving cars, there is traffic rules, there’s workshops and factories producing things, there’s farms. It does all the things you have in a normal society. Roads have to be maintained.

But essentially, what they have done is created … it’s very interesting. I’ve said, I’ve described it as a dual power situation, but this is the first time in human history, I think, where you have a dual power situation where the same guy set up both sides. So they have a thing that looks like a government; it’s got a parliament, it’s got ministers. They pass legislation.

For me, “dual power” refers to what takes place under revolutionary conditions. For example, in the country Graeber’s father fought in, there really was a dual-power situation. Vast portions of the country were producing food and manufactured goods on farms and factories after ousting the bosses. Were those bosses the white-collar people Graeber was referring to? A computer programmer working for Michael Bloomberg is not a member of the same class as his boss. Been there, done that.

In order to regain control of the country, Franco used his air force and powerful military to destroy the militias and regular troops who defended worker and farmer owned and controlled property. Any resemblance between what took place in Spain and now in Rojava is purely coincidental.

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