Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 15, 2006

Open Democracy, Karl Marx and Hezbollah

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Islam — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on August 15, 2006

Opendemocracy.net can best be described as Harry’s Place for the cognoscenti. With lavish funding from such sources as the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation and the Rockfeller Fund and editorial guidance by such wretches as Todd Gitlinand Roger Scruton (the British philosopher who got caught taking surreptitious payoffs from the tobacco industry in exchange for writing pro-smoking articles in the Wall Street Journal), the website maintains a steady drumbeat for the war on terror and against ‘Islamofascism’ and the Bolivarian revolution, etc. Unlike the spittle-flecked Harry’s Place blog, Opendemocracy tries to maintain a certain kind of scholarly detachment, which arguably makes it far more insidious.

One of their recent articles is making the rounds on the Internet. Titled “How the European left supports Lebanon” and written by Hazem Saghieh, the editor of Al-Hayat (a British newspaper hostile to Arab and Muslim radicalism), it has the dubious distinction of invoking Karl Marx in support of a reactionary agenda: “The left’s embrace of an Islamist movement supported by Iranian mullahs would have appalled Karl Marx.”

To cover his left flank, Saghieh begins by saying:

Europe’s left-wingers are supporting us Lebanese against Israel and its war crimes. Thanks, that’s great: the Lebanese need all the backing they can get in facing the overwhelming technological savagery unleashed on their land and airspace, scorching the earth and not distinguishing civilians from soldiers, babies from adults.

But that’s just a warm-up for his real act, which is to cast Hizbollah as a reactionary intrusion into Lebanon’s “experiment in coexistence” between rival religions and a parliamentary system unequalled in the Arab world. Saghieh describes Lebanon in the early 1970s as a kind of social democratic paradise:

[F]or all its shortcomings, Lebanon’s parliamentary system was without equal in the Arab world. Lebanon had simultaneously gained an unparalleled freedom of expression, with ever-increasing newspapers and magazines, not to mention a flourishing publishing sector producing original and translated work which made Beirut the printing press of the Arab world. Trade unions and political parties also enjoyed considerable liberties: on the eve of the 1975-1976 conflict most left-wing movements, including the Communist Party, were legalised.

In 1972, the year of the last elections before the war, the general-secretary of the Communist Party stood in the parliamentary elections; members were also elected for the Ba’ath Party and the Nasserites (who called for a pan-Arab union in which Lebanon would have been dissolved). The status of women in Lebanon was immeasurably better than in most of the rest of the Arab world.

This social democratic Eden gave way to a Hobbesian struggle between rival religious sects. The cause was an Israeli invasion in 1982 that “degraded Lebanon’s inhabitants, destroyed its economy and tore apart the fabric of its sectarian relations.” However, Syria and Iran get equal blame in Saghieh’s eyes since they intervened to back their own proxies and to exacerbate an already bad situation. Worst of all was Iran’s support of Hizbollah, which comes across in Saghieh’s words as a kind of enemy of Reason and Civilization as bad as the Taliban:

At its outset, members of the movement in the Beka’a valley, accompanied by Iranian ‘Revolutionary Guards’, used to spray girls’ legs with acid, because their skirts did not cover their knees and their faces were not veiled.

A cursory look into Lexis-Nexis will reveal no such behavior on the part of Hezbollah. Indeed, commentators have frequently noted that Hezbollah has not forced strict Islamic codes on the men and women who live under their rule.

In a NY Review of Books article by Adam Schatz titled “In Search of Hezbollah,” we learn:

In a country mired in patronage and back-room dealing, Hezbollah is respected for its lack of corruption. Although the party’s yellow-and-green flag–depicting a fist brandishing a Kalashnikov, posed against a globe– still advocates “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon,” Hezbollah has recently said little about an Islamic state, and begun to build alliances across religious lines, particularly at the municipal level and in professional unions. In 1999, for example, Hezbollah members of Lebanon’s engineering syndicate formed a coalition with the Phalange Party, a rightist Christian group, and the National Liberal Party, both allies of Israel during the civil war. Another change that is impossible to ignore is the growing prominence of female activists in the party, a development that makes the party progressive by Islamist standards. “One would have to be blind not to notice the changes Hezbollah has undergone,” says Joseph Samaha, a secular Christian writer for the daily as-Safir. “Has Hezbollah tried to ban books or impose sharia? Not once. Their electoral program is [an] almost social democratic [one]. So we’re confronting a very different kind of Fundamentalist party.”

On a more fundamental level, one has to question Saghieh’s invocation of Karl Marx, which strikes one as only slightly less disingenuous than Christopher Hitchens’s defense of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of Karl Marx’s support for Lincoln (what a travesty!).

Although Marx never wrote in great detail about the problems of colonialism and imperialism (a task left to a later generation of Marxists like Lenin), he was alert enough to the problem to champion Irish self-determination. In a letter to Engels dated November 2, 1867 Marx wrote: “I have done my best to bring about this demonstration of the English workers in favour of Fenianism…. I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come federation….”

Marx’s criterion was based on class. The Irish were victims of national oppression which had a dual character. Their religion and culture was held in second-class status and they were consigned to a lower economic caste. How else would one describe the Shi’ites of Lebanon?

In a July 1 1985 Newsweek article, they were described as follows:

For as long as anyone can remember, the Shiites have been Lebanon’s bottom dogs, a downtrodden underclass of poorly educated farmers and villagers virtually without a voice in running Lebanon. Maronite Christians have dominated the government. Sunni Muslims, better placed and better padded, prospered in business and politics, looking down on their Shiite brothers. The Druse, a secretive Islamic splinter, excluded them. Palestinian exiles took over Shiite turf in the south, behaving like an occupying army. Elsewhere the Shiites have been geographically scattered, some living in the slums of Beirut, others in the Bekaa Valley. But their high birthrate has made them the largest single religious group in Lebanon.

Whatever else one might say about Karl Marx, he always took the side of the underdog–despite specious arguments to the contrary by opendemocracy.net.

August 11, 2006


Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

When Ibrahim Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye, an untrained actor that director Ousmane Sembene found working near an airport in Senegal) receives a letter and a money order (mandabi) worth 25,000 francs from his nephew who is working in Paris, he is delighted. All he has to do is cash it and dispense the funds to various family members, with a sizable chunk going to him.

This windfall couldn’t have come at a better time. As someone who hasn’t held a job in four years and who has two wives and seven children to support, he is constantly in debt. His penury does not seem to get in the way of a comfortable life-style, albeit one with limited horizons. As the film starts, Dieng is getting a shave and a haircut in the street in his Dakar neighborhood, which the barber tops off by grooming his nostril hairs. When he returns home, he attacks an enormous lunch of seasoned rice that leaves him groaning and sweating. His wives attend to his comfort by fanning him and washing his feet in cold water. One is reminded of Engels’s observation in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”:

“The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules… Within the family, he [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.”

Dieng sets off to the post office to cash the money order and to have somebody read the nephew’s letter (he is completely illiterate.) In his typically acerbic wit, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene positions a poster of Che Guevara on the desk of the clerk whose job it is to read letters to the illiterate for 50 francs. When Dieng attempts to leave the post office without paying the clerk, he manhandles him at the door, calling him a thief. It turns out that Dieng could not cash the money order without an identity card. He promises to pay the clerk as soon as he has cashed it.

This scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film, which consists of a series of comic mishaps involving Dieng’s futile attempts to get an identity card. He also has to fend off, usually unsuccessfully, attempts by family members and friends to get a piece of his nephew’s fortune. In the streets of Dakar, gaining a modest sum such as 25,000 francs is akin to winning the lottery.

Dakar seems divided between those who are inside and outside the cash economy. Another nephew, who speaks French, dresses in Western clothes and has a white-collar job, writes Dieng a check to tide him over until the money order is cashed. The check presents almost as many problems as the money order and Dieng falls victim to a street hustler outside the bank who “helps” him cash it for a fee of 300 francs.

Ousmane Sembene

Dieng’s world falls through the crack between traditional African society and the new capitalist social relationships that are disintegrating the bonds that kept people together. When “Mandabi” was made in 1968, Senegal was like most African nations trying to adjust to postcolonial norms. It was betwixt and between. Sembene, a Marxist philosophically, almost throws up his hands in this film at the dog-eat-dog world of his beloved country. Everybody is either screwing somebody or being screwed. At the conclusion of the film, Dieng resolves to become a thief and a liar himself since that is the only way to survive. After a postman arrives with another letter from the nephew in Paris, he listens to Dieng’s tale of woe. The postman assures him that they must work to change society, which evokes a puzzled reaction from Dieng. What can they possibly do to change such a rotten society? In a Spring, 1973 interview with Film Quarterly, Sembene was asked, “Are you satisfied with your conclusion to Mandabi?” He replied:

I don’t think I really have to like the ending. It’s only up to me to give the situation. The ending is linked to the evolution of Senegalese society, thus it is as ambiguous. As the postman says, either we will have to bring about certain changes or we will remain corrupt. I don’t know. Do you like the ending?

The next question was about whether an artist should go beyond presenting a picture of corruption and offer a vision of the future. Semembe’s answer was about as precise a statement of the relationship between art and revolution as can be imagined:

The role of the artist is not to say what is good, but to be able to denounce. He must feel the heartbeat of society and be able to create the image society gives to him. He can orient society, he can say it is exaggerating, going overboard, but the power to decide escapes every artist.

I live in a capitalist society and I can’t go any further than the people. Those for change are only a handful, a minority, and we don’t have that Don Quixote attitude that we can transform society. One work cannot instigate change. I don’t think that in history there has been a single revolutionary work that has brought the people to create a revolution. It’s not having read Marx or Lenin that you go out and make a revolution. It’s not after reading Marcuse in America. All the works are just a point of reference in history. And that’s all. Before the end of an act of creation, society usually has already surpassed it.

All that an artist can do is bring the people to the point of having an idea of the thing, an idea in their heads that they share, and that helps. People have killed and died for an idea.

If I understand your criticism, then I’m happy. I had no belief that after people saw “Mandabi,” they would go out and make a revolution. But people liked the film and talked about it, though my government didn’t. They wanted to censor the movie at the point where it said that “Honesty is a crime in Senegal.”

People discussed “Mandabi” in the post office or in the market and decided they were not going to pay out their money like the person in my movie. They reported those trying to victimize them, which led to many arrests. But when they denounced the crooks, they would say it was not the person but the government which was corrupt. And they would say they were going to change the country.

I know my own limits. But through nothing more than just supplying these people with ides, I am participating in their awareness.

August 9, 2006

Our Daily Bread

Filed under: farming,Film — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was a muck-raking novel that took aim at the meatpacking industry during its most dangerous, unregulated and filthy infancy. Exactly, 100 years after its publication, we can now see a documentary by Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter that depicts a safer, more efficient and sterile work-place. But for all of that, “Our Daily Bread” is just as disturbing.

Using the cinéma vérité techniques of Frederick Wiseman, Geyrhalter takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme.

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

The images of “Our Daily Bread” will linger in the viewer’s mind like a bad dream. Two men and overalls are attending to a cow with a gaping hole in its side, out of which they extract new born calves. We do not know why the animal is not allowed to give birth in the normal fashion, but have to assume that this born of scientific necessity and the need to maximize profits. Chickens are hurtled at high speed on conveyor belts into awaiting crates. When one falls off, a worker picks it up by its feet and throws it into another carton as if it were a plastic part. Indeed, one can only conclude that in order to survive on such a job, it becomes necessary to become utterly detached from what you are doing. If you have any sense of compassion for the animal kingdom, it will only get in the way of performing your job. When one is paid to slit the throats of chickens 8 hours a day, it is best not to think about what you are doing.

Agricultural production does not come off much better in “Our Daily Bread.” As men in white coveralls and protective masks spray plants with a chemical mist in a greenhouse, we are reminded of workers in a nuclear plant. In the fields, mechanization rules everything, including the workers. There is practically nothing to distinguish a farm worker from an assembly line worker.

Animals, plants and workers in Geyrhalter’s spare but dramatic documentary are collectively involved in a process that was identified by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century:

In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.

(Capital, V.1, chapter 15)

“Our Daily Bread” is available from First Run/Icarus Films.


August 8, 2006

Sacco and Vanzetti

Filed under: Film,repression — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Sacco and Vanzetti


In the August 14th, 2006 issue of the Nation Magazine, there’s a review of recent books on Upton Sinclair by Brenda Wineapple that contains the following observation on the muckraking novelist’s involvement with one of the landmark political trials of the 20th century:

“On the whole, Bachelder’s perspective on Sinclair’s unsinkability seems right. Just last December, Sinclair was resurrected and assassinated all over again when the Los Angeles Times ran a story, bruited in the conservative press, about the recent purchase of a Sinclair letter in which he admitted that one of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s defense attorneys had told him that the two Italian anarchists were guilty as charged, and yet he published the novel Boston anyway, to peddle sympathy for them. Neither Mattson nor Arthur would be surprised by the revelatory letter. Each of them amply demonstrates that Sinclair doubted the innocence of at least one, if not both, of the defendants.”

Although Wineapple is understandably focused on Sinclair’s reputation, it is too bad that she allows the reader to assume that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty. This charge has been made mostly by rightwingers like Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but you find concessions to it from other leftists besides Wineapple, which mostly takes the form of failing to take the charges head-on. In an interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Anthony Arthur, an Upton Sinclair biographer included in Wineapple’s article, skirts around the subject of their guilt and allows the typically liberal NPR listener to assume the worst about Sacco and Vanzetti.

It should be noted that the lawyer who badmouthed Sacco and Vanzetti to Upton Sinclair was one Fred Moore, who was replaced by his clients in favor of a more competent defender. The documentary reveals Moore as a classic ultraleftist lawyer whose strategy revolved around “putting the system on trial”. According to some reports, he was also a cocaine addict.

While the excellent new documentary on Sacco and Vanzetti by Peter Miller does not specifically rebut the charges flowing out of the Upton Sinclair incident, it certainly does establish their likely innocence. If there is still lingering doubts about such a matter, the film does prove beyond a shadow of a doubt and to a moral certainty that their trial was little more than an orchestrated persecution of the sort that delivered the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. In cases such as this, when rightwingers are so eager to prove the guilt of a class struggle martyr, they never bother to examine the circumstances of the trial. In such cases, it is the judge and the district attorney whose guilt is proven over and over again.

Drawing upon archival footage and interviews with relatives of Sacco and Vanzetti, leftist American historians such as Howard Zinn and Mary Anne Trasciatti, co-author of “Representing Sacco and Vanzetti,” we get a clearer understanding of the background and beliefs of the two Italian-American immigrants but the importance of their case. Along with the Rosenbergs and Mumia, the two anarchists are prototypical victims of capitalist “justice.” In ever single one of these epochal trials, the indicted parties had to face judges who made no pretense of impartiality.

Judge Webster Thayer allegedly described the two as “anarchist bastards.” In 1920 he rebuked a jury for acquitting anarchist Sergie Zuboff of violating a criminal anarchy statute. While turning down their appeals, he often referred to Sacco and Vanzetti as “Dagos” and “sons of bitches” in the confines of his golf club.

Despite the absence of any physical evidence and contradictory testimony of eyewitnesses linking Sacco and Vanzetti to the payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts on April 15, 1920 that left paymaster Frederick Parmenter and security guard Alessandro Berardelli dead, the jury found the two men guilty. Even when a prisoner named Celestino Madeiros confessed to the robbery/murder, the courts refused to schedule a new trial.

The 1920s left rallied around Sacco and Vanzetti in the same manner that it would rally around the Rosenbergs and Mumia. Demonstrations were organized around the world not only demanding justice for the two Italian-American anarchists but for all immigrants who were being hounded by the federal government as part of the post-WWI xenophobic hysteria whipped up Attorney General Palmer, the Alberto Gonzalez of his day.

Under pressure from a powerful mass movement, the state of Massachusetts finally appointed a blue ribbon panel called the “Lowell Committee” (named after A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, its most prominent member) to review the case. Lowell epitomized the polite, patrician racism that has been attached to Harvard up until the present day with people like Lawrence Summers in charge. The committee found nothing wrong about the trial and advised against clemency. The two men died in the electric chair on August 23, 1927. In May of that year, when they learned of their impending execution, the two men had this to say:

Sacco: “I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will be always collision between one and the other. We fraternize the people with the books, with the literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try the education of people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality that hates each other. That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor.”

Vanzetti: ” Now, I should say that I am not only innocent of all these things, not only have I never committed a real crime in my life–though some sins but not crimes–not only have I struggled all my life to eliminate crimes, the crimes that the official law and the moral law condemns, but also the crime that the moral law and the official law sanction and sanctify,–the exploitation and the oppression of the man by the man, and if there is a reason why I am here as a guilty man, if there is a reason why you in a few minutes can doom me, it is this reason and none else.”

August 6, 2006

Ben Stein and Karl Marx

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Ben Stein, the basset-faced rightwing economics professor who has appeared in dozens of movies and TV commercials, has an article in today’s business section in the NY Times titled “My Country, Right and Wrong (but Why So Wrong?)”. It is noteworthy for its frank acknowledgement of how working people are being screwed, especially these paragraphs:

A puzzle: we have all heard corporate executives say that American workers are paid too much; that our industries cannot compete with foreign makers because our labor costs are so high that if we used American union labor, we would see profits evaporate.

And yet, hourly wages in this country, adjusted for inflation, are below what they were in 1972 (when my pal, Richard Nixon, was president) by a substantial amount. But to hear corporate leaders tell it, this is still far too high to allow competition with foreign entities.

Now, you would think that if this high-priced American labor were in fact pressing corporate backs to the wall, profits would be stagnant or falling. But in fact, in the last several years – and especially the last few quarters – corporate profits as a percentage of sales were the highest they have been since 1965 – roughly 9.6 percent before tax and roughly 7.4 percent after tax.

In total, profits are by far the highest they have ever been, running at a rate of very roughly $1.38 trillion in the first quarter of 2006. As a percentage of gross domestic product, profits are also the highest they have been since the statistics began being kept in 1959 – roughly 12.7 percent.

Don’t get me wrong. I like profits, a lot. They are what the capitalist society is all about. But why are we outsourcing, why are we moving our work overseas, if our corporations are so profitable? And if our corporate world is so profitable, how come so little of the growth goes to workers’ wages? How come – as an average number – basically none of the growth goes to the ordinary worker’s wages? I am not saying this to encourage strikes. I am genuinely puzzled about it.

Could it be that just the threat of moving jobs overseas (very few have in fact actually been moved as yet) keeps labor cowed? Is the vast labor force of Asia and the Third World in fact something like “the reserve army of the unemployed” that Karl Marx described in his critique of capitalism?

I hate and detest Marx and everything he stands for, but he was a shrewd observer. In any event, what’s going on? How can retail stores keep wages so low? All service jobs that have to be done in person are not going to be shipped to Guangdong or Mumbai. Then why don’t their wages rise?

To answer our actor/economist: Yes, Virginia, there is a “reserve army of the unemployed.” Furthermore, Karl Marx was not just a shrewd observer. He also understood the driving force behind the capitalist system, namely the need to maximize profits. When wages rise, it is not because the boss takes mercy on his workers, but because they combine into trade unions that can organize strikes. The main explanation for lowered wages in the recent past is erosion of the American trade union movement.

When the AFL-CIO was formed in 1955, there were 15 million members. Today there are 6 million. Considering the population growth in last 50 years, the drop in membership is even more precipitous. Basically, the weakness of the trade union movement has allowed the ruling class to dictate the conditions of struggle, which are more favorable for the capitalists at any time since the 1890s.

Professor Stein wonders why the wages of workers in the service industry have not risen, since their jobs cannot be exported to Mumbai. This is not exactly true across the board. When these workers have powerful unions such as Andy Stern’s SEIU, wages have gone up. When they lack a trade union such as in the case of Walmart, wages and benefits are poor.

If you go to Ben Stein’s website, you will find the same sort of folksy rightwing nonsense that appears in his NY Times article (the style is stolen, of course, from Sixty Minute’s Andy Rooney):

As to the people who work at Wal-Mart, they seem to me to be bright, alert men and women who work there because it’s the best they can do in their town or at their age. Plus, they seem happy. The usual clerk at Wal-Mart gives a lot better service than the clerk at Tiffany. I would like it if they were paid more, but they are in a competitive labor market. And what about those greedy stockholders? A lot of them are those same Wal-Mart clerks, many of whom got rich from their stock.

In the real world, Wal-Mart is as much of a boon to the American shopper as the Sears catalogue was long ago.

Jeer at it all you want, all you cool people, but, it’s progress, big time.

I’d love to see this Ben Stein get a job at Walmart for six months and try to live on the wages and benefits he gets, just like fellow NY Times writer (albeit briefly) Barbara Ehrenreich did. I wonder how long this multimillionaire actor and rightwing pundit would “seem happy”.

In fact, he might discover that the wages are beneath the poverty levels set by the government. Many Walmart employees have wages so low that they are entitled to Medicaid as the Florida St. Petersburg Times pointed out on March 27, 2005:

Attention Wal-Mart shoppers: The retail giant that supplies you with everything from orange juice to camping gear is using your tax money to underwrite its bottom line. Wal-Mart has more workers enrolled in the state Medicaid program – a medical insurance program for people living in and near poverty – than any employer in Florida. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars in financial incentives Wal-Mart receives from state and local governments for creating jobs in the state.

Florida taxpayers are subsidizing the largest employer in the country, with the effect of holding down the state’s wages and adding to the strain on state social services. Wal-Mart employs 91,000 workers in Florida and, according to a company spokesperson, its hourly workforce earns an average per-hour wage of $9.36. In 2003, Florida‘s median wage was $12.52 per hour. Moreover, 12,300 of Wal-Mart’s workers are eligible for Medicaid, and another 1,375 are enrolled in state programs that provide health coverage for the children of low-income families.

I imagine that an educated man like Ben Stein must be aware of all this. But that doesn’t prevent him from extolling Walmart and, for that matter, the trajectory of an American capitalism that has him citing Karl Marx, even though he detests him. One can understand why such an ideological hack for the capitalist system would quote Karl Marx since these words are just as true as they were 158 years ago:

Hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes. But in order to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence. The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of the feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.

August 3, 2006

Cult of the Suicide Bomber

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on August 3, 2006

Although I generally have little use for Robert Baer, the former CIA agent who served as a model for the character George Clooney played in “Syriana,” I certainly can recommend “Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” a British documentary written and narrated by Baer. It is, if nothing else, a good introduction to some of the politics surrounding the current war in Lebanon.


Baer was stationed in Beirut in 1983, when a suicide bomber blew up the American embassy. Just by happenstance, he was not on the premises at the time. That event spurred him to look into the whole question of terrorism and suicide bombing. Unlike a Philip Agee, Baer is fixated on improving the quality of services delivered by the CIA rather than on its role in subverting third world struggles for democracy and economic development. In a very real sense, this documentary reflects his efforts to better understand the “enemy”.

With his command of Arabic and Parsi, Baer is well-equipped to conduct interviews throughout the region. He also has a way of softening people up for interviews, another skill no doubt learned in the CIA. Many years ago, when I was in the Trotskyist movement, a party leader advised me never to speak to the FBI because they have received special training in how to extract information even during what appears to be a casual conversation. Since I would have soon kept a rattlesnake as a pet as chat with an FBI agent, that never presented itself as a problem.

Baer argues, with some degree of plausibility, that the first suicide bomber was Hossein Fahmideh, a thirteen year old Iranian boy who threw himself under an Iraqi tank in 1980 during a climactic battle. Shrines were erected to the youth all over Iran in a gesture that Baer sees repeated throughout the region. Suicide bombers become “exemplary figures” whose likenesses dot the walls of buildings and billboards, like Che’s in Cuba.

Fahmideh’s parents, like the relatives of all suicide bombers interviewed in the film, are deeply proud of his heroism. As devout Muslims, they are sure that he has merited entrance into Paradise. Unlike the Christian true believers, whose theology is based on the notion that good acts can’t buy you a ticket into heaven, Muslims are much more results-oriented.

Baer maintains that suicide bombing was marketed by the Iranians to the Lebanese in the 1980s. Despite the tendency to explain this tactic as a function of Shi’ite fanaticism, Baer makes clear that it was used across the board by the Lebanese resistance, including the secular Syrian National Socialist Party. When Baer asks its leader if his members expected to gain entry into Paradise after blowing themselves up, he shrugs his shoulders and says that their Paradise would be on Earth, a liberated Lebanon.

The role of secular activists in the Lebanese resistance is confirmed by suicide bombing expert Robert Pape in an op-ed article that appears in the August 3, 2006 NY Times:

“In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.

“What these suicide attackers — and their heirs today — shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has proven to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force.”

After leaving Lebanon, Baer travels to Gaza and the West Bank where he interviews Hamas activists who differ significantly from their counterparts in Iran and Lebanon, where the suicide bomber functioned more or less as a Kamikazi fighter in combat situations involving unequal forces. Hamas operated less against the Israeli army than it did against Israeli citizens in a kind of vendetta.

To Baer’s credit, he makes clear that the Hamas campaign was inspired by the February 1994 attack of Zionist fanatic Baruch Goldstein on unarmed worshippers in a Hebron mosque. Forty were shot to death by Goldstein, a transplanted Brooklynite and follower of Jewish fascist Meir Kahane. In the ensuing riots by Palestinians, another 53 were killed by Israelis and hundreds wounded.

In an effort to break the cycle of suicide bombing, Israel has been constructing a massive fence to pen in Palestinians. Baer concludes the film with the mordant observation that as long as there is despair and inequality, there will be suicide bombers.

(“Cult of the Suicide Bomber” is available at video stores and on the Internet.)

August 1, 2006

Gone With the Wind

Filed under: Film,racism — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm


Earlier in the month I caught a few minutes of “Gone With the Wind,” a film I had only seen once before in the 1950s with my parents, when I was about 12 years old or so. I only remembered two things. One was the long tracking shot of the wounded Confederate soldiers in Atlanta that was meant to evoke pity. The other was the newly impoverished Scarlett O’Hara eating radishes plucked from the ground and vowing never to be poor again. I imagine that in 1957, this scene might have resonated with my parents who had vivid memories of going without during the Great Depression. Such is the troubled legacy of a film that can make such Jewish working liberals and Americans from all backgrounds feel sorry for slave-owners at the very time the Civil Rights movement was emerging.

Of course that excludes Black people who would have recoiled in disgust at the Stepin Fetchit images contained in the film. This was just as true in the 1930s as it was in the 1950s.

It is a mystery why this racist chestnut does not get the boot that “Birth of a Nation” did long ago. Such racist tripe is really the purview of film school seminars, along with Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”

Upon receiving a Supporting Actor Academy Award last year for his performance in “Syriana,” George Clooney said:

We’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects. This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy. Proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch. And I thank you so much for this.

This prompted Newsday’s Les Payne to comment:

While McDaniel’s “GWTW” role may well have reassured whites, it outraged blacks. They lambasted her role as offensive when protesting the film’s premiere in Los Angeles and its showing in Chicago and New York, according to AMC’s film biography, “Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel.” The late actress Nell Carter, interviewed in the film, describes a Hollywood of the ’40s that slavishly cast black actors “as African savages, singing slaves and domestics.”

In real life, actress McDaniel traded group values for personal gain. “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week, than be a maid for $7,” she said. Occasionally she did use her box-office clout to curb Hollywood‘s petit offenses. In “GWTW,” she reportedly got Selznik to drop her character’s reference to “De Lawd” and got writers to drop “nigger” from the script.

With such concerns uppermost in my mind, I watched “Gone With the Wind” a couple of weeks ago and was amazed to discover how deeply racist it was. It is far more pernicious than a creaky relic like “Birth of a Nation” since it will always tap into the kind of nostalgia that makes something like “The Wizard of Oz” a favorite of contemporary audiences.

Underlying the romantic patina that overlays the film, you can follow a racist apologetic for the rise of Jim Crow from beginning to end. Did the people who made this film, and for that matter the author whose novel it was based on, see it this way? It is hard to say. Racism is so deeply embedded in American society that it is understandable in some ways that a George Clooney or a David O. Selznick would have blinders on. Even Margaret Mitchell must have seen herself as some kind of enlightened soul based on the evidence of a website commemorating her life and work:

At a time when segregation was the law of the land and the Ku Klux Klan regularly held rallies at nearby Stone Mountain, Margaret Mitchell was working on several projects with black Atlantans, notably one involving medical education.

Her involvement with the African American community began when Peggy was a 19-year old debutante. She was the only one of her debutante group who chose to work in the city’s black clinics. This was a reason why she was rejected from the Junior League.

“Gone With the Wind” revolves around the relationship of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). O’Hara is a prototypical Southern belle whose life revolves around parties, dinners, gossip and wooing Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the man of her dreams. Was it a coincidence that both Leigh and Howard were British and therefore apt symbols for an aristocratic, if not decadent, past?

At the start of the film, just about the time war would be declared, we discover Rhett Butler to be an exception to the gung-ho spirit infecting his fellow Southerners:

Has any one of you gentlemen ever thought that there’s not a cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Or how few iron foundries there are in the South? Or woolen mills or cotton factories or tanneries? Have you thought that we would not have a single warship and that the Yankee fleet could bottle up our harbors in a week, so that we could not sell our cotton abroad? But–of course–you gentlemen have thought of these things.

From a Marxist standpoint, Butler is of course correct. With its chattel slavery mode of production, the South had not advanced along the industrial lines as the North. It was basically a society that mixed agrarian capitalism with a semifeudal order. In trying to protect this system against the encroachments of a more advanced form of capitalism, it was effectively fighting against the clock.

When war came, Rhett Butler sided with his brethren but mostly for profit–in keeping with his mercenary view of the world. He was a blockade runner who assured Scarlett O’Hara that he risked his neck only for profit. In contrast to Ashley Wilkes, who fought for honor and Southern Civilization, Butler was much more adaptable to changing times.

For a film devoted to the Civil War period, there is actually very little fighting. The audience, like the characters, keeps hearing about battles that take place off camera. Mostly, it is about victimization–mostly at the hands of marauding Yankees who are demonized almost as badly as the Serb soldiers in “Welcome to Sarajevo”. Their only purpose in life seems to be to make life miserable for the lovely creatures lording over places like Tara. In one key scene, Scarlett O’Hara shoots a Yankee soldier intruder to death. As a New Yorker, I was reminded of Berhard Goetz, the subway gunman who fired on three young Blacks who were looking at him the wrong way.

When Reconstruction arrives, Scarlett O’Hara enthusiastically adapts to the new order. She launches a lumber company and is not above using convict labor to chop trees to the chagrin of her old friends. They feel that convict labor is worse than slavery. Clearly, Margaret Mitchell’s intent was to cast the old order in a positive light. For her, the more cutthroat version of capitalism imposed by the North at the point of a bayonet would involve new forms of servitude but without the benign paternalism of the old system. It must be said at this point that the slaves in “Gone With the Wind” never complain once about their fate and are as devoted to “Miss Scarlett” as poodles are to their master. It is truly revolting stuff.

In contrast to the slaves who stick with Scarlett O’Hara through thick and thin, the newly liberated slaves are almost as threatening as the Yankee soldier that she shot. In a memorable scene that has an almost “Planet of the Apes” sensibility, Blacks walk through the streets of Atlanta in suits smoking cigars. The impression conveyed, whatever the intention of the film makers, is that of a topsy-turvy world gone mad. What is implicit in the film, Mitchell’s novel makes explicit:

The negroes had not yet been given the right to vote but the North was determined that they should vote and equally determined that their vote should be friendly to the North. With this in mind, nothing was too good for the negroes. The Yankee soldiers backed them up in anything they chose to do, and the surest way for a white person to get himself into trouble was to bring a complaint of any kind against a negro.

The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom, but the hordes of “trashy free issue niggers,” who were causing most of the trouble, were drawn largely from the field-hand class.

The one good thing that can be said about Scarlett O’Hara’s new appetite for capitalist modernization is that it has liberated her from the stultifying existence of the Southern belle. When she begins traveling about the streets of Atlanta in her own horse-and-buggy, shocked bystanders regard it in the way a Saudi male might react to a female driver.

One day on her way home she is accosted by a white and a Black “with shoulders and chest like a gorilla,” as Mitchell put it, from a nearby Shantytown. They are driven off by one of her faithful ex-slaves who, again in Mitchell’s words, tells her that if the Black had harmed her, he would have killed “dat black baboon.”

In the film, Ashley Wilkes organizes a posse to clean out the Shantytown and restore law and order. Again, perhaps in deference to New Deal sensibilities, the film does not make clear that Wilkes was a Klansman. Once again you have to turn to Mitchell’s unvarnished prose to understand what was really going on:

“Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know,” cried India. “They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners. You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful and —

As might be expected, white America–especially the South–greeted the film like the Second Coming. At least half of Atlanta’s 300,000 population turned out to greet a motorcade marking the film’s premiere in 1939. The stars waved to the cheering fans and even the Negroes were impressed, according to the NY Times:

On the city’s outskirts many of the spectators were Negroes. They stood on the porches of blackened tumbledown shacks and in the powdery red Georgia clay in wide-eyed groups, filled with the wonder of it.

Looking back, the stars could see them straining their eyes down the road. The common cry among the Negroes as the procession passed by was: “I seen ’em! They came that close!”

Despite its reputation as a citadel of Northern liberalism, the NY Times was aligned editorially with the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party before the Civil War. On May 4, 1921, it blithely reported on a Ku Klux Klan rally to be held in Atlanta as if it were a Shriners convention:


Five Thousand Knights to Meet In Atlanta Today.

Special to The New York Times. ATLANTA, Ga., May 4.–Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from all part3 of the United States, will gather in Atlanta tomorrow and Friday” for a great ceremonial and two-day celebration commemorating the founding of the order six years ago. Incoming trains brought several hundred members today. Other hundreds will arrive tomorrow, and by Friday 5,000 knights of the white robe and fiery cross are expected to be in the city.

The principal event of the gathering will be a big initiation ceremonial tomorrow night. More than 1,000 candidates are to be initiated into the mysteries of the Klan, it is said–the largest single class of candidates in the history of the organization. The meeting will be the first general celebration held since the order began to organize in the North, East and West. Colonel W. J. Simmons is Imperial Wizard of the Klux.

The NY Times review of the film ignored its rampant racism and treated it simply as “the greatest motion mural we have ever seen and the most ambitious film-making adventure in Hollywood’s spectacular history.

If the NY Times represented the moral bankruptcy of official liberalism, the august university to its north, where the dean of Southern apologetics taught, was even worse:

Post-surrender white Southerners recognized that they could rebuild their region not just with bricks and mortar, but by laying a foundation for historical revisionism. To many, this involved reconfiguring facts to conform to political agendas. In the wake of Lee’s surrender, former Confederates launched an immediate verbal and literary counterattack. Curiously, many Northerners not only forgave former Confederates, granting them their historical license, but by the 1870s had joined the revisionist pack. When America‘s official Centennial festivities opened in Philadelphia in 1876, the theme of unification predominated. Unlike their European and Latin American counterparts, former Confederate insurrectionists were not concerned with the possibility of being beheaded, or even of prolonged imprisonment. Instead, some sought to recoup their losses at sword point by taking up the pen. In 1881 Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, published his own apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. By the last quarter of the century Southern voices had become cherished chroniclers of the “good old days,” and by the turn of the century Southern historians exerted notable influence, even gaining positions within prestigious Ivy League institutions. None was more impressive than the prolific Ullrich Bonnell Phillips, writing from his position as a professor at Columbia University in New York City. The Phillips school of Southern history dominated the study of slavery for almost half a century after his publication of American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips and his students preached a philosophy of planter paternalism, asserting that slavery was a benign institution–benevolent slave owners created a “plantation school,” he suggested, to educate backward blacks to the virtues of discipline and productivity.

–Catherine Clinton, “Tara Revisited”, pp. 19-20

Such was the ballyhoo surrounding the film that the Communist Party’s film reviewer was taken in to some degree, calling it a “magnificent bore.” The Daily Worker’s Howard Rushmore took note of its technical achievements, “thematic sweep” and acting, but condemned it for depicting a congenial, feudal South. This did not pass muster with the editorial board, including African American Ben Davis. When he refused to follow their instructions to rewrite the review as a 100 percent slam, they fired him. As it turned out, Rushmore was a tenth generation American whose ancestors fought in the War of Independence and whose grandfather was a Confederate soldier.

Almost immediately after being fired from the Daily Worker, Rushmore transformed himself into a blue-blooded American:

Whereupon, reinventing himself on the spot, Rushmore went to work for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American and for the next 15 years enjoyed acclaim as one of the period’s more fabulous professional ex-Commies, a crusading newspaperman, a sought-after speaker and a prize witness whose testimonies were always welcomed by Red-hunting legislative panels. Rushmore was a key figure in the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee’s explosive 1947 hearings into Red Hollywood. He was the man who named actors Edward G. Robinson and Charlie Chaplin as Commie dupes. He was the man who put the accusatory finger on playwright Clifford Odets and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Henry Lawson. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin subsequently called him “one of our greatest Americans,” and after a time, while still on the staff of the Journal-American, he took a side position as one of McCarthy’s ace bulldog investigators.

–NY Daily News, February 26, 2001

A week later Ben Davis wrote his own article titled “Gone With the Wind–an Insidious Glorification of the Slave Market.” Accompanying the review was a cartoon of Klansmen applauding an ad for a midnight showing of the film. James Dugan, who replaced Howard Rushmore, wrote a new review that summed up the picture as follows: “the film has a great role to play in a new period of reaction. Desperate reactionaries will feel their spirits soar in the face of this comforting past they would recapture; from it will naturally be inspired all the dark and murderous deeds needed to put down the people once again.”

Perhaps the vehemence of the CP had something to do with the fact that it was hostile to anything “American” in 1939. This was the time of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact and the party was going through the last spasm of fire-breathing radicalism in its history. At the 1940 convention, “Gone With the Wind” was denounced along with the New Deal. Earl Browder, who would eventually symbolize the ill-considered effort to synthesize “Americanism” with Communism said in a speech to the faithful: “We have been forced, reluctantly and belatedly to recognize that all the positive features of the Roosevelt Administration, which we had supported and which had gained for it the loyalty of the great majority of Americans, have one after another been thrown overboard since the outbreak of the war. Peace has been made between the Administration and the ‘economic royalists.'”

Along with the CP, the nation’s Black press blasted the film. The Chicago Defender’s George Padmore, who would become well-known for his collaboration with CLR James, reported on a Black boycott of the film on February 3, 1940. Also writing for the Defender was William L. Patterson, who was one of the CP’s leading Black members along with Ben Davis. On January 6th, he attacked the film’s representation of his people:

“Gone With the Wind” has made the Negro a man a grotesque and ravishing beast–a rapist, an impossibly low and debased creature for whose elevation there is no hope. It has made Negro womanhood a wanton wench ready to accept the advances of any man.

Earl J. Morris, another Defender reporter, focused on the negative reaction in the Black community to the participation of “race actors” in the film, who “forgot all about self-respect, pride and duty to their race.”

African-American media scholar Donald Bogle made an attempt to see another side of “Gone With the Wind” that previous generations of radicals and Black activists would or could not. In “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks,” he sees the various fawning slaves (and soon-to-be servants) as figures of strength and even as symbols of Black Power:

Because they had carried the servant tradition to its highest point, the black characters of Gone with the Wind brought that tradition to a fitting close. In the 1940s, although the servants still appeared in films, the enthusiasm and creativity that distinguished figures such as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen were gone. In the next decade, McDaniel appeared in some twenty-one features. Her presence still provided rich ribald humor, but her impact was not as great. In Gone with the Wind, her Mammy had brought to light a fact that white audiences had long ignored or suppressed: here was a black maid who not only was capable of running the Big House but proclaimed in her own contorted way her brand of black power.

Ironically, controversies around the Mammy image still linger. In the August 1, 2006 NY Times, there is an article titled “An Image Popular in Films Raises Some Eyebrows in Ads” that states:

At 200 pounds plus — most of that pure attitude — she is hard to miss.

Her onscreen presence takes on many variations, but she is easily recognizable by a few defining traits. Other than her size, she is almost always black. She typically finds herself in an exchange that is either confrontational or embarrassing. And her best line is often little more than a sassy “Mmmm hmmm.”

This caricature, playing on stereotypes of heavy black women as boisterous and sometimes aggressive, has been showing up for some time in stand-up comedy routines and in movies like “Big Momma’s House” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Often, the pieces are produced by directors and writers who are black themselves.

With black creators giving more acceptability to the image, it is now starting to appear more often in television commercials as well. Most recently some variation of this character has appeared in commercials for Dairy Queen, Universal Studios and Captain Morgan rum.

But despite the popularity of such characters among blacks, the use of the image of big black women as the target of so many jokes is troublesome to some marketers and media scholars.

“It is perpetuating a stereotype that black females are strong, aggressive, controlling people,” said Tommy E. Whittler, a marketing professor at DePaul University. “I don’t think you want to do that.”

Ultimately, under a transformed American society, films will be made that do not require subliminal expressions of Black Power, with all due respect to Donald Bogle. There are heroes and heroines that beg for the creative input of screenwriters, directors and actors, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Taubman and even Nat Turner, the subject of a documentary by African-American director Charles Burnett (such is the woeful state of Blacks in Hollywood that Burnett’s film is not even available in VHS or DVD.) These are the real symbols of Black Power, whose lives will inspire millions long after “Gone With the Wind” has be relegated to the back shelves of film studies departments, where it belongs.

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