Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2007

Memories of Tomorrow

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:29 pm

“Memories of Tomorrow” opens tomorrow at the ImaginAsian Theater in New York. It stars Ken Watanabe as Masayuki Saeki, a 49 year old “salaryman” who discovers that he is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a classic plot found in the world’s great literature and film, from Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich” to Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” Unlike these two tales, which involve the impact of terminal cancer on two men’s lives, Alzheimer’s will necessarily introduce a different dynamic. If these two dramas involved a growing self-awareness, then “Memories of Tomorrow” necessarily proceeds in the opposite direction, since the disease ultimately results in a loss of self.

Masayuki Saeki is a successful, hard-driving advertising agency executive with a wife named Emiko (Kanaku Higuchi) and a daughter Rie (Kazue Fukiishi) who is about to be wed. They have everything they could possibly want, even though Masayuki’s monomaniacal work ethic tends to undermine the emotional bonds between him and his wife. As the disease progresses, the two begin to bond together as never before. I was reminded of a communication from a classmate from Bard, whose younger brother–also a Bardian and a good friend of mine–had died recently after a decades-long battle with schizophrenia:

Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart.

Masayuki also learns to “trust his heart”. Over a four year period, he loses more and more of his ability to carry out daily chores until he finally takes a day trip out to a nursing home in order to figure out whether he can adjust to life there. He doesn’t want to be a burden on his wife any longer.

Starring as Masayuki Saeki, Ken Watanabe is one of Japan’s best-known actors who has often worked in Hollywood films, including “The Last Samurai” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”. He brings an enormous sensitivity into the role, no doubt attributable to his own encounter recently with serious illness. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1989, he has fortunately been in remission. No doubt he understands what it means to live for the day.

Like Japan, the USA is a country where one’s identity is very much connected to one’s ability to earn a wage or make a profit. As bad as it is to lose one’s self-identity in one’s very advanced years, the early onset of Alzheimer’s can destroy not only the victim, but the family that depends on that person’s ability to produce income. In “Memories of Tomorrow,” the wife gets a good-paying job in an art gallery. For the average person, things might not turn out so well.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Saeki’s physician talks him away from the edge of the hospital roof where he obviously is considering suicide. He understands what Alzheimer’s means, since his own father suffers from it. The doctor also explains that to live is to die. You can’t have one without the other. The only thing he can promise is that he will provide the medical attention he needs to enjoy his life for as long as he can.

There might never be a cure for some of the intractable diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer or schizophrenia. All we can hope for is a society in which the love and support that Saeki’s wife demonstrates is manifested in society as a whole–in other words, a society that is based on production for human need rather than private profit.

May 16, 2007

John Holloway’s complaint

Filed under: autonomism,Iran,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

John Holloway

With the resurgence of a Latin American left expressed mainly by elected governments challenging the capitalist system to one degree or another, there has been a corresponding decline of “autonomist” currents such as the EZLN and the more ideologically disposed supporters and members of the piqueteros and recovered factories movement in Argentina. It is understandably hard to get worked up over Subcommandante Zero’s latest communiqué when Hugo Chavez is changing class relationships on the ground.

Standing in the same relationship to the autonomist currents that Regis Debray once had with the rural guerrilla groups of the 1960s, British professor John Holloway has been forced to take stock of the situation in an interview conducted by Marina Sitrin, an American leftist who writes about Argentine autonomism.

Holloway is the author of “How to Change the World Without Taking Power” that I reviewed here. It basically argues that “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” It is good for workers to rebel in his view but not good to rule. Whenever I think about such arguments, I am reminded of how my mother’s Irish Setter loved to chase cars up our country road but would always return after a few hundred feet of barking wildly. I thought to myself at the time that the excitable hound wouldn’t know what to do with a car if she actually caught one. For Holloway, the working class is in the same situation as my mom’s Irish Setter.

Sitrin asks Holloway to respond to criticisms made by people who think it is good for workers to be in the driver’s seat:

Many academics, especially those writing in the English language, have been critically writing about the horizontal movements in Latin America. They claim that the movements have failed due to not understanding class and power (That they did/do not want to take it). Now these same people, James Petras or Tariq Ali for example, are writing of the victory of the left, ignoring in most cases what many people in the movements actually desire or are creating. I see this as one-sided, narrow, and historically inaccurate, taking us back to the frame of the 1960-90s. However, these are the writings that most people trying to find out about what is going on in Latin America read. Do you think this does damage to the movements?

I imagine that the “frame of the 1960-90s” is a reference to the Cuban revolution, before the EZLN had become trendy. Now that the Venezuelan revolution is inspiring a new generation of radicals, it is a little bit more difficult to get people down to Mexico for some encuentro that produces nothing but rhetoric. It also suggests the general decline of autonomist and anarchist currents over the past 6 years as the mass movement has had to wrestle with the enormous task of forcing Anglo-American imperialism out of Afghanistan and Iraq. In such a dead serious situation, Black Block antics don’t have much traction.

Holloway’s reply is characteristically coy:

Yes, generally I’m in favour of a broad concept of comradeship, that we should regard all those who say no to capitalism as comrades (at least as comrades of the No, even if not as comrades of the Yes), but sometimes it’s hard to maintain. I agree that there’s an extraordinary blindness to what’s happening, a sort of desperation to squeeze the struggles of today into frameworks of thought constructed in the youth of the commentators. It’s as if they are wearing blinkers that simply will not allow them to see. For them the victory of the left is Chávez and Evo and sometimes even Kirchner and Lula and they don’t see that these electoral successes are, at best, extremely contradictory elements in a very real surge of struggle in Latin America. I’m not sure that these writings have much effect on the movements themselves, but they do spread their blindness especially to readers outside Latin America. What we need of course is more books like your own “Horizontality” to let people hear what is actually happening and what people are doing and saying.

I can understand the frustration of Sitrin and Holloway. “Horizontality” has got to be a hard sell when the competition has such a better product line. When you get your hands on state power, there are all sorts of things that you can do that are impossible for a purist, autonomist movement.

Take Chiapas, for example, which represents for Holloway kind of the same thing that St. Petersburg represented to John Reed in 1917. It embodies his deepest beliefs in what it means to change the world without taking power. However, when it comes to the specifics of changing the world, it is Cuban doctors who have had more impact than the EZLN:

Cuban health workers arrive to help in impoverished southern Mexican state

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to help officials cope with a with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing the possibility of bringing “epidemiological brigades” to Chiapas.

Cuba‘s socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba’s health system, while short on medicines, specializes in preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense over the past year.

When it comes to recovered factories, a kind of ideological dividing line for the autonomists, there is evidence once again that there is no substitute for state power when it comes to getting things done.

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

I suppose that the autonomist current will not be persuaded by counter-indicators such as these. When you make a fetish over state power, or the lack thereof, you begin to become detached from the world of politics and enter the world of ethics. While there is little harm that can come out of autonomist politics, it seems unlikely that it will ever begin to impact social and economic relationships in a way that can demonstrate its superiority. In an odd way, the attraction to its supporters like Holloway is its very powerlessness.

I recently discovered that autonomism has sunk roots in Iran, where the working class movement has begun to assert itself after years and years of being on the defensive. Since the Iranian left has demonstrated extreme sectarianism over the years, it might not come as a surprise that the local autonomists reflect these bad habits as well.

In Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink”, there’s a review of trade union developments in chapter six that demonstrates the liabilities of a kind of autonomist politics, namely the council communism associated with Paul Mattick and Anton Pannekoek. In the most recent resurgence of shoras, or workers councils, the autonomists have tended to do everything they can to keep them from uniting nation-wide and from mounting a general political challenge to the Islamic Republic. They have also argued against trade union organizing, believing that such institutions are as tainted as the state–no matter who runs them.

The Iranian council communists are organized in Komiteye Hamahangi (“The Co-ordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisation in Iran”) and are led by Mohsen Hakimi, a Tehran intellectual. Malm and Esmailian write:

Not very strangely, the Komiteye Hamahangi activists – many of whom had experienced the revolution first-hand and then stagnated through the decades of political paralysis – have made a fetish of the shora institution which, in the hands of Hakimi, has been petrifi ed into a doctrine of council communism. Falling back on this early twentieth-century strand of western socialism, associated with the names of Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, Hakimi has reached the conclusion that the council is the only organisation the workers need. No mediation, transitional steps or organisational apparatus should stand between the workers and their goals. In the programmes of the committee, it is explained thus: “We – workers – establish our own councils. With the power of our councils, any interference by any employer in the fate of production is prevented. Our way is to have our councils take production into our own hands.”

To the activists of Komiteye Hamahangi, political parties are anathema. But more crucially, in the light of later events in Iran: trade unions are equally anathema. In council communism, they are considered not only bureaucratic obstacles wasting the energy of shop-floor struggle, but “capitalist organisations” complicit in the trading of labour as a commodity. According to the texts of Komiteye Hamahangi, the trade union is by defi nition a “bargaining unit”, a “mediator between workers and capitalism”, just another machine making “profits” on status quo. The only form of organisation permissible is an “anti-capitalist” one, whose activities will be restricted to propaganda, agitation and “support for strikes, workers’ control initiatives and the like”. Hence Komiteye Hamahangi has declared it of paramount importance to “reveal the dominant resolutions and strategies of ‘syndicalism’ [that is, trade unionism], ‘sectarism’ [sic], ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’ or in a word ‘reformism’ as a fundamental obstruction in the way of the working class struggle.”

In 2005, Hakimi wrote articles that sound like the Persian version of John Holloway’s purple prose. He referred to “life without the wage” as a “glimmer of light at the end of a suffocating tunnel–let us come together and burst that tunnel open.”

Fortunately, there are alternatives to Komiteye Hamahangi. There are Marxist activists in the labor movement who have drawn conclusions similar to comrades on Marxmail and elsewhere in the world where “vanguard” conceptions are being questions. After doing some reading and writing on Venezuela lately, they strike me as the counterparts of Causa R.

Known as Komiteye Peygiri (“Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers’ Organisations in Iran”), it was started by veterans of the Iranian left that had broken with illusions in Islamic radicalism and had decided to focus on organizing the working class, something that was sadly absent in the past.

Taking the point of view that there was no contradiction between the shoras and the trade union movement, they put forward the following demand:

Holding general assemblies during working hours and in the workplace should be recognised. We demand direct participation and intervention of workers’ representatives in tripartite meetings and in all matters relating to workers’ future. Such representatives should be elected in general assemblies through workers’ direct vote.

In a statement that reflected both a sober assessment of conditions in Iran as well as the need to press forward, they probably spoke for Marxists everywhere:

There is no revolutionary situation in Iran. As Lenin said, two conditions must be met for such a situation to arise: oppressors must be incapable of oppressing any longer, and the oppressed must refuse to be oppressed any more, and neither of these are present in Iran. It’s just sheer voluntarism on their [Hamahangi’s] part. What we can do is start from where we are, and gradually make the Islamic Republic accept our right to form trade unions.

May 14, 2007

Tweezerman: progressive bourgeosie

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

A couple of months ago my wife threw out my Hoffritz scissors that I use to trim my moustache and beard because they looked so grungy. Unfortunately, I was not able to replace them immediately because Hoffritz went out of business some years ago. Hoffritz scissors were made of high-quality German steel and most of the scissors you can buy at the local CVS are better at bending hair than cutting it. An exhaustive search on the Internet and off finally turned up the Tweezerman line, which I originally shied away from because of the hokey name. I finally decided to purchase a Tweezerman scissors after reading this on their website:

Dr. Cornelia Wittke Chief Executive Officer Named CEO of Tweezerman International in 2006, Conny began with TMI by taking the lead of global brand management and new product development and sourcing in 2005. Currently as CEO, Conny directs all strategic planning activities for TMI as well as the company’s marketing and branding, product development, advertising and public relations initiatives. Before joining TMI, Conny headed corporate development for Zwilling J.A. Henckels, in Solingen, Germany and spent seven years with the international consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. She earned a doctorate in marketing from the University of Mainz and an MBA from the University of Cologne.

If the German connections weren’t enough to convince to go Tweezerman, this did:

Respecting the Environment

We provide a lifetime guarantee and free implement sharpening for all customers, which results in longer-lasting products that are less likely to wind up in landfills and reduces the number of discarded implements and packaging in the waste stream. It also prevents customers from having to buy the same products repeatedly.

Moreover, all of our tweezing implements and scissors are made of the highest quality stainless steel, a material that does not corrode, does not require harsh chemicals to keep clean, is hygienic and is 100% recyclable.

As an environmentally conscious business, TMI maintains a company recycling program for all paper and cardboard, bottles, cans and plastic; and our facility is equipped with an energy saving light system. In addition to the recyclable packaging of all our products, the company has also supported numerous environmental causes.

Providing Job Security and a Living Wage to All of Our Employees

Since its inception, Tweezerman has been committed to the advancement of every individual we hire. We strive to work with each employee to find the best “fit” in the company for his or her skills, and to do what is necessary in order to protect workers’ jobs in times of economic downturns. TMI is proud of its history of zero-layoffs and its policy of providing a living wage, as opposed to the much lower, federal minimum wage, to all entry-level hourly workers.

But after reading this piece in today’s NY Times, who would possibly buy anything but Tweezerman?

NY Times, May 14, 2007

Antiwar Iraqi in Washington Has a More Sectarian Agenda at Home


WASHINGTON, May 13 — As Congress and the White House continue to spar over war plans, Iraqis representing all sides in the conflict are turning up in the halls of power here to press their views.

For two weeks, in meetings with a score of members of Congress, Muhammad al-Daini, a Sunni Arab member of the Iraqi Parliament who says he has survived eight assassination attempts, has offered a well-practiced pitch that emphasizes the need for American troops to withdraw.

“The problem in Iraq is the American Army,” Mr. Daini told a group of attentive American legislators gathered last week in the office of Representative Jim McDermott, an antiwar Democrat from Seattle. “What brought terrorism, what brought Al Qaeda and what brought Iranian influence is the Americans.”

Mr. Daini, soft-spoken and generally unsmiling, has been ushered from meeting to meeting by a public relations firm paid by an American businessman who calls the Iraqi politician “a true humanitarian.” The businessman, Dal LaMagna, says he is devoting the fortune he made selling his high-end grooming tools business, Tweezerman, to seeking an end to the violence in Iraq, a goal he says Mr. Daini shares.

But a closer look at Mr. Daini’s record in Iraq suggests a more complicated picture. The real lesson of his tour may be the difficulty of sorting out from Washington who is who in a distant, bitter sectarian conflagration, where hyperbole is rife and solid facts are hard to come by.

Last year, after Mr. Daini helped expose a secret torture jail run by the Interior Ministry, his Shiite opponents accused him of having ties to Sunni insurgents. He has publicly praised the Sunni insurgency for taking on American troops, and a reporter for a Shiite newspaper has accused him of complicity in the killing of the reporter’s brother.

A central part of Mr. Daini’s pitch is the perfidy of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and he has brought to Washington a stack of documents that he contends prove the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is tied to death squads and takes orders from Iran. One is a letter purporting to bear Mr. Maliki’s signature pledging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to destroy 13 opponents in Parliament “by any means,” including “physical elimination.”

Another supposedly shows Mr. Maliki advising the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to hide his top militia commanders in Iran or send them to the south during the new Baghdad security push.

Mr. Maliki’s allies, however, say the documents are forgeries. The government now plans to ask Parliament to vote to lift Mr. Daini’s immunity from criminal prosecution, a privilege of all legislators, so that he can be charged with forgery.

“The documents that he has can be found on the terrorists’ Web sites,” Hassan al-Sineid, a senior Shiite legislator from Mr. Maliki’s party, said Saturday. “The Iraqi government knows all about what he’s doing in Washington.”

Mr. Daini’s visit last week coincided with those of Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, and Barham Salih, a deputy prime minister. Mr. Salih and Mr. Rubaie urged Congress to have patience, leaving American troops in place; Mr. Daini urged a timetable for a pullout.

Mr. Daini grew animated when asked about Mr. Rubaie, a conservative Shiite. “He always says the opposite of the truth,” Mr. Daini said. “I’d like to ask him, do you dare even step into the streets of Iraq?”

Later he asserted that Mr. Rubaie was, in fact, an Iranian merely posing as an Iraqi.

“There is an Iranian army inside the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry,” Mr. Daini told the Congressional group gathered by Mr. McDermott.

The American lawmakers were polite and inquisitive but some appeared nonplussed by hints of the polarization of Iraqi views. When Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, suggested that it might be valuable to get all Iraqi factions to meet for talks in the United States, Mr. Daini demurred.

The Shiites represented by Mr. Maliki, he said, “have had a chance to rule.”

“I don’t think they deserve another chance,” he said.

Mr. McDermott, trained as a psychiatrist, “believes in listening to the patient,” said his spokesman, Mike DeCesare. He does not necessarily accept Mr. Daini’s analysis, but he believes Congress should hear a range of Iraqi views, Mr. DeCesare said.

In the claims and counterclaims that saturate Iraqi politics, accusations of treason and murder are commonplace. But Mr. Daini’s basic claims — that the Maliki government has ties to Shiite militias and to Iran — are widely accepted and have caused serious concern to American officials.

Some Sunnis fear that a quick American pullout could endanger them. But Mr. Daini asserts that American support for the Maliki government merely prolongs the bloodshed and empowers Iran. Only an American withdrawal, combined with an international conference, can free Iraqi nationalists of all sects to unite the country, he said.

Mr. Daini, 35, is a member of the National Dialogue Front, a Sunni Arab political group led by Saleh al-Mutlak, a former Baath Party official who insists that the Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein, was the best party ever to govern Iraq.

Mr. Daini is from Diyala Province, an area north and east of Baghdad that is one of the most violent places in Iraq, with Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias and American forces all battling for control. He won a parliamentary seat in December 2005.

Last June, Mr. Daini drew national and international attention when he helped expose a prison in Diyala containing hundreds of mostly Sunni prisoners, many of whom bore marks of torture. Video of Mr. Daini speaking with prisoners was broadcast in Britain in November and on CNN in March.

Days after the exposure of the prison, Mr. Daini said, 10 male relatives who were working as his bodyguards were stopped by Shiite militia members and shot to death.

Even as those events were unfolding, the reporter for the Shiite newspaper, Samir al-Awad, was pressing for a criminal investigation of Mr. Daini in connection with the killing of Mr. Awad’s brother, a Shiite truck driver who disappeared last summer. Mr. Awad’s campaign has drawn support from Ahmad Chalabi, the prominent Shiite politician.

The police pinpointed two suspects, both from the Daini tribe, Mr. Awad said, but could not find them.

Then, on Feb. 6, Mr. Awad said that he saw Muhammad al-Daini appear on Al Jazeera television holding up a photo of a corpse that Mr. Awad recognized as that of his brother, but that Mr. Daini claimed showed a Sunni Arab murdered by Shiite militiamen.

“I saw his face,” he said. “It was so clear it was my brother.”

In an interview, Mr. Daini denied that the picture showed Mr. Awad’s brother and said he had nothing to do with what he called the “terrible killing.” He said he was “fighting against Al Qaeda,” though he acknowledged that he had often praised Iraqi resistance to the American occupation.

“I’m Iraqi and I love my country, just like the Americans love their country,” he said, “and I want Iraq without any occupation.”

The accusations about insurgency and murder never arose last week as Mr. LaMagna, the American businessman, accompanied Mr. Daini on his visits. Mr. Daini briefly saw Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and met with Lee H. Hamilton, the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group.

He saw a long list of members of Congress. Most were antiwar Democrats, but one Republican, Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, explained his meeting in a press release, calling it “incredibly important” to hear “different perspectives on the complicated factions” in Iraq.

Mr. LaMagna, who plunged into antiwar advocacy after selling his company in 2004, has helped finance three films on the war and first heard of Mr. Daini last year on a visit to Jordan with Mr. McDermott. He said he had found Mr. Daini “consistent,” did not believe claims that he was involved in disinformation or violence and was enjoying playing host to Mr. Daini at his Washington house.

“I like to hang with someone to get to know him,” said Mr. LaMagna. “We brought in a cook. I jog with him in the morning. We have the same agenda: we want to stop the violence.”

Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Edward Wong from Baghdad. Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Baquba.

May 13, 2007

Alexander Cockburn on global warming

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

I have a dismaying sense of déjà vu reading Alexander Cockburn’s global warming articles. Around ten years ago, I and my good friend, the late Mark Jones, had an ongoing debate with one James Heartfield about these very questions. James was a militant of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain, to be distinguished from the American sect by its love of DDT, nuclear power and genetically modified crops rather than Mao’s Little Red Book. Taking some of Marx’s early writings in an extreme direction, the RCP propagandized for what amounted to better living through chemistry in their magazine LM. Nowadays, the RCP operates under the rubric of Spiked Online, where their denial of global warming dispenses with Marxism altogether and sounds much more like CNN wack job Glenn Beck.

Cockburn’s hostility to the global warming alarmists, especially Al Gore, is driven by a kind of conspiracy theory of the sort associated with vulgar Marxism. He believes that all the global warming alarms are meant basically to push nuclear energy. While I have much more respect for Alexander than I do for the 9/11 conspiracists, something tells me that there is a common methodology at work. Vast conspiracies operate in order to promote the hidden energy goals of the ruling class, whether to scare the population into supporting a war for oil or to accept nuclear power like a herd of sheep.

This involves major leaps of the imagination. Just as I always found it difficult to picture CIA agents agreeing to planes (or cruise missiles) being flown into the WTC or the Pentagon, I can’t quite get my mind around the idea that scientists are involved in a huge con job.

One of the interesting things about this global warming “debate” (this is tantamount to referring to a debate over whether HIV causes AIDS) is the infinitesimal number of participants who cross over to the opposing side after considering the data and arguments. For example, I doubt that anybody at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty is going to wind up changing their minds at this point. However, you do find a number of skeptics changing their mind. One of them is Ronald Bailey of “Reason” magazine, an outfit that is more or less the American counterpart of Spiked online. The two publications cosponsored an event at the New School about 5 years ago that amounted to a trade show for the petrochemical industry.

But Bailey has changed his mind. In an August 11, 2005 article, he stated:

Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up. All data sets—satellite, surface, and balloon—have been pointing to rising global temperatures. In fact, they all have had upward pointing arrows for nearly a decade, but now all of the data sets are in closer agreement due to some adjustments being published in three new articles in Science today.

Returning to Cockburn’s article, there is something else that he has in common with Spiked online besides the belief that global warming is not caused by greenhouse gases. The Counterpunch publisher and the British libertarians both would prefer to challenge the Al Gore and Laurie Davids of the world than they would the Marxist ecologists, like John Bellamy Foster. When I was at the Spiked online/Reason Magazine conference, I made this point. Where were the Marxist panelists? If the debate consists solely of mainstream or “deep ecology” types on one side and pro-industry spokesman on the other, you are ignoring the sizable community of revolutionary-minded environmentalists who have developed a critique of capitalism.

Here is how Foster approaches the question. It is an alternative to both mainstream environmentalism and the kind of backhanded support to unbridled capitalist development espoused by Spiked online and Alexander Cockburn:

Most climate scientists, including Lovelock and Hansen, follow the IPCC in basing their main projections of global warming on a socioecnomic scenario described as “business as usual.” The dire trends indicated are predicated on our fundamental economic and technological developments and our basic relation to nature remaining the same. The question we need to ask then is what actually is business as usual? What can be changed and how fast? With time running out the implication is that it is necessary to alter business as usual in radical ways in order to stave off or lessen catastrophe.

Yet, the dominant solutions—those associated with the dominant ideology, i.e., the ideology of the dominant class—emphasize minimal changes in business as usual that will somehow get us off the hook. After being directed to the growing planetary threats of global warming and species extinction we are told that the answer is better gas mileage and better emissions standards, the introduction of hydrogen-powered cars, the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere, improved conservation, and voluntary cutbacks in consumption. Environmental political scientists specialize in the construction of new environmental policy regimes, embodying state and market regulations. Environmental economists talk of tradable pollution permits and the incorporation of all environmental factors into the market to ensure their efficient use. Some environmental sociologists (my own field) speak of ecological modernization: a whole panoply of green taxes, green regulations, and new green technologies, even the greening of capitalism itself. Futurists describe a new technological world in which the weight of nations on the earth is miraculously lifted as a result of digital “dematerialization” of the economy. In all of these views, however, there is one constant: the fundamental character of business as usual is hardly changed at all.

As much as I admire Alexander Cockburn’s critique of the evils of the capitalist system, it is on questions such as global warming that I find him lacking. It is understandable that a radical journalist would shy away from getting involved with full-bore Marxist analyses of the kind that Mike Davis is famous for. They would require you to be committed to a system of thinking that might seem too binding, like a pair of shoes that doesn’t fit.

In any case, I find that much of the writing that Counterpunch produces, either by its esteemed publishers, or by the stable of volunteers they rely on, is quite good. As Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon immediately after proposing marriage and learning that he was really a man, “Nobody’s perfect.”

May 11, 2007


Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Last night I attended a press screening for “Amu,” Indian-American director Shonali Bose’s deeply affecting film about the slaughter of Sikhs in 1984. Scheduled for release on May 25th in New York and on June 15th in Los Angeles, it tells the story of Kaju (Konkona Sensharma), a young UCLA graduate, who while visiting relatives in Delhi learns that she is the sole survivor of a Sikh family that died in the riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Over the course of three days, at least 5000 Sikhs were slaughtered in an act of “retribution” that is reminiscent of Rwanda or Darfur. The film’s executive producer is Bose’s husband Bedabrata Pain, an acclaimed NASA scientist who has campaigned around the issue of justice for the Sikhs for a number of years. In some ways, the film suggests the 1985 “The Official Story,” an Argentine film about an adopted girl who learns that her true parents were victims of the “dirty war.”

“Amu” begins on a light, even comic note as Kaju hangs out with family and friends who are bemused by her efforts to discover the “real India” in a fashion that suggests E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India”. Kabir (Ankur Khanna), a student about her age, keeps teasing her about her infatuation with Delhi slum life, an indication that she is romanticizing poverty. That does not prevent him from serving as her constant guide, since it soon becomes very obvious that he is attracted to her despite what he perceives as misbegotten Orientalist attitudes. For his part, Kabir is the quintessential upwardly mobile Indian youth who aspires to get an MBA and work in his father’s bank.

While the two are walking along the railway tracks in a Delhi slum that was a center of Sikh life in 1984, Kaju is stopped cold by a déjà vu experience. Not only has she been there, something terrible has happened there and it involved her.

Part of her mission in Delhi is to learn a little bit more about her past. She was told that her parents were from a nearby village that suffered through a malaria outbreak when she was a baby. After her parents died, she was put up for adoption. At a lavish luncheon at Kabir’s opulent home, she learns from his father that no such outbreak ever occurred. The news shocks her. Has somebody been lying to her?

Kaju demands the truth from her mother

A few days later, she decides to rifle through her dead grandfather’s trunk since she understands that her adoption papers are there. She discovers a document that establisher her birth in Delhi, not the nearby village. Furthermore, the names of her original parents have been smudged out. This only makes her more determined to discover the truth about her origins.

Her quest to discover the truth begins to unnerve her adoptive mother, who has joined her from Los Angeles. She is especially troubled by Kaju’s insistence on tracking down leads in a Delhi slum that abuts the railway station where she had the chilling déjà vu experience. She is afraid for her safety as well as worried that Kaju might discover the truth, namely that she was the sole survivor of the 1984 riots. In the climax of the film, mother and daughter sit in a car in a pouring rain while the entire bloody episode is recreated in a flashback. It is among the most emotionally draining moments in film that I have experienced this year.

I cannot recommend “Amu” highly enough. Not only is it an excellent introduction to the terrible events of 1984, it is first-class film-making. As a premiere feature film, “Amu” demonstrates enormous story-telling (Bose wrote the script as well) and directorial skills. Shonali Bose was a 19 year old student in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. She eventually came to the U.S. and completed a PhD in political science at Columbia University. As should be obvious from this, she brings a superior intelligence to the movie-making discipline.

Against the advice of “movie people” who urged something more marketable like a “Bollywood” musical or romance, she decided to tackle the Sikh massacres. Indian producers warned her that if such a film were ever made, the theaters would be burned down. After she finally persuaded a group of producers that it was a worthwhile project, they backed down at the last minute. When her husband received a huge royalty check from NASA for inventing the world’s smallest camera shortly afterwards, he informed her that funding would now finally be available even though it was only a tenth of what would eventually be required.

In the director’s statement in the press notes, Bose explains what motivated her to make “Amu”:

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

Funding for the film eventually came from all sorts of sources, including a Toronto radio-thon where Sikh taxi drivers called in pledges of $50 and $100. There is widespread knowledge in the Sikh community about the film. Last night when I entered my lobby, I spotted a Sikh resident in my building who I had seen before. He owns a nearby car service, a business that the Sikhs specialize in. I told him about how great the film was and to look for it when it opened this month. He shook my hand and said, “Thank you, my brother.”

The Sikh victims of the 1984 atrocities have never received justice. The last governmental commission did little except make vague references to official participation and approval in the pogroms. A couple of politicians and cops were called culpable but the entire establishment went scot-free. With such a refusal to accept guilt, it is not surprising that the Indian government has made every effort to block the production and distribution of “Amu”. When Anupam Kher–a well-known Bollywood actor and head of the Indian Censor Board–approved the film, he was immediately fired.

Although it was obviously impossible to provide documentary-type historical background in a film such as this, it would certainly move some to find out more about the Sikh question. Beyond their obvious appearance (beard, turban and ceremonial dagger), their beliefs and history are probably something of a mystery to the average Westerner, myself included. Of more interest, however, is what socio-economic factors could have led to the violence dramatized in the film. As is so often the case with even the best such movies that dramatize ethnic cleansing or genocide, the material conditions that led to such inhumanity goes by the wayside.

For very useful historical background on the Sikhs, I would recommend a Znet article that was prompted by the release of “Amu”. The authors state:

Despite the fact that the conventional political history of India emphasized its communal and factional nature, the relationship between the Sikh and Hindu communities remains largely unattended. Often communalism in Indian history is referred as the tension between Hindu and Muslim communities alone. Inevitably, this convention ignored the complex relationships between different communities in India, while also obscuring the similarities between religious discord and conflict along other social divides. The silencing of 1984 follows this tradition. Amu opens up avenues to reexamine this history and suggests that the 1984 carnage was not merely a communal event. Though the Punjab crisis has its roots before India’s partition in 1947, this event added to the conditions that would eventually lead to the events of 1984. As a consequence of partition, Sikhs who were before scattered across what is now Pakistani and Indian Punjab were unwillingly forced to migrate into the eastern third of historic Punjab. During the years that followed, the government failed to meet the demands of Punjab to have more autonomous control over its resources.This is related to problems in how the Indian Constitution organizes the relationship between individual provinces and the central government through federalism. On November 1 1966, as a result of the Punjabi Subah movement, a separate state for Punjabi speaking people was created.

This movement was led by the Akali Dal, a regional Punjabi political party.Due to growing unease around State control of Punjabi resources, and desires for greater Sikh visibility within the context of growing Hindu influence over Indian political culture, the non-violent militant Akali Dal movement formulated the 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution that demanded such things as greater allocation of water for irrigation, recognition of Amritsar as a holy city, release of political prisoners who were thought to be terrorists, and generally more provincial control of resources.

In January 1980, national parliamentary elections brought Indira Gandhi back into power. In February 1980, President’s Rule was declared by Gandhi in Punjab and eight other states, which dissolved these states’ legislatures and forced new elections.This led to increased politicization of segments of Punjabi society and increased interest in re-emphasizing the demands made by the Akali Dal in the 1970’s. In 1981, the Akali Dal submitted a list of 45 grievances and demands to the Indian government. Indira Gandhi’s Congress party was threatened by the popularity of the Akali Dal and initiated strategic alliances with the more radical and militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bindhranwale.This relationship fell apart when Bindranwale’s faction became increasingly militant in their demands.The Bhindranwale supporters became known for their demands for a Khalistan, a separate Sikh state.

On June 5th, 1984, the Indian army began an extensive military invasion in Punjab centred around the Golden Temple.The stated rationale for this action was an attempt to specifically capture Bhindranwale and his supporters who were residing inside at that time. Simultaneous actions were taken throughout Punjab, including the military occupation of various gurdwaras, extensive curfews and a total censorship of the press. Due to this censorship, casualties are difficult to estimate thoughnumbers range from one thousand to eight thousand deaths in the Golden Temple complex alone. This operation was not an isolated event but continued to impact daily life for Punjabis afterwards through daily dawn-to-dusk curfews, censorship and dissolution of Punjabi state legislative authority.On October 31st, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards.

Violence, that was clearly supported and facilitated by state officials’ action and inaction, broke out in Delhi immediately thereafter. The media decontextualized Gandhi’s assassination, constructing it as a communal event -a Hindu prime minister being brutally murdered by Sikh fanatics. Though its irresponsible actions influenced the violence, the media did not orchestrate the carnage. National and local government administrators and elected officials were either directly involved or implicated in the violence. For example, Congress administrators recruited hoodlums from villages outside of Delhi to carry out systematic looting, killing and raping of Sikh residents.Congress officials and police were seen supervising the atrocities, providing kerosene to the perpetrators and identifying Sikh homes and shops. For three days, the government did nothing to stop the bloodbath. Estimates of the killings range from three thousand to more than twenty thousand.

Amu website (includes scheduling info for cities other than NY and LA)

May 10, 2007

Iran on the Brink, part two

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Part two of Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War” is titled “Iran in the World.” It takes up the issues that have put Iran on the front page of the newspapers for the past several years, including nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the “war on terror”, holocaust denial and the strategic importance of oil. Their approach is a model for the left. While maintaining the necessary distance from the Iranian government, they display rock-solid solidarity with the Iranian people. Furthermore, one can only conclude that one of the greatest obstacles to the defense of the Iranian nation is the government itself, which is pursuing policies that are self-defeating in the final analysis.

“Iran on the Brink” puts the drive to build nuclear power plants into historical context. Under the Shah, American companies including General Electric and Westinghouse invested heavily in nuclear power in Iran, with the solid support of the American government.

What might not be so well known is Ayatollah Khomeini’s views on the matter. In contrast to the Shah and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khomeini viewed atomic weapons as the work of the infidels and suspended all work on nuclear power. After he died, the program was revived since it was understood that nuclear energy was necessary for capital accumulation in Iran. Since Iran is virtually floating in oil and natural gas, it might seem like a paradox that nuclear power is necessary. The authors supply an explanation that is grounded in Marxist economics and common sense.

Based on its import substitution/self-sufficiency development model, it is imperative that Iran export oil–every drop of it. This is the only commodity that can generate foreign currency, such as Euros, that can be used to buy desperately needed capital equipment. However, the government is caught in a bind. Oil is also used for subsidized domestic consumption, such as home heating fuel and gas for automobiles. Given the acute social tensions that already exist in the country, it would be very risky to reduce the subsidies for petroleum products, hence the need for nuclear power.

While Iran very likely has no immediate plans for nuclear arms, the authors make the case that it would make sense for them to acquire the technology to produce them. Given the open hostility of the U.S. and Israel, Iran needs such weapons to avoid the same fate as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Malm and Esmailian state:

It is up to encircled Iran to defend itself. No other power will come to its protection.31 Thus the rationality of the pursuit for a “break-out” option – a nuclear infrastructure with latent military potential – is not a product of the paranoid fantasies on the part of the millionaire mullahs. Other rulers of Iran finding themselves in the same situation might well come to similar conclusions. As the US State Department declared in a rare moment of insight in October 2003: “any government – even a secular Western-oriented one – would probably continue the quest for nuclear weapons.”

“Iran on the Brink” presents a compelling case for the inevitable clash between the West and Iran that has already occurred in the country on its Eastern border. That clash can be summarized in the words, “It’s the oil stupid”. While there have been some fairly credible cases made that the invasion of Iraq and the one that threatens Iran today might have other causes (the Zionist lobby, the profits of munitions companies, the need to intimidate Muslims, etc.), it is difficult to take them quite so seriously after reading chapter 13, titled “Who Commands the Waterfall”–a reference to V. 3 of Capital, where Marx describes the waterfall as being less expensive than the steam engine:

It is by no means within the power of capital to call into existence this natural premise for a greater productivity of labour in the same manner as any capital may transform water into steam. It is found only locally in Nature and, wherever it does not exist, it cannot be established by a definite investment of capital. It is not bound to goods which labour can produce, such as machines and coal, but to specific natural conditions prevailing in certain portions of the land. Those manufacturers who own waterfalls exclude those who do not from using this natural force, because land, and particularly land endowed with water-power, is scarce.

Those “who own waterfalls” today are obviously the countries in OPEC that through the accident of natural history sit upon vast oil reserves. Marx points out that the owners of waterfalls (and oil reserves) can prevent their exploitation by capital but, by the same token, “a waterfall cannot be created by capital out of itself.”

The fact that these modern equivalents of waterfalls are in countries ruled by anti-imperialists, or threatened by local anti-imperialist movements, supports the interpretation offered by “peak oil” theorists. Peak oil is not so much about the absolute disappearance of oil, but that it is increasingly limited to countries deemed as “unstable”–in other words, countries that refuse to be picked apart by vultures like Exxon or British Petroleum. This tendency has been described by The Economist as “resource nationalism.”

While the imperialists are in desperate need of Iranian oil, the country cannot fully exploit the resource because the infrastructure is dilapidated. In order to modernize, Iran must gain access to foreign investments. But the West makes it difficult for Iran to sell oil as long as the government is considered inimical to its interests. This is what Marxists call a contradiction. In the fevered imaginations of the neoconservatives (and the liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton who insist that Iran is the world’s greatest threat to peace), a lightning strike into the country would result in the toppling of the regime. Looking at the resentful mood of Iran’s secular-minded students and intellectuals, they assume once again that they would be greeted with flowers. There is about as much basis for this in fact as there was in Iraq, probably less so.

This is not to say that imperialism has not already begun to cultivate a fifth column in Iran that would operate against the government. Two areas have been singled out as potential allies for an invasion, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. These are where two oppressed nationalities have resisted the Islamic Republic for decades now. One of the unfulfilled expectations of the 1979 revolution was that the Kurds and the Arab nationality in Khuzestan would be given full rights in an autonomous region. That was too much to expect from the mullah millionaires who simply view such peoples as an obstacle to their own plans for capital accumulation–alongside the burgeoning labor movement. The antagonism of Tehran to the oppressed nationalities endangers the Iranian nation in the long run. That is one of the reasons the country needs to have a revolution that will fulfill such promises, just as the October 1917 revolution in Russia did.

In the summer of 2005, a previously unknown Kurdish guerrilla group called Pejak (Kurdistan Free Life Party) began to launch attacks against army and Pasdaran outposts. Unlike the KDPI and Komele, Kurdish revolutionary groups that emerged from the Iranian left, this new group emerged out of PKK camps in Iraq, where western intelligence has a heavy presence. At the time of the writing of “Iran on the Brink,” there was no evidence that Pejak was actually collaborating with the CIA, but a communiqué that appeared on its website amounted to a thinly-veiled threat:

As you know, the US and the West have begun to connect with the Iranian opposition, and as everyone knows, oppressed people will use any road to reach freedom. So ask yourself why the opposition is searching for solutions in the US and the West … Sirs, use your reason and start giving us our rights before others do it … If you want to evade the destiny of Yugoslavia and Iraq, and show that you really do care about the country, then give the minorities their rights and gather them behind you, without any trickery.

The same kind of ominous developments were taking place in Khuzestan. In 2005 and 2006, bomb attacks took place against state banks and governmental headquarters for natural resources. The government assumed that the attacks were related to the conflict in Iraq, since they had all the earmarks of Sunni Jihadist attacks on Shiites.

However, the Iranian government was partly to blame for this development since it had adopted a collaborationist relationship in with the very forces bent on destroying it. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamic Republic has concluded alliances with imperialism despite the torrent of anti-imperialist rhetoric coming out of Tehran.

For the US, however, the autonomy of the Iranian state is part of a malaise that stretches far beyond the borders of historic Palestine. In the two countries under US occupation, that is, Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran has emerged as the prime alternative locus of power. This has not been achieved through anti-imperialism, or any other principled policy: the Islamic Republic has reached its position through insidious Machiavellian plots, immolating the local populations whenever it served its interests. In Afghanistan, Iran was instrumental in the US campaign against the Taliban. Deeply provoked by the Wahhabi madrasa-students’ hatred of Shia Muslims, Iran had been a foe of the Taliban regime all through its existence, financing, equipping and training its would-be gravediggers in the Northern Alliance. As the US opted for invasion, Tehran recommended that the Alliance coordinate its operations with the US troops, even assisting it on the ground through special forces. Were it not for Iran, the ground component of Operation Enduring Freedom would not have existed. Ten days after the flight of the Taliban from Kabul, Iran became the first country to reopen its embassy. But for this, in a first change of tune, the US was not happy.

The same pattern occurred in Iraq:

In Iraq, a much longer story not to be told in detail here, Iran has similarly supplied crucial sponsorship to the US occupation and undermined the Americans’ hold over the country.29 The backbone of the “Iraqi forces” deployed by the US against the Sunni insurgency is the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. Founded by Iraqi Khomeinists in Iranian exile, having battled in the war against Saddam, Sciri reentered Iraq under the wings of the US occupation with discipline, combat experience, and absolute allegiance to Tehran. This is the force responsible for the mass mutilations of Sunni civilians uncovered in innumerable ditches, backyards and river banks in central Iraq in 2005 and 2006.

Against such dismal, opportunist policies, the only hope for Iran is the growth of class politics and radical democracy. With the emergence of a new working class movement in Iran, as documented in part one of “Iran on the Brink,” we see hope for a genuine anti-imperialism as opposed to what exists now, the anti-imperialism of fools.

Let me conclude by stating that “Iran on the Brink” is must reading for anybody trying to understand Iran today and who hopes to prevent a terrible war from taking place. Although the White House is on the defensive today, there is little assurance that George W. Bush will not risk everything on an insane “double or nothing” gamble. There are increased dangers from a Democratic Party that has been even more bellicose on Iran than the Republican Party. To be effective opponents of a new war, it is imperative to be armed with the truth. That would begin with a reading of “Iran on the Brink,” an instant classic.

May 9, 2007

The Iranian left

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

Today Binh asked, “Maybe in part 2 you can look at the politics of the Fedayeen and the 79 other groups that aspired to Lenin’s mantle? (OK, maybe not all 79 of them…)”. Actually, most of the discussion about the Iranian left takes place in part one. The authors have flowcharts that demonstrate how divided the left was:



Most of the discussion about this badly divided left is based on an excellent book titled “Rebels With a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran” by Maziar Behrooz. The book is definitely worth tracking down, but you can read an excerpt at: http://bss.sfsu.edu/behrooz/m-keddie.pdf (Unfortunately, it is laid out horizontally so you have to adjust for that.)

The only other thing I would add is that Malm and Esmailian have criticisms of a new left in Iran that bases itself on “council communist” ideas. They are heavily involved with the new shoras, but are opposed to trade unions and a nationally coordinated movement that would aim at taking state power. You found the same sort of thing in Argentina during the economic crisis. It was also what Lenin fought against in Czarist Russia–the so-called “economist” current.

They are also derisive of the Workers Communist Party, a small sect of exiles that focus most of their energy on assailing Islam and making maximalist calls for socialism.

May 6, 2007

Iran on the Brink, part one

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm


Iranian workers celebrate May Day

If light of the hostility of the United States toward the governments of Venezuela and Iran, should the left draw the conclusion that the social systems are equally progressive? There have been many articles in the bourgeois press about a growing affinity between socialism and political Islam, such as the December 9, 2006 Wall Street Journal’s “Anti-Americans on the March”:

In deeply Roman Catholic Latin America, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has become the exemplar of a new populism that sees common cause with Iran and Hezbollah. Mr. Chávez, re-elected in a landslide last Sunday, has met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad several times and this summer was given the Islamic Republic Medal, Iran‘s highest honor.

Meanwhile, Chavez has paid tribute to the Iranian president in terms that would indicate some kind of convergence. In a tour of Latin America last year, Ahmadinejad said that Tehran and Caracas had the task of “promoting revolutionary thought in the world” and has referred to Chavez as a “brother” and a “brave revolutionary”. Meanwhile, Chavez Chavez said that Iran and Venezuela are “two heroic nations” with “two revolutions that are giving each other a hand.”

Also militating in favor of a pro-Ahmadinejad outlook is the widespread hostility against him on the “decent left”, from Harry’s Place to Norm Geras. Who would want to have anything in common with these pro-imperialist stooges? If this means attacking the striking Tehran bus drivers because Norm Geras supports them, what’s wrong with that? After all, we’ve had experience with trade unionists acting as cat’s paws for imperialism in the past starting with Lech Walesa. There might be merit to such logic, as long as one maintains an indifference to the facts.

Unfortunately politics does not consist of automatically putting a plus where the bourgeoisie puts a minus, as Trotsky pointed out in his aptly named 1938 article “Learn to Think“:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Of course, there are those who will be satisfied to cherry pick the newspapers looking for any item that supports their own preconceived notions about the revolutionary character of the Islamic republic. For such people, it would be about as daunting a prospect to convince them otherwise as it would have been to convince a CP’er in 1938 that the Moscow Trials were an injustice. One might understand the reluctance of those zealous CP’ers to criticize “actually existing socialism” as they perceived it, but placing the same kind of faith in the Islamic Republic is another question altogether. One might attribute that to the diminished expectations of a radical movement in the aftermath of a collapsed Soviet Union. For those of us who will not settle for anything less than the vision laid out by Marx and Engels, another approach is necessary. As Karl Marx put it in a letter to Ruge in 1843:

If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.

For many leftists, it has not been easy to construct an accurate picture of Iranian society. Notwithstanding the excellent information contained in websites such as the Iran Bulletin, there is no single book that contains the kind of well-documented analysis that the Islamic Republic demands. That is, until now. With the publication of Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian’s “Iran on the Brink: Rising Workers and Threats of War” by Pluto Books, you get a full picture of the oppressive class relations in the Islamic Republic, as well as some indications of how they may be changed.

Since “Iran on the Brink” is divided into two parts–“Workers in Iran” and “Iran in the World”– I will post separately on each one. I will try to communicate some of the eye-opening information found in the book, but strongly urge everybody to purchase the book. It is simply the most important Marxist analysis I have encountered in several years as well as being urgently needed.

“Iran on the Brink” provides historical background on revolutionary movements in Iran, starting in the early 20th century. Attempts to break with colonial domination and the native comprador bourgeoisie kept being thwarted, the most notable example being the coup against Mossadegh in 1953 that led to the Reza Shah dictatorship that was finally overthrown in 1979.

The authors focus on the emergence of shoras that arose spontaneously in factories and oil refineries around the country shortly after the Shah’s cronies fled the country. The shoras started out as strike committees but were then transformed into workers control bodies. They very much reflected the kind of aspirations seen in Venezuela today and target number one of Khomeini and his followers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad included. A worker at a shoe factory spoke for all Iranian workers when he said:

Nowadays you don’t need to tell a worker to go and work. He works himself. Why? The reason why he didn’t work [under the Shah] was because he was under the boss’s thumb. He couldn’t speak out. Now, he’ll say: “the work is my own. I’ll work.”

Unfortunately, the shoras failed to become the new state power, just as Soviets had become in 1917. Unlike Russia, the Iranians lacked a revolutionary party that could coordinate the shoras nationwide and press the struggle forward. This is not to say, however, that there weren’t groups in Iran that aspired to Lenin’s mantle. There were more than eighty of them, in fact. Unfortunately, they only thing that united them was sectarianism mixed with an eagerness to adapt to political Islam. In 1979, the Iranian left was still stuck in the same mode that would destroy the left in so many countries, namely a dogmatic understanding of what it meant to be a “vanguard”. The particular irony is that Iranian workers would have been more receptive to the leadership of a revolutionary party than anywhere else in the world.

Among the most prestigious of the revolutionary organizations was the Fediyan that had conducted a guerrilla struggle against the Shah since 1971. Its main rival was the Tudeh, the official Communist Party. Both groups were heavily influenced by Stalinist top-down methods and were hardly in a position to engage with so profoundly a bottom-up phenomenon like the shoras. It should be added that the Tudeh did have an interest in the shoras, but it could be described as the kind of interest that the Democrats had in Ralph Nader. The Tudeh’s goal was to replace the shoras with conventional trade unions of the sort that they had operated in historically. Eventually, the Tudeh made a bloc with the Majority faction of the Fediyan that shared its hostility to the shoras and its belief that political Islam was progressive. With the two most powerful groups on the left holding such beliefs, one might conclude that the rise of Khomeini-ism had more to do with the bankruptcy of the left than its own dubious merits.

Khomeini soon developed a substitute for the shoras that was called the shora-ye eslami, or “Islamic council”. Rather than operating on the basis of class struggle, the new bodies would stress Muslim brotherhood. This was a brotherhood that first and foremost would put a ban on strikes, effective in March 1980. Strikes were now considered haram, or sinful. Just to make sure that nobody lapsed into sinful behavior, the government set up Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) that would break strikes and enforce discipline within the workplace. One metal factory worker described the kind of punishment Pasdaran meted out to the unruly:

They flogged one of my colleagues to death. They accused him of having cursed Imam Ali. First they brought him to prison, but then they dragged him to the factory and bound him to a machine. All production was stopped and we were ordered to appear in front of the scene. I could only stand to have my eyes on him for two lashes. Then blood was gushing from his wounds. He died after 50, 60 lashes. He was about 50 years old.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 represented a bloc of different classes and social layers, all united against the Shah and a comprador bourgeoisie. While the workers had their own class interests at heart, they basically assumed that they could be furthered by uniting with the ‘bazaari’ and the clerics, who agreed with each other on the need to rein in the workers.

The bazaaris were merchants who had been conducting business under the Shah in the same way that their parents and grandparents had done. They resented the Shah’s fostering of multinational retail business in Iran that would eventually crush them, if left unchallenged. In some cases, the crushing was literal as bulldozers were sent in to demolish the stalls and small shops. In the bazaar districts of every city in Iran, there are mosques that serve as assembly places where grievances against the state could be mounted. It was natural for the clerics and the bazaaris to find common ground there.

When the comprador bourgeoisie fled the country, the bazaari and the clerics became the new ruling class. But such social layers lacked the muscle to police the country, so it became necessary to create a shock troop from poorer layers from the shantytowns in Tehran and elsewhere. Deeply religious, unemployed former peasants were recruited into the Pasdaran to keep the workers, women and oppressed minorities in line. If religious fervor and muscle were not sufficient, the Tudeh could be relied upon to keep the workers in line. Stating that “Islam is the ideology of the anti-imperialist revolution,” the Communists supported a ban on strikes, arguing that they were in the service of the counter-revolution.

Once the workers were bullied into submission, the new ruling class could go full speed ahead with capitalist development along new lines. Primarily, this took the form of using petrodollars to fund national industrial or infrastructure projects through something called the Oil Stabilization Fund. The fund is also used to keep the Pasdaran going and to provide for charitable outlays in keeping with Shiite beliefs. The general goal is to make Iran self-sufficient, using “import substitution” techniques associated with the UN economists of the Prebisch mold. Within this framework, the needs of the workers matters little. Despite rapid growth in the recent period, the workers’ share of the pie has diminished.

Class formation in Iran emerges through state-owned enterprises, just as was the case in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and FLN-ruled Algeria. In countries whose economies have been heavily distorted by imperialism, the only recourse for capitalist growth is through public ownership–a contradiction that eventually resolves itself in favor of greater and greater doses of old-fashioned capitalism, just as recent privatizations in Iran attest to.

Malm and Esmailian describe Iranian capitalism as a kind of “family affair”:

One particular millionaire mullah stands above the others: Hashemi Rafsanjani, generally believed to be the richest man in Iran. His family’s list of connections would delight a bazaari-ulama family of the 1970s. Rafsanjani’s cousin is managing director of the company that dominates the lucrative pistachio export market, a brother is governor of Qom, a nephew is a member of the Majles energy commission overseeing oil and gas policies. Rafsanjani’s oldest son manages the company building Tehran’s subway – one of the country’s major ongoing infrastructure projects – while his youngest son has devoted his life to a stud farm in one of the must luxurious areas of northern Tehran. A nephew has a key position in the Ministry of Oil, a brother-in-law is a governor of Kerman province, home of the clan, where Rafsanjani himself has stakes in a factory assembling cars in a joint venture with Daewoo. Another son resigned from his post as a director of National Iranian Gas Company to run a unit linking the natural gas suppliers with the auto industry. And so the list goes on – according to Iranian street gossip, all the way to bank accounts in Switzerland, resorts in Goa and smuggling rings. Rafsanjani is a true millionaire mullah: one who epitomises the fusion of bazaari and ulama, of Iranian capital and Shia Islam, that has taken place over the last 25 years.

The conditions of the working class in Iran are terrible. An estimated 40 percent live under the international poverty line and according to the Iranian Central Bank itself, more than 50 percent live beneath the government’s designated poverty line. In May 2005, the state-run Iran Daily published some statistics that dramatize the growing poverty:

Figures collected during the past 30 years indicate that per capita income in Iran has declined 120 per cent [!] based on fixed prices. The income-expense deficit for the urban family during March 2003-04 stood at a 3,300,000-million-rials deficit, up from 2,500,000 between March 2002-03 and 2,300,000 rials in 1997. The gap between the rich and the poor has also been rising, increasing by a minimum and maximum of 1.2 and 3 times during March 2003-04.

Unemployment (estimated by some to be at 30 percent), job insecurity, forced unpaid overtime and low wages are prevalent throughout the country. Through the use of temporary contracts, an Iranian boss is free to ignore previously enacted labor legislation, including the right to a minimum wage. Emboldened by the mullah’s decades long assault on the working class, the bosses have recently begun to refuse to pay workers back wages. Frequently it takes workers anywhere from 9 months to 2 years to collect what is owed them. One commentator believes that at least one million construction workers, a traditionally super-exploited sector, have engaged in physical confrontations with the boss in order to get paid.

Given the widespread discontent that must arise from such conditions, it is no surprise that Iranian workers are beginning to fight back.

In January 2004, a state-owned copper-production company in a joint venture with a Chinese corporation fired 1250 out of the original 1500 workers who had just completed a new copper-smelting plant in the province of Kerman, despite being promised that they would have permanent jobs at the plant once it was completed.

After 8 days of strikes and sit-ins, the Islamic Republic sent in the cops who fired their weapons at the workers. Between 7 and 15 were killed, and up to 300 were wounded. At least 80 were arrested and later released, showing clear signs of torture.

The carnage outraged the Iranian working class and inspired a new mood of resistance. Enough was enough. Just as the bazaari used the mosques as a place to agitate against the shah, workers began to organize “hiking clubs” and other recreational clubs to discuss their grievances and to gather money for a strike fund. A welder describes how they operate:

It is a pretence for meeting. Workers gather in an assembly and decide to start a fund. They agree upon the mandatory deposit and the sum everyone is eligible to withdraw in cases of need. The point is to spare workers from having to beg the foremen for some extra money if, for instance, a child is sick and needs to see a doctor. Instead, he can go straight to his mate currently handling the fund and demand due payment – it’s a form of independence, and it’s the mutual trust that makes it work.

New shoras are springing up everywhere in Iran with the goals of defending the economic interests of the workers as well as challenging state policies that affect the workers. Since 2004, strikes are becoming more and more frequent despite being illegal. The textile workers at the Asia Wool Spinning plant in Kerman walked out in July 2005, after not having been paid for 14 months. When they blocked a nearby highway, security forces attacked them. One woman was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg, while another pregnant woman was kicked and dragged along the road.

According to one estimate, there were 140 strikes in October, 2005 and followed by 120 the next month. Ground down by economic privation, the workers only recourse is to use their collective power to fight back.

Workers have begun to communicate with each other through “workers bulletins” that are produced clandestinely and distributed by hand at the workplace and in working class neighborhoods. They include Karegar-e Pishro (Progressive Worker), Karegar-e Andishe (Worker’s Intellect), Laghv-e Kar-e Mozdi (Abolish Wage Labor) and Shora.

In keeping with working class traditions, the Iranian proletariat has opted to use May Day to raise its demands. When a new and entirely inadequate minimum wage was announced in Spring, 2005, workers raised the demand for a $550 monthly minimum wage. This demand developed into a national campaign that culminated in job actions at the massive auto plant Iran Khodro. Some 10,000 factory workers downed their tools in Golestan and 17,000 rallied in Ilam. Even in the holy city of Qom, chaos ensued after transport workers joined in.

When the workers of Saqqez gathered in support of a May Day resolution for a minimum wage, they were attacked by the cops. Seven were held in solitary confinement and charged with the felony of “illicit gathering”. Mohsen Hakimi, an Iranian intellectual, and Mahmoud Salehi, a baker and leader of labor groups in Saqqez, described the reaction of the workers’ friends and co-workers:

Families in Saqqez decided to mortgage their houses to obtain the sums for our bail-out. The total value of their houses was enough, so they had to let us go. People came to meet us at the prison with flowers in their hands, and they drove us in a procession through the town, honking, singing, celebrating. It was a show of defiance against the regime.

These are the kinds of actions that are taking place at an ever quickening pace in Iran today and we owe a debt of gratitude to Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian for bringing them to our attention.

Eventually, the workers will find a way to unite and complete the revolution of 1979 that was interrupted by the bazaari and their mullah allies. It is incumbent on the left to reach out to such forces and not line up behind their enemies in the Islamic Republic.

May 4, 2007

“Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy”; “Trembling Before G-d”

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

Now available in home video, the 2001 “Trembling Before G-d” and Paul Mazursky’s “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy” make for an interesting coupling since both films deal with the Jewish religious experience in all its contradictions. The 2001 documentary by Sandi Simcha Dubowski dealt with gay and lesbian members of the Orthodox and Chasidic communities struggling against all odds to be accepted. Mazursky’s documentary, which premieres tomorrow at Lincoln Center as part of a May 4 – 10 film festival honoring the 77 year old actor and director, follows him on a visit to the village of Uman in the Ukraine, where thousands of Chasidic Jews make a pilgrimage each year during the week of Rosh Hashanah in order to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman, one of their most revered leaders who died at the age of 38 in 1810. For the Chasidic sects, this is like Moslems going to Mecca. As became more and more obvious to me when watching Mazursky’s amusing documentary, this is not the only similarity between Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism.

Paul Mazursky trying on Chasidic haberdashery

For fans of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Paul Mazursky will be instantly recognizable as Mel Brooks’s partner in the episodes when David becomes cast in the role of Max Bialystock. As a running gag, the always frowning Mazursky keeps arguing unsuccessfully to Brooks that Larry David would a disastrous choice. He doesn’t know at the time that Brooks chose David because he was tired of being involved with the show and expected David to ruin it, a reference of course to the plot of “The Producers”.

Mazursky’s film is little more than a home movie, costing only $50,000 to make. However, it is extremely funny and engaging. Since I am not sure it will ever make it into the theaters, I urge New Yorkers to consider seeing it tomorrow especially if the “Jewish Question” intrigues you, just as it did Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky and Abram Leon.

Mazursky was persuaded to make the trip to Uman by his observant Beverly Hills optometrist, who accompanies him there. Mazursky makes it clear at the beginning and at the end of the film that he is totally secular and unreligious. This does not prevent him from enjoying the experience. He obviously feels little identification with the religious Jews but tries to make the viewer and implicitly himself, understand their beliefs. I once went through a similar experience about ten years ago when I went to Bahai services in New York. I never took the whole idea of worshipping God seriously, but I found the Bahais engaging in their own way. I never got used to the idea, however, of their belief that homosexuals were beyond redemption–shared by the clergy in “Trembling Before G-d.”

Mazursky’s generation is dying out now. These are the men and women who came up in the Catskill resorts, Hollywood and Broadway musicals and 1950s television variety shows. Virtually none of them were religious, but their sensibility was quintessentially Jewish. This was expressed most of all by their sense of humor. In one scene after another, we see Mazursky cracking up a bunch of Chasidim with a vintage joke.

Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.”

For the benefit of non-Jews, the joke goes back to the Depression days when businessmen facing bankruptcy set fire to their shops to collect the insurance.

By contrast, “Trembling Before G-d” is no laughing matter. It profiles a number of deeply religious Jews who have been ostracized by their community for the “sin” of homosexuality.

A number of the interviewees have their faces hidden since they have not come out yet. Those with the courage to show themselves come across as much more ethical than those who hold them in judgment. Two women who live together are shown preparing a Friday night dinner, which is a kind of ceremony in Jewish households. Neither woman’s parents will have anything to do with them.

A gay man from Los Angeles is seen in a discussion with a rabbi that he holds in very high regard. He tries to explain to the rabbi that his desire for other men is just as natural as his desire for his wife. The rabbi can only respond that the only way that the man can remain a Jew is if he represses his desires.

As director Dubrowski put it in an interview with indieWire, the rabbis tended to be Jewish versions of Jerry Falwell on such questions:

iW: When you actually went to the Rabbis, how did you find the ones who would talk on camera?

Dubowski: At one point, I took a trip to Israel specifically to talk with Rabbis. It was a very difficult trip with about six weeks spent making as many phone calls as possible and following up on as many contacts as possible. I went to see the former chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. You wake up at 4 AM and sign your name on a list and wait for seven hours until finally you are in the doorway. There are all these people pushing behind you. You get inside the chamber and you have two people on either side of you and he is sitting above you with a crown on his head. I went up to the Rabbi and said, “You know there are so many people I have met over the past 7 years who are in pain.” I told him stories briefly of the people in my movie and asked him, “Is there anything you can say to help them?” He said to tell them two words: “animalistic and abomination.” I pushed my way back and said to him: “You know these are Torah Jews. They know the prohibition. What can you say to them to ease their pain?” And he answered: “Say the first ten chapters of the Kabbal, aloud. It will be eradicated.”

It should not come as any great surprise that gay and lesbian orthodox Jews are using the anonymity of the Internet to make connections with each other, just as dissidents in a dictatorship would. Websites such as GayJews.org and The World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews are challenging homophobia in organized Jewry all over the world, often using a deep understanding of scripture to buttress their arguments. As is typical in a world steeped in Talmudic disputation, there are often genuinely inspired interpretations. For example, at GayJews.org, Kevin J. Saunders explains that gay sex might be acceptable if it is seen in the same terms as the Hilchot Shabbat, where “Rav Noivert and the Tzitz Eliezer specifically permit someone who is diabetic and insulin dependent to regularly violate the Sabbath in order to puncture the skin and a vein to inject the insulin.” So, if penetration can be life-saving, why can’t it be fun as well?

When I watch ultra-orthodox Jews in such documentaries, I am reminded of why difficult it is for me to romanticize political Islamic. Religions that are so obsessed with sin and guilt are really not my cup of tea. When I was a religion major at Bard College in the early 1960s, I found myself much more interested in Bacchic rites than in the self-abnegating “sky religions” with their stern father figures.

Of course, I never really felt right about such things until I put religion behind me entirely.

May 3, 2007

Gypsy Caravan

Filed under: music,Roma — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Scheduled for theatrical release in June (NYC, the 15th; Los Angeles the 29th), “Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends” is a film that is very much in the mold of “Buena Vista Social Club” and just as likeable. It also evokes the 1993 “Latcho Drom” (“safe journey”), another great film about Roma music.

It documents a six-week tour in 2001 by some of the greatest Roma musicians in the world, who are seen performing, socializing with each other in hotels and on the bus, and participating in village life back home. It is directed by Jasmine Dellal, who directed “American Gypsy: a Stranger in Everybody’s Land” for PBS in 2001, and filmed by Albert Maysles, the legendary director of “Gimme Shelter,” a record of a Rolling Stones tour, and other works.

The tour was organized by the World Music Institute (WMI), a New York-based nonprofit whose concerts I have reviewed in the past and who I have contributed money to. Given New York’s relentless drive toward high-rise yuppie hell, the WMI is one of the remaining cultural artifacts that make life livable here. Furthermore, the culture of the Roma people is about as at odds with the profit-driven world of real estate and banking as can be imagined. Besides their cultural legacy of some of the world’s greatest music, these unfairly maligned peoples can teach us about how to live better lives. Macedonian Esma Rezepova, one of the tour’s starring performers, put it this way: “The Roma have never made war or invaded another country.”


I was fortunate enough to attend the Gypsy Caravan concert in New York back in 2001 and was simply bowled over by Esma, who I would regard as one of the great female popular singers of the 20th century along with Oum Kulthoum. Although I own her CD’s, nothing can compare to seeing her in concert. The film, however, does bring you closer to that experience.

Her best known single “Čaje Šukarije” is the feature song on the 2006 Borat movie soundtrack, which she claims was used without her permission. You can listen to it here. Along with fellow Roma musicians Naat Veliov and Kočani Orkestar, whose music was also used without permission, she is planning an 800,000 euro ($1,000,000) lawsuit against the producers of the film.

This leads me to the question of Roma village life, which is really at the heart of this wonderful film. As you probably know, Sasha Baron Cohen filmed a Romanian gypsy village, supposedly Borat’s hometown, in order to establish his backwardness, as well as the backwardness of the villagers. Since he is not identified as a Roma, but as a citizen of Kazakhstan, one might wonder how much damage was done to their reputation. It is difficult to say.

But if Sasha Baron Cohen could find some time in his busy career to look at the deeper reality of Roma life, he would be well-advised to see “Gypsy Caravan” for an object lesson in how life should be lived.

The film takes us to the village of the members of Taraf De Haidouks (“band of brigands”), who are led by patriarch Nicolae Neascu and who died during the tour. His funeral is part of the film and is truly heart-rending. Although his recordings and tour made Neascu a wealthy man, he chose to live modestly and gave most of his money to the villagers. During an interview, Neascu relates a Roma story about the fates asking whether one prefers a good life during youth and a hard life in old age, or vice versa. He chose the latter. All in all, with his affable senior citizen charm, Nicolae Neascu comes across as second cousin to the musicians in “Buena Vista Social Club.”

Taraf De Haidouks, the late Nicolae Neascu to the left

“Gypsy Caravan” also features Maharaja, Indian Roma musicians, who blend Arabic, Sufi trance and other styles with the music of their native Rajasthan. The other featured groups are Fanfare Ciocarlia, an 11 man brass band from the Romanian-Moldavian border, and the Antonio Pipa Flamenco Ensemble.

The film is dedicated to Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, an initiative of 8 governments, the UN, George Soros and the World Bank which is intended to fight poverty and discrimination, as well as improve education, employment, health and housing.

As it turns out, I saw and reviewed Jasmine Dellal’s 2001 PBS documentary “American Gypsy”. It is worth repeating my opening paragraphs:

Last night PBS Frontline aired “American Gypsy”, a documentary that made a brief appearance in NYC theaters last year. It features Jimmy Marks, a Spokane based used car dealer, who was the first Rom in the United States ever to challenge the racism of the dominant society, in his specific case an illegal cop raid on his home.

As PBS tends to repeat shows, my advice is to look for it. This film is a fascinating introduction into a world that tries to exist outside of the world of the “gadjo” or non-Roma. They fear that assimilation will destroy the unique Roma culture. These sorts of fears would remind us of another “unassimilated” group, the Orthodox Jew, who tries to co-exist as economic actors in gentile society, while preserving their own customs and beliefs inside their community.

Although I doubt if such a history has ever been written, a Marxist account of the Roma people would account for them in terms of what Abram Leon called the “people-class” in “The Jewish Question.” The Jews, according to Leon, “constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class.” That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.

As a people-class Jews are able to maintain their ethnic identity no matter what country they live in. The same thing is true of the Roma who emigrated westward from India about a thousand years ago. Unlike the Jews, their economic function was not related to trade but to handicrafts which could be picked up and moved at the drop of a hat. This included horse trading and repairing pots and pans. In modern times these crafts have evolved into auto dealing, Jimmy Marks’s profession, and auto body repair. Also, Romas are some of the world’s greatest musicians who have made their mark on flamenco, jazz and Eastern European folk music. (For a great introduction to Roma music, I recommend the documentary “Latcho Drom” and the feature “Gadjo Dilo”, both by Roma director Tony Gatlif.)

According to Roma scholar Ian Hancock, who is at the University of Texas and of Roma origin himself, the Romany term gadjo, or outsider, is related to the Sanskrit “gajjha,” which means civilian. In the documentary Jimmy Marks is shown playing with his grand-daughter. As he counts off from one to ten, the narrator and director Jasmine Dellal (a British Jew) notes that the words for the numbers are the same as they are in Sanskrit.

The Marks clan are part of the Romanian Gypsies, or Vlax, who migrated in large numbers to the United States around the turn of the century and for the same reason that Jews and other groups did: to flee oppression. The Vlax had been enslaved in Romania for nearly 500 years. This fact more than any other explains the suspiciousness with which they regard the outside world. When I was growing up in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, my parents would often remark without much prompting, “You can’t trust the goyim.” Roma, who despite being murdered in equal numbers by the Nazis, have never been given the kind of moral or financial reparations given to the Jews. They are still despised and persecuted.

“Gypsy Caravan” website

Esma website

A video of Taraf De Haidouks in performance

A video of Fanfare Ciocarlia

Antonio Pipa Website

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