Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2009

Hearts and Minds; FTA

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

Great news. Two of the outstanding documentaries of the Vietnam War era are now available, one in the theaters and the other on DVD. “Hearts and Minds” opens at the Cinema Village today and is not only the finest documentary of the period, but arguably the finest political documentary ever made. You can also order “FTA” from Netflix, a movie that both documents Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s legendary challenge to Bob Hope’s UFO shows and the amazing response of active-duty GI’s who by 1971 were sick and tired of Hope’s cheesy, warmongering “entertainment”, and more importantly the war it cheered on.

Michael Moore goes even further than me. He calls Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” the best movie ever and adds that it was the movie that inspired him to pick up a camera. Indeed, you see what an influence it was on Moore and indirectly on so many other documentary film-makers who when they were imitating Moore were truly imitating Peter Davis. One of the brilliant insights of “Hearts and Minds” is to use footage of old newsreels and movies that reflected the Red Scare mentality that made the Vietnam War possible, a device used by Moore and so many other directors. There is nothing like a brief scene from a McCarthyite warhorse like “My Son John” to remind you how deep the paranoia ran in the 1950s and remained enough of a force to allow people like LBJ to sell the war to the American people.

The title “Hearts and Minds” is an ironic commentary on LBJ’s assurances that “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live there.”

Using interviews with people on both sides of the debate, Davis reminds us of how deep the divide over Vietnam was. The pro-war personalities were both frightening and pathetic, including the mother and father of a Harvard graduate who died in Vietnam. While the father says that his son’s sacrifice was necessary to uphold American stature overseas, the mother idly plays with a model jet fighter.

It was the pilot of such a fighter who looms largest in Davis’s movie as a symbol of the madness of war. We see a welcome home parade in Linden, New Jersey for George Coker, a bomber pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and spent over 6 years in a prison camp. Once he returns, he makes the lecture circuit telling schoolchildren and their mothers how important it is to defeat Communism. When a student asks what Vietnam was like, he answers that except for the people, it was very pretty. He thanks the mothers for their harsh discipline at home which helped him become a warrior. They were scarier to him than the “gooks” who imprisoned him.

Davis also allows prominent government officials to explain why they supported the war, including Walt Rostow who was the Paul Wolfowitz of his day. Rostow can barely conceal the contempt for the interviewers who have the nerve to ask him whether the war was defendable. By 1974, when the movie was made, the war was obviously going bad for the USA, thus making Rostow all the more compellingly peevish.

On the antiwar side, Daniel Ellsberg is powerful and lucid as might be expected. Coming from a background similar to Coker’s, Ellsberg is just one among thousands of establishment figures who grew to oppose the war, even at the risk of prison.

But the most moving parts of the movie are the interviews with the Vietnamese who share their losses of either property or loved ones with the interviewers. For those who are too young to remember Vietnam or who want to be reminded of how courageous its people were in the face of overwhelming military superiority, “Hearts and Minds” is a must.

Screening information is at the Cinema Village website.

The letters “FTA” stand for “Fuck the Army” and were also used by the antiwar movement to mean “Free the Army”. Both usages are found liberally in this 1972 movie that tracks Jane Fonda and company across the Pacific Rim as they perform for adoring GI and local audiences.

In an 20 minute extra on the DVD, we learn that the revue came out of a suggestion made by antiwar medic Howard Levy who believed that a corrective to Bob Hope’s gung-ho shows was needed.

The skits can be described as a mixture of old-time vaudeville and agit-prop that sends up the military after the fashion of “MASH”. Since Donald Sutherland had starred in the 1970 movie, he was a natural for the FTA revue. Jane Fonda had already become one of the most prominent antiwar figures in the U.S., along with Mohammed Ali and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Both are fascinating to watch as they wring laughter and applause from the enlisted men.

But the most amazing part of the movie is the interviews with the soldiers themselves who have reached the point of open rebellion, even to the point of wearing their hair long and growing beards. It was obvious that several years of massive demonstrations in the U.S. had emboldened soldiers to challenge their superiors in one way or another. When they are in Japan, the performers hook up with the sailors on the aircraft carrier Constellation who had circulated a petition demanding that it withdraw from the war. It was signed by nearly 1500 crewmen!

FTA was released in July 1972 and shown at selected theaters around the country, but in less than a week it was pulled from distribution. That same month Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. The movie is now being shown for the first time since 1972 largely as a result of the efforts of David Ziegler, the director of the very find “Sir, No Sir“.

“FTA” is not to be missed.

March 19, 2009

Teodor Shanin and George Soros

Filed under: bard college,economics,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Teodor Shanin

George Soros

I am becoming increasingly convinced that as the capitalist crisis deepens in the U.S., there might be a future American president who, unlike Barack Obama, will happily accept the socialist label when it is pinned on him or her. While it is unlikely that the 79 year old George Soros will be alive at that point, the massive economic/political power he has assembled will survive him and likely play a role in getting such a person elected. Of course, as is the case with just about everything Soros has touched since the early 1980s, the leftism will only be a veneer. Like his hedge fund benefactor, whether dead or alive at that point, the main goal of such a president will be to preserve the capitalist system. And what better way to preserve it than to foster the illusion that you are trying to eliminate it.

I first became aware of Soros’s ability to co-opt the left when I discovered that Christian Parenti was on his payroll, mostly in the capacity of researching and writing about prison reform. This was at the same time that Soros was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Yugoslavia on behalf of imperialism’s quest to rid Eastern Europe of the last remnants of socialized property relations. And who was one of the most forceful opponents of imperialism’s crusade? None other than Christian’s father Michael Parenti, who-bless his soul-is the last person in the world ever to be offered a job in one of Soros’s NGO’s. Besides me of course.

I have had these concerns ever since I got wind of Soros but they have returned more wrenchingly than ever now that I have discovered that Soros co-opted Teodor Shanin, the author of “Late Marx and the Russian Road”, a book that has influenced my thinking deeply. I learned about this in Michael T. Kaufman’s hagiographic “Soros: the life and times of a messianic billionaire”. This is the second biography I am reading, having completed a comic book version written by Kaoru Kurotani last week. Despite the unconventional format, Kurotani’s treatment is as fawning as Kaufman’s. I plan to read an “unauthorized” biography by Robert Slater next week but don’t expect anything much different considering the fact that the author is responsible for no less than 4 books on Jack Welch, the scumbag who ran GE, and one titled “The Wal-Mart Triumph: Inside the World’s #1 Company”.

I am not sure how far my research will go, but in light of the importance of Soros as a major political mover in the liberal left as well as his talent for seducing some elements of the radical movement I may just try to write something myself. I am not interested in the typical biographical material such as his decision to go into psychoanalysis or the fact that he married someone half his age, etc. I am only interested in his economic record (and would even consider using a title like “George Soros: fictitious capitalist”) and the role of his “philanthropy” in turning the USSR and Eastern Europe into a huge maquiladora zone under the rubric of Karl Popper’s Open Society.

As so often happens in my amateur scholarship, I start researching one topic and then get diverted into another topic related to the first. After an associate from Swans suggested that I write a history of Bard College, I decided to begin reading about Soros since the President of Bard College is a long-time board member of Soros’s Open Society Institute. Soros is also a major donor to Bard College and has partnered with Bard in setting up Open Society type initiatives, the latest of which encapsulates Soros’s method to the tee. With some millions of dollars donated by Soros, Bard has made Al Quds University a satellite institution. While Botstein has cited this relationship as proof that Kovel’s firing had nothing to do with Middle East politics, the fact remains that the President of Al-Quds is an outspoken opponent of boycott and divestment campaigns against the Zionist state.

For those not familiar with Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx”, I would urge you to look at John Riddell’s “From Marx to Morales: Indigenous Socialism and the Latin Americanization of Marxism” on MRzine. It makes the connection between Shanin’s scholarship on Marx’s support for rural communes in Russia just before his death and Mariategui’s Marxism. Riddell writes:

The Russian Marxist circle led by Plekhanov, ancestor of the Bolshevik party, believed that the mir was doomed to disappear as Russia was transformed by capitalist development.  We now know that Marx did not agree. In a letter to Vera Zasulich, written in 1881 but not published until 1924, he wrote that “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.” The “historical inevitability” of the evolutionary course mapped out in Capital, he stated, is “expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe.”

The preliminary drafts of Marx’s letter, included in Shanin’s book, display essential agreement with the view of the revolutionary populist current in Russia, the “People’s Will,” that the commune could coexist harmoniously with a developing socialist economy.

These drafts drew on Marx’s extensive studies of Indigenous societies during that period, a record of which is available in his little-known Ethnological Notebooks.17 We find his conclusions summarized in a draft of his letter to Zasulich: “The vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of Semitic, Greek, Roman, etc. societies, and, a fortiori, that of modern capitalist societies.”

The only thing that needs to be added, of course, is Mariategui’s belief in the vitality of Incan ayllus, the Peruvian counterpart of Russian mirs.

So how does Soros get interested in Shanin’s scholarship, you might ask, especially since Soros has the same reaction to Karl Marx’s writings that a vampire has to sunlight. To start with, we should recognize that Soros is no dummy. He completed most of his work on a PhD at the London School of Economics in the 1950s and has shown himself to be far more erudite than the average hedge fund manager, even if his ideas are rotten.

Somewhere along the line he got his hands on Shanin’s writings on peasants and decided to recruit him to Open Society. Kaufman, who is a really crappy writer, does not bother to explain what value Soros found in the writings, a serious lapse in light of the fact that Soros’s major orientation is to cities in those countries where he seeks to establish a beachhead.

Soros made contact with Shanin when he was a sociology professor at the University of Manchester in the early 1990s and the two struck a deal to pay for Russians to come study there. Kaufman mentions that Shanin had fought for “an Israeli state in Palestine”, a sign that his sympathies for peasants did not extend to the unfortunate Palestinian fellahs. In the initial phases of their work in Russia, much attention was paid to lifting up the Soviet sociologists from their savagery as the Independent reported in August 16, 1990:

IN AN English language class at the University of Kent, a group of young sociologists from the Soviet Union are learning how to ask directions and how to turn down an invitation to tea without causing offence.

”You must ask politely,” stresses their teacher, Christina Danilewicz. ”Remember what we said about verbal stroking.”

”Verbal stroking” means getting not just the words right, but finding a suitably pleasant intonation – something the Soviet academics find difficult, according to Ms Danilewicz. ”The problem with them is that they are very direct . . . they are not good at asking questions in a non-aggressive way, and this upset their lecturers to begin with.”

There are 21 Soviet sociologists, all under 30, in Canterbury for instruction at what might be described as a finishing school for academics. The object of the exercise, which runs from July to September, is to turn them into accomplished ”international scholars”. It involves lessons in computing, a heavy lecture programme and work on individual projects – all in English…

It is a vitally important discipline for the Soviet Union at a time of social upheaval, according to Professor Teodor Shanin, who held the first Soviet sociology summer school at Manchester University last year. Among the topics he believes Soviet sociologists need to confront urgently are criminology, welfare and agricultural reform.

Shanin told Kaufman that “one reason he liked him [Soros] was that he could not be explained by the simple Homo economicus formula since he was plainly doing things that were not maximizing his wealth.” One wonders if Kaufman clued Shanin in during the interview that there was a bit more economicus than met the eye. In page 170 of his book, Kaufman explains why Soros first looked into philanthropy:

A charitable lead trust is a very interesting tax gimmick. The idea is that you commit your assets to a trust and you put a certain amount into charity every year. And then after you have given the money for however many years, the principal that remains can be left [to one’s heirs] without estate or gift tax. So this was the way I set up the trust for my children.

Shanin and Soros decided that a Transformation of the Humanities Program is just what the Russians needed to wean them from the Marxism-Leninism that had clouded their minds. One imagines that during these discussions, Shanin did not broach the subject of how favorably he viewed Lenin once upon a time, especially since that might have spoiled a perfectly lovely evening at the kind of 5-star restaurants Soros used to take poor schmucks like Shanin to in order to impress them.

The program focused on getting texts into Russia that Kaufman described as “unavailable classics”, including those of Friedrich Hayek. Apart from the tax breaks that philanthropy afforded him, Soros was certainly astute enough to understand that Hayek’s “classics” would serve as manure in the fields he was plowing in Putin’s Russia. What more could a hedge fund operator hope for than intellectual elites who took Hayek’s cut-throat libertarianism to heart except a bumper crop in profits?

Eventually the funding for Shanin’s project reached 20 million dollars. This was only a couple of years after my own non-profit went defunct. We were such dopes to send computer programmers and engineers to revolutionary Nicaragua, where Shanin’s beloved peasants were getting health care for the first time in our lives. If we had instead proposed sending Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper books to Nicaragua, we would have been rolling in dough.

After a few years, Soros ran an audit on Shanin’s project which found serious corruption and the ties between the two men grew tense. Shanin told Kaufman, “We had a row. I do not react calmly when someone implies I am a thief.” I personally would have advised Shanin to call Soros a thief in return. After all, a French court had found him guilty of insider trading as the IHT reported in 2006:

The highest court in France on Wednesday rejected a bid by George Soros, the billionaire investor, to overturn a conviction for insider trading in a case dating back nearly 20 years, leaving the first blemish on his five-decade investing career.

The panel, the Cour de Cassation, upheld the conviction of Soros, 75, an American citizen, for buying and selling Société Générale shares in 1988 after receiving information about a planned corporate raid on the bank.

Ron Soffer, his lawyer, said Soros planned to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the length of the proceedings had prevented his client from having a fair trial.

“The investigation started in 1989,” he said. “The appeals trial occurred in 2004. How can you call witnesses and ask them about what happened in 1988?” The French stock market regulatory authority investigated the matter separately and concluded that Soros had not violated the law or any ethical rules, Soffer said.

In a March 2005 ruling, a French appeals court confirmed a fine of €2.2 million, or $2.8 billion, set by a lower court for the illegal purchase of 95,000 shares in Société Générale. The Cour de Cassation ruled that the fine would be adjusted to reflect Soros’ profits, and it ordered the case returned to the appeals court to clarify the amount.

Now that’s what I really call homo economicus.

March 17, 2009

Upton Sinclair on college presidents

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

Upton Sinclair

From The Goose Step: a study of American Education

Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.

The president says this at a dinner-party in the home of his grand duke; and next morning he hurries off to argue with the recalcitrant professor. He points out the humiliating need of funds-just now when the professor’s own salary is so entirely inadequate. He begs the professor to realize the president’s own position, the crudity of business men who hold the purse-strings, and have no understanding of academic dignity. He pleads for just a little discretion, just a little time-just a little anything that will moderate the clash between greed and service, the incompatibility of hate and love.

Either he succeeds in his purpose of persuading the professor to be less a scientist, a citizen, and a man of honor, or else he decides, in conference with his kitchen cabinet, that a way must be found to get rid of this unreasonable marplot. He and his cabinet now start a campaign of intrigue against the professor; they set going rumors calculated to damage his prestige; they contrive traps into which to snare him; or they wait until in the war between greed and service he gives utterance to some plain human emotion-whereupon they find him guilty of “indiscretion,” and announce to the public that he has shown himself to be lacking in that “judicious” attitude of mind which is essential to those occupying academic positions. Or perhaps they find that they have too many men in that department; or they decide to combine the departments of literature and obstetrics. They have a thousand different devices, scores of which I have shown you in action. Always they tell the professor-with their right hands upon the Bible they swear it to the public and to the newspapers-that it is purely “an administrative matter,” there is no question of academic freedom involved, and everyone in their institution lives, moves and has his being in the single-minded love of truth.

I have on my desk a letter from a Harvard professor, who tells me that my chapters on that institution are interesting, but he thinks I attribute too much cunning to the objects of my indignation. “These conforming preachers and editors and teachers are more of the genus Babbitt than of the genus Machiavelli.” This is a question of psychology, which only the Maker of the creatures can decide. In any case it matters little, because my purpose here is not to apportion blame, but to point out social peril, and it matters not whether social traitors know what they are doing-the effect of their action remains equally destructive to society. I have called the American college and university a ruling-class munition-factory for the Manufacture of high explosive shells and gas bombs to be used in the service of entrenched greed and cruelty. The college president is the man who runs this indispensable institution; and he is not one of the military leaders who sit in swivel chairs in city offices, he is one who sallies forth in person at the head of his armies, bravely hurling commencement bombs and Fourth of July torpedoes.

The college president is a human radio, a walking broadcasting station, a combination of encyclopedia and megaphone. He is that man whose profession it is to know everything; in his one mind is summed up ex-officio all the knowledge of all the specialties. He tells his professors what to teach, and how to teach it, and has little birds and whispering galleries and telepathic mediums to advise him if they obey. He is a human card-index, an information service bureau concerning the reputations of professors in all other institutions, and of promising undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates, and just what they are worth, and how much less they can be hired for. Or, if he does not possess all this knowledge, he possesses a perfectly satisfactory substitute-the ability to look as if he possessed it, and to act as if he possessed it. Such is the advantage of being an autocrat; criticism does not affect you, and whether you are right or whether you are wrong is the same thing.

The college president has acquired enormous prestige in American capitalist society; he is a priest of the new god of science, and newspapers and purveyors of “public opinion” unite in exalting him. He receives the salary of a plutocrat, and arrogates to himself the prestige and precedence that go with it. He lives on terms of equality with business emperors and financial dukes, and conveys their will to mankind, and perpetuates their ideals and prejudices in the coming generation. It is a new aristocracy which has arisen among us, and they all stand together, they and their henchmen and courtiers, against whatever forces may threaten. I have shown how they have invented a new set of titles of nobility, which they sell for cash, or use to exalt their patrons and overawe you and me. We shall find it worth while to turn over the pages of “Who’s Who in America,” and see what these mighty ones of the earth think of one another, and what they do to flatter one another’s pride, and to keep their own order in the public eye.

March 16, 2009

Leon Trotsky and Ecology

Filed under: Ecology,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

In the latest issue of What Next?, an online socialist magazine based in Great Britain, there’s an article titled The Prophet Misarmed: Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability by Sandy Irvine. The gist of Irvine’s criticism is that Leon Trotsky was clueless on the environment based on a passage in “Literature and Revolution”, as well as other writings, that includes the following:

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad….

According to Irvine, this kind of Promethean hubris can be found across the ideological spectrum, something undoubtedly true. Keep in mind that the broad cultural context for the Russian Revolution was futurism, which lent itself to all sorts of grandiose schemes about mechanizing the entire world. It was also the context for Italian fascism and it would be difficult to distinguish between futurist art in Soviet Russia and Mussolini’s Italy in the early 1920s.

Irvine also charges Trotsky with upholding the kinds of “stagist” conceptions that were characteristic of the Second International in its decline:

In Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky duly refers to the lands of Asia, Latin America and Africa as “backward countries”. Not for him any pause to consider whether their cultures – or at least aspects of them – might offer equally valid paths of development and perhaps more sustainable ones. Not surprisingly, then, he refers to Ghandi as “a fake leader and false prophet” (Open Letter to the Workers of India, 1939). Indeed, his writings often display a deep contempt for non-urban ways. “The entire future work of the Revolution will be directed towards … uprooting the idiocy of village life”, he writes in Literature and Revolution. He similarly sneers at “peasant-singing intelligentsia”. Urbanism is the only future: “the city lives and leads”. (For some reason, he even takes a swipe at “home-brew”: presumably the only politically correct pint is one served from giant state breweries!)

While I would be the first to take umbrage at the suggestion that “non-urban” ways should be condemned out of hand, you have to put Trotsky once again in his historical context. The Russian countryside was not something to be idealized. Peasants were illiterate, in poor health, and worked like mules. In the context of the 1920s, the drive to socialize farming was progressive just as it was in Cuba after 1959. Health improved, literacy was achieved, and the conditions of work became more humane. The real issue, however, is not about life-styles over “home-brew” but how to integrate the town and the countryside. Trotsky was not noted for understanding the issues raised by Karl Marx in his examination of the problems of soil fertility (not the “soil erosion” alluded to by Irvine) but his urban prejudices are almost besides the point in coming to grips with the underlying problems. Being tolerant of rural ways will not get us out of the intractable problems facing humanity in the 21st century. The only solution is abolishing the distinction between town and country, a goal that is not given its proper weight in Irvine’s analysis.

Irvine’s main complaint with Trotsky, and Bolshevism in general, is the genuflection to industrialization and Progress:

The new USSR proudly displayed its new symbols of this model of Progress. They included lines of electricity pylons striding over hill and dale (Lenin once defined socialism as “Soviets plus electrification”). It was also embodied in massive dams that sought to tame once wild rivers. The virtually useless White Sea-Baltic Canal, opened in 1933, was another such symbol, one costing tens of thousands of lives. The towering skyscraper building too symbolises this model of Progress (many Russian and East European cities are still scarred with giant emblems of Soviet Gothic architecture). Trotsky did strongly criticise certain means used by Stalin but he made fewer criticisms of the goals.

Once again, Irvine packs contradictory elements into the same critique. Is there something wrong with electricity pylons striding over hill and dale? When I was involved with Tecnica in the late 1980s, one of our volunteers was featured on Ted Koppel’s Nightline television show, which devoted a half-hour to the organization that the FBI had linked with espionage. He was an electrical engineer who practically single-handedly kept Managua supplied with electricity after a contra attack on a pylon.

We also worked with another volunteer named Ben Linder who was constructing a small hydroelectric weir in Northern Nicaragua until he was murdered by the contras. His goal was to allow poor peasant families to have lights and other electrically-generated amenities for the first time in their lives. Was this wrong?

Irvine’s case would be better made if it wasn’t directed against adopting models of Progress, but in analyzing why so many of Stalin’s gigantic projects ended up so poorly. This, of course, would require much more of an engagement with social and economic forces rather than jeremiads against the attempts of a beleaguered Soviet government to rapidly industrialize in the face of both “democratic” and fascist threats to its existence.

Fundamentally, Irvine’s approach is idealistic, seeing environmental destruction as a function of bad ideas rather than the historical process unleashed by capitalism and sustained by a USSR that had suffered a counter-revolution. He writes:

Trotsky’s views on the environment and land use conform to the dominant mindset of the last two hundred years. “Non-human nature” has been perceived as mere raw material, there to be managed and manipulated, as people see fit. Wild rivers, for example, are waiting to be “harnessed” and virgin forests “harvested” or otherwise “put to work”. This worldview came to dominate the minds of many of society’s critics, not just defenders of the status quo.

To put it bluntly, you might as well go back to the Old Testament in trying to ascribe blame since the very first chapter of Genesis is just as anthropocentric as Trotsky:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

This indeed was the dominant theme in Green ideology until Marxists began to reconfigure the relationship between the material world and ideas about that world. Rather than looking for bad ideas to blame, Marxists sought to analyze the environmental crisis in terms of the mode of production. For example, Marx understood the soil fertility crisis of the 19th century as the logical outcome of an industrial farming that separated the production from their traditional fertilizer sources. Despite the introduction of chemicals into farming under the auspices of the Green Revolution, this crisis has not been fully resolved. It was only through the re-integration of the town and the country that this would be possible. This for Marx and Engels was not a question of life-style, but rather overcoming the metabolic rift.

In light of this, it is rather disconcerting to have a look at the 125 books mentioned in Irvine’s bibliography and see not a single reference to John Bellamy Foster or Paul Burkett, the two Marxists who have done more than any others to re-establish Karl Marx’s ecological dimensions.

Perhaps the only question that still bothers me at this point is why the editors of a Marxist journal would have bothered to publish an article that so clearly departs from historical materialism. As the environmental crisis of the 21st century deepens, there will have to be major attempts to both theorize the challenges we face correctly and to offer informed opinion based on familiarity with the science. Sandy Irvine’s article unfortunately fails on both grounds.

March 13, 2009

Anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, anti-Dogmatism

Filed under: Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Ever since a pro-Palestinian movement began to take shape in the late 1960s, there has always been the false claim that anti-Zionism is just another form of anti-Semitism. Generally speaking, the approach has been to characterize opposition to Israel as the “new anti-Semitism”.

Apparently, the first attempt to make such an amalgam was made by French philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff in 1967. In a 2005 interview, he described anti-Zionism as a kind of communist conspiracy:

We are today in a convulsive context marked by two anti-Jewish configurations, which, since the autumn of 2000, through intolerable violence against Jewish institutions and individuals perceived as Jewish, feed the observable wave of Judeophobia in France as in other European countries. I specified two configurations. One is persistent, and well known: old anti-Semitism inherent to the extreme right, or xenophobic nationalism. The other is an emergent – and expanding one, whose main vectors are the propaganda of the radical Islamist networks and the demagogy of the new leftists: neo-Communists and neo-leftists, altermondialists [a French term that usually describes anti-globalizationists – Tr], Trotskyites and anarchists, all massively exploiting “the Palestinian cause”, celebrated as a “universal cause” by the extreme left. One can see there the new expression of the support of the Third World and revolutionary ideology. The Palestinian martyr replaces the proletarian struggle for a communist society.

So in other words, the “new anti-Semitism” (Taguieff prefers the word Judeophobia) boils down to anti-imperialist opposition to Israel. One can hardly imagine what form of solidarity with Palestinians would not invite this charge. Perhaps the only way to avoid it is to march in the Israeli day parades and join Hadassah.

Judeophobia, of course, is another way to refer to Jew-hatred, a term that is a bit hard to figure out. Let’s allow our friends in the American SWP to fill us in. In a May 15, 2006 Militant article titled “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”, we learn that blaming the Israeli lobby for American support for Israel is Jew-hatred. They single out Walt/ Mearsheimer and James Petras as prime examples but in a subsequent article the following are tarred with the “Jew-hatred” brush for simply entertaining the possibility that Walt/Mearsheimer were raising valid points, even if they overemphasized the role of the Israeli lobby: the CPUSA, the ISO, In these Times (a social democratic magazine) and Noam Chomsky. In other words, practically the entire left.

All this being said, there are manifestations of Judeophobia (a term I actually find more useful than either Jew-hatred or anti-Semitism) on the left broadly speaking. For example, Hamas did speak favorably of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in their founding statement. And James Petras, despite my admiration for much of what he writes about Latin America despite ultraleftist tendencies, does make me cringe when he uses the terms “Zionist lobby” and “Jewish lobby” interchangeably.

And then there’s good old Alexander Cockburn. I resubscribed to Counterpunch not long ago after noticing an absence of global warming denial articles by the co-editor. In a print article on the origins of the Federal Reserve, Cockburn referred favorably to a book titled “The Secrets of the Federal Reserve” by one Eustace Mullins. You can actually read this book online at cephas-library.com, a virtual treasure trove of anti-Semitic screeds. Cockburn casually mentions the fact that Mullins was commissioned to write the book by Ezra Pound who was in the loony bin at this point but did not connect the dots between Pound’s virulent anti-Semitism and Mullins’s ulterior motives. In an interview with the rancid rense.com website, Mullins disavows being an anti-Semite. His proof of this does not inspire confidence:

In 1810, the Rothschilds began to push for a country for the Jews, so they created a new brand of Judaism called Reform Judaism which would establish a new Jewish country, which is now Israel. Only the Rothschilds could do that because to create a worldwide movement costs a lot of money.

Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State was originally called Address to the Rothschilds

They financed Karl Marx and the League of Just Men, too. They financed Judaism, Communism and Nazism. Their goal has been constant, and you can’t succeed unless you have goals.

Even though this sort of thing makes my flesh crawl, it seems quite unlikely that it is symptomatic of an anti-Semitic movement. Missing entirely from the SWP’s analysis is any engagement with the social and economic forces that led to the persecution of Jews in Czarist Russia or in Nazi Germany. Jews served the role of scapegoat in societies that were being torn apart by the contradictions of capitalism. As the crisis of capitalism is gathering steam today, it is abundantly clear that the role of scapegoat has been assigned in advance to immigrant workers, not the Jews. If you need any proof of that, just take a look what a genuine fascist group is saying about the Jews:

Belgium: Far-right party calls for Jewish support

One of the most successful extreme-Right leaders in Europe, Filip Dewinter, recently called on the Jewish public to join his campaign against radical Islam and support his party.

Dewinter heads Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party, which advocates strict limits on immigration and has been denounced as xenophobic.

The politician called Antwerp’s large Jewish community a natural partner “against the main enemy of the moment, radical Islamic fundamentalism,” according to a report in The Independent.

Vlaams Belang is expected to win at least one-third of the votes in regional elections in Belgium, which take place on Sunday. The expected success at the ballot box will make it the largest party in Antwerp, a city plagued by racial tensions and which has experienced race-related riots and murders this year. Antwerp has large Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side.

Dewinter rose to power by advocating strict limits on immigration, including the deportation of immigrants who fail to integrate. Recently he called for radical Islam to be denied official recognition and for its supporters to be denied Belgian nationality and possibly social security payments, according to The Independent.

Recently the SWP has taken things a step further. In an article in the edition dated March 2, 2009, party leader Norton Sandler stated:

Class-conscious workers should drop the term Zionism. There is no Zionist movement today. The reality is, it has become an epithet, not a scientific description; a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred, which will rise as the capitalist crisis deepens.

This rather startling claim must be understood as the natural outgrowth of their obsession with “Jew-hatred”. If calling attention to the role of the Israeli lobby, even if on the mistaken basis that it is stronger than it actually is, is a form of anti-Semitism, then why not describe calling attention to the movement upon which the state of Israel is premised-Zionism-a form of anti-Semitism as well.

It is probably an exercise in futility to try to figure out how the SWP arrives at such peculiar ideas since it would involve getting inside the mind of cult leader Jack Barnes in the fashion of that movie “Being John Malkovich”. But you can find the same mindset at work when the Militant denounced protestors in Great Britain as “anti-American”. This tendency to draw a sharp distinction between less-than-perfect manifestations of anti-imperialism such as the kind mounted by Walt/Mearsheimer and a fully adumbrated Marxism was rejected by Lenin in a polemic with both Trotsky and Karl Radek.

On Easter Monday in 1916, 1200 members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army seized the General Post Office and other sites in Dublin in the hopes of sparking a general uprising.

The British crushed the rebellion. Nevertheless, it send a shiver of fear through the ruling classes of Europe who were in bloody midcourse of W.W.I. W.W.I was supported by most labor and socialist leaders and the Easter rebellion was a warning signal that the class-struggle would soon confront the imperialist warmakers and their socialist collaborators.

During W.W.I, the class-struggle left-wing of the socialist movement was debating issues of national self-determination. The issues raised by the Eastern rebellion became part of this debate. There were broadly speaking 3 positions within this left-wing grouping. One position as put forward by the Polish revolutionary Karl Radek maintained that “the right of self-determination…is a petty-bourgeois formula that has nothing in common with Marxism.” At the other pole was the position held by Lenin who argued that socialism was inconceivable “without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe.” Trotsky held a position somewhere in the center between Radek and Lenin, stating that “the historical basis for a national revolution has disappeared even in backward Ireland.” Lenin took the position that the movement was progressive despite its “prejudices”:

On May 9, 1916, there appeared, in Berner Tagwacht, the organ of the Zimmerwald group, including some of the Leftists, an article on the Irish rebellion entitled “Their Song is Over” and signed with the initials K.R. [Karl Radek]. It described the Irish rebellion as being nothing more nor less than a “putsch”, for, as the author argued, “the Irish question was an agrarian one”, the peasants had been pacified by reforms, and the nationalist movement remained only a “purely urban, petty-bourgeois movement, which, notwithstanding the sensation it caused, had not much social backing…”

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Once upon a time, the SWP would have understood this. When Malcolm X first emerged as a spokesman of the Nation of Islam, the party did not allow the NOI’s prejudices stand in the way of recognizing Malcolm’s importance. Even after he broke with the NOI, he was still saying things that did not quite pass muster in terms of Marxist dialectics:

The number one weapon of 20th century imperialism is Zionist dollarism, and one of the main bases for this weapon is Zionist Israel. The ever-scheming European imperialists wisely placed Israel where she could geographically divide the Arab world, infiltrate and sow the seed of dissension among African leaders and also divide the Africans against the Asians.

If Walt/Mearsheimer were to be damned for exaggerating the role of the Israeli lobby, what are we then to make of Malcolm’s claim that the “number one weapon” of imperialism is Zionist dollarism? Obviously, unlike the SWP, most of us still have a grasp of reality and so we can answer this question with no difficulty. Both Walt/Mearsheimer and Malcolm X were correct to single out Zionism, but both lacked a fully developed Marxist analysis that would allow them to put it into the proper context. Malcolm might have arrived at this understanding if he had not been shot down in cold blood. Of course, the fact that he was evolving toward such an understanding is the very reason he was killed.

March 11, 2009

The Leninist Party: an annotated bibliography

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Last week I received this request:


I want to ask you a favor….

I am engaged on a major writing project criticizing the rigid model of “leninist vanguard party” that was established (and mythologized) in the 1920s in the comintern. And (obviously) it is part of a larger project of conceiving of new forms of communist organization for now.

I’m well aware that this whole issue has been close to your heart…. so i want to ask you a favor:

Can you point me toward all your writings and explorations of this? Can you suggest what other writings I should give a close study? Are there valuable books demythologizing the Cominterns “bolshevization” campaign? The Zinoviev decisions of universal party formation? etc.?

Where are creative writings on the other possible forms and conceptions of communist organization?

I’m hoping that the names of works are at the tip of your tongue — so that it won’t be a lot of work to share them with me.

Thanks (in advance) for your help and advice.

This is a preface to the list of electronic and print resources below that might help put my response to this request in context.

To start with, I should begin by stating that my interest in Lenin’s party-building concepts is completely separate from what have been called “programmatic” questions. For example, I agree with perhaps 90 percent of what the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain or the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia have written about ecology, the war in Iraq, the labor movement, etc. But I have sharp differences with them on organizational questions. When I first joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was told that political and organizational questions cannot be separated. I no longer believe that.

In particular, I believe that unless revolutionaries really get to the bottom of what Lenin was trying to do when he built the Bolshevik Party they will continue to end up with sectarian formations no matter their best intentions. In my opinion, the following set of overlapping assumptions that “Leninists” share today have little to do with the way that the Bolshevik party functioned historically:

1. Democratic centralism must include defense of the party’s analysis of political questions in public as well as its discipline in actions such as demonstrations, strikes, votes in parliament, etc.

2. Party members must avoid disagreeing with each other in the mass movement. In the labor movement and the social movements, the party must speak with a single voice.

3. Debates in the party must be internal. Prior to conventions, party members have the freedom to submit resolutions that go against the current party line but once the convention is over, the debate ends as well.

4. Violations of these “norms” must be punished by expulsion.

5. Deep political differences reflect different class orientations. The Leninist party is subject to class pressures from outside society and must periodically purge elements that have caved in to petty bourgeois prejudices.

This bibliography is organized in chronological order roughly, but it also follows a certain conceptual framework since my thinking has naturally evolved over the years. For example, in the very first article I ever wrote on organizational questions I referred to the ANC and the Workers Party positively. History has of course rendered its unfavorable judgment on these two parties, at least from the standpoint of Marxism.

1) Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism

In 1983 I became increasingly concerned about the SWP’s abstention from the Central American solidarity movement and began asking current members and ex-members like myself what was going on. Librarian union leader Ray Markey, who was still in the party but on his way out, sent me a copy of Peter’s article “Against Sectarianism” that had a major impact on my thinking about these questions. Although Peter was focusing on the SWP’s workerism, much of what he wrote has a general application.

2. Lenin in Context

In 1995, on the original Marxism list operated by the Spoons Collective, John Plant, a British Trotskyist who belonged to no party as far as I know, asked whether Lenin’s party-building concepts were still viable. This led me to post a series of articles that included the favorable reference to the ANC and the Workers Party. Except for the deletion of this reference, nothing has changed.

3. Three important books

In writing the article above, I found Lenin’s “What is to be Done” very useful but two books on Lenin helped me sharpen my analysis. One is Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” that received the Isaac Deutscher prize in 1981. The other is Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that was written in 1993. Harding’s book, alas, is out of print but Paul’s is now available in paperback. Harding’s book was a scholarly effort to understand Lenin in his historical setting in the same spirit as Lars Lih’s recently published “Lenin Rediscovered“, a study of “What is to be Done”. Although I have not read Lih’s book, it is consistent with Harding’s analysis that “democratic centralism” and “vanguard” were not innovations by Lenin but concepts that he borrowed from Western European social democracy. Paul wrote his book for pretty much the same reason Peter wrote “Against Sectarianism” and I began writing about party-building questions. It was an attempt to diagnose the degeneration of the SWP into a workerist sect. George Breitman, a long-time SWP leader who had been expelled with LeBlanc from the SWP, pretty much commissioned Paul to write the book. They were grappling with the problem of what went wrong. Although I found much useful information in Paul’s book, it did not really go to the roots of the SWP’s collapse. He and Breitman pinned their hopes on a return to the party-building norms that were in place under SWP founder James P. Cannon and his successor Farrell Dobbs but I had come to believe that it was these “norms” that sank the SWP. This was the focus of my next article below.

4. The Comintern and the German Communist Party

In August of 1998, I began writing a series of articles on Marxmail, which had been launched in May of that year, about the origins of Zinovievism, a term I coined to describe the kind of mechanical “democratic centralism” that was accepted by virtually all self-styled Leninist organizations whether Maoist, Trotskyist or Stalinist. I used that term since the organizational principles were the product of the 1924 “Bolshevization” Congress of the Comintern which adopted a proposal by Zinoviev to launch parties using the schemas I alluded to in my preface. I found Werner T. Angress’s 1963 “Stillborn Revolution, the Communist Bid for Power in Germany, 1921-1923” very useful as background material but it does not really address the organizational problems that were of interest to me.

5. The Cochranites

Not long after Marxmail was launched, someone named Sol Dollinger became a subscriber. The name rang a bell. I remembered that Genora Dollinger was a leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the Flint Sit Down strikes of 1938 and I asked if he was related. It turned out that this was his wife who had died in 1995. I also learned that the two were very involved with a non-sectarian initiative called the American Socialist Union that had split with the SWP in 1953 because of objections similar to those that Camejo and I had raised. Sol put me in contact with Cynthia Cochran, the widow of Bert Cochran who led the ASU with Harry Braverman, who would eventually join Monthly Review after the ASU folded in 1959. I scanned articles from their magazine American Socialist which can be read here.  I also made available a number of documents related to the Socialist Union that deal with party-building questions including Bert Cochran’s “Our Orientation” that is of key importance to me.  Another document worth reading is my own on “The Cochranite Legacy” that was presented to a conference on American Trotskyism organized by Paul LeBlanc in 2000.

6. Hal Draper

Around the time I began writing about Leninism on the Internet, I discovered Hal Draper’s writings. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, this veteran of the Trotskyist movement in its Shachtmanite flavor had rethought many of the same questions. I recommend the following:

1971 – Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect

1973 – Anatomy of the Micro-Sect

1990 – The Myth of Lenin’s “Concept of The Party”

7. Critiques of the DSP, Socialist Alternative, and the British SWP

In the most recent past I have tried without much success to persuade the Australian DSP that they were going about things in the wrong way. I suppose if Peter Camejo could not penetrate through their thick wall of “Leninist” orthodoxy, there was not much I could do. Peter wrote a superb article in 1995 titled “Return to Materialism that like “Against Sectarianism” has general interest even though it was offered as advice to the DSP. My own advice was proffered in an article titled A debate with Links over the revolutionary party. The comrades don’t appreciate my advice but I will continue to offer it when the need arises. Socialist Alternative is a “state capitalist” formation in Australia that is sort of Avis to the DSP’s Hertz. Although they will have none of my ideas on party-building either, they at least took the trouble to publish my critique of the orthodoxy contained in an article by SA leader Mick Armstrong.  It is a useful summary of my views on “Zinovievism”. Finally, as many of you know, the British SWP has been going through a crisis that I view as rooted in “Zinovievist” misconceptions, although they obviously would not see it this way. The articles can be found on my Columbia web page on organizational problems of the revolutionary movement, along with a number of other articles not mentioned in this piece.

March 10, 2009

Reimagining socialism?

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 3:01 pm

Barbara Ehrenreich

The latest issue of The Nation Magazine has a number of articles addressing the topic of “Reimagining Socialism” with a lead item by Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. titled “Rising to the Occasion“,  with four responses to it by Immanuel Wallerstein, Bill McKibben, Rebecca Solnit and Tariq Ali. Except for Ali’s article, I had problems with the others despite their value in taking the idea of socialism seriously. As the financial crisis deepens, we can expect more of this.

Barbara Ehrenreich is an honorary chairperson of Democratic Socialists of America, the U.S.’s official section of the Socialist International. Most of her articles and books in the recent period have had to do with the problems of the working poor. My most vivid memory of her take on socialism prior to this article goes back to a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union when she rebuked the audience for not understanding the importance of consumer goods. Unless we could supply the X-rated videos and bananas that East Germans were now buying after their liberation, we had nothing to offer the working class. At the time I felt that this was a prime example of lowering the socialist bar, especially in light of the fact that people make revolutions in order to stop being killed by cops and the military rather than being able to buy “Debby Does Dallas”. But, more to the point, the consumer goods that East Europeans hankered for now seem to be a thing of the past under conditions of economic ruin.

In many ways, Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article has the same kinds of preoccupations as her early 1990s talk. They still worry whether socialism can deliver the goods, but are much less sanguine about the power of the marketplace which seduced so many Marxists in the early 1990s at the height of Francis Fukuyama’s nonsense:

What is most galling, from a socialist perspective, is the dawning notion that capitalism may be leaving us with less than it found on this planet, about 400 years ago, when the capitalist mode of production began to take off. Marx imagined that industrial capitalism had potentially solved the age-old problem of scarcity and that there was plenty to go around if only it was equitably distributed. But industrial capitalism–with some help from industrial communism–has brought about a level of environmental destruction that threatens our species along with countless others. The climate is warming, the oil supply is peaking, the deserts are advancing and the seas are rising and contain fewer and fewer fish for us to eat. You don’t have to be a freaky doomster to see that extinction may be what’s next on the agenda.

In this situation, with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan, people? Can we see our way out of this and into a just, democratic, sustainable (add your own favorite adjectives) future?

If the only relevant question is whether we have a plan, it is understandable why the comrades would recommend something like this:

Z Magazine founder Michael Albert developed a detailed approach to mass-based planning that he calls participatory economics, or “parecon,” and one of us (Fletcher, in his book Solidarity Divided, written with Fernando Gapasin) has proposed a locally based network of people’s assemblies.

Not having read Fletcher and Gapasin’s book, I really can’t comment but I can say that Albert’s blueprint is nothing less than the sort of socialism that I have dealt with in an article on Neo-Utopian Socialism.  In that article, I pointed out how parecon was a throwback to the 19th century:

In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

“I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.”

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s [and Hahnel’s] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

“Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.”

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the word’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Contrary to Ehrenreich and Fletcher, I would argue that the main task facing socialists today is breaking with the two-party system, not coming up with blueprints for socialism. This is of particular urgency given the fact that The Nation Magazine serves as the most important left support for Obama in the U.S. Despite trenchant criticisms of Obama, the magazine still sees its role pretty much as the CPUSA saw its role in the 1930s vis-à-vis FDR-as a kind of left flank rather than an independent political alternative. You can still see this kind of confusion in the Nation, even from somebody as committed to social transformation as Immanuel Wallerstein, who compares the MST’s support for Lula and the U.S. left’s relationship to Obama in an article titled “Follow Brazil’s Example“:

In my view, the only sensible attitude is that taken by the large, powerful and militant Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil. The MST supported Lula in 2002, and despite all he failed to do that he had promised, they supported his re-election in 2006. They did it in full cognizance of the limitations of his government, because the alternative was clearly worse. What they also did, however, was to maintain constant pressure on the government–meeting with it, denouncing it publicly when it deserved it and organizing on the ground against its failures.

The MST would be a good model for the US left, if we had anything comparable in terms of a strong social movement. We don’t, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to patch one together as best we can and do as the MST does–press Obama openly, publicly and hard–all the time, and of course cheering him on when he does the right thing. What we want from Obama is not social transformation. He neither wishes to, nor is able to, offer us that. We want from him measures that will minimize the pain and suffering of most people right now. That he can do, and that is where pressure on him may make a difference.

While I don’t want to take a position on MST’s critical support for Lula, there is a point that Wallerstein misses completely when comparing the Brazilian situation to our own. The Workers Party in Brazil is essentially based on the trade unions while the Democratic Party in the U.S. is a bourgeois party through and through. In the 1920s, Lenin urged Communists to back socialist candidates because they could only get a hearing from rank-and-file workers if they did so. But in 2007, there were no illusions in the Democratic Party worth exploiting. Most people vote for Democrats because they fear and hate the Republicans. In order for the class struggle to move forward in the U.S., a class alternative to the two big capitalist parties must be forged. Just as the Republican Party came into existence in the 1850s as an alternative to the two parties that backed chattel slavery (the Whigs and the Democrats), a new party opposed to wage slavery must be built today. That, not blueprints for a future society, is what is on the agenda today.

March 8, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: guest review

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

From the newsletter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)

Film Review

Slum-lord Aesthetics and the Question of Indian Poverty

– Nandini Chandra, Liberation, March, 2009.

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swaroop’s novel Q&A) is about a Bombay slum boy with his ample street knowledge who wins a twenty million dollar reality quiz show and then turns this into a universal tale of love and human destiny. In the quiz, Jamal is unable to answer questions that test his nationalist knowledge but is surprisingly comfortable with those that mark his familiarity with international trivia. For instance, while he knows that Benjamin Franklin adorns a 100 dollar bill, he has no clue about who adorns the 1000 rupee note. This is obviously meant to suggest the irrelevance of the nation to its most marginalized member but less obviously also indicates its supposed redundancy in a globalized neo-liberal setup.

The film is on an awards-winning roll, having won four Golden globes, it has won 8 Oscars this year, something that surely adds rather than subtracts from its imperial charm. The centrality of the neo-gothic structure of the Victoria Terminus as the transformative point in the film thus heralds a Dickensian aura as much as an imperial vision.

In contrast, Indians cannot quite see it in nationalist terms. For one, Amitabh Bachchan’s blog has officially announced and sanctioned the hurt pride of nationalist Indians occasioned by the film’s exposure of its dirty underbelly. While one is unsympathetic to the chauvinist argument that outsiders have no right to depict the seamier side of native life; the way this hyper-nationalist sentiment has been refracted in the international press says something about the film’s motivations. For instance, most reports translate Bachchan’s statement as the Indian peoples’ inability to take a brutal look at themselves, assuming both that the so called west has a hotline with the underclass, and that Bachchan represents ‘the Indian people’.

Given this intermeshing of an Indian and global context surrounding the film’s production and reception, it becomes pertinent to frame the question of the specific nature of Indian poverty raised in the film. The film is hardly unique in addressing the spectacle of the Bombay poor, their dismal conditions of living and defecating. But what it does crystallize in very concrete terms is a general consensus achieved in recent years on the disengagement of labour from questions of poverty and wealth. Partha Chatterjee’s much talked about essay, Democracy and Economic Transformation (EPW, 19 April 2008), mobilizes the concept of a “political society” to merge the realm of peasant detritus and urban poor with petty-entrepreneurs as well as the more shadowy criminal class. His argument reads something like this: since this informal and irregular community has not been and cannot be integrated into the corporate-style capitalist structures, they not only lose out on the benefits of civil society, their only salvation lies in being appropriated by governmental structures and schemes. The idea therefore is to translate the poor’s lack of proletarian consciousness as an automatic admission into political-governmental terms without adequately addressing either the question of capital accumulation by forcible dispossession, through the judicious use of that very government’s repressive instruments in the first place or how to usefully channel this dispossessed labour surplus in a direction that will precipitate class struggle.

While the film in its neo-liberal optimism contradicts this understanding of the poor, seeing them as immediately appropriable within the interstices of corporatized service industries, it participates in the denial of the potential usefulness of the work they do and its lack of reward. However, like Chatterjee, it also insists on placing them outside the purview of the juridical civil state, where law and order do not prevail in the same familiar way, thus surrounding their lives with a mystique that films like Boyle’s can successfully unravel for a neo-liberal audience. Having been endowed with humanity and dignity, the poor cannot be seen through what is perceived as instrumental categories of labour or class anymore. They are instead seen as denizens of a shadowy, illicit realm which can be made comprehensible only by integrating it within certain humanist tropes like love and freedom. It is remarkable that the topography of the places in which the poor live is seen largely through aerial shots  mountains of garbage, huge green forests of wasteland, rivers of feces  and the little boys jumping back and forth through this panoramic natural landscape acquire the characteristic of blooming lotuses in mud.

The goo scene in the beginning and the scene where a massive bogeyman-type figure gouges out the eyes of little children with a spoon are of course tightly framed to render the horror of the other world, which may be packaged for a poverty tour (like the one where Shantaram took Angelina Jolie by the hand and led her through the giddy lanes of Dharavi). The slum, the common tank where the mother was felled by one swoop of the Hindu fundamentalist sword, the brothel, the child labourer, the exploitative policemen, the curious school master in a dhoti and the mafia bosses are all stops on this guided tour which is only superficially different from the commodification of poverty one finds on the sets of more popular Bollywood fare. In fact, the new Bollywood aesthetics find an echo here in its severe eschewal of the institutions of state and civil society. But while Bollywood is equally welcoming of foreign capital, a non-Bollywood production like Slumdog takes on more immediately imperialist overtones. This is because the impetus of its rhetoric of good will and benevolence strives to conceal the conditions of its production, encapsulated by a patchy realism which seems to suggest that its real commitment is to the true heart of India , rather than a Bollywood imaginary which it uses merely as the scaffolding for its conventional plot’s unfolding.

The direct connectivity with an international public via tourism, call centres, media and other service industry networks makes the proximity to foreign capital extremely clear. The absence of an organized labour force or any political platform makes it possible to render the terms offered by this capital free of any vested interest. For instance, the film is produced by Celador Films, the very company which originally created the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” contest, an idea never once mocked throughout the film. In fact, reality television with big money in rewards encourages the contestants to alternatively think of themselves as obligated to the jury and managers and entitled to earn or deserve the disproportionately large sums of money. At the same time, the ruthlessness with which the contestants are evicted draws brief attention to the bosses’ less than benign status as business entrepreneurs, only to deflect it to a professional ethic, which seeks to dignify its lottery or gambling mode. The dynamics of reality television get enacted when little Jamal is being propped up to be a singer by the beggar kingpin Mamman, and the little fellow really thinks his time has come. In true reality television fashion, he demands a fifty rupee note from him before he sings his piece, announcing that he is after all a professional.

The hotel kitchen seems like a refuge of freedom for the child waiter, who gets plenty of time off even as Salim complains of the utopian life they have left behind thieving tyres in the by-lanes of Agra. The tourist industry seems like a utopia of cast-offs and gullible ‘whities’ waiting to be ripped off by these wily self-appointed guides. In short, the film tries to show that for those who can think on their feet, access to wealth is not a problem. Child labour is not really seen as exploitative, but as enabling the education of these young adults. In fact, hardly do we perceive their contribution in terms of real labour. They are seen as gaining rather than giving to the system, sabotaging, picking up the leftovers, staying in empty hotel rooms, stealing from it. Their labour is forever in the background. What is in the foreground is the readymade wealth they are continually grabbing. Wealth is seen not as something created by labour but as already always there to be accessed like the 20 million to be won for the answering of 10 odd questions, a clear repudiation of the true dynamics of labour and class. Moreover, by making the state and civil society evaporate, the film is interested in showing that real harmony is ultimately produced by a direct interaction between capital and labour, in a context where capital will always be benefiting labour and not the other way round. This is probably an acknowledgement of the fact that under the present phase of free market enterprise, the state has proven itself such a good accomplice of capital that it need not even be reckoned with. The police, initially evil, are eventually reconciled to the market’s impartial dynamics when the Inspector comes round to Jamal’s story and escorts him to the media room.

The upper class body language of its avowedly slum-dwelling protagonists is a serious lapse in realism, as is the characterization of Anil Kapoor treating the slumdweller in an exaggeratedly condescending fashion. The use of English could have been justified by a simple suggestion that the boys picked it up from the streets of Agra or even the call centre. But what irritates the most is the fact that while they make an attempt to imbue the film with a self-consciously heroic Muslim profile, they overwrite it with a totally Hindu concept of destiny. Ironically, even the credit song jai-ho seems to suggest an orchestrated mass- pilgrimage to Vaishno-devi rather than the triumph of the Muslim underdog.

March 7, 2009

Lockdown, USA

Filed under: african-american,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm

This week a DVD screener for the documentary “Lockdown, USA” arrived in my mailbox at the same time as the news that the horrible Rockefeller Drug Laws were on the verge of being repealed in New York State. Directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Michael Skolnik, the movie describes the struggle by activists against this draconian law and the impact it had one family.

The two primary actors in the struggle featured in the movie are hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Randy Credico, a former stand-up comedian who became a full-time activist in 1997. Holed up at the time in a Florida motel trying to kick a cocaine habit, he happened on a television news report about people victimized by the drug laws and realized that it could have been him serving a fifteen year sentence. (Although I recommend this documentary without hesitation, its main flaw is not providing some background information on the principals.)

I have very fond memories of Randy Credico from the 1980s when he was a frequent guest on WBAI radio shows skewering the Reagan administration’s war on Central America. A peerless impressionist, he got the wretched gipper nailed down better than anybody on the comedy circuit, so much so that he was a guest on the Johnny Carson show, a sure sign that you had “made it”. He was never invited back after taking the opportunity to lambaste American foreign policy, just as Harvey Pekar became persona non grata on the David Letterman show after denouncing General Electric for high crimes against society. These are my kinds of people, needless to say.

In contrast to Credico’s rumpled, wisecracking demeanor, Russell Simmons is the consummate power-broker and deal-maker. Throughout the film, he is seen in a leather chair that looks like it costs as much as Credico’s annual salary with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. Although Simmons is not averse to mounting a rally against the drug laws, his main activity seems to be talking on the phone with Governor George Pataki or other powerful officials.

Eventually, Pataki sponsors a “reform” bill that neither eliminates mandatory minimum sentences nor allows the vast majority of the 14,000 victims languishing in New York prisons to be resentenced. This provokes Randy Credico into telling the film makers and anybody who will listen that you cannot reform such a law, it can only be repealed. Likening the Rockefeller Drug Laws to slavery, he says that the only honorable demand is for its abolition.

The movie documents the suffering and the fighting spirit of Darryl Best, a father of five who received a 15 year sentence as a first time nonviolent drug offender after signing for a Fed Ex package containing under a pound of cocaine. His wife Wanda and their children are seen consulting with Credico and Simmons as they wage their struggle in their various ways.

Although the movie has an obvious orientation to the overwhelmingly African-American victims of the drug laws (crack violations, which predominate in the Black community, get much harsher sentences than those for typically middle-class powdered cocaine violations), the law sometimes drags the unlikely victim into its net like my cousin Joel Proyect.

The New York Times
July 12, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My cousin ended up spending more than four years behind bars and was forced to repurchase the house that he had built with his own hands and that had been seized by the government. I visited him at “minimum security” prisons in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and you can take my word for it that these places are no country clubs.

“Lockdown, USA” should be available from Netflix before long, but you can order it directly from the producers here.

Movie website

March 4, 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Along with Wall-E, I ordered 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days from Netflix. This is a 2008 Romanian movie about the horrors of illegal abortion under Ceausescu. The first movie was named best animated feature by my colleagues in NYFCO, while the second earned best foreign movie last year. I had misgivings about both, but felt obligated to experience with my own eyes what my peers had voted for.

Just as I am suspicious of any product with the brand name Disney on it, I am also averse to any movie that falls within the general category of how evil Communism was. Like The Lives of Others, which was named best foreign movie by NYFCO in 2007, I didn’t need to watch a movie to know that East Germany or Romania were crushing the human spirit and all that sort of thing. My preferences are for movies like Goodbye, Lenin, which at least tried to humanize the old guard Communists even if they are hardly an appeal to overthrow the capitalist system.

Much to my surprise, my misgivings about 4 Months were unfounded, as was not the case with Wall-E. Rather than being an ideological blunderbuss against Stalinism, the movie is much more a story about two young women dealing with a problem that exists in countries ruled by the right and the left alike. Although there is clearly an implied critique of a social system that operated on nominally egalitarian values, director Cristian Mungiu was far more interested in the human drama which pits vulnerable college roommates against some completely callous men, including the abortionist from hell.

As the movie begins, we see Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela ‘Găbiţa’ Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) making preparations for a weekend trip in their dormitory apartment. It takes a while for us to learn that Găbiţa is pregnant and that Otilia plans to help her navigate through an abortion, which was illegal in 1987, the year in which the story is set and the twilight of Ceauşescu’s rule.

Despite one’s expectations that the pregnant Găbiţa will be the main character, it is really Otilia around whom the plot revolves. She serves as an advance party to make contact with the abortionist and line up a hotel in which he can work on Găbiţa. Despite being somewhat taciturn in nature, Otilia’s gestures and facial expressions convey much more feeling than you will see from the average Hollywood actor. As the horrors mount in this brutal story, you find yourself identifying more and more with her character even though director Mungiu spurns the kind of melodrama that you would expect from such a story.

By avoiding close-ups and a musical score, he surrenders what most directors see as their most potent weapons. He seems influenced by the Dardenne brothers in Belgium who likewise prefer an austere setting for their morality tales. But all of these directors now sprouting up around the world (except of course in the ever-so-corrupt Hollywood) would appear to be following the trail blazed by France’s Robert Bresson, who was famous for his unsentimental but sympathetic view of his tormented characters.

The most powerful scene in this unforgettable movie takes place in the hotel room when the two women find themselves at the mercy of one of the most villainous characters I have encountered in a long time. Forget about James Bond’s adversaries, Mr. Bebe the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) is evil incarnate. When he learns that the woman lack sufficient funds to abort a pregnancy now 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days old, he alternates between browbeating them for wasting his time and implying ways that they can make up for the shortage of funds. Suffice it to say that Otilia comes to the aid of her roommate in a way that underscores the brutal sexism of Romanian society under Ceauşescu.

Despite its obvious revulsion over the mores of the Stalinist era, the movie’s closest relative would be The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, another movie dealing with nightmares in the Romanian medical system. However, the action in Mr. Lazarescu takes place after the fall of Ceauşescu and suggests that post-Communist “liberation” is not all it was cracked up to be.

As a bonus, the Netflix DVD for Four Months contains a documentary on the showing of the movie in Romania, where there are fewer than 50 movie theaters for a population of 22 million. A German and a Dutch technician equip a van with mobile movie projection equipment and tour around the country. A wiki article on the Romanian film industry mentions that in the 1950s “1000 16 mm projectors and 100 film caravans (mobile theatres) were imported from the Soviet Union in order to promote the introduction of film into the rural environment.” So in the grand scheme of things, it seems that Communism delivered the goods better than the capitalist system at least on this score.

Despite the success of movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, probably the best known bit of Romanian cinema-so to speak-was the beginning of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, where Romanian villagers are represented as subhuman.

For a view of the true Romanian genius, I strongly recommend the interview with director Cristian Mungiu that is included in the DVD in which he explains the directorial decisions that he made in the course of making the movie. It is like attending a seminar at one of America’s finest film schools, although they are unlikely to have somebody as brilliant as Mungiu in their faculty.

Another interview with the director given to european-films.net will give you a sense of his artistic principles:

One of the reasons why the film works so well is because indeed it does not judge, it just shows what happens to the two girls. Says Mungiu: “It is not a moralising story because that would mean that my point of view is in the story and I hope that my point of view is not; I’m just telling a story. People can see some moral in it. In a strange way, the story is also about what a lack of freedom does to people; about how abusing the lack of freedom is also wrong. Because after abortions were forbidden in communist times, people abused this freedom in the early nineties. We had like one million abortions in the first year after the fall of communism. We didn’t know how to behave. They thought: if you are allowed by law to do this, then it is okay. But you have to think about the kind of freedom that you are given”.

The film’s story is reinforced by a clear formal style (a mix of handheld and more stationary shots with a lot of things happening off-camera) that never calls attention to itself but is nevertheless rigorously enforced throughout the film. The director explains: “I wanted to have a very precise and coherent style for this film and make sure that we followed it, so I just wrote it down. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m quite sure it all came from the decision of having long takes. It was a decision that was made during the writing [of the screenplay]. Then we made some tests, trying to picture how we were going to capture everything we needed in one take.

“Initially, we were just moving the camera around, but this was stupid, so we decided that some things that were happening were just going to be lost; they would be happening off camera. After this, since there is a bigger story to the characters than what we shoot, it is okay to just focus on what’s important. So we are showing this 2.35 [the widescreen aspect ratio] version of real life, putting the camera in the middle of the action and having real life also happening behind the camera and besides it; not necessarily having the characters’ faces in the shot”.

Mungiu continues: “We decided that we would not use formal elements that would make our presence as filmmakers more obvious. I knew that I was not going to use music from the beginning and we never pan writing [move the camera up or down] in the film unless someone was triggering this pan. Since we have one main character, the camera would just follow this main character, so the rhythm of this film would be the rhythm of this character. When Otillia is sitting and calm, the camera would stay with her, and if she was agitated and moving a lot, then the camera would follow”.

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