Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2009

Left Forum 2009 journal (Saturday)

Filed under: Academia,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

As will be obvious from my take on the very first panel I attended, the Left Forum is as always a mixed bag. But this year there were so many panels that promised to be of extraordinary interest that I made the decision to attend both the Saturday and Sunday sessions. I report on Saturday first.


10-12am: “Dependency Theory Revisited: Elements for a Critical Interpretation of the New-Developmentism in Latin American Governments”

As a long time dependista, I was curious to see what this was all about. Who in the world would be “revisiting” a theory that was considered distinctly unfashionable in the academy and why? The scheduled speakers were Brazilians-Fernando Corrêa Prado and Monika Ribeiro de Freitas Meireles-studying at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). As the session began, Monika informed us sarcastically that Fernando could not make it because he had recently gotten married and preferred to go on his honeymoon rather than attend the Left Forum.

Monika is a graduate student and unfortunately appeared to be just getting her feet wet around the dependency debate. She gave a presentation using Powerpoint, just like my wife does in her microeconomics course. All in all, I was made to feel like a student and did not enjoy it very much, especially when the teacher was so misinformed.

The “new developmentalism” referred to in the title of the workshop encompassed all of the new left-oriented governments in Latin American ranging from Hugo Chavez on the left to Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Brazil’s Lula on the right. What they all had in common, according to Monika, was their willingness to promote the class interests of a section of the national bourgeoisie in a kind of neo-Peronism.

I found this use of the term “developmentalism” rather odd since it has always meant a mixture of Walt Rostow type economics internally and free trade treaties externally, such as NAFTA, CAFTA, etc. to me.

She then proceeded to present a survey of dependency theorists, breaking them into two camps, mainstream and Marxist. For those who have some knowledge of the history of this tendency, her inclusion of Raul Prebisch and Fernando Cardoso in the first group and Andre Gunder Frank in the second was to be expected.

What was missing entirely from her calculations was the role of the Robert Brenner influenced theorists in Latin America who blamed Andre Gunder Frank for exactly the sins she attributed to the “developmentalist” governments. If you look at the debate that raged in the pages of Latin American Perspectives in the 1970s and 80s, you will see that Frank and his co-thinkers were accused over and over again of adapting to the national bourgeoisie. You might even say that the reaction against the 1960s dependency theorists was inspired by this passsage from Robert Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism”:

Yet, the failure of Frank and the whole tradition of which he is a part-including Sweezy and Wallerstein among others-to transcend the economic determinist framework of their adversaries, rather than merely turn it upside down, opens the way in turn for the adoption of similarly ill-founded political perspectives. Where the old orthodoxy claimed that the bourgeoisie must oppose the neo-feudalists, Frank said the neo-feudalists were capitalists. Where the old orthodoxy saw development as depending on bourgeois penetration, Frank argued that capitalist development in the core depended upon the development of underdevelopment in the periphery…The consequence is that Frank’s analysis can be used to support political conclusions he would certainly himself oppose.

Thus so long as incorporation into the world market/world division of labour is seen automatically to breed underdevelopment, the logical antidote to capitalist underdevelopment is not socialism, but autarky. So long as capitalism develops merely through squeezing dry the ‘third world’, the primary opponents must be core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside-not the international proletariat, in alliance with the oppressed people of all countries, versus the bourgeoisie. In fact, the danger here is double-edged: on the one hand, a new opening to the ‘national bourgeoisie’; on the other hand, a false strategy for anti-capitalist revolution.

This is the real antithesis to the “new developmentalism”, not Andre Gunder Frank type dependency theory.


12-2pm: “Making Sense of the Greek Uprising”

This was worth the price of admission, four Greek Marxist professors sizing up the December uprising.

Costas Panayotakis gave an introduction to the Greek left, which was either critical of the uprising or bypassed by it. As might be expected, the Communist Party was appalled by the destruction of property. The CP generally steers clear of any protests–violent or nonviolent–that it does not directly control and habitually calls its own demonstrations rather than participate in a united front. It has a rival called the Coalition of the Radical Left (commonly known by its Greek abbreviation SYRIZA) that Costas described as Eurocommunist, with the peculiarity of the leader identifying with Chavez’s 21st century socialism. SYRIZA is closer to the youthful rebels than the CP but is not really part of it.

Andreas Kalyvas began his presentation by applying three categories to the revolt that suggested David Harvey’s influence:

1. Time: 44 cities were affected in 24 hours and the uprising lasted for 3 weeks.

2. Space: rural areas were affected as well.

3. Size: the uprising incorporated the kinds of numbers of participants not seen since 1974.

Next he dealt with some of the unique features of the revolt, starting with the fact that it took place in a liberal democracy and on European soil. But most importantly, it involved a social layer that had only recently become a major player in Greek politics, or perhaps more accurately that had been external to Greek politics: the immigrant community.

Of the 1.5 million immigrants, who were mostly economic victims of Eastern European privatization, 900,000 were undocumented. Of the 300 arrested, half were immigrants. They along with the high school students were the primary foot soldiers of a revolt that has more recently moved in the direction of urban guerrilla warfare attacking police stations and banks which Kalyvas likened to Italy in the 1970s. And, as was the case in Italy, the organized parliamentary left has been bypassed totally.

Peter Bratsis focused on the legitimation crisis that produced the explosion. He explained that relationships between the state and capitalism, peculiar to Greek society, created vulnerabilities that reached a boiling point as Greece became integrated into the European Union’s neoliberal framework.

Apparently, capitalism came rather late to Greece and in the absence of a fully developed capitalist economy the state became a source of employment, particularly for people who had been admitted to the state-funded universities. Until the 1980s, half of all college graduates worked in the public sector. All in all, this arrangement sounded to me a whole lot like Kemalist Turkey.

Under the impact of neoliberal restructuring, the welfare state in Greece has been eroding at a rapid pace. High school students are in the vanguard of resisting these changes, particularly because it affects them personally but also because they are cultural rebels reacting against the rampant commodification taking place. As proof of this, a number of the rioters came from wealthy suburban families who were not directly affected by the neoliberal changes. (This observation came from Neni Panourgia, the speaker who followed Bratsis.)

Stathis Gourgouris introduced a cautionary note, drawing attention to the fact that for the rioters rage played more of a role than politics. Sparked by the cop murder of a high school student in a “bohemian” neighborhood sounding like Athens’s East Village, they moved against the 3 C’s: corruption, cops and commodification.

Gourgouris warned that there was a nihilist streak in the uprising that could not be ignored. It was fueled by a sense that all politics was rotten, including that of the left. He said that it was possible that under certain conditions the movement could shift to the right. But for the time being, it was shaped by three equally important factors: nihilism, spontaneism, and anarchism. During the discussion period, I commented that it sounded like the Argentine piqueteros who also had a fetish against politics. Considering the fact that Greece has powerful anarchist traditions, this outcome might be expected to some extent.


3-5pm: “Indigenous Mobilization in South America” (cancelled)

I was looking forward to this more than any other event this weekend, since it included Hugo Blanco, the Peruvian Trotskyist who led a guerrilla movement in the 1960s. Blanco is now 74 and in failing health so I wanted to get a chance to hear him speak, especially around the question of indigenous mobilization. I also worked overtime this week to finish scanning Mariategui’s 7 Essays on Peruvian Reality just to be able to announce it to the workshop. Unfortunately, it was cancelled. Why I do not know, although I do worry that it might have something to do with Blanco’s health.

Instead I went to hear Joel Kovel, who I ran into in the hallway just outside the room where Hugo was scheduled to speak. Joel and I spoke briefly about his struggle at Bard and he reported that he had a meeting with Botstein recently to discuss the terms of his firing. It seemed that Botstein was reacting to the pressure mounted by a disgruntled blogosphere and hoped to mollify Kovel in some way, short of course of giving him back his job. Joel revealed to me that he was glad to be free of Bard in some ways. The prospects of returning to this feudal baronage had as much appeal to him as it would for a parolee being invited to return voluntarily to prison.

Joel’s fellow panel members included Barbara Nimri Aziz, the WBAI broadcaster, Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, and Alan Goodman, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who organized the event and served as chairperson.

This was my first opportunity to ever hear an RCP’er speak and it was quite an earful. I was shocked by the boneheaded sectarianism that made groups like the British SWP and the DSP in Australia look like Proyectites by comparison. He started by “preaching to the choir” by telling us about all the bad things that Israel has done. He had nothing good to say about Hamas, whose Islamic fundamentalism was explained in terms of the defeat of the Cultural Revolution that he regarded as one of the greatest revolutionary movements of the past half-century. If Maoism still prevailed in China, people in the Middle East would be reading the Little Red Book rather than the Quran. I am not making this up.

Against my better judgment, I asked Goodman a question during the discussion period. Since Joseph Stalin was part of the RCP’s pantheon, how would he explain USSR support for the creation of the state of Israel? Once my better judgment returned to me, I walked out of the room before I had a chance to endure his response. Although I have little use for www.marxist.com type vanguardism, they are always useful for providing orthodox Marxist politics on matters such as these:

At the beginning of 1947 a very strange coalition had come into being over the Palestinian question — the USA, the USSR and the Zionists. They all supported the partition of Palestine. Of course each one of these had their own specific interests. The USA wanted to push out the old British colonial lion and replace him in the oil rich and strategically important Middle East. As for Stalin, he wanted to use the Jews in Palestine against British imperialism, and to establish a point of support for the Soviet bureaucracy in the Middle East. We also know what Ben-Gurion and his gang wanted a “Great Israel” on both sides of the Jordan or at least encompassing the Sinai peninsula.

We could ask ourselves the question as to whether Stalin had any inkling of a Marxist understanding when he supported Zionism? The answer is, of course, that he did not. His approach was all reduced to playing the old game between Russian and British imperialism for control of this region. Stalin didn’t support any drastic social changes in Palestine and thus a bloody conflict to divide Palestine was absolutely predictable.

5-7pm: Regroupment of the European Left

This too was worth the price of admission since it included Leon Cremieux of the LCR and now the NPA. I brought along my new Flip Video Camera, which is about the size of a digital still camera, to record the event. Alas, the camera’s software refused to compress the video, thus making it unusable. I cannot judge whether buying the Flip was a mistake (it was only $115) but if not for this problem, I can recommend it strongly.

The session was chaired by Sebastian Budgen and also included Cinzia Arruzza from Sinistra Critica in Italy (a leftwing split from Refundazione) and Katja Kipping and Oliver Nachtwey from Die Linke in Germany. It was too bad that my video experiment did not work since the visual contrast between Cremieux and the others was quite striking. Cremieux was in his fifties and described himself as a trade unionist. I don’t know what kind of job he had but he had the hands of a pipe-fitter and a beer gut. Everybody else dressed in black, looked like art students or punk musicians, and was surely under fifty if not under forty. The big surprise was Sebastian Budgen, a rather lofty figure in the world of Marxist journaldom. He must be very bright and of singular determination to have carved out a niche in this world at such an early age. I expected someone older and tweedier, not the Johnny Rotten image he projected.

Cremieux’s talk did not break new ground, although it was interesting to hear. Basically, the LCR decided to launch the NPA because there was massive opposition to capitalism per se rather than some foggy notion of neoliberalism in France. The LCR’s judged that a new party could galvanize all the radical-minded people in France who were fed up with the SP and the CP’s reformist politics. During the discussion period, I asked whether the LCR’s encountered any resistance in their ranks when they proposed something that might seem “liquidationist” in traditional Trotskyist terms. And also whether there would be problems with them interacting with people who had never been members of the LCR. He said that the comrades were not interested in maneuvering behind the backs of such people and understood that the tasks of the class struggle in France dictated such an approach. I was very impressed with his reply.

He was followed by Cinzia Arruzza who reported on the disgusting treachery of Refundazione. I had not been paying much attention to this once promising formation, but apparently it has lost most of its support because many of its leaders have backed the “war on terror” and neoliberal economic policies as part of its coalition deal with the social democrats who now call themselves the Democratic Party of Italy (!!!). Even after losing all its parliamentary seats, the rightwing leaders persist in their shitty politics. Cinzia stressed that once you start cutting deals with the right, you lose all credibility as a leftwing party. Sounds to me like Italy and the U.S. have the same kinds of problems nowadays.

The comrades from Die Linke were proud of having built this promising new party but worried about two things: one, the tendency to believe in neo-Keynesian solutions rather than anti-capitalist struggle that led to total transformation of the system; two, a tendency toward social conservatism attributable to the trade union base in West Germany that was instrumental in launching the party. One hopes that Die Linke does not go down the same road as the Greens in Germany or Refundazione. Perhaps the severity of the economic crisis will help keep the party on the right road.



I am glad that my pre-registration name tag was in large block letters since a couple of my favorite people spotted my name and chatted with me briefly. One was Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame who was much more soft-spoken and even shy in person than his flamboyant Internet persona. But that’s true for me as well, I guess. The other was Derrick O’Keefe from Canada who is about Richard’s age and writes for various online publications. I regard both of these youngsters as the cream of the upcoming revolutionary crop and only hope that they can avoid the mistakes of my youth. I know for a fact that Derrick has a very good handle on sectarianism and I expect good things from him in the future. I told Richard that he has an outstanding future in front of him as a Marxist intellectual and was of course happy to tell that to him in person.

A group of us met up at the Monthly Review table after 7pm and went out for drinks. That included my old friend Michael Yates, the irrepressible Sartesian, Kurt Hill, an ex-SWP’er and Bard College graduate like me, and Robbie Laurel Kwan from the Philippines. We chatted about Spanish colonialism in Mexico and the Philippines, working on the railroad, and various other topics while munching on chicken wings and fried mozzarella sticks and drinking beer and whiskey. A fine time was had by all.

Tomorrow I report on Sunday’s sessions.

April 17, 2009

The Democratic Socialist Perspective’s dirty laundry

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Last year there was a split in the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) in Australia, a group that was originally modeled after the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. but went its own way rather than drinking the SWP’s workerist Kool Aid in the 1980s. The DSP’s break with sectarianism was not total, however. To this day it retains a belief that the writings of SWP founder James P. Cannon remain valid even though there are clear indications that the SWP’s batty turn in the 1980s was a natural outcome of Cannon’s own wrongheaded understanding of Leninism. An early symptom was the remarks of Morris Stein, Cannon’s chief lieutenant, to the party convention in 1948:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

But if you are going to break with this kind of madness, you have to go all the way. Unfortunately, the DSP’s problems in the Socialist Alliance reflect its failure to make a clean break with sectarianism. Like the RESPECT Party in Great Britain, the Socialist Alliance was hampered by a contradiction between the British SWP’s own narrow goals and those of the broader left. While it was careful not to advertise its goals, the DSP clearly had the intention of using the Socialist Alliance to achieve hegemony on the Australian left. Perhaps they were not even fully conscious of this goal, but it was almost predetermined so long as you embrace the Cannonite party-building model.

Apparently, the Socialist Alliance project has exhausted itself according to an open letter being circulated by a new group on the Australian left called the Revolutionary Socialist Party that is made up of expelled members of the DSP that had operated as the Leninist Party Faction (this nomenclature is a tip-off as to their hardnosed orientation). It seems that these comrades were never comfortable with even a half-hearted attempt to break with sectarianism. They revolted against what they perceived as a “liquidationist” trend in the DSP and perhaps longed for a return to more of a “we are monopolists” approach.

As gadflies, they are doing a rather good job. In asking “What has happened to the Socialist Alliance“, they air the dirty laundry:

Putting a positive face on the SA these days is not easy. Nichols mentions as a “positive advance” the fact that “lazy hack journalists” sometimes report that the SA is the organiser of events that in fact it hasn’t organised. Despite this help from the commercial media, he has to admit that the SA’s membership has “shrunk quite seriously”. He reported that its membership during 2008 dropped by 282 – not counting whatever the decline may have been in Western Australia, which apparently couldn’t be bothered to send statistics to Nichols.

More telling than any numbers is the message from a DSP comrade in Perth, which Nichols quotes: “I don’t invite people to join Socialist Alliance now, because what can we offer them?” Nichols elaborates the meaning of the Perth comment: “You give us money, and we won’t ring you, we won’t organise you, we won’t keep you up to date with our activity”.

The open letter also calls attention to the growth of Socialist Alternative, a state capitalist group ideologically that is independent of the worldwide formation headed by the British SWP and that represents something like Avis to the DSP’s Hertz:

Nichols admits, belatedly, that the DSP’s preoccupation with the SA has opened the field for Socialist Alternative (SAlt) to gain a hearing from radicalising young people. When the DSP minority pointed that out in 2005 and later, we were accused of wanting to imitate SAlt’s sectarianism. This section of Nichols’ report, bearing the subhead “The costs of building the Socialist Alliance”, makes some devastating confessions. SAlt, says Nichols, can go to a Gaza demo, distribute leaflets on the “socialist view” of what is happening, get five people to come to a discussion and recruit one of them. As for DSP-SA? “Our tendency has not been able to match that, and Socialist Alternative will continue to grow while we fail to do so.” The “broad” SA can’t recruit even one would-be socialist out of a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Did the old “narrow” DSP find this such an obstacle?

Not wanting to take sides in this dispute particularly, I am sympathetic to the charge that the comrades wanted to “imitate SAlt’s sectarianism”. As I have tried to point out in a critique of this group’s party-building ideas, it rests on a schematic understanding of Leninism that finds its most virulent expression in Morris Stein’s 1948 braggadocio.

While it is arguably true that groups like the RSP and SAlt are better equipped to “recruit” young radicals than the DSP, one really must ask the question whether recruitment is the right way to go about things. Recruitment suggests a process of adding raw material that can be shaped into finished products like the Marines winning over an 18 year old at an electronic games arcade and turning him or her into a cold-blooded killer. Maybe it is best to drop this idea altogether and think more broadly about helping to build a party based on a very broad net that can grow by the hundreds and thousands rather than by ones and twos-like the NPA in France.

The British SWP doesn’t quite know what to make of the NPA, on one hand hailing its success while fretting over its seeming inability to confront the “reformists”. To its credit, the DSP has been publicizing the work of the NPA with nary a quibble. One hopes that they might even consider following their example and move toward building a broad anti-capitalist political party in Australia. Considering the economic and environmental crisis taking place there, the prospects would be most auspicious.

Apparently, there is some discussion in the DSP for moving in that direction. The open letter states:

During the discussion prior to the 2006 DSP congress, the minority pointed out that there were three distinct views within the majority. A group of minority comrades from Melbourne wrote in the Activist in December 2005: “It is clear now … that the majority actually represents at least three distinct tendencies. The minimalist interpretation integrates into its perspective those elements of the resolution that emphasise the practical importance of rebuilding the DSP … The maximalist tendency can’t let go of the earlier hopes we had for SA. It has no practical perspectives for how to move forward but a complete reluctance to accept the conclusions … about the conditions that would be necessary for us to re-launch SA as a new party project. At its best this tendency is banking on a major upswing in the mass movement … to provide a new basis for building SA as a new left party. At its worst, this tendency errs toward SA as a permanent tactic …”

“The third tendency in the majority is a pragmatic one, represented by the report given to the [October 2005] NC itself, and fundamentally concerned with keeping the SA experiment going. This is why the report consisted of an emphasis on specific measures to keep the DSP afloat, and left the development of SA priorities to the pragmatism of the branches …”

Although I am obviously sympathetic toward the “maximalist” tendency, I somehow doubt that the Socialist Alliance is the proper vehicle for moving forward. I am afraid that it has become tainted by the record of the DSP in the past few years in the same way that RESPECT was tainted by the British SWP until a split occurred. I simply do not know enough about Australian politics to make recommendations about, for example, whether the Green Party is a better vehicle and frankly, even if I did, I would not give advice since that would smack too much of Trotsky in Coyoacán. As much of an admirer as I am of Trotsky’s Marxism, I find the advice from afar business to be self-defeating in the long run.

April 15, 2009

We Shall Remain

Filed under: indigenous,television — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

Although I had low expectations from anything that PBS might have to say about American Indians, I was pleasantly surprised by the premiere episode of “We Shall Remain” that dealt with the encounter of British colonials and native peoples in New England culminating in the exterminationist King Philip’s War.

This episode, titled “After the Mayflower”, obviously relied on the scholarship of Jill Lepore who was among the academics interviewed. Lepore is the author of “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity”, a book that is sitting on my shelves at home but that I have not had a chance to read yet. The wiki on King Philip’s War states:

King Philip’s War, sometimes called Metacom’s War or Metacom’s Rebellion, was an armed conflict between Native American inhabitants of present-day southern New England and English colonists and their Native American allies from 1675-1676. It continued in northern New England (primarily on the Maine frontier) even after King Philip was killed, until a treaty was signed at Casco Bay in April 1678. According to a combined estimate of loss of life in Schultz and Tougias’ “King Philip’s War, The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict” (based on sources from the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Census, and the work of Colonial historian Francis Jennings), 800 out of 52,000 English colonists (1 out of every 65) and 3,000 out of 20,000 natives (3 out of every 20) lost their lives due to the war, which makes it proportionately one of the bloodiest and costliest in the history of America. More than half of New England’s ninety towns were assaulted by Native American warriors.

Most of the episode is devoted to the background that led up to the war, which as is so often the case in colonial encounters with Indians has to do with conflicts over land. The pilgrims, who were initially highly dependent on Wampanoag Indians for their very survival, eventually became economically and militarily powerful. Forgetting the kindness shown to them by native peoples, they kept encroaching on Indian land to the point when King Philip, an Indian leader who had absorbed British cultural influences including his name, felt that there was no other recourse but to declare war. After the Indians were wiped out, King Philip’s head was put on a pike and displayed for two years in Plymouth, the town that was the birthplace of the Thanksgiving ceremony.

The episode was directed by Chris Eyre, the Cheyenne/Arapaho director of “Smoke Signals“, a fine movie based on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”. Cassius Spears, a Narragansett Indian long involved with cultural preservation, served as a consultant as did David White, a Nipmuc, who helped the actors with the native language they spoke in character.

Marcos Akiaten, a Chiricahua Apache, played Massasoit, the Indian leader who welcomed the pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. His son King Philip was played by Annawon Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag and descendant of the peoples who lived in New England before the European conquest.

The PBS website has background information on the show that began last Monday night and even better it allows you to watch each episode online. I recommend this powerful series without qualification.

April 14, 2009


Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow, Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” (El Olvido) is a penetrating study of poverty in Peru, particularly its impact on children who scrape by as shoeshine boys, jugglers, gymnasts, and musicians on the busy streets of Lima. They are like the children you can spot selling candy in New York subways or flowers on the streets of Los Angeles, but with much greater odds against them. Despite the grimness of the topic, the documentary is often very funny as well as always lyrical.

Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Lima in 1951, got the idea for the movie from a waiter:

A few years ago it was a waiter, at work in a fancy restaurant, who was the inspiration for the rediscovery of my city. This waiter, whom I recognized after many years away from Peru, told me how he has survived the humiliation and hardship by smiling. Others manage to hold up their heads by silently making fun of the class that oppresses them, remembering with pride that they have survived both economic crisis and political terror from both sides. And some survive by entertaining car drivers with acrobatics, hoping for a few coins.

All my characters are first-class actors. Hardly any of them have ever been in a museum. Nor have they heard of Marcel Proust or Maria Callas; yet all the people you’ll meet in Oblivion are born poets.

The characters in “Oblivion” are either like the waiter, adult veterans of decades of misrule who are reflective about Peruvian realities, or the children who are barely old enough to understand what is happening to them.

Honigmann interviews the waiter at the restaurant where he points out the table that Alan Garcia used to sit at. Notwithstanding the fact that Garcia as a good tipper, his presidency was regarded by the waiter and all other adults in the movie as a complete disaster for working people. This includes a bartender who whips up a Pisco Sour, a kind of national cocktail. As he mixes together the brandy, lime juice, egg whites and native brandy, he reflects on the greed and treachery every president in his lifetime has demonstrated.

She follows the waiter home to his modest home where she continues to interview him and now his wife. She asks her if she has ever been to the restaurant to enjoy the meal that Garcia favored. No, they could not afford it. After a while, the waiter puts on a tape of a local singer from his province in the North, a place he was forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. (Lima has grown 16-fold since the 1950s because of economic hardship in the countryside.) The singer’s lyrics tell a tale of army-inflicted terror on villagers, an obvious reference to the dirty war conducted by Fujimori and something deeply personal to the waiter, two of whose cousins were murdered in his native village.

By coincidence, the movie arrives at the Film Forum just 8 days after former president Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity, as the Washington Post reported:

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was convicted Tuesday of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings by security forces during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.

The verdict, delivered by a three-judge panel on a police base outside Lima where Fujimori has been held throughout the trial, marked the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited back to his home country, tried and convicted of human rights violations.

Human rights activists called it a precedent-setting verdict that upheld the ideal that violent abuses cannot be ignored under the banner of fighting terrorism.

“This is a sentence for all the innocents killed in the dirty war,” said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was among a group taken from a Lima university and executed in 1992 by a military death squad under Fujimori.

While nobody would gainsay the need for punishing Fujimori for his crimes, true justice would require a social and economic transformation of a Peru that has condemned its children to work as beggars in its streets by the thousands. Death by malnutrition or disease is as permanent as one brought on by a soldier’s bayonet.

Despite their hardships, the children in “Oblivion” put on a brave face and do the best they can to survive, if not enjoy their crafts. Clearly, they juggle balls or perform cartwheels in the streets partially for the same reason that other children do so for play. Wearing a big smile, one young girl tells Honigmann that she has dreams to be an Olympics gymnast one day. Perhaps the greatest crime of the permanent Peruvian government that rules on behalf of the white upper classes is that it effectively prevents such dreams from being realized.

I watched “Oblivion” last night after spending an hour preparing a scanned version of José Carlos Mariátegui’s out-of-print “Seven Interpretative Essays of Peruvian Reality” that will eventually be uploaded to the Mariátegui Internet archive. Although Mariátegui was politically active in the 1920s, his critique of Peruvian society would be the same as the waiters and bartenders in Honigmann’s movie. In the 1929 essay titled “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint“, Mariátegui wrote:

In Peru, the white aristocrat and bourgeois scorn the popular and the national. They consider themselves white above all else. The petty bourgeois mestizo imitates their example. The Lima bourgeoisie fraternizes with the Yankee capitalists, even with their mere employees at the Country Club, the Tennis Club, and in the streets. The Yankee can marry the native senorita without the inconvenience of differences in race or religion, and she feels no national or cultural misgivings in preferring marriage with a member of the invading race.

In contrast to the “white aristocrat and bourgeois”, Honigmann demonstrates her affection for and solidarity with the “popular and the national”. For a glimpse into Peruvian reality that rates about as high as any political documentary that I have seen on Latin America, a trip to the Film Forum to see “Oblivion” is very highly recommended.

April 13, 2009

Alex Callinicos reacts to the NPA

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

The latest issue of International Socialism, a quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain, contains Alex Callinicos’s Revolutionary paths: a reply to Panos Garganas and François Sabado.

In the previous issue, Sabado-a member of the NPA in France-had made a number of points in an article about party-building that I am fundamentally in agreement with, especially this:

So in what respect does the new party constitute a change compared to the LCR? It must be a party that is broader than the LCR; a party that does not incorporate the entire history of Trotskyism and that has the ambition of making possible new revolutionary syntheses; a party that is not reduced to the unity of revolutionaries; a party in dialogue with millions of workers and young people; a party that translates its fundamental programmatic references into popular explanations, agitation and formulas. From this point of view, the campaigns of Olivier Besancenot constitute a formidable starting point. It must also be a party that is capable of conducting wide-ranging debates on the fundamental questions which affect society: the crisis of capitalism, global warming, bioethics, etc; a party of activists and adherents, which makes it possible to integrate thousands of young people and workers with their social and political experience, preserving their links with the backgrounds they come from; a pluralist party that brings together a whole series of anti_capitalist currents.

We do not want a second LCR or an enlarged and broader version of the LCR. To make a success of the gamble we are taking, the new party must represent a new political reality, following in the tradition of the revolutionary movement and contributing to inventing the revolutions and the socialism of the 21st century.

Panos Garganas is a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in Greece, a member of the international state capitalist tendency that the British SWP effectively leads. His article summarized the kind of opposition mounted by the state capitalists toward the NPA initiative, which I would liken to a neurotic’s fear of a loss of control-or worse, General Jack D. Ripper’s feelings about fluoride in “Doctor Strangelove”, the fluoride in this case being non-revolutionary ideology:

The mistake that the LCR may make is if they liquidate their organisation once these conditions are met. Even within such a “sharper” radical left it is necessary to maintain revolutionary organisation as a source of education and political initiatives that pushes the rest of the left forward. Indeed a dissolution of the LCR would be a huge concession to the false pluralism that flattens all traditions within the radical left to the same level. The idea that the disputes between left reformists, anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists or Stalinists all belong to the past and that the radical left can make a fresh start by wiping out these “ideological” differences and moving on with current political debates has more to do with liberalism than Marxism. The Italian left has paid a huge price because such ideas predominated in Rifondazione. We should urge the comrades of the LCR not to go for a repeat.

Perhaps better insulated from non-revolutionary germs than the French Trotskyists, Garganas offers up an approach that sounds suspiciously like the one that they have taken:

Throughout the 35 years since the collapse of the Greek Junta the left to the left of these parliamentary parties has existed as a milieu that was powerful enough to attract not one but two mass breakaways from the youth organisations of reformism: the Eurocommunist youth broke en masse to the left in 1979 and the CP youth did the same in 1989, forming the NAR. It is within this context that SEK, our revolutionary socialist organisation, has been trying to regroup the radical left in a way that avoids the twin dangers we are discussing.

In 2007 SEK joined the United Anti-capitalist Left (Enantia) along with four other organisations, including the Greek sister organisation of LCR. Now Enantia is in the process of discussions over a united intervention with the left alliance, Mera, which is led by NAR. The coming months may see a new anti-capitalist left emerge not only in France but in Greece too.

I wish Garganas and his comrades well, but would only urge them to avoid the mistakes made by the British SWP in Respect, mistakes that reflect “vanguardist” thinking although it is doubtful that they understand that this has been a problem. Callinicos’s article continues along the same anxious trajectory set out by his comrade Garganas.

What is obvious from the outset is Callinicos’s tendency to think in terms of categories, a habit no doubt associated with decades spent in the academy. He lays out a kind of political taxonomy:

The most important point to emerge from the discussion is that the general term “radical left formations” encapsulates two quite different types of organisation, even though they are both a product of the radicalisation of the past decade. There are those cases where the level of class struggle and the political traditions of the left make it possible for revolutionary Marxists to unite with others who regard themselves as revolutionaries in new, bigger formations. So far the only example where this has come to fruition is the NPA, whose founding principles, as we shall see below, are in a broad sense revolutionary. Then there are other cases in which the most important break is by forces that reject social liberalism but have not broken with overt reformism-Die Linke in Germany, the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy under both its old and its new leadership, Synaspismos in Greece and some elements in the Left Bloc in Portugal.

So you get the sense from reading this that there is a kind of evolutionary process, with groups like the British SWP at the top of the totem pole being the most advanced. At the bottom of the totem pole is out and out reformist formations like the SP’s and the CP’s. Then you have groups in the middle with traits inherited from the top and the bottom. Die Linke and Rifundazione are closer to the bottom, while the NPA is closer to the top insofar as its founding principles are in a “broad sense” revolutionary, as opposed to being revolutionary in a presumably “narrow sense” like the SWP. As a veteran revolutionary, I’d go with broad any day of the week since I have seen narrow lead to ruin over and over again.

You can see how obsessed Callinicos remains with “impurity”, despite the magnanimous tip of the hat to the NPA, by this:

It remains the case, however, that these parties [NPA] will still have to grapple with the problem of reformism. One of the main lessons of the history of the workers’ movement is that the development of the class struggle, by drawing new layers of workers into class-conscious activity, will tend to expand the base of reformist politics, since seeking to change the existing system seems, initially at least, an attractive halfway house between passive acquiescence in the status quo and outright revolution.

Don’t you love that bit about a halfway house? It suggests that impure, middle-of-the-totem pole formations like the NPA are also in some sense like the institutionalized living arrangements for junkies, prisoners, or the mentally retarded while they become accustomed to living in normal society. And by calling it “attractive”, you can see all the enlightened attempts to make such institutions palatable, like potted plants, shag rugs and travel posters on the wall. Lovely.

To illustrate his point, Callinicos takes his reader through a tour of revolutionary history spanning continents and centuries:

Thus if we consider the great revolutionary experiences of the past century, the Russian working class, after the overthrow of Tsarism, gravitated first to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, not the Bolsheviks. In Germany, thanks to the ingrained experience of reformism and the relative weakness of the far left, it was the Social Democrats and the Independent Socialists who were the first main beneficiaries of the revolution of November 1918. Nor are these experiences confined to the imperialist countries. Consider how the Brazilian Workers Party, which Sabado’s comrades in the Fourth International helped to build in the belief that it was a non-reformist organisation, has become, under the Lula presidency, a pillar of social liberalism.

While it would take far too much time and space to fully refute the faulty logic and poor grasp of the facts in the assertions above, we can state first of all that there was not much difference politically between the Bolsheviks and their rivals in the early days of the Russian Revolution, as evidenced by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin’s opposition to the April Theses. In fact, if Lenin had died in a train wreck en route to the Finland Station, it is doubtful whether there would have been an October revolution. This does not even address the question of the relevance of 1917 to politics in West Europe today, in which there is no massive working-class movement poised to take state power. As we used to say in the American SWP, revolutionary politics is a bit like pregnancy. If you don’t know whether you are in the 3rd month or the 9th month, you will likely end up with an abortion. The American SWP sadly confirmed this through their own praxis since the 1980s until now.

But more importantly, even if you have absorbed the “lessons of history” and the need for a revolutionary party, what assurances do you have that such a party must be built on the basis of the British SWP, which implicitly defines itself as an alternative to the “halfway houses” of what really amounts to what Trotsky called “centrism”.

Although the term “centrism” is never mentioned, as far as I know, in Callinicos and company’s polemics, there is a strong sense that they are acting as if they were Leon Trotsky trying to straighten out the POUM, or other organizations associated with what was once called the Second and a Half International. The assumption has always been that a rock-solid, germ-resistant program can form the foundation of a revolutionary party-in the case of the British SWP amounting to a proper grasp of state capitalist theory. My conclusion, however, is that the search for such a prophylactic program leads to sect-formation, not revolutions. All credit is due to the NPA for finally dumping this methodology.

Callinicos also-rather unwisely in my estimation-continues to defend the “united front” electoral perspective that led to the disaster in Respect:

But a radical left party is like a united front of the classical kind in that it brings together politically heterogeneous forces. This is partly a consequence of the relatively open character of such parties’ programmes, which generally finesse the alternatives of reform or revolution (though this not true of the NPA). More profoundly, however, it reflects the character of a period in which it is possible to draw people from a reformist background into parties of the radical left where revolutionaries play an important role. The programmatic openness (what Sabado would call the “incomplete strategic delimitation”) of these parties reflects the recognition that it would be a mistake to make membership conditional on breaking with reformism. This stance is correct, but the price is a degree of political heterogeneity.

Callinicos continues to miss the point. United fronts were conceived by Lenin and Trotsky as temporary partnerships between Communists and non-Communist workers parties to participate in actions around specific goals, such as strike support, opposing fascist violence, etc. It was never conceived as a party-building initiative. Most importantly for the case of Respect, it is meaningless to describe the goals of non-SWP members (except for self-avowed Marxists such as Andy Newman et al) as “reformist”, especially when it comes to the rank-and-file Muslim member. Reformism is an ideology that is associated with a rather hardened, if not calcified, veteran of the socialist movement.

For example, Max Shachtman and Jay Lovestone in the early 1960s were reformists. But a Muslim cabdriver or shopkeeper who joins Respect on the basis that the party is standing up to Islamophobia, war and social injustice is not a “reformist” even if he is unlikely to have ever read the Communist Manifesto, or having read it, agree with its main tenets. The British SWP should have tried to figure out a way to work in a milieu where such people are in the majority, but with their Manichean divisions between “revolutionary” and “reformist”, I doubt that this would have been possible even with generous amounts of time spent in sensitivity training.

April 12, 2009

Trotsky on revolutionary art

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

(For reasons not entirely clear to me, my review of Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn” has touched off a lengthy debate on art and politics. I would invite those who have some stake in the discussion to have a look at this article I wrote some years ago before I began blogging.)

Trotsky on revolutionary art

There is a dialectical tension in Trotsky’s writings on art and revolution that ultimately are rooted in some of the most fundamental questions of our epoch. Rather than addressing peripheral matters of “style,” they really are about the possibilities for cultural as well as material progress in the epoch of imperialism. Time after time, on email discussion lists and in print journals, I am confronted by a version of Marxism that holds out the somewhat ahistorical possibility that capitalism can continue to have the sort of progressive tendencies described so breathlessly in some passages of the Communist Manifesto.

Against this position, I find convincing evidence all around me that no such tendencies exist today. The evidence is not just contained in the deepening ecological crisis, but in the state of culture both high and low. Christopher Caudwell wrote “Studies in a Dying Culture” in the 1930s. If he had not been cut down in his prime by fascist bullets in Spain, we can be sure that he would have followed up with “Studies in a Dead Culture” in the 1940s or 50s.

In many ways, Trotsky approached the question of art and culture in a classic Marxist manner, which is to say that he viewed socialism as being linked to previous stages in civilization, especially the period of bourgeois hegemony. This view came to the fore during the NEP in his debate with the “prolekult” tendency, which called for a pure working-class art untainted by bourgeois culture. In keeping with the hard-headed realism of the NEP, Trotsky replied that “our epoch is not yet an epoch of new culture, but only the entrance to it. We must, first of all, take possess on, politically, of the most important elements of the old culture, to such an extent, at least, as to be able to pave the way for a new future.” He calls for imparting “to the backward masses… the essential elements of the culture which already exists.” “What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.”

Appreciation for bourgeois culture was not limited to its “civilizing” role in the infant Soviet republic. In 1905, Trotsky wrote a passionate appreciation of Tolstoy on the 80th birthday of the great novelist, whose world revolved around wealthy agrarian aristocrats and who rejected socialist modernity. It amounts to a defense of the right to create great art, regardless of the ideological content.

Trotsky’s defense of high art appealed to intellectuals in the west, who were repelled by the excesses of socialist realism, Stalin’s own version of “prolekult.” While most of the artists in this milieu had opted for the avant-garde rather than the sort of formalism T.S. Eliot represented, there certainly was agreement between anti-Stalinist and many anti-Communists about the need to defend bourgeois culture against bureaucratic attacks. When Hitler or Stalin went on the attack against “decadent art,” these intellectuals signed petitions and wrote letters of protest.

After Abstract Expressionism was co-opted by the American State Department, the lines of demarcation between Trotskyist-influenced artists and critics, and T.S. Eliot-influenced reactionaries began to blur. The Partisan Review, which had been a stronghold of Trotskyist politics and aesthetics, took up the cause of the New Critics and the reactionary agrarian poets of the American south, who had been influenced by Eliot.

Trotsky’s thinking, as should be the case for all serious Marxists, was filled with contradictory impulses. This is because objective reality is complex and the human mind must be able to grapple with dynamic processes in bourgeois society whose ultimate direction can not be fully known in advance. In terms of culture and art, Trotsky was becoming deeply pessimistic in the late 1930s about the “civilizing” role of high art as fascism marched forward. In a manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art,” addressed to a project begun by surrealist Andre Breton and muralist Diego Rivera, Trotsky worried over the total demise of civilization:

We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced so seriously as today. The Vandals, with instruments which were barbarous, and so comparatively ineffective, blotted out the culture of antiquity in one corner of Europe. But today we see world civilization, united in its historic destiny, reeling under the blows of reactionary forces armed with the entire arsenal of modern technology. We are by no means thinking only of the world war that draws near. Even in times of ‘peace’ the position of art and science has become absolutely intolerable.

In the contemporary world we must recognize the ever more widespread destruction of those conditions under which intellectual creation is possible. From this follows of necessity an increasingly manifest degradation not only of the work of art but also of the especially artistic ‘personality.’ The regime of Hitler, now that it has rid Germany of all those artists whose work expressed the slightest sympathy for liberty, however superficial, has reduced those who still consent to take up pen or brush to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task it is to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions.

Despite their stylistic differences, what united Ben Shahn and the Abstract Expressionists was a belief that their art and the war aims of US imperialism were both in defense of “civilization” against what Trotsky called the Vandals. The United Nations symbolized the hopes of the WWII generation. Not only would Hitlerite barbarism be staved off, agencies like UNESCO would help to create the infrastructure for new artistic initiatives.

Now that we are fifty years past the defeat of Hitler and on the eve of a new millenium, it is time for a detached and cool reassessment of the “civilizing” possibilities of US imperialism. This week the NY Times revealed that over 200,000 Mayan villagers in Guatemala were slaughtered during the 1980s with the assistance of the CIA. Guatemala has only 12 million souls. Imagine a bloodbath in the United States that would have left one out of sixty people dead. When Ward Churchill spoke at the Brecht Forum a few months ago, he said that from an Indian’s standpoint, the present government of the United States appears as if the Nazis would had they been victors in WWII.

Isn’t it about time that we began to view the capitalist system in the United States with the kind of fundamental hatred and determination to get rid of it that united artists and intellectuals of the 1930s against fascism?

Furthermore, it is in the arena of culture that this latest version of Vandalism seems most vulnerable. The illusions that the Abstract Expressionists had in the civilizing beneficence of American society seem quaint nowadays. The signs are all around us of a culture whose ruling class has lost all ability to either support or inspire high or popular art. Some examples drawn at random:

–The NY Times runs article after article about the crisis in classical music, while its FM station plays nothing but short dribs and drabs of the most banal war-horses, with ads for Volvos and vacations in the Bahamas taking up at least ten percent of every hour of air-time.

–The Whitney Museum’s biennials of current art have become the laughing stock of the critical community and for good reasons. As clients of the ruling class who fund them, these artists lack inspiration and technique, thusly mirroring the barbarism of their benefactors. Their half-hearted attempts at radical criticism embody the postmodernist sensibility and naturally defy any attempt by ordinary people to identify with their messages buried in irony and kitsch.

–Hollywood is at the end of its tether. The golden age of cinema is finished, as the post-WWII generation has either died or retired. Films today are the product of the accountant’s spreadsheet and are based entirely on demographics. Screenwriters are drawn from the world of television and demonstrate all of the vapidity of the medium.

The decline of culture is tied up with the decline of capitalist civilization. Attempts to reform art are doomed to futility, just as attempts to make the media more accountable are doomed. There are structural impediments that are insurmountable.

A radical critique of bourgeois society can not be limited to problems of unemployment and war, as serious as these matters are. The loss of beauty and spirituality (yes, I chose that word specifically) are also oppressive. If the ecological crisis can cause the disappearance of blue-fin tunas or the orangutan, two of the most sublime animals in the world, we must take up arms against that crisis. A world devoid of all species except homo sapiens, his household pets, crows, and rats hardly seems worth living in.

By the same token, the inability of this culture to foster the environment necessary for what Trotsky called the “artistic personality” condemns it. What Trotsky did not spell out is that the “artistic personality” includes each and every one of us. To enjoy art as well as to create it requires a total transformation of the way society is organized.

April 9, 2009

Rescue Dawn

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Out of curiosity, I watched Werner Herzog’s 2006 movie “Rescue Dawn” on Showtime the other night. This is a movie based on Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966 that I could not help but lump in with similar efforts involving Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I then watched Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Dieter Dengler Needs to Fly” on Neflix online (my first stab at this-not bad all in all), his first stab at glorifying a killer in uniform.

As many of you probably know, Werner Herzog has an attraction to the grotesque that is only exceeded by David Lynch’s. Additionally, both have questionable politics. Lynch was a Reaganite, but it is difficult to detect any kind of political statement in his movies. For his part, Herzog claims to be above politics but when it comes to the wars in Nicaragua and Vietnam, his films clearly had a rightwing tilt even if they are couched in his peculiar aesthetic.

“Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a fairly worshipful view of the German child who decided to become a pilot after watching an American fighter pilot coming in to blast his home town in Germany in 1945. It is clear that Dengler has his priorities screwed up. Most children would be horrified by such a sight, but he was transfixed so much so that he came to the U.S. as a teenager to join the air force, as war-ravaged Germany had not yet created its own.

After joining the air force, he learns that his duties will not include learning to fly. Undaunted, he goes to college in order to help smooth the way toward his next bid at flying, this time in the U.S. Navy in 1965 at the start of the Vietnam War. Herzog claims that his movies about Dengler make no political statement because his subject had no intention of getting involved in fighting and assumed that the war would be over in months. Clearly, Herzog had little interest in bothering about ancillary issues such as the right of Vietnam to live in peace since they would only interfere with his mission to make the ultimate adventure story.

In a way, “Rescue Dawn” could never meet the expectations of the typical Chuck Norris fan (like Mike Hucklebee) since it is so imbued with Herzog’s mannerisms and oddball sensibility. Typically, he cast Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler. As a latter-day Anthony Perkins, Bale is the first actor casting actors will call if they are looking to fill the role of some lunatic or other.

Herzog must have decided that he would be right for the role since Bale had lost 63 pounds in order to play the deranged hero of “The Machinist”. In striving for verisimilitude, Herzog had his actors lose weight to play the captive American pilots. The Thai actors playing Air America (the CIA air company, not the liberal radio network) prisoners all had the good sense to maintain proper food intake. Just to show how gung-ho he was for the role, Bale eats live maggots direct from a bowl in one of the movie’s more unpleasant scenes.

Bale has garnered quite a reputation as a madman on the set as well, making him quite a match for Herzog. During the filming of the latest Terminator movie, he threw a tantrum when a lighting technician got on his wrong side.

Perhaps the most off-putting and least realistic aspect of “Rescue Dawn” is the treatment of the captors, who are rendered as over-the-top grotesques. The ringleader has hair down to his shoulders in a look that evokes the villains in Jackie Chan movies from the late ’90s rather than Communist guerrillas. One of his henchmen is a martial arts devotee who periodically flails at unseen enemies for no apparent reason. Another is a perpetually grinning dwarf who seems oblivious to everything, most of all the fact that a war is going on. Like David Lynch, Herzog seems to have a thing for dwarfs. In 1970 he made something called “Even Dwarfs Started Small” that depicted dwarfs in a mental institution run by other dwarfs. Although I have not seen it, it supposedly has a grand climax in which the rebel inmates uproot a palm tree, burn flowers, kill a pig, crucify a monkey and hurl live chickens against the guy in charge. One critic feels that Herzog was trying to make a statement about the 1968 student revolt. Whatever.

In order to increase the alienation effect, Herzog does not bother to use subtitles when the guards are shouting at the prisoners. This means that the audience will not be discomfited by the enemy telling their captors why they are being mistreated. Who would want to hear something like this? “Take that, you killer. Your fucking napalm killed my wife and our five kids.”

Despite his best (or worst, perhaps) intentions, Herzog did not endear himself to people connected to the prisoners, including the brother of prisoner Gene DeBruin. (Dengler died in 2001 so he would not be able to comment.) He set up a website called Rescue Dawn: the Truth that takes exception to his brother being portrayed as “an uncaring, deranged and derelict Charles Manson type entity, devoid of humanity.” What was he expecting? After all, this was not a Chuck Norris movie.

This was not the first time that Herzog cooked up an ostensibly rightwing propaganda piece that was undone by his unwillingness to settle for the pat. In 1984 he made “Ballad of the Little Soldier” on behalf of the Miskito counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The movie can be seen on Youtube in five parts and all but the last part consists of Miskitos denouncing the FSLN as a bunch of Communist killers. Herzog made no attempt, of course, to get the other side of the story.

But the last part, an interview with 10 or 11 year old Miskito soldiers in training, undermines any attempt to build blind loyalty to their cause. Their instructor tells Herzog, “This is the best age for training. Their minds are clean, not corrupt yet, we can teach them.” Denis Reichle, Herzog’s co-director who apparently is not as gung-ho as Herzog, tells the instructor: “You mean you can brainwash them.” The instructor replies, “Yes, we can brainwash them and show them the reality of why they are fighting today.”

Coming full circle to the end of WWII, when young Dieter was discovering the need to fly, Reichle tells the camera that the young trainees remind him of the German children who put on Nazi uniforms and carried weapons in the final months of WWII.

April 8, 2009

Herman Melville’s “The ‘Gees”

Filed under: african-american,indigenous,literature,racism — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm


As a long-time enthusiastic but amateur Melville scholar, I was intrigued by David Roediger’s reference to the short story “The ‘Gees” that appears in his newly published “How Race Survived U.S. History”, a book that I will be reviewing. Roediger views this story as a satire on mid-19th century ethnology, which for all intents and purposes was nothing but scientific racism. He cites Carolyn Karcher’s article “The ‘Gees: a Forgotten Satire on Scientific Racism” that appeared in the October 1975 American Quarterly. Having had a chance to read the Melville story and Karcher’s article, it really broadens my understanding of mid-19th century racist ideology and Melville’s exemplary struggle against it.

The ‘Gees were a fictional people that Melville describes using the language of the ethnologists he was satirizing:

In relating to my friends various passages of my sea-goings, I have at times had occasion to allude to that singular people the ‘Gees, sometimes as casual acquaintances, sometimes as shipmates. Such allusions have been quite natural and easy. For instance, I have said The two ‘Gees, just as another would say The two Dutchmen, or The two Indians. In fact, being myself so familiar with ‘Gees, it seemed as if all the rest of the world must be. But not so. My auditors have opened their eyes as much as to say, “What under the sun is a ‘Gee?” To enlighten them I have repeatedly had to interrupt myself, and not without detriment to my stories. To remedy which inconvenience, a friend hinted the advisability of writing out some account of the ‘Gees, and having it published. Such as they are, the following memoranda spring from that happy suggestion:

The word “Gee (g hard) is an abbreviation, by seamen, of Portuguese, the corrupt form of Portuguese. As the name is a curtailment, so the race is a residuum. Some three centuries ago certain Portuguese convicts were sent as a colony to Fogo, one of the Cape de Verdes, off the northwest coast of Africa, an island previously stocked with an aboriginal race of negroes, ranking pretty high in incivility, hut rather low in stature and morals. In course of time, from the amalgamated generation all the likelier sort were drafted off as food for powder, and the ancestors of the since called ‘Gees were left as the caput mortuum, or melancholy remainder.

The ‘Gee is a capitalist’s dream since he is totally indifferent to wages. Melville writes:

Though for a long time back no stranger to the seafaring people of Portugal, the ‘Gee, until a comparatively recent period, remained almost undreamed of by seafaring Americans. It is now some forty years since he first became known to certain masters of our Nantucket ships, who commenced the practice of touching at Fogo, on the outward passage, there to fill up vacancies among their crews arising from the short supply of men at home. By degrees the custom became pretty general, till now the ‘Gee is found aboard of almost one whaler out of three. One reason why they are in request is this: An unsophisticated ‘Gee coming on board a foreign ship never asks for wages. He comes for biscuit. He does not know what other wages mean, unless cuffs and buffets be wages, of which sort he receives a liberal allowance, paid with great punctuality, besides perquisites of punches thrown in now and then. But for all this, some persons there are, and not unduly biassed by partiality to him either, who still insist that the ‘Gee never gets his due.

Despite the lowly station of the Gees, there are possibilities for his improvement as Melville reflects in the next-to-last-paragraph:

As yet, the intellect of the ‘Gee has been little cultivated. No well-attested educational experiment has been tried upon him. It is said, however, that in the last century a young ‘Gee was by a visionary Portuguese naval officer sent to Salamanca University. Also, among the Quakers of Nantucket, there has been talk of sending five comely ‘Gees, aged sixteen, to Dartmouth College; that venerable institution, as is well known, having been originally founded partly with the object of finishing off wild Indians in the classics and higher mathematics. Two qualities of the ‘Gee which, with his docility, may be justly regarded as furnishing a hopeful basis for his intellectual training, is his excellent memory, and still more excellent credulity.

Karcher’s article is an exhaustive close reading of Melville’s all too brief story, as one might expect from someone academically trained. Her main point is that the ‘Gees are a symbol for African-American slaves and the American Indians, both of whom were “studied” by ethnologists with an eye toward justifying their exploitation and oppression. Karcher puts Melville’s story in its historical context:

To understand Melville’s mock ethnological treatise, we must familiarize ourselves with the intellectual background. Ethnology, as one prominent authority, Dr. Josiah C. Nott of Mobile, Alabama, defined its aims, sought to “know what was the primitive organic structure of each race?-what such race’s moral and psychical character-how far a race may have been, or may become, modified by the combined action of time and moral and physical causes?-and what position in the social scale Providence has assigned to each type of man?: In practice this meant that ethnologists traced the physical attributes that distinguished the various races of men from each other to the very genesis of the human species, even postulating a separate creation for each race; that they extrapolated intrinsic moral and intellectual properties from the physical differences they observed; that they assumed the quasi-permanence of both physical and psychological characteristics; that they ranked the races of men according to ethnocentric standards of beauty and innate intelligence which allegedly entitled each race to a particular station in life-the Anglo-Saxon at the top and the Negro at the bottom.

Roediger spends a couple of pages discussing Samuel Cartwright, one of the more odious practitioners of scientific racism. A physician based in the South, Cartwright tried to explain the racial differences that justified one group dominating another. He discovered a mental disorder common among slaves called drapetomania–the desire to flee from servitude. There was also Dysaethesia aethiopica, a disease “affecting both mind and body” that explained the apparent lack of work ethic among slaves.

Believe it or not, scientific racism did not disappear with the abolition of slavery. Evidence of it can be found in the earliest volumes of the prestigious Foreign Affairs, which began life as the Journal of Race Development in 1911. In its premier issue, you could read articles with these titles:

–The point of view toward primitive races.

–The origin of the polynesian race.

–A worthy example of the influence of a strong man upon the development of racial character.

All of these articles are laced with paternalistic, social Darwinist language that is enough to make you throw up.

Roediger also has a fascinating discussion of Herbert Hoover, who was as inept at understanding the genuine science of homo sapiens as he was in combating the effects of the Great Depression. As a mining engineer, he was disposed to see racial hierarchies everywhere mining companies went to steal resources using indigenous labor.

Our good friend Michael Perelman also took note of Hoover’s racism in “The End of Economics”:

Hoover’s racism, especially in his early years as a mining engineer, was legendary. For example, he regarded Asians and Negroes as “working labor of a low mental order.” He estimated that on the average “one white man equals two or three of the colored races, even in the simplest forms of mine work. In the most highly skilled branches…the average order is one to seven, or in extreme cases, even eleven.”

Just a final word on Melville and the problem of racism. Lest anybody assume that the short story under examination here was prejudice rather than satire, Melville was on record as opposing racism using forthright language not subject to misinterpretation. Although he was never quite as much in demand as Mark Twain, Melville did make the lecture circuit talking about a subject very close to his heart, the peoples of the South Seas-in other words, the real ‘Gees.

Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes about one such lecture from a “phonographist” (stenographer, basically) from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas? His reply:

Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside–splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.

April 7, 2009

Wonders are Many

Filed under: Film,music,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Now available from Netflix, the documentary “Wonders Are Many” is a behind the scenes look at John Adams’s opera “Doctor Atomic”, which premiered at the San Francisco opera house on October 1, 2005. It allows both Adams and director Peter Sellars to explain their various artistic decisions as well as providing background on the Los Alamos project and its chief administrator Robert Oppenheimer, the “doctor atomic” upon whom the opera is based.

John Adams

John Adams has been grouped with Philip Glass and Steve Reich as a leading minimalist composer, although I find his music to be a bit more complex and traditional in some ways. Adams is somewhat younger than Glass and Reich and his music has been described as post-minimalist. What distinguishes Adams from other composers is his focus on politics. His first opera, written in 1987, was “Nixon Goes to China”. It was described as “coy and insubstantial” in the New York Times but was most notable, in my opinion, for its music.

It was his next opera, however, that drew so much controversy that he was widely described as “anti-Semitic”. The 1991 “The Death of Klinghoffer” was viewed as impermissibly tolerant of Palestinian terror, although-as was the case with the first opera-the primary motivation would be more about moral drama rather than agitation. In December 2001, Richard Taruskin wrote an article in the New York Times defending the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to remove choruses from the opera from a scheduled recital:

Announcing that it preferred “to err on the side of being sensitive,” the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently canceled its scheduled performances of choruses from “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the notoriously controversial opera — masterminded by the director Peter Sellars, with a libretto by the poet Alice Goodman and a score by John Adams — that re-enacts and comments on the murder of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the fall of 1985.

For thus showing forbearance and discretion, the Boston Symphony has taken some pies in the face. In an exceptionally vulgar rant that appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, the arts columnist David Wiegand, enraged at what he perceived as a slight to Mr. Adams (a Bay Area luminary), wrote, “There is something deeply wrong when a nation galvanizes its forces, its men and women, its determination and its resolve, to preserve the right of the yahoos at the Boston Symphony Orchestra to decide to spare its listeners something that might challenge them or make them think.” What nation had done this? And why shouldn’t people be spared reminders of recent personal pain when they attend a concert?

The libretto of “Doctor Atomic” draws heavily from declassified U.S. government documents, as well as communications by scientists, government officials, and military personnel involved in the project. During rehearsals we see Adams trying to coach the singers into drawing the maximum impact from what often sounds like pages from a physics or engineering textbook. The chorus sings:

We surround the plutonium core
from thirty two points
spaced equally around its surface,
the thirty-two points
are the centers of the
twenty triangular faces
of an icosahedron
interwoven with the
twelve pentagonal faces
of a dodecahedron.
We squeeze the sphere.
Bring the atoms closer.
Til the subcritical mass
goes supercritical.
We disturb the stable nucleus.

John Adams’s long-time collaborator Peter Sellars is seen rehearsing the performers until the very day the opera debuts. Sellars is a fascinating character who with his cartoonish haircut and floral-print shirts looks like a character that Martin Short would have a good time imitating. Sellars is nobody to laugh at, however, when it comes the intersection of art and politics.

Peter Sellars

Musing on Oppenheimer’s tragedy, Sellars believes that he was seduced by the power elite in top government and military circles to do their bidding even when he probably knew that he was involved in a major war crime. Sellars says that he understands how that happens, having been a frequent guest at the White House in earlier years, something he tells the camera that he gave up on long ago.

In an address given to Australian television in 1999, Sellars talked about Cultural Activism in the New Century:

The main thing of course is this question of how do we deal with people, things, aspects of life that do object to us, people who actually want to kill you, people who have a very different idea of what the right next thing to do in life would be, people who in short are not like us. People who you know we tell ourselves they’re terrorists, they’re this, they’re that, we have our names for why we won’t deal with them. But here they are, they’re not going anywhere, and maybe we’re the ones that need to go somewhere. This question of how it is we take in that thing which is most opposed to us and who we are, who we think we might be, and that who we might be, who we think we might be part is maybe a conclusion we reached prematurely, maybe there is more to come in our lives, and maybe too early on we accepted a certain identity, and maybe life has something larger in store.

Are we open to that, or are we closed to that? Every day the entire world is knocking trying to change your life and say wait a minute, you have no clue yet. And if you’re living well the challenges get more and more frightening.

What I’m really interested in is theatre and artistic practice as a way forward in a period where shall we say the major international issue is security, where the banking system was set up on the basis of security, where a whole series of things were told national security requirement, and of course the surprise is there is no security. The Bank of Australia has demonstrated that very profoundly. Life isn’t about security at all, something else has been prepared for us.

I attended this last week here in Adelaide a very powerful show about the working class and whether we’re afraid of it or not. And of course I took that very personally because coming to direct the Adelaide Festival where it says on every number-plate, ‘South Australia the Festival State’, and you say ok we have a cultural obligation to participate in the lives of everyone with a bumper. What role are we playing in the lives of working class people? What role are we playing in the lives of working class people who are for example out of work? Human productivity is a cultural question before it’s an economic one. What does it mean that people are motivated and empowered to create, to shape their environment, to shape their destiny instead of simply respond to conditions that are imposed?

At what point does one engage at the root of a problem what it means when we say depression? Depression is an economic term, it’s a very powerful term at the end of this century. I come from a country that has the best economy it has ever had in its history. The American economy dominates 50 per cent of the world economy, and these are the good times. Now how is it that in the good times just about once a week there is a massacre in an American city. Just about once a week now. Your kids are trying to kill each other. And you can drop bombs anywhere you like all over the world because you have no official enemies left who can tell you to stop except your own kids, except the person next door who takes out a sawn-off shotgun. A culture of violence, it is so deep.

“Doctor Atomic” is now available on DVD, alas only in Blu-Ray, something that I suppose I will invest in after a while. For those of you who own Blu-Ray gear, I urge you to pick up the opera which sells for about 40 dollars. And if you are interested in art and politics, you should definitely rent the documentary “Wonders are Many” from Netflix. That presumably includes everybody who reads this blog.

Learning from history

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,repression — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

Doctors attached to various torture centers intervene after every session to put the tortured back into condition for new sessions. Under the circumstances, the important thing is for the prisoner…to remain alive. Everything – heart stimulants, massive doses of vitamins-is used before, during, and after sessions to keep the Algerian hovering between life and death. Ten times the doctor intervenes, ten times he gives the prisoner back to the pack of torturers.

–Frantz Fanon, “A Dying Colonialism”, p. 138

* * * *

Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of “The Battle of Algiers,” the film that in the late 1960’s was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director’s sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city’s old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon’s showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” (The New York Times, September 7, 2003)

* * * *

Bush’s favorite historian

British author Alistair Horne explains what Pinochet, Sharon and Bush have all taken from his work, why peace means getting rid of the priests, and why Iraq is the wrong war in the wrong place.

By Gary Kamiya

May. 08, 2007 | Sir Alistair Horne may be the only author in the world whose books have been read and praised by George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon and Robert Fisk. Not to mention by much of the senior military staff of the U.S. Army, Middle East scholars, State Department policy wonks, and realpolitik statesmen. The distinguished British historian, author of 18 books, became the talk of the U.S. chattering classes when it was revealed that President Bush was reading his classic account of the 1954-1962 Algerian War, “A Savage War of Peace.” Indeed, Bush was so impressed with “A Savage War of Peace” that he invited Horne to come to the White House for tea and a talk last Thursday.

“He wrote me the most charming handwritten letter, said he was very interested in my books, and wanted to know more. He said ‘A Savage War of Peace’ has been most useful. I was quite stunned,” said Horne.

* * * *

NY Times, April 7, 2009

Report Outlines Medical Workers’ Role in Torture


WASHINGTON – Medical personnel were deeply involved in the abusive interrogation of terrorist suspects held overseas by the Central Intelligence Agency, including torture, and their participation was a “gross breach of medical ethics,” a long-secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded.

Based on statements by 14 prisoners who belonged to Al Qaeda and were moved to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in late 2006, Red Cross investigators concluded that medical professionals working for the C.I.A. monitored prisoners undergoing waterboarding, apparently to make sure they did not drown. Medical workers were also present when guards confined prisoners in small boxes, shackled their arms to the ceiling, kept them in frigid cells and slammed them repeatedly into walls, the report said.

Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.”

At times, according to the detainees’ accounts, medical workers “gave instructions to interrogators to continue, to adjust or to stop particular methods.”

The Red Cross report was completed in 2007. It was obtained by Mark Danner, a journalist who has written extensively about torture, and posted Monday night with an article by Mr. Danner on the Web site of The New York Review of Books. Much of its contents were revealed in a March article by Mr. Danner and in a 2008 book, “The Dark Side,” by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, but the reporting of the Red Cross investigators’ conclusions on medical ethics and other issues are new.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, told investigators that when he was waterboarded, his pulse and oxygen level were monitored, and that a medical attendant stopped the procedure on several occasions.

Another prisoner, Walid bin Attash, who had previously had a leg amputated, said that when he was forced for days to stand with his arms shackled above his head, a health worker periodically measured the swelling in his intact leg and eventually ordered that he be allowed to sit.

The report does not indicate whether the medical workers at the C.I.A. sites were physicians, other professionals or both. Other sources have said that psychologists helped design and run the C.I.A. interrogation program, that physicians’ assistants and former military paramedics worked regularly in it, and that physicians were involved at times.

By policy, the Red Cross, the chief independent monitor of detention conditions around the world, keeps its reports to governments confidential to encourage officials to grant access to prisoners. Bernard Barrett, a spokesman for the organization in Washington, declined on Monday to comment on the report, adding, “We deplore that confidential material attributed to the I.C.R.C. was made public.”

Mark Mansfield, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that because of the Red Cross’s confidentiality policy, he would not comment on the report. He said that President Obama had prohibited all government interrogators from using techniques apart from the noncoercive methods in the Army Field Manual, and that the new C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, “has taken decisive steps to ensure that the C.I.A. abides by the president’s executive orders.”

Mr. Mansfield added, however, that Mr. Panetta “has stated repeatedly that no one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished.” The C.I.A.’s interrogation methods were declared legal by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush.

In its 40-page report, the Red Cross roundly condemned the C.I.A. detention program not only for using torture and other cruel treatment, but also for holding prisoners without notice to governments or families.

“The totality of the circumstances in which the 14 were held effectively amounted to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearance, in contravention of international law,” said the report, which was provided to the C.I.A. acting general counsel, John Rizzo, in February 2007.

Shortly after taking office in January, Mr. Obama ordered the C.I.A. secret detention program closed and directed that the Red Cross be promptly informed of every person detained by the C.I.A. or any other agency.

The report also provided new details of the Bush administration’s failure to cooperate for several years with the Red Cross’s inquiries and investigations of American detention programs. Repeated inquiries and reports from the organization beginning in 2002 received no response from American officials, the report said, though the United States sent a diplomatic message addressing some inquiries in 2005.

M. Gregg Bloche, a Georgetown University law professor, who also trained as a psychiatrist and is now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago law school, called the report’s findings “a disturbing confirmation of our worst fears about medical professionals’ involvement in directing and modulating cruel treatment and torture.”

Another critic of medical involvement in harsh interrogation, Dr. Steven H. Miles, a physician at the Center for Bioethics of the University of Minnesota, said he had counted about 70 cases worldwide after World War II in which physicians were punished for participating in torture or related crimes. Most were in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, he said. None have been in the United States.

Dr. Miles said that in recent decades, torture had almost always involved medical professionals, and that to deter future misconduct, the medical role in the C.I.A. program should be fully disclosed.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.