Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 16, 2010

Newsreels about African national independence from the Soviet archives

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

Thomas Campbell

Last Sunday I saw five newsreels about newly independent African nations made in the USSR in the 1960s, which were procured from the Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk. The films were part of the 2010 African Film Festival at Lincoln Center.

They were of special interest to me for two reasons. Firstly, the subtitles were written by Thomas Campbell, a Marxism list subscriber based in Russia who I have high regard for. Secondly, I had more than the average interest in the problems of such countries, having been part of a Tecnica delegation that met with ANC leaders in exile back in 1990. It became clear that many of the ANC cadre had spent time in Soviet universities, especially those who had dual membership in the South African Communist Party.

This was at the twilight of Soviet Communism and one of the few signs of international solidarity that had never been fully eradicated. Ironically, one of the driving forces behind perestroika was to bring such outreach programs, including substantial foreign aid without strings attached, to a conclusion. A couple of years before I made the trip to Africa, when I was working at Goldman Sachs, I was chatting with a Russian Jew who was working there as a consultant. (Eventually he lost his gig since he passed a printout of Goldman accounts to a stockbroker buddy. He liked to regale me with stories about Russian-Jewish gangsters out in Brighton Beach, including one about a guy getting shot in the knee at a nightclub.)

He was not as fanatically anti-Communist as the other programmers with a similar background, but he had two complaints. One was that he had “Jewish” stamped on his identity papers. This bothered him to no end because he felt more Russian than anything. (Another Russian-Jewish programmer related to CPUSA leader Charles Ruthenberg once told me that the best thing that the USSR ever did was marginalize organized religion, including Judaism.) The other complaint was that the USSR was wasting all its money on “the Africans”. He may have used the word “nigger”, but I can’t remember.

The movies were a poignant reminder of when Communism was still an official ideology. Despite the clumsiness of the narration, and despite its obvious official nature, there is still something heartfelt about it.

This is especially true of the first movie that deals with the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba. You see him giving his famous June 30, 1960 Independence Day speech:

We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.

This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory. We have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, or to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us.

We have known ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes. Who will forget that to a black one said “tu”, certainly not as to a friend, but because the more honorable “vous” was reserved for whites alone?

Going from the sublime to the nearly ridiculous, there’s a movie about the visit of a delegation of parliamentarians from the newly independent nation of Cameroon to the USSR that is much more about the USSR than Cameroon. We learn nothing about the African nation but learn enough about Soviet electrification and irrigation techniques to last a lifetime. Flowers are presented back and forth; the Africans take part in a folk dance with Soviet children; etc. The best thing to be said about this film is that it illustrates how clumsy Soviet propaganda could be.

Much more interesting were those about Mali, Senegal and Chad that had also become independent. These were films with a strong anti-imperialist edge that decried the slave trade and the continuing presence of neo-colonialism.

Of particular interest was the impact of the commercial peanut business in such countries that robbed land and water from the native population. This was the first time that I had heard about the role of this crop which was used as input to the cooking oil business in Europe, as well as other imperialist corporations. It would appear that just as palm oil plantations are devastating East Asia today, so did the peanut plantations lay waste to Africa for generations. As soon as I find some time, I plan to learn more about this seemingly innocuous crop that had been the subject of investigation by George Washington Carver, an African-American who all schoolchildren in the United States learned about in grade school.

I will conclude with these words from Thomas Campbell. It will give you a good idea of how a young person came to Marxism in a time when it was rumored to be dead. At the age of 65 and feeling frailer than ever after eye surgery, I get a real lift from seeing the new generation in action. I am fairly sure I won’t be around to see the big battalions of the working class rising up to confront their class enemy, but am deeply grateful to see the advanced guard of sharpshooters struggling for every inch of territory today.

From Thomas:

I first came to Russia in 1994 as an undergrad from UW (Seattle). I studied Russian language and literature for a year at the Herzen Institute here in Petersburg, where I finished my honor’s thesis on a long poem by Joseph Brodsky. I have been here (with breaks for grad school and a two-year stint back home in Minnesota) on and off for fifteen years. I am married to a local gal, work as a teacher and translator/editor, and spend lots of time doing various things with the local (formerly) underground arts community. Nowadays I’m more involved with that part of it that began politicizing in a leftist direction in the early part of this decade, especially the Chto Delat group, whose English-language blog (http://www.chtodelat.org/) I edit. I’m also involved with the Street University, a loose, mostly leftist grouping that initially formed to defend the European University after it was (briefly) closed in 2008, but has since taken on a life of its own, as well as the coalition of leftist and liberal groups that are defending this stunning city from destructive redevelopment. I’ve also recently started doing reports on the trade union movement in Russia and the former Soviet Union along with an activist from Moscow for RadioLabour, a newish podcast program produced by a fellow in Canada. I also occasionally help out the socialist and antifascist movements here with translations.

As for my own political evolution, I guess I began life as a Minnesota quasi social-democrat (thanks to my parents), but my experiences of observing the capitalist restoration here and working as a grad student union organizer in the States have since pushed me further to the left.

I’m curious to see what you’ll write about our film program. It is almost impossible to imagine these films being screened here in any context whatsoever nowadays. First, because the country has gone incredibly racist, and the sons and grandsons of the people depicted in those films are routinely harassed, beaten up, and murdered by Russian neo-Nazis if they come to Putin’s Russia. Second, because most (although by no means all) people here now regard Soviet internationalism either as old-style Russian imperialism with a human face, so to speak (for better or for worse), as a squandering of the country’s resources on a big geopolitical game it had no chance of winning, or as an example of false mass consciousness. I’ve been struck by how many people of the older generation have told me “we were all internationalists then” by way of apologizing for the high level of xenophobia and racism here now.

Mostly, however, people don’t think about this part of the country’s history at all, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any new literature, popular or scholarly, on the subject, much less TV or film documentaries.

Another film maker friend of mine is trying to make a documentary about separated Cuban-Soviet families, but judging by the number of script treatments I’ve translated for him, I gather he’s having a rough time finding funding for the project, even though he’s regarded as a promising young director after his debut feature (“Shultes”) won tons of awards and critical praise.

It’s also the case that the “emancipatory” message of the films would hardly be encouraged by the current regime or the prevailing mindset. It’s okay to show Putin or Medvedev glad-handing, say, Chavez during a state visit, but the political or social content of popular movements or popular unrest in South America or anywhere else for that matter cannot be discussed in the mainstream media. Or if they are discussed, then it’s with a huge dose of negativity. I remember that when there was strike of MTA workers a few years ago, I was struck by the angry tone taken by Russian Channel One’s New York correspondent, as if the strike was a direct threat to peace and stability in Russia itself.

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