Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2010

Video excursion #2

Filed under: Afghanistan,pakistan,Youtube — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

This is my latest excursion into video production. I have a brief introduction, mostly intended to test technology. If you’ll remember, my last video intro was taken directly on the Macbook and used Photobooth. For some reason, the images and sound were out of sync. This time I used the Macbook camera directly feeding IMovie and the problem went away.

The rest of it is multi-part recordings (Youtube has a ten minute limit per clip) of two talks from last month’s Left Forum. Adaner Usmani and Derrick O’Keefe gave very sharp presentations on Pakistan and Afghanistan which I highly recommend.

My next project, btw, will be a lot more ambitious. I plan to go up to Bard College for commencement weekend and a reunion for the class of ’65. God, I can’t believe how old I am. My intention is to do a poor man’s Ross McElwee documentary that amounts to a radical walking tour of the campus. Not that there is anything radical about Bard, only my impudent commentary on Leon Botstein’s monuments to liberalism and excess.

An introduction

A talk about Pakistani politics

A talk about Afghan politics

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

Filed under: Ecology,Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

The Collapse Of Jared Diamond

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Edited by Patricia A. McAnany and Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-73366-3, 372 pages.

(Swans – April 19, 2010) There are few professors with a higher profile than Jared Diamond, whose 1997 Guns, Germs and Steel (referred to hereafter as G, G & S) enjoyed blockbuster bestseller status and whose appearances on PBS have made him an instantly recognizable figure. With his avuncular beard, Diamond is the perfect figure to explain to middle-class television audiences why some people are on top and others are on the bottom. As the PBS Web site on G, G & S puts it, he will answer “Why were Europeans the ones to conquer so much of our planet?”

The way he answers this question has convinced some people on the left that he is “one of us” since it rejects the kind of racism that 19th century defenders of Empire espoused. Diamond says that it is not in the white man’s genes that he rules over people of color. Instead it is only a geographical accident that Europe and the United States became hegemons. If, for example, the Incas had access to horses rather than the llama, they might have become major world powers. While it is arguably a mark of progress that the intelligentsia no longer considers people of color to be closer to the apes than to homo sapiens, the net effect of Diamond’s grand narrative is to relieve the privileged men and women of the imperialist societies of any sense of responsibility for the suffering of the system’s victims. After reading G, G & S, they might say to themselves: There, but for the grace of geography, go I.

In 2005, Diamond came out with Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, another ambitious book geared to a mass audience. Long associated with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Diamond was finally getting around to answering another Big Question now that he had settled the issue of why the U.S. and Western Europe ruled the world. This time he would analyze why some societies suffered ecological collapse, a problem that is also very much on the mind of the PBS audience and all other solid middle-class people worrying about their future. After all, what good would it do to sit on top of the world when it was facing environmental destruction?

As was the case with G, G & S, Collapse was universally regarded as a prophetic and progressive manifesto. But unlike the earlier book, this one was less deterministic. Geography had little to do with, for example, the failure of the Haitians to succeed as the Dominicans did on the very same island of Hispaniola. How could one part of the island be an ecological disaster while the other half was a virtual Garden of Eden? The answer could be found in the choices made by the people themselves. While the Incas could not be blamed for lacking horses, the Haitians could be blamed for deforestation — or so it would seem.

read full article

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.

April 15, 2010

Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s “The Pacific”

Filed under: television,war — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

HBO’s The Pacific is the latest installment in an ongoing project launched by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks to pay tribute to what newscaster Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation”, in other words the combat forces whose victories in Europe and Asia helped propel the U.S. to the status of number one imperial power.

In keeping with a proper post-Vietnam sensibility, Hollywood liberals such as Spielberg and Hanks would never dream of churning out the kind of flag-waving propaganda that was made during WWII, some of which involved Communist Party members. For example, the 1945 Back to Bataan starring John Wayne is filled with blood-curdling anti-Japanese racism despite being having a screenplay written by Ben Barzman, a Communist, and directed by Edward Dmytryk, another Communist (who would go on to name names.)

Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks’s initial foray into this genre, was anxious to depict the Americans as the “good guys” but not in the clumsy, rah-rah fashion of the pre-Vietnam war era. In my review, I noted:

Standing above this film like a canopy are a whole set of assumptions about American “decency.” Not only is General George Marshall decent enough to rescue a single GI from the fighting, the GI’s themselves are also more decent than the despicable Nazis. There is one plot device that drives this point home. Hank’s men have captured a German soldier. They want to kill him but Hanks says that this would not be right and sends him off. In the climax of the film, this soldier turns up again and plunges a knife into one of the “good guys” in hand-to-hand combat. After he is captured once again, a GI shoots him in cold blood. The moral of the story is that it is forgivable to shoot Germans in this manner because they are embodiments of pure evil, just as they were in Schindler’s Tale.

In 2001, Spielberg and Hanks teamed up to produce Band of Brothers, an HBO series based on Stephen Ambrose’s book about the war in Europe. Not having cable TV at the time, I was not able to see it. At some point, I might rent it from Netflix out of curiosity—especially since my father was involved in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, an important episode in the series.

A review of Ambrose’s book that appeared in the July 13, 1992 Washington Post gives you some idea of how far he had gone in the direction of de-romanticizing “the good war”. This sounds like something straight out of Inglourious Basterds:

When, at the end of the war, Easy Company got up to Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border, it heard stories about high-ranking German officials who were likely candidates for war trials. One of them, the reputed commander of a slave labor camp, was living nearby on a farm.

Speirs called in 1st Sergeant Lynch . . . , [and] then gave his order: ‘Take Moone, Liebgott and Sisk, find [the Nazi] and eliminate him.’ . . . They got to the farm and without a struggle took the Nazi prisoner. . . . They prodded the man out of the vehicle. Liebgott drew his pistol and shot him twice.

The prisoner began screaming. He turned and ran up the hill. Lynch ordered Moone to shoot him.

“You shoot him,” Moone replied. “The war is over.”

“Skinny Sisk stepped forward, leveled his M-1 at the fleeing man and shot him dead.” It was murder but it didn’t matter.

Of course, it is a lot easier for the bourgeois media to accept this account uncritically since nobody loves a Nazi. But it is a bit harder to work up the same kind of frenzy when it comes to the Japanese, whose image was softened considerably by Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a movie that had the temerity to treat them as not much different than the Americans bent on murdering them.

While Pacific makes no effort to include the Japanese perspective, the U.S. Marines are about as unglamorous as any that have been seen in an American movie. Spielberg and Hanks made the somewhat risky decision to cast the war in the Pacific as a prelude to the current “war on terror”, something that has enraged tea party types:

Comments actor and producer Tom Hanks made in interviews regarding the conflict with the Japanese during World War II are sparking controversy.

In an interview with Time magazine, Hanks, who starred in the World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” and produced both “Band of Brothers” and the current HBO series “The Pacific” with Stephen Spielberg, compared the Japanese conflict to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods,” he told the magazine. “They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”

Hanks brought up the comparison again while promoting “The Pacific” during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“‘The Pacific’ is coming out now, where it represents a war that was of racism and terror. And where it seemed as though the only way to complete one of these battles on one of these small specks of rock in the middle of nowhere was to – I’m sorry – kill them all. And, um, does that sound familiar to what we might be going through today? So it’s– is there anything new under the sun? It seems as if history keeps repeating itself.”

The remarks have stirred a backlash from conservatives.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said Hanks is trying to “inject racism” into both wars.

“We had to kill the Japanese because the Japanese wouldn’t surrender, period…and the jihadists, if they were Thais, Burmese, and they attacked us, we’d be doing the same thing today,” O’Reilly said on Saturday.

Karl Rove, in an interview with O’Reilly on Monday, said that Hanks is “impervious to rational discussion.”

I have now watched the first half of The Pacific and confess that I find it rather unremarkable as drama. The series alternates between mundane personal drama involving the Marines on leave as they bed Australian women and battle scenes that don’t begin to approach the excitement of Saving Private Ryan, a rather accomplished bit of war porn. Most of the battle scenes take place at night and don’t involve hand-to-hand combat, a sine qua non for this sort of business. They also utilize the dubious “shaky camera” technique that smart directors should have dumped long ago. I also wonder if budget constraints forced HBO to forgo the casting of hundreds of Asian extras. Who knows?

There have been two major battles dramatized in the series. The first is Guadalcanal, where the U.S. made the first effort to dislodge Japanese forces from an occupied island since Pearl Harbor. The teleplay is adapted from Robert Leckie’s memoir Helmet for My Pillow and includes him as a character, played by James Bridge Dale.

Leckie is a totally uninteresting character who serves mainly to illustrate the point that war is hell. After fighting in Guadalcanal, he has a bad case of post-traumatic stress and a case of enuresis (uncontrollable urination) that sends him to a hospital on Banika Island where he meets a fellow marine who has been locked up in the mental ward for trying to steal an airplane to fly back to the U.S. This is not exactly John Wayne territory.

The next major battle takes place on Peleliu Island and is seen from the point of view of another Marine private named Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) who also wrote a memoir titled With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, portions of which can be read on Google Books.

In the last episode, number five, that deals with the landing at Peleliu, Sledge—the son of a family that had officers fighting for the Confederacy—is aghast at a fellow Marine plucking the gold teeth from a dead Japanese soldier. If you, like me, had heard stories about this being done to dead Jews at places like Auschwitz, you will share Sledge’s sense of disgust. He says nothing in the HBO movie, but had this to say in his book:

I hadn’t budged an inch or said a word, just stood glued to the spot almost as in a trance. The corpses were sprawled where the veterans had dragged them around to get into their pants and pockets. Would I become this casual and callous about enemy dead? I wondered. Would the war dehumanize me so that I, too, could “field strip” enemy dead with such nonchalance? The time soon came when it wouldn’t bother me a bit.

And well it wouldn’t. After all, what these Marines were doing was simply what their nation was doing on a scale writ large.

April 12, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (conclusion, the call for a Fifth International)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

Despite the tidal wave of commentary on Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International during a conference of left parties in Caracas on November 19-21, 2009, it is difficult to find his actual words. Thanks to Australian activist Roberto Jorquera, you can read them here.

I want to take a few minutes to reflect on these issues, particularly to point to the importance that this call has […] In relation to the Fifth International I ask this special congress to include this issue in its debates so that we can analyse it and put it into context and study this proposal and its context. This proposal to call on political parties, revolutionary parties and social movements, to create a new organisation that is able to adapt to the time that we are living under and the situation that we live under; to put itself at the forefront of the people of the world and their calls; to become an instrument of articulation and unification of the struggles of the world’s peoples so that we can save this planet. It is important that the congress discuss this issue. That is why I made the call.

The Fifth International — let’s remember that the First International was established in 1864. Karl Marx with a number of other comrades called for the First International. Many years later Frederick Engels called for the establishment of the Second International at the end of the 19th century. And then at the beginning of the 20th century Vladimir Lenin with many other great revolutionaries established the Third International, and Leon Trotsky in 1936-37 established the Fourth International. All of them had a context but remember that all four Internationals, experiments to unite parties and currents and social movements from around the world, have lost their way along the road for different reasons — some degenerated, lost their force, disappeared soon after their formation. But none of them was able to advance the original aims that they had set themselves…

I honestly believe that the time has come to convoke the Fifth Socialist International and we call on all the revolutionary parties, socialist parties and currents and social movements that struggle for socialism and against capitalism and imperialism to save the world. Let us reclaim Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan “Socialism or barbarism”. Let us save the world. Let’s make socialism. Let us save the world and destroy capitalism. Let us save the world and destroy imperialism. That is what it is about. That is the essence of this congress.

As might be expected, some diehard supporters of a Trotskyist international were troubled by the idea that they were obsolete. Speaking for Socialist Action, a group that dusted off the banner of the Fourth International after the SWP—the group that expelled them—tossed it aside, Gerry Foley found the composition of the gathering where Chavez spoke decidedly at odds with socialist goals:

However, if Chavez meant what he said or understood what he was calling for, he chose an odd venue for his call. The Caracas gathering of alleged left parties included the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, the main party in the lower house of the Mexican Congress), which has never been a socialist party and is no longer even a populist one. It also included the ruling Workers Party of Brazil, which has cast aside whatever socialist program it ever had and administers a neoliberal regime hardly different from its right-wing predecessor in government.

Unlike Socialist Action, their European comrades were more open to the idea of working on this new project, not a big surprise since they were much less inclined to worship at the altar of James P. Cannon. Writing for International Viewpoint, Francois Sabado was generally more supportive of the initiative but warned about possible links with the “anti-imperialists” associated with Venezuelan foreign policy realpolitik:

Chavez’s call for a Fifth International also constitutes a point of support when it poses the question of a new International, independently of the Second (Socialist) International of which organizations like the social democratic parties, the Mexican PRI and the Brazilian PT are members. But it is also necessary to clarify a question in the construction of a new International, that of the difference between state policies and the development of a political project. One thing is to conclude economic and commercial agreements with states which have anti-imperialist governments, to conclude such agreements with other states, including some which have reactionary regimes, or to oppose attacks of imperialism against certain countries. It is quite another thing to give political support to regimes like those of the Chinese Communist Party or the Islamic Republic of Iran… The project of the Fifth International cannot in any way at all be associated with these regimes.

I quite agree with this proviso but doubt that it will matter very much in light of China and Iran’s well-established aversion toward revolutionary socialism.

Another contender for the Fourth International crown is led by Alan Woods, the leader of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) that has been distinguished by its favorable attitude toward the Bolivarian revolution even if their own modus operandi is decidedly at odds with the free-wheeling style of Venezuelan Marxism. To start with, the IMT would agree that the Fourth International was a failed project going back decades at least:

It is not possible here to go into more detail about the mistakes of the then leadership of the Fourth International, but it is sufficient to say that Mandel, Cannon and co., lost their bearings after the war and this led to a complete abandonment of genuine Marxism. The so-called Fourth International degenerated after the death of Trotsky into an organically petit-bourgeois sect. It has nothing in common with the ideas of its founder or with the genuine tendency of Bolshevism-Leninism. The sectarian attitude of the pseudo-Trotskyist sects towards the Bolivarian Revolution is a particularly crass example of this.

My bullshit antennas send off signals whenever I hear a reference to “genuine Marxism”, but let’s not get bogged down with “more detail” as Woods put it. Instead, it is of some interest to see how Woods sees his relationship to a new international:

What position should the Marxists take? As Marxists we are unconditionally in favour of the setting up of mass international organisation of the working class. No genuine mass International exists at present. What was the IV International was destroyed by the mistakes of the leaders after Trotsky’s assassination, and in effect is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT. The IMT defends the ideas of Marxism in the mass organisations of the working class in all countries. It is within these organisations that a discussion around the proposal of the Fifth International should be promoted with urgency.

I would say that there is a cognitive dissonance between Woods’s being “in favour” of a new international and his blustering claim that the Fourth International “is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT.This kind of petty proprietorship mentality is better suited to detergent commercials rather than revolutionary socialism.

Departing from the world of Trotskyism, the reaction of socialists and radicals has tended to be bothered less with qualifications about Chavez’s erstwhile allies in Brazil or elsewhere. Znet, an important website run by Michael Albert, a veteran of the 1960s New Left, has embraced the idea.

Given Albert’s tendency toward elaborate blueprints such as the kind found in “Participatory Economics” (Parecon, he calls it), I am not surprised that his proposal for a Participatory Socialist International is filled with details about how things should be run (you’ll note the inclusion of the “participatory” brand naming.)

  • members, employees, staff, etc., of each new International member organization would in turn gain membership in the International
  • individuals who want to be members of the International but have no member group that they belong too, would have to join one
  • every member group would have its own agenda for its separate operations which would be inviolable

One of the more interesting contributions to the discussion from the Latin American left comes from Carlos Fonseca Terán, the deputy secretary of the International Relations Department of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). While the FSLN has become a fairly opportunist formation, Terán shows that the Sandinista cadre can still sound like they mean business.

In the same fashion that I have been doing on Unrepentant Marxist, Terán gives a historical overview of the various international socialist organizations that includes barbs directed against both the Stalin’s Comintern (I never took up this formation in my overview since it was so clearly an aberration) and the Fourth International. Terán has some particularly interesting revelations on how the Nicaraguans related to the Comintern during the “3rd period” even though he makes no specific reference to the term:

Sandino appealed to the workers of Latin America to join the Latin American Union Confederation, a union arm in our continent of the Communist International; and to assume as their own the resolutions of the Anti-Imperialist World Congress in Frankfurt, convened by the International. According to Ramón de Belausteguigoitia’s narrative in his book With Sandino in Nicaragua, it was usual to hear the anthem of the International in the camps of the Army for the Defence of National Sovereignty of Nicaragua.

At one point, as is known, these cadres separated from Sandino. This took place a result of guidelines issued by the Mexican Communist Party in what was extremely sectarian behaviour. Such guidelines were questioned within the International, despite the fact that the Mexican Communists believed they were complying with the new line existing in the world organisation. It defined the strategy of class against class, meaning that the communist parties should break with everything that did not signify a commitment to socialism.

While Terán is correct in his assessment of the Fourth International’s endless capacity for fragmentation, he really does not understand what drives it. For him, it is a belief that the “the socialist revolution must be global or not at all,” an analysis sadly dredged up from the Stalinist archives. All the rest stands:

Following Trotsky’s assassination and death in 1940, his followers became characterised for their highly polemical behaviour which was to lead them to successive and endless internal divisions. That approach was not unrelated to their view that the socialist revolution must be global or not at all. As a consequence, this international organisation has not promoted a single revolution in any country, precisely because they did not conceive of it within national borders. That stance led to inaction of its members. The lack of revolutionary processes to promote and defend led to replacing practical tasks of the revolutionary struggle with excessive polemics, with ensuing sectarianism. The lack of combining theory with practice has characterised this version of the International throughout its trajectory and is the origin of its divisiveness.

Much of the rest of Terán’s article is taken up with interesting if not always correct interpretations of what “democratic centralism” means today, as well as recommendations on how the Fifth International should function. Frankly, I would have a lot more enthusiasm for the comrade’s proposals if the FSLN had been setting a better example for the left over the past 20 years or so. I do recommend reading it if for no other reason than if such an international arises, the FSLN will have a significant voice owing much to its earlier credentials as a revolutionary and non-sectarian movement.

Terán’s article appeared on Links, the website of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a group that is on record as favoring the sort of rethinking of revolutionary politics shared by the NPA in France. It is very much in tune with the ideas of Bolivarian socialism and the November call for a new international, which would be very much in line with their own perspectives.

Two Socialist Alliance members, Frederico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke, are reporting on location from Caracas and participated in the conference where Chavez issued his call. I would strongly urge reading Fuentes’s article that appeared shortly afterwards and that adds much to the excerpt translated by Jorquera above (Jorquera was formerly a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia which dissolved into the Socialist Alliance.) Fuentes writes:

At the same time, the conditions to build socialism are ripe, he argued. “That is why I ask…that you allow me continue to go forward, together with those who want to accompany me, in the creation of the Fifth Socialist International.”

A new international without manuals and impositions, explained Chavez, and where differences are welcomed.

He sharply criticized the example the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which imposed its dogmas such as “socialism in one country” on its satellite parties internationally. This led many CPs in Latin America to turn their backs on Che Guevara due to his rejection of Soviet dogmatism, Chavez said.

In rejection of the failed projects of “real socialism” and social democracy, a new International should embody the spirit and accumulated heritage left to humanity by the founders of the first four Internationals: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Jose Carlos Mariategui and Leon Trotsky he stated.

It should also incorporate the ideas of Latin American radicals and liberators such as Simon Bolivar, Francisco Morazan, Maurice Bishop and Sandino, Chavez contended.

A new project of left coordination has to be an international to confront imperialism, defeat capitalism and struggle for 21st Century Socialism. It is necessary to work together in the elaboration of a manifesto around which to unify criteria in regards to 21st Century Socialism, he continued.

Chavez’s response to the interjection of one delegate who stated that there already existed other organizations for coordination among political parties was swift and sharp: there exist many spaces for discussion, but none for concrete action, which is why today many of them are finished.

“We have wasted a lot of time, we continue to waste time, looking for excuses to justify our inactivity. I consider such behavior to be a betrayal of the hope of our peoples”. What we need is a unity of left parties, “but parties that are truly left.”

I want to conclude with my thoughts on Chavez’s call which will have a tentative character for two reasons. First of all, I am loath to issue pronunciamentos in the Coyoacan manner to begin with. Second of all, it is difficult to render an opinion since so far nothing much more than rhetoric exists. Unlike the case of starting a new socialist party in Venezuela, getting a new international off the ground will be a much more difficult task given the global reach of the project and the bad habits accumulated by many of the cadres drawn to the project despite their best intentions. But if nothing else comes out of it except the idea, that would be a step forward since as Chavez and Terán have correctly concluded, it is time for a brand-new movement.

In my view the best thing that could happen is if the comrades of the Fourth International gave up on the idea of keeping Trotsky’s project alive (it is brain-dead, I’m afraid) and throw themselves into a new movement selflessly. This would provide some of the initial impetus needed to get things going as well as reflecting the “French turn” represented by the creation of the NPA.

We are living in a period in which very important attempts to break with sectarianism are being midwived by a growing economic and environmental crisis. Trotskyists have a very important role to play in moving the struggle forward if they realize that there is no reason to maintain an organizational framework that has outlived its historical mission. As the leader of a mass movement in Venezuela that has the support of millions of workers, Hugo Chavez might not be as brilliant as V.I. Lenin, but he is operating under much more favorable circumstances. It would be a shame if Chavez’s invitation is declined because he does not correspond to the ideal that we have in our minds about Lenin’s successor. Lenin wrote a last will and testament shortly before he died and it is mostly surely of historical interest. But given the historical gap between the writing of that document over 85 years ago and the urgent tasks facing the left today, it would be a good idea to put the Stalin-Trotsky succession debate to rest once and for all. If nothing else, the idea of 21st Century Socialism and the call for a Fifth International forces us to think about the future rather than the past. It is about time.

April 11, 2010

Has John Rees’s crew been reading Unrepentant Marxist?

Filed under: sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

From Rees’s How to start a new left wing group: the rules:

Avoid the words socialist, communist, Marxist, workers and Party when coining your group’s name. It is the 21st century.

* * * *

From my post The fight in the SWP, part five (Lindsey German)

In 1981, when I hooked up with Peter Camejo in order to help build a new, non-sectarian left in the U.S., he told me that he chose the name North Star Network in order to break with a sectarian past in which every new group had to have the words socialist, communist, proletarian or workers in its name. He chose “North Star” because that was the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper and a symbol of our own struggle rather than that of the Russians. He was inspired to a large extent by the example of the Nicaraguan revolution which also decided to use a Nicaraguan icon (Sandino) rather than a hammer and sickle.

April 9, 2010

Pressure drop

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

This post is a departure from my usual socio-political analysis so those not interested in personal drama should go no further. Still here? Go on with you now.

In what amounts to pure kismet, a loose screw on a pair of eyeglasses probably saved me from going blind. About six weeks ago when a tiny screw came loose in the left temple (the things that fit over your ears) of my fancy Robert Marc glasses, I brought them into the store for tightening. They did tighten it but advised me that it would be best to leave them there and have them sent to the lab for a permanent fix. They said that they would be ready the next day.

I left them there and proceeded to stumble homeward. My eyesight has been deteriorating over the past five years, with a cataract turning up in the left eye at my last exam two or so years ago. I also have floaters in both eyes, which I have gotten used to although some people are driven to such distraction with them that they actually become suicidal.

Once I got home I was totally beside myself since I could neither read nor watch television. The guy at Robert Marc suggested I get a second pair for just such occasions. I realized that I could not wait around for three or four days when I needed a new prescription for the glasses next time and decided to spend the big bucks I needed for a second pair. Robert Marc has very trendy and expensive frames that I order with thin, progressive lenses—also expensive—so we are talking about a major purchase. I justify this expense to myself since it is the only luxury good I pamper myself with nowadays in my post-Goldman Sachs existence. No more Mount Blanc pens or Paul Stuart suits, etc.

Since the cataract had already been identified at the time of my last exam, I decided to go to an ophthalmology clinic in the neighborhood that would do a thorough evaluation as well as prescribe new lenses. After putting me through a battery of tests around a month ago, the optometrist informed me that I had a cataract in my right eye as well. Great. But the real news was the possibility that I also had optic hypertension, or even glaucoma. Tests revealed that the pressure in my right eye was 27 (normal is about 12), and the left eye nearly as bad. I was supposed to come back on April 8th for a field of vision test, which is used to determine if you have the kind of nerve damage associated with glaucoma.

So I took the field of vision test yesterday that consists of clicking a button whenever you see a pinpoint of light on a dark background. If you miss the lights on a consistent basis, it means that you have permanent nerve damage. Even though it is a painless test, I found it very stressful considering what was at stake.

After the field of vision test was done, the optometrist rechecked my eye pressure. She was alarmed to see that the right eye had gone up to 37–300 percent of what is considered normal. She told me that I would probably require laser surgery to allow the fluid to drain properly and relieve the pressure. She then called in an ophthalmologist, also a woman, from the next office to review the results. She redid the test and asked me how soon I could do the laser surgery. When I asked if next week was okay (I was just buying time), she said that it should not wait.

Interestingly enough, optic hypertension presents the same kind of invisible threat that circulatory hypertension does. There is no pain or symptoms involved. If you don’t learn about the problem through a test, you might just risk getting a heart attack or blindness.

I went home to collect my thoughts and then went back to the clinic to get zapped. After having eye-drops administered, I went into the laser room, sat down in the chair, and had a special lens put over my right eye. The doctor then brought the business end of the laser right up to the lens and drilled away for about 3 minutes into my iris, at the right-hand corner of my eye. I felt a slight pinch as the laser beam did its work, but nothing worse.

Next I went back into her office where she reexamined me. Good news. The pressure had dropped to 17. Unlike the Toots Hibbert song, this was good news.

Cause a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you
I say a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you

Next Wednesday I go back to get my left eye treated. If things go according to plan in a best-case scenario, I don’t have to worry about glaucoma. If for some reason the pressure builds up again, I will start taking eye drops. No biggie. The problem with glaucoma is if you catch it too late. An old friend from my Trotskyist days is blind in his right eye from unattended glaucoma. He told me that his left should be okay as long as he takes his drops.

Then there’s the fucking cataracts. The one in my left eye is much worse than in the right. If I try to read something just using my left eye, it is nearly hopeless. I will try to work up the nerve to have it removed in January. Everybody who has had it done, including my late mom, tells me that it is no big deal. My problem is that I never got over watching some idiotic 3D movie in 1958 that showed the main character getting eye surgery. You see the stupid knives coming right at you in 3D.

I suppose I have nothing to complain about compared to the millions of people in the 3rd world who can’t afford surgery. An article in the NY Times reported a new breakthrough that allowed lasers to remove the cataract, a much less expensive approach. According to the optometrist, this is not the best possible solution since there is no permanent lens put in place of the lasered tissue. This means that you have to wear extra-thick glasses. Better than being blind, you can be sure.

Looming over the medical issues, however, is the bigger question of my mortality. If you had asked me 20 years ago what turning 65 would involve, I would have responded with arthritis, heart disease, cancer, early Alzheimers, or a host of other nasty things that account for the billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid expenditures. When I was at the eye clinic yesterday, it seemed like everybody there was in their 60s and up.

But I never expected to deal with major eye problems that sneaked up on me like a sniper. My advice to younger people who read this blog is to wear sunglasses. Cataracts apparently result from being exposed to direct sunlight over a lifetime. I am no sun worshiper but I never protected myself. They also told me at the clinic that the optic hypertension problem probably resulted from dislocations inside my eye resulting from the cataracts. So if you can prevent such problems, please do.

As much of a drag all this is, I am so relieved to have received proper medical attention before it was too late. If it had not been for a loose screw, I might be blind today since I had not planned to get a new prescription for another year or so. If my eye pressure was 37 yesterday, then who knows what it would have been a month or two from now. I was a walking time bomb. Thank god, if one existed, for my good luck.

April 8, 2010

U.S. Capital and the Turkish government

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

– The inflow of the imperialist capital in Turkey increased from 1.1 billion dollars to 22 billion.

– While there were four thousand imperialist companies between 1954-1999, during the JDP [Justice and Development Party] power 14 thousand imperialist companies were established in Turkey.

– The investments of the US capital increased to 10 billion dollars and the number of the US companies rose to 964.

– Imperialist companies transferred 35 billion dollars of profit from Turkey between 2002-2009.

US CAPITAL AND THE JDP GOVERNMENT IN TURKEY

by Yürüyüş [The March], 11.10.2009

There is a huge campaign of pillaging and plundering going on in Turkey, so that we will see “This country is for sale” signs placed by the Justice and Development Party (referred to hereafter as JDP; known as AKP in Turkish) government at the borders of our country. Actually there is no need for such signs: The JDP government is declaring this fact in every international meeting that they attended, in every visit they paid to the imperialist centers, in every call they made to the imperialist monopolies.

The JDP, leaving behind all the former governments in terms of its Americanism and collaborationism, generously returns the favor done by the American imperialism in the inter-oligarchic conflicts.

While it acts as the subcontractor and the courier of the US in the Great Middle East Project and as the partner of Afghanistan and Iraq invasion; it opens wide the doors of our country to imperialist capital.

As Americanism gets deeper, the privileges of imperialist capital are rising. As the imperialist monopolies profit, as they grow their capital, the unemployment, poverty, starvation and exploitation are rising as well. The Menderes government [between 1950-1960 t.n.] started off turning this country into a “Small America”. Subsequent governments turned our country into a American state. The huckster JDP government is marketing this country to any imperialist monopoly, and goes on selling generously.

Collaborationist and Pro-American Government Attracts Imperialist Capital

The 2009 World Investment Report prepared by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) declared that Turkey left 5 countries behind and became the 20th country in the “most attractive nations for investment” list with its 18 billion of dollars attracted investment.

The inflow of imperialist capital that was 1.1 billion dollars in 2003, rose to 22 billion dollars by 2007 which is a historical record. An increase more than twenty-fold! Turkey is continuing to whet the appetites of the imperialist monopolies. JDP is the responsible.

While a total number of 4.141 multinationals were founded in Turkey between 1954-1999, this number rose to 17.756 between 2003-2007. 68,7 % of those were founded during the JDP government. By the end of July 2009, the number of the companies with imperialist capital in our country reached to 22.250.

By 2006, the investment of the American companies in Turkey became 6 billion dollars.

As the figures indicate, the imperialist companies almost rushed to our country during the JDP government.

Collaborationists are defending the imperialist capital inflow and saying, “very well, money is flowing into our country and opportunities for employment are being created”. But imperialists always take more than they used to give. It was so during the JDP government: “The total amount transferred by the imperialist capital to their own countries between 2002-2009 July has reached 34 billion 778 million dollars.”

The Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan particularly, and all the ministers of the AKP government, are making calls for imperialist capital. These calls are quickly answered. A country where there is an intense exploitation, de-unionization and extreme unemployment is a heaven for imperialist monopolies.

A Special Invitation for American Imperialism

They are making calls especially to American companies. See how Erdogan, speaking on a meeting organized by Coca Cola in USA in 2007, invites the imperialist monopolies to our country:

We expect that the investments of the American companies in Turkey will increase. The foreign trade volume between our countries went beyond 10 billion dollars in 2006. This is a very funny amount. First of all, I would like to emphasize this point in such a friendly gathering. Because with our strategic partner, this amount must have been higher. … Our expectations from the huge USA economy is much more higher.

While there were 730 American companies by 2006, by June 2009 it rose to 964 with the monopolists who answered the call of Erdogan. After the international American companies like Philip Morris, Coca Cola, Pfizer Medicine, Oracle, Fedex, American Express, Citibank, Ritz Carlton, Johnson & Johnson, P&D, UPS, Goodyear, GAP International, many middle-scale American companies entered the market of Turkey. Among the companies who claimed their shares from the market of Turkey, there are companies working in the movie and logistics sector also.

We still remember the privileges given by the JDP to the sweetener monopoly Cargill. This topic was discussed also in the negotiations between Bush and Erdogan, personally. Asked by a single company (of course this was an imperialist monopoly), Bush put this topic into his special agenda and Tayyip Erdogan made special promises. Erdogan liquidated the beet producers and closed the sugar factories in our country, just for the sake of the profits of one American monopoly. Even the quotas are changed just to allow the Cargill to dominate the market in Turkey. Just to allow this American monopoly, which constructed illegal plants over the agricultural lands in Bursa, they issued special laws from the Turkish National Assembly. Erdogan solved Cargill issue under Bush’s orders.

All types of guarantees are given, the possibilities to make customs-free export and tax privileges are provided to imperialist monopolies, especially to the American monopolies.

“Scale of success” for the JDP government is their marketing of our country, their attraction of the imperialist capital to our country. Erdogan personally promises to protect the benefits and to secure the profits of the imperialist monopolies. Even only the Cargill example clearly shows how the dependency relations are maintained and what kind of privileges given to the imperialist monopolies. The same privileges are given to a hundred Cargills today.

The American plane monopoly Boeing is planning to invest of 900 million dollars through 2018 in Turkey, within the scope of the co-operation for military plane production projects which started in 2005. The American Harris Corporation, which works in the military combat and information systems, decided to make the co-production of some products, which will be sold to the Middle East market, in Turkey together with Atel Telecommunications.

The imports from USA nearly quadrupled again in the JDP government’s power. The imports, which were 3,050 million dollars by 2002, increased to 11,971 million dollars by 2008. The total trade volume of this period increased from 6,300 million dollars to 16,261 million dollars.

In short, American imperialism is “deeply and widely” expanding the Turkey market through the JDP. The “Made in America goods” being used in Turkey are increasing steadily.

This result is natural, since we have a “Made in America government” in power. The JDP government is allowing the American monopolies to make an unrestricted exploitation.

Deepening Dependency, Mushrooming American Companies, Growing Invasion

The neo-colony Turkey’s dependency on USA is increasing every year. The economic dependency is increasing as the political dependency increases. The opposite is also valid for the neo-colonialist relations. Those two sides, namely the economical and political dependency mutually deepen each other.

But the people are crushed by IMF programs while the monopolies of USA have been taking more of their shares from the exploitation pie, while the doors of our country were wide open to the imperialist monopolies and while they were given all kinds of privileges. The JDP government, which makes laws for the benefits of the American monopolies, shows that it is the government of the monopolies. As the monopolies dominate the market, they become more powerful against the people to impose a certain price or a certain pattern of consumption.

While the imperialist monopolies are winning, what remains is a pillaged and destroyed country where the people are left in starvation and unemployment.

The doors are wide open for the American capital in the energy sector as well.

As the result of collaborating with USA in the area of energy in 2005, dozens of investments are actualized within the framework of build-operate-transfer model by the partnership of the Turkish-American companies. These are as follows:

– – Izmir, Gebze, Adapazari, Marmara Ereglisi, Esenyurt, Eskisehir Natural Gas Power Plants, Kemerkoy Thermoelectric Power Plant Chimney Treatment Plant, Konya-Ilgin Lignite Plant, Kangal Thermoelectric Power Plant, Alpaslan II Dam, Hakkari Dam, Konaktepe I-II Dams, Cine Dam, Mut Dam, Durak Dam, Pervari Dam, Eric Dam, Kargi Dam, Gürsogut Dam.

Apart from those,

– Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline (in which the USA companies have the share of 13.76%.)

– Baku-Tblisi-Erzurum Natural Gas Pipeline (in which the USA is an arbiter).

– Iraq-Turkey Natural Gas Pipeline Project: (Will a co-project of TPAO, Tekfen, Botas and Shell.)

– Oil Exploration and Drilling Works: Oil exploration activities are being carried out by TPAO and American Madison Oil Company in Western Black Sea and Southeastern Anatolia, by TPAO-BP and American Chevron in Eastern Black Sea, and by Chevron-Texaco in Southeastern Anatolia.

– The oil exploration activities are going on in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Collaboration with USA: The companies of Turkey and America are in a state of intense collaboration especially in Afghanistan. Companies of Turkey undertook many projects either with USA financing or partnership in Afghanistan. This collaboration is also valid for Iraq and Libya markets.

After USA President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey, the substructure of the co-investments by the companies of Turkey and America in the energy sector was prepared. American companies explained that “In Turkey they wish a foreseeable energy market privatization where the tendering processes are operated quickly and supported by international rules, the tenders are not interrupted and the regulatory and supervisory rules are operating effectively.” In this way, they delivered their demand-orders to the JDP.

Various incentives are given to the American monopolies in Turkey in order to expedite their investments. These include land assignments, avoiding bureaucratic procedures, issuing special decrees by the Cabinet and tax reductions. But whatever the amount of the given incentives would be, the imperialists will always ask for more. For example, given that much privileges, the American monopolies still say the following: There is a need to “concentrate on the kind of politics which will liberalize and . . . diversify the energy market in Turkey in order to provide the energy security.”

Privatizations in Turkey’s energy sector and the construction of the new power plants are the new areas of interest for the American energy monopolies. It is said that there is a investment potential of 20-30 billion dollars in this area. USA monopolies also want to dominate the energy production in Turkey. Monopolies do not want to see any obstacles before them.

USA imperialism wants to carry on this “collaboration” with Turkey on the various areas, since there is a very “harmonious” government (JDP) and their demands have been quickly met. The reality is imperialism is using Turkey rather than collaborating with it. Within this framework, in the next period the following works are planned between Turkey and USA in the area of energy:

  • Co-investments in the Caspian region.
  • New energy projects, like Nabucco, which will strengthen the Europe’s energy security.
  • Increasing the natural gas production in Iraq and its distribution via Turkey.
  • Natural gas transfer to Europe via Turkey.
  • The regulation of the energy market regulatory politics in Turkey.

(Milliyet, April 14, 2009).

American monopolies are longing to posses all our wealth, from agriculture to industry, manufacturing sector to energy, telecommunication, electricity to water, our oil, under- and above-ground sources. American monopolies are spreading over the country like an octopus, sucking our blood. Despite that, the JDP government is still going on making calls to imperialist monopolies. Although our country is being sold piece by piece, its land title is already in the hands of America. Declaring that they will continue their collaborationism and their service given to the American monopolies, the JDP government clearly shows that it knows no limits as a servant.

In short, they are selling our country to the American monopolies, as if they are selling “their own fathers’ farm”. There is no remedy to our hunger, our unemployment, humiliation, to tramping down of our national pride as long as this dependency goes on and our country is ruled by those pro-American, collaborationist governments!

The original text in Turkish: http://www.yuruyus.com/www/turkish/news.php?h_newsid=6490

Yuruyus journal is a weekly revolutionary socialist journal which has been published for over 5 years in Turkey. Nowadays this journal is banned and the newest issue is confiscated by the state.

April 7, 2010

History of the Marxist Internationals (part 6, Trotskyist collapse)

Filed under: history of the Marxist internationals,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

As anybody familiar with the revolutionary left will know, the Fourth International is a brand name that has been adopted by many different retailers. From its very beginning, the movement tended to cultivate various leaders who adopted the style of Leon Trotsky, a brilliant thinker who was far better at exposing the crimes, sins and peccadilloes of his ideological adversaries than uniting diverse anti-capitalist individuals and groups into a cohesive movement.

By contrast, Lenin was much better at wielding together diverse elements into a fighting movement. Despite his reputation for being a go-for-the-jugular polemicist, Lenin was far less interested in drawing sharp ideological distinctions than Trotsky. Consider the role of Iskra, for example. Lenin proposed the need for a newspaper that could unite socialists across Russia at the “What is to be Done” conference. In other words, if you were for socialism, you belonged in the social democratic party that was still gestating. Once that party was formed, there were few expulsions—arguably only one: Bogdanov, whose philosophical peregrinations threatened to undermine the basic theoretical foundations of the Russian party. Furthermore, it is probably a mistake to view the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks as hardened opponents. Despite the frequent polemics against the Mensheviks, Lenin was always exploring ways to mend the rift between the two factions.

The ideological basis for the Fourth International, as I explained in my last post, was the platform of the Left Opposition. In my view, Leon Trotsky would have been far more successful if he had struggled to build a world movement on a much broader basis, namely for workers democracy in the USSR, political independence from the bourgeoisie, etc. This might have meant having a much more forgiving attitude toward the centrists, who were willing to go along with Trotsky on 80 percent of his program. Indeed, the history of the Bolshevik Party reveals a kind of ideological diversity that attempts to “improve” it both in the Comintern and the Fourth International proved futile. The reason for this is simple. Just as there are various levels of consciousness in the working class, there will also be various levels in its organized political expressions. That is the reality of politics. Attempts to circumvent this reality will always end up in sect formations, as Hal Draper so eloquently put it:

What characterizes the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to building an inclusive movement was the record of a struggle in the American section of the Fourth International that supposedly exhibited Leon Trotsky at his best, namely the faction fight with Max Shachtman, James Burnham and Martin Abern. With the notion that their “petty bourgeois” methodology was opposed to the “proletarian” Cannon faction, amounting to a scratch that could lead to gangrene, you get the debating style that has marked Trotskyism until the current day.

The first major episode of gangrene prevention took place in 1953 when the Fourth International split over the role of “Pabloism”. Greek Trotskyist and FI leader Michael Raptis, who used the party name Pablo, had decided that the Cold War would transform the CP’s into imperfect revolutionary instruments. And, as such, they would be the proper place for Trotskyists to operate in a “deep entry” mode. When the majority of the French section dug in its heels to oppose this tactic, the leadership was replaced by a minority that favored it.

This abuse as well as a certain amount of Stalinophobia from James P. Cannon, the American Trotskyist leader, and his allies led to a split. Cannon, Gerry Healy from the British section, and Pierre Lambert, the purged French majority leader, formed the International Committee while Ernest Mandel led a so-called International Secretariat committed to one degree or another to Pablo’s perspective.

Despite the IC’s characterization of Michael Raptis as some kind of Satan, he played an important role in solidarizing with the Algerian revolution as the wiki on Pablo notes:

He was personally closely involved in supporting the Algerian national liberation struggle against France, which led to imprisonment in Holland in connection with counterfeit money and gun-smuggling activities. A campaign for his release was launched by Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1961 Pablo was finally sentenced to 15 months imprisonment, and liberated at the end of his trial. He took refuge in Morocco. After the victory of the Algerian revolution, he became a minister in the FLN government.

To the credit of the American Trotskyists and the Ernest Mandel leadership, they realized that their shared support of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution compelled them to reunite in 1963. Gerry Healy and Pierre Lambert would have no part of this, however. Healy regarded Fidel Castro as a bourgeois nationalist and denied that capitalism had ever been overturned. Lambert was more prone to analyze Cuba in terms of the workers having failed to take power but I admit to not remembering the fine points of such arcane disputations from my misspent youth.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, a mere four years after the reunification, the “betrayal” was still fresh in the minds of two small groups led by American supporters of the IC. One group, called the Workers League, was led by Tim Wolforth and had won the approval of Gerry Healy as his official American satellite. The other, called the Spartacist League, was led by James Robertson, a bizarre cult figure who I have never had the pleasure of seeing in public. Both of these groups were obsessed with “Pabloite revisionism” and would show up at public meetings of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or at antiwar conferences to harangue the apple-cheeked student activists about Pablo’s betrayals. Today, Tim Wolforth is something of a Eustonite liberal while Robertson remains as elusive as ever.

For the first five years or so I was in the SWP, everything seemed to be going swimmingly well in our world movement although from time to time I got the sense that the Mandel wing of the movement was just a bit off. I remember when the SWP organized a class on party history back in 1968, with all the big guns like Farrell Dobbs lecturing us on how wonderful we were. During a break, I was chatting with Judy White, a party functionary, about this and that and she volunteered that the party was anxious to train new members like me or else we might end up like the Europeans. It all sounded like a parent advising a child on the need to brush one’s teeth three times a day.

Despite this, the major emphasis was on the importance of unity especially in light of the prominent role of the French Trotskyists in the May-June events of 1968. The LCR, which would eventually fold itself into the NPA, seemed to be everywhere on the barricades and Alain Krivine emerged as a key student leader. Within the year, the SWP would be on the barricades in Berkeley during the People’s Park struggle. Peter Camejo, who played a key role in the struggle, gave talks around the country making an explicit link between Berkeley and France. Revolution, as Max Elbaum would put it, was in the air.

Not only was revolution in the air, there was a lot of ultraleftism as well. From making barricades, the next step for many leftists was picking up the gun. Urban guerrilla warfare became an epidemic worldwide, including Argentina where two factions of the Trotskyist movement emerged. One was led by Nahuel Moreno, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had opposed Pablo. It was oriented to trade union struggles and the mass movement. The other faction was involved with armed actions, particularly hijacking of trucks whose goods were dispensed in poor and working-class neighborhoods a la Robin Hood. Moreno eventually broke completely with the guerrillas and formed a new group called the SWP. At the time we were convinced that Moreno was “one of us” in the spirit of Judy White’s warnings.

Joseph Hansen, a veteran of the SWP who was Trotsky’s bodyguard and generally very astute, wrote a defense of our mass movement orientation titled In Defense of the Leninist Strategy Of Party Building in 1971 that became our main rallying cry against the urban guerrilla warfare orientation of Ernest Mandel and his supporters. It is very much worth reading, even if the “party building” amounts to the kind of clumsy “vanguard” approach I now reject. Joe Hansen was a terrific writer who taught me a lot. He is especially good on the virus of ultraleftism that had infected the left, including Robin Blackburn who at the time was a member of the British section along with Tariq Ali and the late Peter Gowans. Hansen refers to Blackburn in his customarily dry but devastating fashion:

Blackburn mentions specific cases of bombings ascribable to those who have presumably opted for outright civil war. He includes in his survey the following: “At the end of last year Hoover of the F.B.I. announced that he had discovered a collective, comprising almost entirely of priests and nuns, with a plan to kidnap a White House official to be exchanged for a bombing halt in IndoChina.”

(Blackburn is referring to the Daniel and Philip Berrigan frame-up case. He fails to mention that the two pacifist priests, speaking from their prison cells in Danbury, Connecticut, where they were alleged to have masterminded the plot, branded the charges as fabrications.)

Not long after Hansen had written this article, the honeymoon between Moreno and the Americans would be over. Despite some initial confusion over the Sandinistas, the SWP would decide that it was a movement worth supporting. Moreno, on the other hand, regarded them as bourgeois nationalists in the manner in which Healy and Lambert regarded Castro. So deep was his hostility that the Sandinistas decided to expel Moreno’s supporters from Nicaragua after refusing to accept the government as legitimate. Old habits die hard apparently.

Within a year or so, Moreno had set up his own Fourth International. Now there were three contestants vying for the right to be regarded as the authentic heir of Leon Trotsky.

Just around the time that Moreno was launching out on his own, the leader of the SWP, a character named Jack Barnes, decided that a kind of Fifth International was taking shape, although he never referred to it as such. Enamored of the FSLN, the FMLN in El Salvador, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the African National Congress, Barnes decided that the traditional Trotskyist project was defunct.

Oddly enough, this bid to connect with living and dynamic movements (at least in this period in history) was at odds with the SWP’s rapid transformation into a sect-cult. The new orientation to groups outside the Trotskyist movement was accompanied by the party’s self-isolation from arguably the counterparts of such groups inside the United States, as well as the mass movement in general. As part of the “turn toward industry”, the SWP decided that all of the movements it had once participated in could only be found within the trade unions. So, for example, the principal agency of opposition to Reagan’s wars in Central America would be the AFL-CIO, even if there was no evidence that the unions were ready to move. So the end result was abstention from the real movement that included Catholic nuns and computer programmers in its ranks rather than steelworkers or truck drivers.

For obvious reasons, the SWP could not sustain the illusion that a new international could be made up of itself and groups like the FSLN, which had imploded under the impact of US war and economic blockade. The SWP itself would begin to implode under the impact of the helmsman’s bizarre workerist schemas. It has set up its own international movement in recent years consisting of itself and tiny satellite groups in places like New Zealand that sell the SWP’s newspaper. On his worst days, I doubt that Pablo could have come up with something more grotesque.

Except for the Peter Taaffe, Alan Woods and Alex Callinicos led formations out of Britain, there are few claimants to the crown of Leon Trotsky’s successor. While Callinicos never would have staked out such a claim in ideological terms, there is clear evidence that the kinds of heavy-handed democratic centralism that proved to be the undoing of so many Fourth International groupings hampers the influence of his own state capitalist movement. When the American ISO developed fairly minor differences with Callinicos, they were expelled from the world organization. With respect to Taaffe and Woods, rival claimants to the Militant Tendency’s ideological legacy, there are few signs that they are ready to break with the Fourth International model.

That will have to be left up to new forces, particularly those responding to Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International, the subject of my final post in this series.

April 6, 2010

Holy Rollers

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm


On March 29 2000, some of the ostensibly least likely drug smugglers were sentenced to prison terms in New York, as the NY Times reported:

Dozens of Hasidic Jews packed together shoulder to shoulder in a Brooklyn courtroom yesterday, seeking leniency for a teenager who forsook his strict upbringing to help run a huge smuggling ring that flooded New York with the drug Ecstasy.

But to their surprise, the 70 members of the Bobover sect found themselves the subject of a scathing lecture by a federal judge who upbraided them in a quavering voice for allowing an international drug smuggling ring to flourish in their midst.

“Where was the community when all of this was going on?” the judge, I. Leo Glasser, demanded of the crowd gathered in his courtroom in Federal District Court in Brooklyn for the sentencing of the teenager, Shimon Levita, 18. “Where was the family when 18-year-old boys were traveling from Paris to Amsterdam, Montreal, New York and Atlanta?”

Scheduled for theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on May 21, Holy Rollers is a fictionalized version of these events. Striving for an authenticity rarely seen in films dealing with the world of the Hasidim, it is filmed on location in Williamsburg, New York—a home of various orthodox Jewish sects. The cast studied with a dialect coach to learn Hebrew prayers, elementary Yiddish, and to perfect their Brooklyn accents. But leaving aside the intrinsic interest of the remarkable story and the gritty realism, the real reason to see this movie is its intelligent screenplay, solid performances and masterful direction. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time around Hasidim over the years (my next door neighbor upstate was one) and who has written about their beliefs and history, I was impressed with the production company’s ability to make their exotic lives interesting and identifiable to the average audience.

In some ways, Holy Rollers is a retelling of a very old movie plot going back to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer which inevitably involves a young orthodox Jew being torn between the ways of his father and the siren call of secularism and the pleasures of the flesh. The main character is a 20 year old named Sam (referred to as Shmuel by his brethren) who lives with his parents in a modest one-family house. Like many Hasidim, who virtually exclude themselves from the professions by refusing to go to college, the family is barely scraping by from the income the father makes in his Lower East Side fabric store with Sam as his only employee. The kitchen stove is barely functional and, as such, presents real problems for a family whose social life revolves around the dinner table, as is the case with most Hasidim.

Not long ago, I noticed in my hometown paper upstate that Kiryas Joel, an all-Hasidic enclave, about an hour from my village was statistically the poorest in the country:

According to the latest round of U.S. Census figures, released late last year, the village has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and the largest percentage of residents who receive food stamps. Only one other place in the 50 states has a lower median income. The median household income in Kiryas Joel is $15,848; in Carbondale, Ill., it’s $15,799.

More than two-thirds of Kiryas Joel residents live below the federal poverty line and more than 40 percent receive food stamps, according to the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census Bureau study of every place in the country with 20,000 residents or more.

Sam lives next door to two brothers about his age, whose parents are deceased. Perhaps because of the freedom that gives them, the older brother Yosef has already begun to wriggle free from Hasidic strictures. Going to bed at night, Sam looks through his window and sees Yosef watching Midnight Blue, a pornographic cable TV show.

The next day Yosef accosts Sam on his way to the synagogue like the serpent in the Garden of Eden and asks him if he’s interested in a job. He describes it as bringing medicine into the United States for special customers. He will have to take precautions since it is not legal here, but reassures him that no moral questions are involved. Who knows why some medicine is illegal? After all, he reminds him (inaccurately) that Advil is illegal in Israel.

Yosef introduces Sam to Jackie, an Israeli who is masterminding the operation. Jackie is even more cut off from Hasidic Puritanism than Yosef and spends his evenings at a Brooklyn disco where he consults with drug dealers trying to line up an Ecstasy connection. Not long after habituating himself to the night life in Brooklyn and the even more libertine scene in Netherlands, whence they pick up Ecstasy pills in underground factories, Sam begins to follow in Yosef’s footsteps. The tension between his new-found appetite for women and fast money on one hand and the communal support of the Hasidim on the other is sustained throughout the remainder of the film until it is relieved by the gang’s capture.

Playing Sam, Jeff Eisenberg is extremely convincing. His last role was in the comedy/horror movie Zombieland. Even better is Justin Bartha’s Yosef, who comes across as a kind of brash Lenny Bruce figure. And perhaps best of all is Danny Abeckaser as Jackie, the Israeli kingpin. Abeckaser produced the film as well, having gotten the idea originally from reading about the arrests in 1999.

Incredibly enough, the script was written by Antonio Macia, the son of Argentine and Chilean parents, who converted to Mormonism and even served as a missionary. One suspects that his intimate knowledge of one sect helped him dramatize another. The movie was directed by Kevin Asch, his first feature film.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Holy Rollers, I could not help but feel that the movie failed to really sink its teeth into the question of why so many super-orthodox youngsters were amenable to becoming drug smugglers. At one point, Yosef mentions that the Hasidim have been smuggling diamonds for generations, so it’s no big deal. The average viewer, however, might still end up scratching his head trying to figure out why people who are so super-religious can become players in a scene reminiscent of the finale of Goodfellas.

I came to the movie with different expectations, starting with my memory of buying marijuana from a friend whose source was—as he put it with a smile—a Hasid in the diamond district. For him, this was just another way of making money.

But the real eye-opener was reading Stephen G Bloom’s Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland in 2000, just around the same time the Hasidim were smuggling Ecstasy. This is a book about the presence of the Hasidim in a small Iowa town where they have bought a packing house and turned it into the largest kosher processing plant in the country. If you’ve been following the news, you will probably know that there was a raid on the plant by immigration cops last year that resulted not only in the arrest of undocumented workers, but the revelation that the Rubashkins, the owners, were guilty of breaking child labor laws and generally running the place in a manner calculated to inspire a new version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

But long before the Rubashkins were arrested, there were clear signs that criminality and the Hasidic life-style were not incompatible. In chapter 16 of Postville, Bloom describes the crime spree of Pinchas Lew and Phillip Stillman, two married Hasidic employees who shot a woman causing permanent loss of her legs while robbing the convenience store where she worked. Lew only served 3 months of a 10 year sentence and during his probation was ordained as a rabbi. However, a few years later when serving as the rabbi of a synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was charged with sexual assault against his housekeeper.

If you want the last word on Hasidic crimes, misdemeanors and all-round bad behavior, you must visit the Failed Messiah website. Launched by Shmarya Rosenberg, a Hasidic apostate, it is particularly incensed over the sexual abuse of young boys by one rabbi or another. Apparently, the fact that Jews do not require such men to be celibate has had no effect on the pederasty problem.

But it is doubtful that the still observant Shmarya Rosenberg can really understand the awful behavior of people like the Rubashkins, who are generally understood by religious Jews as “forsaking” the ways of their father. I have a different understanding of what makes them tick, however.

In my view, the “ethics” of the orthodox Jews has much more to do with the mitzvah than it does with the prophet Isaiah who said the words that the more assimilated Jews, observant or not, hold dear: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Although the word mitzvah is generally understood as “good deed”, this is not quite the meaning it has in orthodox households. A mitzvah is instead is a word used to refer to the 613 commandments given in the Torah, such as saying the “Shma Yisrael” prayer a certain number of times a day, or putting a mezuzah (a piece of parchment with words from the Torah) on your front door. In one of my favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, Larry David gets in trouble with his strictly Christian in-laws by using a nail that supposedly came from the Crucifixion to attach the mezuzah next to the front door.

As long as you get these mitzvah’s down pat, it really doesn’t matter that much if you put a bullet in the spine of a convenience store employee or smuggle Ecstasy, although I’d have to say that anything that gets people to dance their asses off to Moby can’t be all bad.

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