Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 27, 2013

Life styles of the rich and anti-imperialist

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:27 am

A Rose in the desert: The Vogue piece on Syria’s first lady that got everyone riled up

by Joan Juliet Buck

(This article was first published in “Vogue Magazine”. Following the firestorm that has followed the actions of the Al-Assad regime in the Syrian crisis, “Vogue” has taken down the story from their website. But it can still be viewed on Asma al-Assad’s official website.)

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary. The country’s alliances are murky. How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah? There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk, and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons. Its number-one enmity is clear: Israel. But that might not always be the case. The United States has just posted its first ambassador there since 2005, Robert Ford.

When Angelina Jolie came with Brad Pitt for the United Nations in 2009, she was impressed by the first lady’s efforts to encourage empowerment among Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but alarmed by the Assads’ idea of safety.

“My husband was driving us all to lunch,” says Asma al-Assad, “and out of the corner of my eye I could see Brad Pitt was fidgeting. I turned around and asked, ‘Is anything wrong?’ ”

“Where’s your security?” asked Pitt.

“So I started teasing him—‘See that old woman on the street? That’s one of them! And that old guy crossing the road?

That’s the other one!’ ” They both laugh.

The president joins in the punch line: “Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!”

full: http://www.ynaija.com/a-rose-in-the-desert-the-vogue-piece-on-syrian-first-lady-that-got-everyone-riled-up/

August 26, 2013

World War Three?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

Alan Freeman

In a thread about Syria on David Osler’s Facebook page (I know about as much about David Osler as I do about 700 other “friends”), economist Alan Freeman had this to say:

David, I don’t really know how to begin. The US state is trying to start World War III by mobilising a Europe-US coalition to retake the ground lost to an opposition which, by the admission of its own most prominent defector, commands the support of at most 4 million out of 24 million of the people of Syria.

Which side are you on?

From what I know of the secular opposition in Syria, it will stand with Assad against the proposed invasion.

If you want to supply them with weapons, start by defending the Russian position. What more can be said?

This is war. It is not some kind of game. Take sides.

I only knew Freeman in the past as someone committed to the FROP thesis and a close collaborator with Andrew Kliman. I generally have shied away from the debates between these people and Michael Heinrich, but Freeman’s jaw-dropping display of stupidity has almost convinced me to support Heinrich simply on the prima facie evidence of being able to think.

Freeman states that based on the testimony of a “prominent defector”, he views Bashar al-Assad as enjoying the support of 85 percent of all Syrians. What else would we expect a defector to say? That al-Assad is hated by most Syrians? Alan Freeman is the editor of a series of books at Pluto Press, one of Britain’s premier radical publishers. If this sort of gullibility is being overlooked by Pluto’s chief, I worry about their future. As someone who has watched defectors over the years, from Nicaraguan pilots during the contra war to the North Koreans welcomed to the arms of the South, the rule of thumb is that they are reading speeches written by their handlers. I find it singularly disconcerting that a prominent leftist intellectual can publicly defend the word of a defector. This is not far removed from some of the nuttier things I have read on the Internet lately, including the claim that Israel nuked Syria.

Like most people favorably inclined toward Bashar al-Assad, Alan Freeman is convinced that the chemical weapons attack on Damascus neighborhoods is being exploited by imperialism to launch an Iraqi-style invasion. Some “anti-imperialists” are convinced that the rebels killed these civilians in order to provide a casus belli that would allow Obama to launch “World War 3”.


Major T.J. “King” Kong

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, top officials of the Bush administration were going on TV for months in order to pave the way for an invasion. So who is the Colin Powell of today trying to unleash the dogs of war? One would suspect that General Martin E. Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would be playing that role today. For someone cast in Slim Pickens’s role of B-52 pilot Major T.J. “King” Kong in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, Dempsey sounds much more like someone speaking at an ANSWER rally than any warmonger:

Even the Putin press figured it out, if people like Alan Freeman remain clueless:

USA disavows all Syrian rebels.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that the Syrian rebels could not promote U.S. interests at this stage. The “Hawk” who recently proposed five options of Syrian intervention has surrendered. The statement marked the position of the military that do not recommend a direct U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria.

Full: http://english.pravda.ru/world/asia/26-08-2013/125492-usa_syrian_rebels-0/

This being the case, why would the USA now be sending ships toward Syria? We do know that Obama is considering a Kosovo type intervention as the NY Times reported on August 23rd:

As President Obama weighs options for responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.

I think a better analogy would be the sort of air attacks that took place against Libya and Iraq in the 1980s and 90s. As Doug Henwood once put it, the USA needs to smash a defenseless third world country against the wall to show them who’s boss. In some cases, the violence is a means to a specific end: regime change. This is not always the case, however. When Bill Clinton bombed a medicine factory in Sudan, it was not the first stage of a war that was intended to put a more pliant state in place. It was just to remind the Sudanese who was boss. Although I am not a Nostradamus, I am inclined to believe that this is the case with Syria today.

With Obama going on about “red lines”, it makes him look impotent when a chemical attack of major proportions takes place. He will only appear “soft” like Jimmy Carter if he continues to allow his threats to go unheeded. Furthermore, firing some Cruise missiles at Baathist headquarters or some air bases does not cost very much. In fact, it is basically a Drone attack on steroids.

When the USA is committed to regime change, you will know it. All the top Obama administration officials, from Samantha Powers to John Kerry, will be going on CNN and MSNBC going on about the need to protect innocent civilians and all the rest. General Dempsey will be giving speeches about the need to finally eliminate weapons of mass destruction in Syria, even if they are not nuclear in nature.

The reason this is not likely to happen is that a key element of regime change is missing. You need a dominant class formation ready and willing to assume the reins of power. In Iraq, this obviously devolved upon the Shia bourgeoisie in Basra whose massive social base across the country could guarantee a stable platform for American economic interests—at least this was the plan. As it turned out, the billions invested in war-making have not generated a happy outcome. Iraq is far more interested in cementing alliances with Iran than the USA, while Sunni resentments continue to boil up. Of course, such instability is a bonanza for the bourgeoisie that makes profits off of militarism so perhaps the affair will pay off in the final analysis.

When the imperialists backed the Libyan revolutionaries through a no-fly zone, it is not clear what they expected since there was no equivalent to the Basra bourgeoisie even if some “anti-imperialists” viewed the Benghazi elite in the same terms. The only thing that a reasonable imperialist can feel nowadays about Libya is buyer’s remorse. Despite all the predictions that Libya would become a beachhead for imperialism, the Libyans themselves developed the strange idea that it was up to them to decide the country’s future. With many young men organized into militias, it is hard to argue with the proposition that political power continues to flow from the barrel of a gun.

If that was true for Libya, it is doubly true for Syria. With a large Islamist presence totally hostile to the USA, there is no reason to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Even the “moderates” in the FSA and SNC are not likely to get the red carpet treatment at the White House. Here’s what the past leader of the SNC stated in October 2012, words that would hardly comfort planners at the State Department:

We should identify our own shortcomings and weaknesses that allowed Western powers to inject sectarian hatred in our societies in order to know why the talk about taking military action against Iran has become very normal.

The bitterness in the hearts of Sunnis caused by the alleged Iranian-sponsored Shiite invasion of the Arab World is not a sufficient reason to be silent in the face of a possible military strike on Iran. If we suppose that we have 50% doctrinal differences and 20% juristical differences with Iran, we all know that we have 90% doctrinal differences with the wicked West.

Iran’s possession of nuclear capabilities poses no threat to any Sunni but it will be a formidable deterrent to the evil powers that are rushing madly upon the Muslim World.

The aggression against Iran is an upsurge of Western domination to snap at the riches of this region and deepen the cultural and social invasion of our Muslim World. In all honesty, it is genuinely logical and Islamic to refuse any action against Iran and to consider such action an aggression against the whole Muslim World.

full: http://humanrightsinvestigations.org/2012/11/12/ahmed-mouaz-al-khatib-president-of-the-syrian-national-coalition-of-forces-of-the-syrian-revolution-and-opposition/

The USA never supported regime change in Syria. It sought the same thing that it sought in Egypt: Mubarakism without Mubarak. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often gang astray. They are now getting Mubarakism with Mubarak, a combination that will only lead to future mass explosions.

In Syria, the big bourgeoisie is behind Bashar al-Assad, most of whom are Sunni. The USA would love nothing better than if they threw their weight behind some “reformist” General who would put a bullet in al-Assad’s head in order to create the illusion of change. But the system is so frozen along sectarian lines and the cronyism so deep that this was never possible.

Instead what you are likely to see is more of the same, with brutal asymmetrical warfare leaving Syria’s cities looking like Grozny in Chechnya. This does not matter to the USA. If it really cared about human rights, it would have drawn red lines about aerial bombardment. In the final analysis, the 400 pounds of TNT in a rocket dispatched from a MIG will kill you as quickly as poison gas.

For all of Freeman’s rhetoric about WW3, the war in Syria will not risk the future of humanity but only that of Syrians. If and when the heroic people of Syria topple the Baathists, they will likely encounter the enmity of the USA since they have made clear often enough that they are harbingers of change in the Middle East. If nothing else, the hatred of the Egyptian military toward Syrian refugees is proof enough of their bona fides. Along with Hamas, the Syrians are facing a deepening repression. No wonder that Hamas understands whose side they are on, even if Alan Freeman remains in a total and probably terminal fog.

August 23, 2013

Hollywood and Black America

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition August 23-25, 2013

The Weinstein Treatment
Hollywood and Black America

Recently The Butler and Fruitvale Station, both Harvey Weinstein productions, arrived at my local “better” movie theater and settled down next to Woody Allen’s latest navel-gazing exercise. At the same time HBO was running The Help, a 2011 film that garnered BET’s Best Movie award. Harvey Weinstein was fresh on my mind from an article I had written on “How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax” for the launch of the new journal Class, Race, and Corporate Power.

Over the last decade or so Weinstein has turned into an old-time studio boss. That made me curious to see what influence he had on two very different films about the Black experience in racist America. Meanwhile, the Disney Corporation, the parent company of Miramax for 17 years, distributed The Help, a film that I suspected would have much in common with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. According to Peter Biskind, the author of Down and Dirty Pictures, a history of independent filmmaking in the 1990s, Miramax had become “Disneyfied” while Disney was being “Miramaxized”. As arbiters of mainstream politics and culture, it is hard to imagine anything that could surpass Disney and Weinstein. Of course, the wild card was Fruitvale Station, a film by a young Black director that dramatized the cop killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland on the night of December 31, 2008, hardly the sort of fare expected to run cheek-by-jowl to Woody Allen’s privileged, white, narcissistic, fantasy.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/23/hollywood-and-black-america/

August 21, 2013

Three jazz musicians pass on

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

NY Times August 20, 2013
Cedar Walton, Pianist and Composer, Dies at 79

Cedar Walton, a pianist who distinguished himself as both an accompanist and a soloist, and who wrote some of the most enduring compositions in modern jazz while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early 1960s, died on Monday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 79.

His death followed a brief illness, his manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc, said.

Mr. Walton sat in with Charlie Parker, spent a year accompanying the singer Abbey Lincoln, and recorded with both John Coltrane and, much later, the saxophonist Joshua Redman. He led a series of successful small groups, including a trio and a quartet that both featured his longtime collaborator, the drummer Billy Higgins. Yet he probably remained best known for his early work with one of the most influential incarnations of the Jazz Messengers, the group that the drummer Art Blakey ran as a kind of postgraduate performance academy for rising jazz stars.

Mr. Walton joined the Jazz Messengers in 1961, on the same day as the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. (Among the other members of the group at the time, was the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.) It was here that Mr. Walton established himself as a composer; over the years he would write a number of pieces that became jazz standards, including “Mosaic,” “Bolivia,” “Mode for Joe” and “Ugetsu,” also known as “Fantasy in D.”

NY Times August 20, 2013
Jane Harvey, Jazz Singer, Dies at 88


Jane Harvey, whose career as a jazz vocalist lasted nearly 70 years and included recordings with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, died on Thursday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 88.

The cause was stomach cancer, her manager, Alan Eichler, said.

Ms. Harvey never had that high a profile because she frequently took time off from performing. Most of her several husbands discouraged her singing, and she disliked traveling. But her voice, which ranged from dulcet to husky, kept resurfacing over the decades.

“Miss Harvey’s voice is small but captivating, and she produces fine shadings of intonation with subtle emotional resonances,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times about one of her performances in 1985.

Her first hit record was “Close as Pages in a Book,” from the Sigmund Romberg-Dorothy Fields musical, “Up in Central Park,” which she recorded with Goodman’s band in 1944 during what turned out to be just a six-month stay. She went on to record several titles with Desi Arnaz’s Latin dance band, the most popular of which was “A Rainy Night in Rio,” but did not tour with him. She took part in a U.S.O. tour of occupied Europe with Bob Hope in 1948 and two years later sang on Broadway in the revue “Bless You All.”

NY Times August 21, 2013
Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist and NPR Radio Staple, Dies at 95

Marian McPartland, the genteel Englishwoman who became a fixture of the American jazz scene as a pianist and, later in life, as the host of the internationally syndicated radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” died on Tuesday at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.

Her death was announced by NPR.

Ms. McPartland was a gifted musician but an unlikely candidate for jazz stardom. She recalled in a 1998 interview for National Public Radio that shortly after she arrived in the United States in 1946, the influential jazz critic Leonard Feather, who himself was born in England and who began his career as a pianist, said, “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.”

Mr. Feather, she added, “always used to tell me it was a joke, but I don’t think he meant it as a joke.”

The odds against any woman finding success as a jazz musician in the late 1940s and early ’50s were formidable, but Ms. McPartland overcame them with grace. Listeners were charmed by her Old World stage presence and captivated by her elegant, harmonically lush improvisations, which reflected both her classical training and her fascination with modern jazz.

By 1958, she was well enough known to be included in Art Kane’s famous Esquire magazine group photograph of jazz musicians, the subject of Jean Bach’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.” One of the few women in the picture, she stood next to one of the few others, her friend and fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams.

August 20, 2013

Thinking about the Aztecs

Filed under: indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Back in the late 90s, when I first began to research indigenous societies with an eye toward applying Mariategui’s writings to the contemporary world, I received stiff resistance from leftists—particularly on PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network mailing list. There were two talking points heard over and over again. The first is that there was no such thing as an ecological Indian, the proof being their role in fomenting bison stampedes that supposedly left hundreds of animals to the vultures (thus begging the question of the role of carrion in sustaining raptors and other predators, not to speak of the virtual inability of hunting-and-gathering societies to make a real dent in the animal population.)

The other point was directed more toward the class societies of Mexico and Peru, with the Aztecs taking the brunt of the attacks. This was typical, coming from Barkley Rosser, a post-Keynesian:


     Ah, but then we have the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs.  Next we shall hear about the “light rule” by the Germans at Auschwitz.

Barkley Rosser

With this in the back of my mind, I looked forward to my vacation in Mexico City last May since it would enable me to see the ruins left by this “savage” race with my own eyes. Upon my return, I read volume one of Alan Knight’s 3-part history of Mexico that ends with the arrival of the Conquistadores. I had major problems with Knight’s analysis but in retrospect found it useful as a source of basic information as well as an example of the difficulty of fully “understanding” what motivated the Aztecs, particularly the controversial practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

sun_pyramidThe Sun pyramid in Teotihuacan

sun_pyramid_halfwayHalfway up the Sun pyramid

Despite the impression that many tourists have that the great pyramids in Teotihuacan were built by Aztecs, they were actually built by Indians whose ethnicity remains indeterminate. At its peak, Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world in the early 10th century. When you go to Teotihuacan, you can see the two great pyramids that will be there until the end of time, as well as small groups of buildings that illustrate how ordinary people lived and worked.

Just north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was in effect the capital of the valley that coincides with the modern state of Mexico, within the country of the same name, and that refers to an Aztec subgroup, the Mexicas.

Knight attributes Teotihuancan’s rapid growth to the advantage it enjoyed over control of obsidian that it traded near and far. Obsidian is glass formed by volcanic eruptions that can be transformed into a weapon, including the daggers that were used in sacrifices.

Knight sums up the Teotihuacan economy as follows, with an obvious bid to define it in terms of basic Marxist categories.

Mesoamerican exchange, being both ancient and extensive, embraced many forms. It involved both subsistence and ‘exotic’ goods; it was dictated by ecological endowment and local craft specialization; and it was governed by principles of both reciprocity-whereby groups exchanged mutually desired goods, sometimes along chains of actual or fictive kin – and redistribution, whereby chiefs and elites, enjoying privileged access to the supply of goods, were responsible for collecting and distributing them among their people. Such forms of exchange were not premised on considerations of profit-maximization or capital accumulation. ‘Use-values’ rather than ‘exchange-values’ predominated. [G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History is referenced here.] There was no profit motive to serve as a spur to greater production. To the extent that (modest) accumulation occurred, it did so for reasons of insurance: agricultural surpluses could not be banked, but they could, to a limited extent, be converted into durable exchange goods which, when times were hard, could be traded for consumption goods. Pots or jade were the Mesoamerican equivalent of the French peasant’s cache of louis d’or hidden under the floor.

Inexplicably Knight, who is certainly erudite in the Marxist canon, does not refer to pre-Columbian societies as tributary, a term that encompasses European feudalism as well as far more primitive societies such as the kind that existed in Teotihuacan. John Haldon’s “The State and the Tributary Mode of Production” is key to this understanding but not referenced in Knight at all.

Haldon suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form of tax or rent through “extra-economic” means. In other words, the state itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the ’possessor’ of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor to a mere tributary relationship. [Haldon’s emphasis]

As our tour guide explained in our day trip to Teotihuacan, the Aztecs simply took over abandoned buildings almost like squatters in Detroit taking over luxury buildings abandoned early on in the financial crisis.

But the one site that we saw in Mexico City of Aztec origin is as impressive as Teotihuacan even if much smaller in size. I am speaking of Tlatelolco, today a working-class neighborhood in the west of the city that was the heart of their civilization.

tlatlelocoIn Tlatelolco

The Aztec empire was centered in today’s Mexico City that sat upon Lake Texcoco and which they called Tenochtitlan. After the Spanish conquest, the lake was drained in order to make way for capitalist development with dire environmental consequences. There was room now for textile mills and plantations at the expense of fresh water, a general consequence of the creation of many modern cities like Los Angeles.

Tlatelolco was the site of the Aztec’s last stand against the Spanish in 1519 as well as the site of the massacre against university students in 1968. If you visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures, you will see monuments to both massacres.

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés defeated the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma, taking advantage of resentment toward Aztec rule. Tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs in terms of crops, labor, and skulls were more than willing to ally with the Spaniards as would happen in Peru with the Incas. In both cases, the indigenous subjects of these native empires ended up far worse.

In Knight’s chapter on the Aztecs, there’s a lot more substance because the scholarship is grounded in first-hand accounts of Aztec society. This much is pretty well established. The people who eventually constituted Mexico’s most powerful empire started out in the north of the country as primitive warriors. As they moved south toward Tenochtitlan, they grew more powerful and more sophisticated economically and socially but always ruling through force more than consent. Their reign was relatively short-lived; for the two centuries prior to the arrival of the Spaniards they were the Romans of Mexico with subject peoples both benefiting and suffering under their domination.

Despite Knight’s tendency to create specious analogies between the Aztecs and European elites such as the Bourbons or the Prussian gentry, he does make some useful points. Since he is not a specialist in early Mexican history, his scholarship rests understandably on secondary sources.

According to Knight, the Spaniards were “horrified” to discover 100,000 skulls in Aztec temples. Although human sacrifice predated Aztec civilization, there is general agreement that the practice accelerated in the period of their ascendancy during the 14th and 15th centuries. Explaining such a bloodbath is a major challenge to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Knight raises the possibility that mass sacrifices were linked to cannibalism. Despite the religious role such institutions played in Aztec society, there was a more functional explanation for their growth and persistence, namely a need to get adequate amounts of food due to population pressures in the context of unfavorable ecological conditions. In other words, human flesh was devoured for the same reason the Mormons in the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism. Either consume human flesh or die. This theory was advanced by Marvin Harris in “Cannibals and Kings” but ultimately rejected by Knight.

Knight does give credence to the idea that sacrifice and cannibalism served “materialist” ends but finally subsumes it under the generalized needs of a warrior/priestly caste to maintain its hegemony:

Domestically, the latent function of sacrifice was to legitimize the role of the tlatoani and his immediate entourage (a role greatly enhanced with the revolution of the 1420s). Constant sacrifice attested to the political virility and social indispensability of the new ruling class. It linked rulers and ruled in a system of rewards and sanctions which underwrote the revamped, imperialist Aztec state. Warriors won promotion by hauling in prisoners of war for sacrifice (even though this might be militarily counterproductive in terms of battles won and territory subdued); merchants bought prestige by offering up slaves for the slab. In the massive redistribution of goods which the Aztec empire undertook (which, in a sense, was the Aztec imperial economy), sacrificial victims were a basic commodity. Rulers ruled by redistributing such commodities, and their (better-off) subordinates gained preferment and honour by playing their part in the great re-distributive system. This system was so pervasive and – in terms of certain economic principles – irrational, that the Aztec state has, with justice, been termed a gigantic ‘potlatch state’, a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.

Once the Spanish established their rule over the indigenous peoples, they abolished sacrifice and erected cathedrals over the demolished ruins of Aztec temples. As Christians with a firm grasp of scientific principles, the Spaniards adopted a missionary zeal in pursuit of civilizing the savages. The net result was an end to ritualized murder and its replacement by the normal attrition found through starvation wages in the silver mines of Mexico or through disease. When the Spaniards arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, there were 14 million inhabitants of the Aztec empire. By the end of the century there were 1 million. No Spaniard would have been “horrified” by this since it was simply the expected outcome of the natural world governed by the laws of property.

Although Knight’s scholarship is trustworthy for the most part, it is utterly bereft of any discussion of the benefits of Aztec rule. If the Romans were cruel, they at least were the source of Virgil’s poetry and temples galore.

Even Cortés was forced to admit how impressive Tenochtitlan was, starting with the palace of the ruler: “Motecuhzoma had a palace in the town of such a kind, and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

The Aztec capital city was literally a great work of art that people lived in. There were flower gardens everywhere, including those that hung from the roofs of government buildings. The Aztecs loved birds as much as they loved flowers and public aviaries dominated the center of the city. After the conquistadors overthrew the Aztec monarch, they torched the gardens and the aviaries.

That was the Tenochtitlan described by Jacques SoustellesS in “The Daily Life of the Aztecs”, a book published by Stanford University Press in 1961 that I recommend highly. Soustelle has no qualms about calling the Aztecs a “ruling class” and explains how their power rested on the sort of tributary extraction of surplus product from peasants that typified all such societies. Keep in mind that indigenous peoples in the New World were not exclusively communalist. If the North American Indians adhered to a strict egalitarian sharing of bison, seal, corn, etc., their Mayan, Incan and Aztec cousins to the South had already evolved toward a highly sophisticated class society with all the full-time specialized occupations: officials, tradesmen, warriors, artisans, peasants, etc.

What we learn from Soustelle is that even the lowliest peasant in the Aztec empire had a right to retain the land he lived on for his entire life, a right that modern-day Mexicans do not even enjoy. Furthermore, unlike tributary societies in Europe and Asia, an Aztec commoner could rise out of his class and become honored and wealthy, especially through accomplishments on the battlefield. Finally, he could vote in the election of local chiefs, a right that indigenous peoples lost as a consequence of colonialism.

Does European colonialism usher in a “higher stage” of social development? Before jumping to any such conclusions, one should examine Soustelle’s “Daily Life of the Aztecs”.

August 17, 2013

Three flix worth seeing

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Spark: A Burning Man Story, opened yesterday at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. (Future screening information is here: http://www.sparkpictures.com/). This is a documentary about a yearly event that began in 1986 that is a combination of a 1960s “be-in”, Mardi Gras, and art festival featuring mammoth constructions including the trademark effigy that is burned at the climax. For some time now, it has been staged in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

I first heard about it in the Village Voice around the time it got started but was not sure what to make of it. After seeing this fascinating documentary directed by Steve Brown and Jesse Deeter, I am still not sure what to make of it. For the artists who contribute their time and energy, it is a chance to create monumental site-specific pieces with a subversive edge. In the Burning Man event depicted in the film, there are effigies of Goldman-Sachs’s corporate headquarters as well as other “one-percenters” that will be burned to the ground after Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping have had a chance to conduct a service. The irony that film deals with head-on is that such costly structures and the infrastructure needed to assemble and maintain them do not come cheap. They rely on donations from Bay Area millionaires who still retain some fondness for their bohemian youth.

Furthermore, the Burning Man festival has become such a coveted affair that the organizers have been forced to sell tickets on a lottery basis, as if you were going to see a rock-and-roll superstar. Like a Rolling Stones concert or a NY Giants playoff game, scalpers bought large numbers of tickets online and made a killing. Since Burning Man was supposed to operate on a “gift economy” similar to indigenous Potlach exchanges, this turn of events made some founders wonder where they were going.

I could not help but think about a new book by Ben Davis titled 9.5 Theses on Art and Class from Haymarket Books that I am anxious to read insofar as it focuses on the tension between art and commerce, one of my foremost concerns. Adam Turl reviewed the book for Red Wedge, an online magazine that calls for “The Independence of Art. The Revolution for the complete liberation of art!” Turl’s review concludes:

Indeed, beyond the bourgeois patron and the academic specialist, art audiences are drawn to art out of the need to escape the disenchantment of everyday life.

The art world, however, is unable to resolve its core contradictions. Ideas of craft, conceptualism, participation (the art world is still disproportionately white and male), radical gestures (street art, etc.) and collective action — all come crashing, again and again, into the realities of neoliberal capital and economic crisis. Only revolution will begin to resolve this.

The first step for artists in the here and now is to recognize that art is not just an intellectual game. Art must be more. Indeed, the language of contemporary art often fails to articulate the breadth of contemporary human experience and suffering. Art is “magic.” But this magic only works in dialectical interplay with the narratives of actual life (Davis himself doesn’t necessarily share this vision; it is based on the writing of AustrianMarxist art and literary critic Ernst Fischer). Separated from the real world that magic becomes hollow and reified.

As Davis writes, “[A]rt is not a world unto itself. Art is part of the world. That fact has to be a fundamental starting point for everything.”

Although you might be as bemused (and amused) by Spark: A Burning Man Story as I was, you certainly will come out of it with a better understanding of the contradictions highlighted in Turl’s review as well as Ben Davis’s book that is high-up on my must-read list.

In my commentary on Jeff Bezos, Tina Brown and the Washington Post in Counterpunch I alluded to amazon.com’s CEO plans to colonize space presumably for members of the upper class:

While Bezos would be appalled by Bellamy’s socialist utopian vision, he is something of a futurist himself. In 2000, the year of Bellamy’s future world, Bezos launched a space travel company called Blue Origin. The initial goal would be to sell thrill rides on rocket ships to rich bastards like him and Richard Branson, who expressed interest in a partnership. But ultimately, the goal would be to create “space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people orbiting the Earth”, according to a report by Amy Martinez in the April 23, 2012 Seattle Times.

That was reason enough for me to check out Elysium, a typical summer blockbuster that is based on exactly this premise. As someone who found South African director Neill Blomkamp’s first film “District 9” only moderately entertaining and socially relevant (except for the rancid stereotyping of Nigerian gangsters seemingly inspired by a Steven Seagal movie), I wasn’t expecting very much.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that his new film is both better as a film (obviously limited by the parameters of the summer blockbuster action genre) and as anti-capitalist agitation. Like Avatar, Robocop, Total Recall and other dystopian films set in the future, the story is one of evil corporations screwing the working class. In Elysium, set in 2154, there is no mistake about its relevance to our present conditions. The wealthy denizens of a space platform live in a kind of paradise with medical technology that can cure cancer and just about every other illness.

Matt Damon plays Max, a factory worker assembling robots for a corporation run by a scummy boss. When his foreman orders him to go into a radiation-laden chamber in order to make some adjustments to allow production to go on unimpeded, you might think of Fukushima. Max lives in a Los Angeles that has been turned into an arid wasteland much more ominous than the cities in Bladerunner. It must be said, that like all summer blockbusters, Elysium is a pastiche of a bunch of other genre-related films.

Where all such films fall short is their failure to see revolution taking place except through the efforts of a heroic leading man who alone has the power to storm corporate offices and drive a stake through the CEO’s dastardly heart. In other words, much more like Superman than Ken Loach but still worth $15 dollars or so for two hours of fun.

Finally, there’s The Conjuring, a ghost movie that is even more of a pastiche than Elysium. It contains references to:

1. Amityville Horror, with its home-bound malevolence..

2. The Exorcist, with the final 15 minutes or so devoted to the standard “Devil, I command thee…” stuff.

3. A slew of Japanese and Korean horror movies about some aggrieved dead person haunting the present-day living for no good reason at all, plus the usual walking on the ceiling.

4. Poltergeist, with a crew of ghost-hunters equipped with the latest gear. Of course, since the film is set in 1971, this means a Super-8 camera to accompany the retro clothing and hairdos of all the characters.

Every time I see this kind of movie, I wonder why I bother. When the camera pans in on a door that is opening slowly with a creaking sound out of a 1930s radio show, I cover my eyes partially out of fear of what is going to come hurdling out with bared fangs.

Then I remember what my 7th grade teacher Miss Cramer once told us about horror movies. You are not being frightened. You are being startled. You cover your eyes not because anything is so horrible that you can’t bear to look at it, but because you don’t want to be the victim of what amounts to a practical joke—like a friend sneaking up behind you and yelling, “boo” when you least expect it.

That being said, the film succeeds as a summer blockbuster with good performances, especially by Patrick Wilson who conducts the exorcism. The screenplay was written by Carey and Chad Hayes, the twin brothers who wrote “House of Wax”, a 2005 remake of the Vincent Price movie that was really damned good.

Two confessions

Filed under: prison,repression — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

Private First Class Bradley Manning:

First your Honor. I want to start off with an apology. I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States. At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues– issues that are ongoing and they are continuing to affect me.

Although they have caused me considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing and the decisions I made. However, I did not truly appreciate the broader effects of my actions. Those effects are clearer to me now through both self-reflection during my confinement in its various forms and through the merits and sentencing testimony that I have seen here.

I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was gonna help people, not hurt people. The last few years have been a learning experience. I look back at my decisions and wonder, ‘How on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over the decisions of those with the proper authority?’

full: http://news.rapgenius.com/Pfc-bradley-manning-unsworn-statement-during-sentencing-trial-lyrics

* * * *

Personal Confession of N. Bukharin (Translated by Grover Furr)

In the present confession I wish to give the historical development of the counterrevolutionary organization of the Rights, beginning with its embryonic forms and including in the analysis its intellectual (ideinye) and organizational sources and premises

1 My general theoretical anti-Leninist views

I first of all wish to concentrate on my own theoretical anti-Leninist and anti-Marxist errors, in order to give a clear, general theoretical basis for the following exposition and in order not to repeat myself in my consideration of individual questions.

1. Lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialects with the so- called theory of equilibrium. It is well known that Lenin’s “Testament” points out that I did not understand dialectics and had not studied it seriously. This was completely true. I the purely philosophical area I proceeded from the study of so-called “latest positivism” and was under the influence of A. BOGDANOV, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism, simply put, theoretical confusion, where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions. Abstract schematism pursues “final generalizations”, wrenching them from the multi-formedness of rapidly-flowing life, and in this dead approach to the processes of history and of historical life lies the root of my immense political errors, which grew under definite conditions into political crimes.

full: http://clogic.eserver.org/2007/furr_bobrov.pdf


August 16, 2013

A dossier on Bill de Blasio

Filed under: New York,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Bill de Blasio

On August 8th the Nation Magazine endorsed Bill De Blasio as their choice for Mayor in the New York City Democratic Party primaries:

Among this year’s Democratic contenders, several have made thoughtful attempts to address this question. But only one candidate has offered a consistently compelling answer. That candidate is Bill de Blasio, the city’s current public advocate, and his commitment to reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms is the reason we are endorsing him for mayor.

So “boldly progressive” is Bill de Blasio that DP centrist Matt Yglesias urges him to ratchet down his politics:

It’s a nice hope, and de Blasio indeed has some good ideas. But everyone should take a deep breath or two. Economic inequality is a serious issue and municipal governance is a serious matter, but the fact is that the two have relatively little to do with each other.

My guess is that de Blasio’s business about economic inequality is nothing less than the vapor that came out of Obama’s mouth in 2007 when he began campaigning for President. If de Blasio does somehow beat Quinn in the DP primary and then go on to become Mayor, his inspiration will be much more David Dinkins—the man who gave him his start as a professional politician—than Ralph Nader.

I first ran into de Blasio back in 1989 when he started showing up at NY Nicaragua Solidarity meetings about once a month when he was an aide to Dinkins. I always found him amiable and helpful even though it was doubtful that the Mayor’s office could do much about contra funding, our chief concern. Thinking now about how Obama got his start in Chicago politics as a peace candidate, I wonder if de Blasio was plotting out future career moves by solidifying his reputation as a kind of Park Slope poster child.

Like Obama hanging out with CP poet Frank Marshall Davis in Hawaii, de Blasio had plenty of exposure to the organized left growing up as the NY Observer reported in April 2001 in a profile on de Blasio’s campaign for City Council in the 39th District in Brooklyn:

Mr. De Blasio’s interest in politics can be traced back to his childhood in Cambridge, Mass. His mother, a labor organizer, and his father, a war hero turned federal bureaucrat, were investigated by the forces of Senator Joseph McCarthy for ties to the Communist Party, turning them into lifelong civil libertarians. When he was a child, his older brothers regularly attended Vietnam War protests and staged sit-ins at nuclear power plants. Mr. De Blasio’s own activist streak emerged after he moved to New York–he went to New York University as an undergraduate and then got an M.B.A. from Columbia–when he worked with nonprofit organizations opposed to American policy in Central America.

Unfortunately, no amount of cozying up to Frank Marshall Davis or having a dad in the CP will matter much once you train your sights on being a bourgeois politician.

The first sign that de Blasio was traveling down a familiar road was his appearances on State Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s radio show on WMCA on Saturday night when he ran for City Council from the 39th District in 2001, that includes Borough Park, an area that contains many orthodox Jews who vote as a bloc and take their cues from Hikind. Hikind is one of the biggest scumbags in the Democratic Party in N.Y. who leaves a trail of slime going back to his days as a follower of Meir Kahane, an openly fascist leader of the Jewish Defense League.

Hikind went on to endorse de Blasio for Public Advocate in 2009 and now endorses him along with William Thomson in the DP mayor primary. In return, de Blasio has endorsed Hikind’s favorites, including Joe Lazar who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the 39th District in 2010.

You can tell how important Borough Park votes are for de Blasio based on the stance he took on the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College early this year. In a McCarthyite campaign orchestrated by Dov Hikind, the school came under pressure to include a pro-Israel speaker. This was de Blasio’s statement:

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is inflammatory, dangerous and utterly out of step with the values of New Yorkers. An economic boycott represents a direct threat to the State of Israel–that’s something we need to oppose in all its forms. No one seriously interested in bringing peace, security and tolerance to the Middle East should be taken in by this event.

This is not the first time that de Blasio has positioned himself as a “friend of Israel”. Raillan Brooks, a blogger at the Village Voice, revealed that de Blasio was opposed to Saudi airplanes landing at local airports:

Here’s a little morsel of insanity for your Tuesday morning: New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is trying to yank Saudi Arabian Airlines’ right to land at U.S. airports over its policy of not allowing Israeli citizens to board, starting with JFK. The director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines, Khalid Al-Melhem, shot back at de Blasio, insisting that it is merely the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries that is behind the policy. Al-Melhem’s claim that discrimination isn’t behind the ban is bullshit, but so is de Blasio’s outrage.

Brooks then posed the question: “Why is coverage of de Blasio so light on skepticism? Because the man has spent a career building a name for himself as a Defender of the Downtrodden, a bonny shroud for cold political calculus.”

As a touchstone for Brooklyn progressives, nothing tops the Atlantic Yards development foisted on its residents by Bruce Ratner and backed by de Blasio. Largely through bribing local officials with big campaign contributions, Ratner defeated the struggle to preserve the neighborhood’s unique character. Atlantic Yards Report, one of many websites devoted to exposing Ratner’s crooked deals, delivers the goods on de Blasio’s nose in the trough:

In June 2011, Bruce Ratner hosted a birthday party/fund-raiser for de Blasio. In February 2012, the New York Post reported that there were two snags in FCR-related contributions to de Blasio. First, $4,500 of $8,500 total were not listed as coming through an FCR intermediary.

Second, the intermediary was listed as FCR construction chief Bob Sanna, though, as the Post’s David Seifman wrote, “There’s no way Sanna would do any of this without direction from Ratner, who has made no secret of his support for de Blasio.” (That doesn’t prevent Sanna from being the formal conduit, however.)

Sanna as intermediary has now raised a total of $13,600 for de Blasio, or $5,100 since last year’s filing. Most of the individuals have some piece of the Atlantic Yards project as subcontractors.

In my view, the Nation Magazine should not endorse any politician who makes common cause with Bruce Ratner. One supposes that the liberal standard bearer was far more impressed with his maintenance of a New York’s worst landlord list when he was public advocate.

Finally, despite his posturing as a fearless defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man named Alan Lapes had no problem ponying up $15,000 for his mayoral campaign. Who is Alan Lapes, you ask? This article from New York magazine in February should give you some idea:

There is nothing illegal about the fund-raising tactic the New York Times reports has become a favorite of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign: You can donate the maximum to a candidate and then donate more to his or her past campaigns to defray debts. It’s a little unusual to do it so much, but the interesting thing is who’s taking advantage of the opportunity to shell out more than the $4,950 maximum for the candidate the Times previously described as “a passionate voice on the homeless and housing issues,” and “a strong supporter of government transparency and changes in campaign finance rules.”

One big donor is Alan Lapes, a landlord who has invested heavily in buildings he rents out as private homeless shelters, one of which the Daily News once described as a “hell hotel.” More recently, Lapes sparked a controversy in Carol Gardens when he wanted to open a shelter in one of his buildings there. As Capital New York’s Andrew Rice wrote in a less-than-flattering profile of Lapes last October, advocates for the poor see him as “part of a wave of profiteers who rousted long-term, low-paying tenants from the kind of SRO buildings that dotted city during the Ed Koch era,” though Lapes sees himself as a businessman who helps the needy.

After the article appeared, de Blasio returned Lapes’s money—a smart move for an ambitious politician anxious to maintain his liberal credentials.

All I can say is that is too fucking bad that the Greens have no plans to run someone for Mayor—or maybe they do. If they are, it is typical that I haven’t heard about it. Back in 1981, Peter Camejo urged the SWP to run a joint campaign for Mayor with other left groups against Koch, who was on both the Democratic and Republic ballots. For his efforts, he was eventually expelled.

With New York’s role as the seedbed for the Occupy movement, it is a damned shame that the left can’t get its act together to run someone against Quinn or de Blasio. With Quinn an open tool of the landlords, and de Blasio their concealed weapon, isn’t an alternative urgently needed? What good is the left if it can’t rise to such occasions?

How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax

Filed under: capitalist pig,Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Harvey Weinstein, Miramax mogul

Some months ago I was approached by Ronald Cox and David Gibbs, a couple of radical professors, about contributing to a new journal they were involved with named “Class, Race, and Corporate Power”. The journal will be premiering its first print issue in March 2014 but an accompanying website is up and running with an article by me titled “How Art Trumped Commerce at Miramax”, an analysis of the “indie” film revolution of the 1990s led by Harvey Weinstein that was fueled by Quentin Tarantino’s spectacular success as a Miramax director.

I am generally modest about my writing and even openly admit to being a “prolific buffoon” as Marc Cooper once put it. I love writing in the same way that a shock jock loves the microphone and am constantly planning out my next article. As far as being a buffoon is concerned, that’s a very perceptive comment given the fact that I try to include at least 3 or 4 jokes in everything I write. Of course, Cooper meant buffoon in an unflattering manner but let’s not worry about that.

In any case, the Miramax article contains some ideas that have been percolating in the old noggin for decades now. Anybody who cares about film will certainly find them interesting and even if you haven’t been to a movie in decades you still might read it for the jokes:

How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax

By Louis Proyect

In 1960 Ingmar Bergman introduced his collected screenplays with an analogy to medieval Christendom.

People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Profound as this insight was, Bergman did not draw out other affinities between constructing cathedrals and filmmaking–the most obvious of which is that the movie theater functions as a secular church. People who are complete strangers to each other sit side by side in total darkness to achieve a kind of spiritual uplift, with the film constituting the service. In some ways this harkens back to the original intention of drama in Greece, which was to produce catharsis. Despite being dismissed by most critics as junk, “The Exorcist” struck a nerve in 1973 for its ability to summon up atavistic memories of demons and sacrifice for its largely secular audiences.

Since Ingmar Bergman was apolitical, it was not surprising that he missed the most important connection, namely the reliance of both Gothic cathedral and the modern motion picture on ruling class institutional support. To build a church or to make a film costing $100 million requires enormous outlays of capital. Under feudalism, only the church and the king had such sums at its disposals. Under capitalism, where there are no kings, the filmmaker has to rely on the Disney or the Sony Corporation instead. In the German Ideology, Marx stated: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” In bourgeois society, the artist has much more license than those who supervised the construction of Chartres but there are limits to what can be said in a film. Hollywood had no problems hiring Communist directors or screenwriters, but it was only after they were blacklisted that Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson and Harold Biberman could make “Salt of the Earth”.

Unlike cathedral building, film studios operate under the iron laws of competition. The bottom line is paramount, no pun intended. A publishing house will not go broke as a result of an unreadable novel but there are significant risks involved in making costly failures like Heaven’s Gate or Bonfire of the Vanities. In 1999 Steven Bach published Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. Eighty years earlier Charlie Chaplin launched United Artists in order to wrest control of film production from cigar-smoking, mammon-worshipping studio bosses. It was supremely ironical that Michael Cimino’s fiercely anti-capitalist Western brought down United Artists, a function of the critical establishment’s outrage over the film’s admittedly overblown affinities with “Salt of the Earth” rather than its value as cinema.

Continue reading

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:


The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

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